Before he broke through with his first win on the PGA Tour after a decade or more in the journeyman grind, Jim Herman was a regular at the PGA Learning Center in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Still is, in fact. When he’s around his old stomping grounds, the soft-spoken, unassuming Herman — who conquered a hellacious case of chipping yips to notch a win at this year’s Texas Valero Open — can usually be found waist-deep in a money game on the St. Lucie Trails Course, the locals’ favorite among the four-course PGA Village collection. Among his frequent playing partners is PGA teaching pro Billy Ore, a broad-shouldered, big-hitting North Carolinian who helps run the Learning Center with great humor melded with a serious goal of making every player better — from top-tier guys like Herman to PGA Village members to the average Joe who schedules a lesson while staying at a nearby condo or hotel.
“He’s one of the best iron players on Tour,” says Ore of his buddy. “He’s also sneaky long. He likes playing from the fairway so everybody thinks he’s a short hitter, but he can bust it more than 300 years when he wants to.”
Something for all of us to aspire to, which is where the Learning Center comes in. Owned and operated by the PGA Tour and set apart from the “golf coast” of South Florida about an hour down I-95, it’s an outpost of improvement and a true bonanza for technology and fitting geeks.
It all starts on the good ol’ range, which is among the state’s largest and most complete.
“Guests come in on a day pass,” says Ore before taking me on a tour of the 35-acre outdoor facility before putting an editor through his paces on the indoor Trackman. “They can come in and hit as many balls as they want, hit off grass, in the shade if they’d like, short game, putting green. There are no mats anywhere. We even have one section with uneven lies down by the instruction bays.”
There’s also three-hole short course on the back of the property for short game instruction, popular among corporate groups looking to rent their own exclusive area or pros — both those with their cards and students working on getting theirs — to get away and bear down on those delicate shots for an hour or two.
“We do individual lessons, clinics, get golf ready programs, junior programs. Members from the club can come over anytime they want. A few tour and mini-tour pros practice here. And there’s not as much to do here, like there is in Orlando, so guys just concentrate on working more to get better.”
But for Ore, what he calls the “technology room” is where the score-shaving magic really happens. Packed with a plethora of various clubheads, shafts, grips and all the tools he needs to put together endless combinations to find every player’s proper fit — and, of course, all the electronic devices that instantly put a bunch of numbers on every measured swing and stroke — it’s the modern pro’s ultimate playhouse.
“It’s fun but very helpful,” says a smiling Ore. “It’s interesting, when I have golf schools, people love that room. We could spend all three days in there. We use technology to relate to players’ feel. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand.”
Once they do get it, they love it. Most do, anyway.
“I’ve only had two guys who didn’t want anything to do with it. One was attorney from New Jersey tried it and said, ‘no, let’s go outside.’ But technology doesn’t mean technical. You can use your feel to change the numbers and make things better.”
The standard Ore session is one hour, usually starting with video. “We sit down and look at the swing, look at what they need to do better. My goal is to get them more educated about their swing. I like people looking for more information, looking at Golf Tips, but I want them more knowledgeable about their swing. I get guys who say, ‘You’re my last chance. If you can’t help me, I’m quitting.’ In golf, sometimes two wrongs make a right — if you take away one of those wrongs, it gets worse. So you have to fix both the wrongs.”
Ore wasted little time getting into the “wrongs” with me. Our indoor session with the learning facility’s Trackman system stretched to two ours, first with irons, then with drivers. Right away he measured my swing as flatter than normal (an overcompensation to achieve a workable fraw after years of an ugly backswing lift and attendant slice), and after a slew of swings with several major iron brands from Callaway to Titleist, dialed me into a set of Ping Gs or similar, bent to 1.5 degrees flat or “purple dot” and rocking a 70 gram, R-flex graphite shaft. I’ve got the notes just in case I decide to pull the trigger on a new 4-PW set.
But it’s through our extensive workout with the driver that I gained the most insight on why I’ve lost so much distance over the years, though my accuracy has improved. Part of it is age, of course, and some of it is the fact that, as Ore told me, “You come into the ball from the inside and very shallow, which costs you clubhead speed.” So, to battle those facts, he fitted several heads with a variety of graphite shafts. The numbers on the big screen rolled by with every swing — spin rate north of 3,000 rpm (way too high; 2,500 is always a good target), swing speed hovering around 90 mph, launch angle perhaps a bit high when I actually hit the face. After what must have been dozens of swings, if not close to 100, I was sweating and amazingly winded. I was also eager to get Ore’s final best-case cocktail of ball-launching equipment.
The Ping G was pretty strong. Same with Callaway’s latest. But Titleist won the day with the 917 D4 model, 9.5 degree loft, with a Diamana Blue 60 gram shaft — surprisingly, with an S flex and B-1 lie setting. The numbers didn’t lie: With that stick I gained 8 to 15 yards on average, with less spin and a better angle. Again, I have the notes, and when I save up the scratch, I’m in.
But the Trackman work is just half the equation. Ore gives every student plenty to ponder and work on after heading home. “With a driver I can use some setup adjustments, and if they’ll try it, I can get them hitting it better,” he says. “I give a lot of homework. I have better luck with players who go home and make the motions I want them to make. If they can add some practice, that’s better. After an hour I can get them hitting the ball over time, but as they rake over another ball, it deteriorates. You have to practice making the motions. All the motor learning studies say that if you are trying to learn a new skill, you have to vary something while you’re learning it.”
Thanks to cloud technology, it’s easy to keep in touch with Ore, or any teacher, thanks to apps like the V1 Pro coaching system — you can video your practice, upload it to the Learning Center server and Ore will analyze it, comment and get you the drills you need to keep improving. “We’ve had a relationship with V1, and they do a good job. There are a lot of applications these days, but their customer service is great,” Ore says. “With phones these days, I want to get them coaching themselves. And if they start playing better, they’ll send five more people.
If a student sticks around PGA Village for a couple days, there’s also the possibility of playing lessons. “We have the advantage of three great golf courses at the resort, plus the St. Lucie Trails across the street, an old-school course. It doesn’t look difficult but it is. I learn something playing there all the time, from a strategy standpoint. When we do playing lessons, I show golfers that certain shots are really hard. You have to overcome expectations.”
One expectation to count on, however, is that a good clubfitting session will immediately yield positive results and reduce the guessing game. And that means better shots, lower scores and more fun. Nothing beats good teaching and plenty of practice, but why handicap your game with ill-fitting sticks?
For more on PGA Village and the Learning Center, visit www.pgavillage.com.