Just as I teed up, Arnold Palmer's golf cart squeaked to a stop at the first hole. "Hey, mind if I tag along?" he asked.
"Not at all," I stammered, my throat so dry it's a wonder that sand didn't dribble out of my mouth. But by the 18th hole it was as if Arnie and I had been lifelong pals. We talked about world events and even exchanged cell numbers.
Then the phone rang, awakening me to reality. Even though my dream of playing golf with Arnie was just that, I still felt pretty lucky - I'd been invited to come the next day to the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy at Bay Hill. The Academy's general manager explained why the APGA began in 1991.
"Mr. Palmer was simply interested in helping people enjoy the game more," he said. "He felt that if golfers mastered five fundamentals as he did, their games would improve dramatically."
These fundamentals involve the grip, the address, the takeaway, a steady head and acceleration. His academy teaches them all via a variety of programs that have been approved by Arnie himself.
"It's common for someone here to see him and exclaim, 'Hey, it's Arnold Palmer.' But what also thrills them is leaving with a much better golf game."
David Leadbetter's Golf Academy at ChampionsGate is internationally famous. Although his academies have spread to 28 locations worldwide, it's here where Leadbetter bases himself.
His teaching aids are impressive: A covered practice tee, separate areas for bunker practice and short-game work, mirrors to view body and club positions, a repertoire of more than 250 drills, and a computer that analyzes on a split screen the student's swing with that of a tour player.
Grand Cypress Academy of Golf is headed by Fred Griffin, a golf academy pioneer. "When I started in 1986, only two or three stand-alone golf facilities existed," he says. "Most were staged on an existing driving range. We built a 21-acre facility dedicated to academy students to create a better learning environment."
Fred developed a computer modeling program with Dr. Ralph Mann called Model Golf. "We took the swing of 150 tour players and adjusted them to fit any golfer's body type and swing," he explains. "An overlay of the student's swing shows timing, positional and velocity differences. The closer the student gets to his or her optimum model, the lower goes the handicap."
Perhaps the Academy's most unique characteristic is three practice holes that allow "real conditions" practice. The par 3, 4 and 5 holes present various types of rough, mounds, bunkers and three flags on each green to change approach shots.
Yes, times have changed. It used to be a losing battle to convince family members to tag along so you can improve your game at a golf academy. But that's not the case with Orlando, with its plethora of things to do and see for all ages of the family in addition to the world-renown theme parks. What that all means is simple: It makes perfect sense to come to Orlando and attend a golf academy, because the only thing you stand to lose is strokes off your golf game.
Golf Academy Paradise
All three academies mentioned above appear in Golf Magazine's list of the top 25 in America. Each offers a variety of instructional programs based on the amount of time and budget you desire.
Other excellent academies around Orlando include:
- The Celebration Golf Academy at the Celebration Golf Club
- Mission Inn Golf Academy at Mission Inn Resort & Club
- Phil Ritson's Orange County National Golf Course and Lodge
- McCord Golf Academy at Orange Lake
- Moe Norman Golf School at Graves Golf Academy at Eagle Creek Golf Club
- ANNIKA Academy at Reunion Resort and Club Wyndham Grand Resort