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Learning Golf with Mel Sole

Bob Gillespie Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 350-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.
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Golf teacher Mel Sole in on the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina golf course
Mel Sole and students on the driving range.

Mel Sole gets to the heart of the matter quickly. The long-time Myrtle Beach-area golf instructor points to a stop-action video of one of his students - that would be me - and uses a stylus to trace my 7-iron's shaft angle at impact.

"Your loft angle on this shot is 88 degrees. A professional's angle is 81 degrees," he says. "If you get that closer to that, you're capable of hitting the ball two clubs longer."

Did he say two clubs longer? Turn my 7-iron shots (currently about 140 yards) into 9-iron shots? Where do I sign up?

In fact, I'm already signed up for a three-day session at the Mel Sole Golf School, located at Pawleys Plantation Golf and Country Club on the south end of the Grand Strand (another site is at Grande Dunes Resort Course, on the north end). My primary goal, of course, is to report on my experience for the benefit of potential future students - but hey, if I get a better golf game in the process, who's complaining?

I've taken sporadic lessons over 40 years, but most were "band-aid" fixes. To get better, experts agree, you need a solid foundation in order to improve and play your best.

As much as Sole can control that process, the odds are in my favor. The tall, genial 66-year-old native of South Africa has spent 45 years as a teacher, working with golfers in Myrtle Beach nearly half that time. Golf magazine and Golf Digest both have him in their "Top Teacher" and "Best Teachers in Your State" rankings, and Golf rated his operation among its "Top 5 USA Golf Schools" since 1999. Vacation site has awarded him its Certificate of Excellence based on more than 100 reviews by former students.

Sole's classes are small (no more than four golfers per instructor per session) and his prices are competitive ($595 for a three-day school, $435 for two days, $240 for one; one-hour private lessons from $90-$125. Bring a friend or two for three-day classes and receive significant discounts.) Packages for the school, accommodations and greens fees can be had for less than $1,000. But what makes the deal is the man himself: a personable, insightful guy who doesn't just promise results, but backs it up - with a caveat.

"The golf swing is a motor skill, and we learn (it) by repetition," Sole says early in our session. "You have to practice correctly, and I teach students to practice properly. I will give you a routine and if you follow that, you will improve. In fact, I offer a money-back guarantee - and I've never had (a student) come back for it."

In other words, Sole will put you on the path to improvement, but you have to do the work - seems only fair.

Our first day, I'm sharing Sole's instruction with Simon Curtis, a London resident who grew up in South Africa, and his 16-year-old son Humphrey (we'll be joined on Day Two by Ponce Barber, a returning student from Fort Worth). Father and son are weekend golfers back home, and both want to improve. Simon, a banker, vacationed at Pawleys Plantation before, and a friend in Charlotte recommended Sole; the South Africa connection didn't hurt.

Before anyone hits a shot, Sole spends classroom time explaining the golf learning process. "You learn consciously, but you play subconsciously," he says. "We identify your subconscious golf habits, keep the good and eliminate the bad." Using a short psychological test, Sole also identifies how each player best learns and tailors instruction to each.

Humphrey, for instance, "learns best by asking questions," Sole says. His father also learns by questioning but also by feel. "There's no right way or wrong way - there's your way," Sole says.

Next, it's off to the range, where Sole videos each of our swings. My flaws: a hip turn to the target that comes too late, plus the dreaded "chicken wing' left arm on follow-through. Simon starts his backswing with his hands rather than turning his shoulders; Humphrey has alignment problems and a head that dips during the backswing. We all have other issues but that's a start.

Sole next introduces us to his "48-Ball Drill," which he calls "the perfect practice routine." Each student hits balls in groups of four, with two practice swings for each shot: with the first four balls, you stop at important points in the swing (I try to force my left hip to slide, and finish with an extended follow-through); the second four, you make the same moves without pausing. The third foursome of balls is struck after studying each shot beforehand from behind, then swinging while thinking of a "clear key"- that is, a mantra that takes the conscious mind out of the process.

It's quite simple in theory - and difficult to do right the first try. But it's a drill you can take with you back to your home course.

The 48-Ball Drill is used in any and every type shot, including Day Two's focus - pitch shots and sand shots - and, on Day Three, tee shots, chips and putts. Each session is recorded on video, which Sole emails to you for reference later.

If it all sounds cut-and-dried, Sole makes it less so. A former South African PGA Tour player, he has dozens of stories involving the likes of Ernie Els, Fred Couples, Jack Nicklaus and Retief Goosen, which he uses to make points about students' games.

Sole didn't set out to work in Myrtle Beach. Phil Ritson, his former partner in the golf school, tried to lure Sole from Toronto in 1988 but was turned down. In 1989, though, Sole's Canadian-born wife, Rosemary, "heard ‘Myrtle Beach' and said, ‘Go, go,'' he says.

"Once we got here, we saw this as a golf Mecca," Sole says. He's taught players from across the U.S. and Europe, and has a backlog of repeat business - in fact, he says, those students probably kept him afloat during the Great Recession.

"In 2010, after three years of that, I thought, ‘I'm going to have to close my doors,'" Sole says. "Then I got the idea to tell students - who would say they were coming back but often didn't - after every three-day school, ‘If you buy your next school session within seven days, I'll give you $200 off.' I tested it on four guys, and they all said yes.

"I wondered what would happen if I sent emails to our alumni with the same offer. In a week, I had $30,000 in fees and the phone was ringing off the hook. That saved us."

In turn, Sole likely has saved students years of fruitless toil trying to improve their games on their own. The vast majority of players never take lessons, which explains why only a small percentage break 100, let alone par.

"My slogan is, ‘Golf is a game of a lifetime; don't wait a lifetime to learn it,'" Sole says. "One thing I hear a lot is, ‘I wish I'd done this long ago, in my 20s and not in my 60s.'"

I could tell you all about that last part - but for now, the weather's nice and I've got about 45 minutes of "48-Ball Drill" to work on.

For information, scheduling and rates:

Mel Sole Golf School
(800) 624-4653 or (843) 237-4993

Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 350-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.