PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Back in elementary school, my nickname was Ripple Chips, as in, "His last name is Ripley and he has been known to eat potato chips."
Three decades later, anyone who has watched me play golf might be more inclined to call me Triple Chips. As in, "I can't believe he tripled-chipped the second hole. And the fourth. And the 15th."
As my annual golf outings have dwindled from 40 to 20 to less than 10, my short game has been the biggest casualty. Once I shake off the rust, I can still smack some decent drives, control my irons reasonably well and make the odd putt here and there. But when it comes to chipping, I'm almost as clumsy as this simile.
So rather than enjoying my first round of 2013 here in the bright Florida sunshine, I am instead grinding my teeth as I head back to the clubhouse after holing out on the 18th at the Ryder Course at PGA Village. Yes, the temperature is about 40 degrees warmer than it is back home in Winnipeg and sure, the course's rolling hills and majestic pines make it a beautiful place to swing a club. But I don't care about any of that right now. As I look down at the ugly, triple-digit truth on my scorecard, I have only one mission:
I need to fix my game.
Fortunately, I've come to the right place. In addition to 54 holes of championship golf, PGA Village also boasts a state-of-the-art training facility unlike anything I've ever seen. With more than 100 full-swing practice stations, launch monitors, bunkers containing nine different types of sand and 7,000 square feet of practice greens spread out over 35 acres, the Centre for Golf Learning and Performance should be the perfect place to get my scores back down into the low 80s where they belong.
I sign up for a lesson with PGA professional Mark Drenga, who immediately drops three balls and asks me to chip them toward a target about 30 feet away. I hit the first one fairly close before chunking the second 20 feet short and skulling the third 30 feet long. It's a pattern with which I'm all too familiar.
Mark drops three more balls and sets up a video camera to record my technique, if you can call it that. Similar results. He cues up a replay which shows my club hitting the ground almost a foot before the ball. Not good.
Rather than telling me what I should be doing, Mark asks me what I think I'm doing wrong. I say it looks like I'm trying to hit up on the ball to get it into the air. He grabs my wedge and rests the club head in his hand, in front of his face.
"This is the way you're hitting it," he says, tilting the club face back, toward the sky. "When you do that, the club will either dig into the ground behind the ball, causing you to hit it fat, or bounce off the ground, causing you to hit it thin."
He then leans the club head in the other direction, with the shaft now tilting a couple of degrees forward. "If you try hitting it like this, the ball will still go up in the air, but you're not as likely to hit the ground first." He drops three more balls and puts the video camera back onto the tripod.
This time, I move my hands forward, closing the club face slightly. But sure enough, the balls pop up into the air and bounce toward the target. Interesting.
For the next 30 minutes, Mark and I work on refining my new technique. I flub a few when I slip back into my old habits, but a quick correction usually yields the desired results. Best of all, I'm starting to rebuild a semblance of con- fidence in my short game.
When the session is over, I ask Mark about his job. He says he's usually so busy with lessons that he's lucky if he gets out onto the course more than a couple of times a month. He says March and April are his busiest months, as golfers from the north, including a lot of Canadians, come down to Florida's Atlantic course to get a head-start on the season.
I'm paired with a group of friendly New Yorkers when I arrive at the first tee the next morning, eager to put my new skills into action. Today we're playing the Wanamaker Course, a classic Florida layout with palm trees lining the fairways and water hazards in play on 12 of the 18 holes.
First, the good news. After a shaky start I card a decent score, knocking 10 strokes off yesterday's total despite high winds and the fact that Tom Fazio's layout is considerably tougher than the Ryder Course.
But my short game is far from fixed. I have a couple of "triple chips" early on, but remind myself to keep my hands forward and start to make cleaner contact. Even so, I'm not exactly brimming with confidence.
Things improve considerably in the afternoon when I tee it up on the PGA Country Club Course, a 10 minute drive from PGA Village. Despite being tighter and less-manicured than the Ryder and Wanamaker tracks, I find the Country Club more to my liking, probably because I have the place to myself and am able to race through my round in 2 1/2 hours and 89 strokes.
I also find my chipping has improved. Despite the greens being much smaller than the ones over at the Village courses, I manage to get up-and-down several times, and avoid the dreaded "triple chip." My short game is still somewhere between terrible and brutal, but it's no longer embarrassing, at least.
I play my final round at Port St. Lucie the next morning at the Dye Course, named for architect Pete Dye, renowned for his design at TPC Sawgrass and several other diabolical layouts. More links-like than its neighbours, the Dye Course features tall grasses, natural wetlands and vast waste areas, making it the most memorable and challenging of the PGA Village tracks.
I wish I could say everything came together for my final round, but that would be a lie. Too much golf in too short a period of time leaves me with blistered hands, limp arms and a fried brain. I enjoy the course and manage to break 90 again, but my short game isn't yet the model of consistency.
That afternoon, I head back to the Centre for Golf Learning and Performance for some follow- up discussion with Mark. He tells me it's unrealistic to expect immediate results on the course after just one lesson. It would have been better to spend some time at the Centre over the next few days, practising the techniques I learned until they became second nature. He also gives me another piece of advice: If you haven't played golf in six months, you shouldn't try to play five rounds in four days.
I gingerly extend my aching right hand and thank Mark for his tutelage. When I come back next year, I promise, I'll put it to better use.
IF YOU GO
* PGA Village is located in Port St. Lucie, Fla., about 180 km north of Miami on Interstate 95. Visitors can fly into several airports, including Miami, Orlando, Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood.
* In addition to three championship courses at PGA Village, Port St. Lucie is home to more than a dozen other courses, including PGA Country Club.
* Daily admission to the PGA Centre for Learning and Performance is $34 for adults and allows unlimited access to all practice areas, including three putting greens, nine styles of bunkers and short-game areas.
* You can easily spend a couple of hours at the PGA Museum of Golf, which traces the history of the game and houses several rare artifacts including the Ryder Cup and PGA Championship Trophy. The museum also has a library with thousands of golf publications dating back more than a century. Admission is free.
* There are several nearby options for accommodation, one of the most convenient being the Residence Inn by Marriott, just a five-minute drive from PGA Village. Go to marriott.com for rates.
* For more details about PGA Village, including packages and tee times, go to pgavillage.com.