A Golfer’s Learning Curve
Neil Fleitell left a good job at the Kennedy Center to follow his dream—to teach people how to play golf. But first he has to pass a tough test.
When Woods, Jim Furyk, and the rest of the elite golfers display their talents at the inaugural AT&T National at Congressional Country Club from July 5 to 8, the 56-year-old Fleitell won’t be there. He will be handing out cart keys and selling golf balls at the Poolesville Golf Club, a public course 20 miles up River Road from Congressional.
“I probably won’t have a chance to get over to Congressional,” Fleitell says. “I’ll be working. I have Sundays off, but if it costs $50 to get in, I better be spending that on my wife.”
While Tiger tries to exceed the $10 million in prize money he won in 2006, Fleitell will be lucky to make $20,000 for the year.
Fleitell understands he does not have the talent to compete on the tour. He just wants to work in golf and teach the game.
Golf is his second career. Until a year ago, he earned his living as a technical director for theatrical shows, concerts, and corporate meetings. He grew up playing golf at Norbeck Country Club in Rockville.
“When my father played with his friends on Sunday mornings, I would hit practice balls and take lessons,” Fleitell says. After Fleitell’s father finished playing 18 holes with his buddies, he would play another nine with his son. By the time he was a sophomore in high school, Fleitell shot in the 70s. He still remembers the day he quit golf. Playing in a junior tournament at the Argyle Country Club in Silver Spring, Fleitell’s game left him. “My mother was there,” he recalls. “I couldn’t hit the ball straight.” To his father’s dismay, he gave up the game.
Fleitell didn’t pick up a golf club for the next 35 years. He watched tournaments on television but he never played.
That changed in 2000 when he was invited to attend a friend’s wedding in Scotland. In anticipation of the trip, which would take him to St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf, Fleitell decided he wanted to play again. “I went to a pro and took lessons,” he says. “The more I played, the more I enjoyed it.”
By then, he was working on the production staff at the Kennedy Center. Every morning, he would get up early and play a quick nine holes at Hains Point before going to work. As his golf improved, Fleitell discovered that he was good at helping other people with their swings.
By the time his son graduated from college, Fleitell was ready to change careers. “I asked myself, ‘What was the one thing I really, really liked to do other than the performing arts?’ It’s golf,” he says. “I love the game. I love the golf course.”
Fleitell aspires to be a PGA golf professional, one of 28,000 across the country who work at private clubs, public courses, resorts, and driving ranges.
The road to membership in the PGA is long and hard. Aspiring club professionals enroll in the PGA’s Professional Golf Management Program, a series of instruction and work-related experiences that usually takes four years to complete. Dick Johns, head of the Middle Atlantic PGA, said participants pay upward of $7,000 for course materials and travel to PGA headquarters in Florida. By entering the profession in his fifties, Fleitell is an anomaly.
The dropout rate from the apprentice program is high: About half of those who start the program complete the first of three levels. Johns says the first level weeds out those who don’t understand what they are biting off.
Fleitell knows that there is nothing to prevent him from teaching golf and accepting money for doing it. Lots of golf teachers without PGA certification can be found giving lessons. The PGA program includes instruction examinations which aspiring pros must pass, showing their ability to teach.
One roadblock stands between Fleitell and his dream. It’s called the Playing Ability Test (PAT). To get into the PGA apprentice program, golfers must pass the PAT. A golf pro who can’t pass his PAT is not unlike a lawyer who can’t pass the bar—he is limited in his ability to practice his profession.
No one would confuse Fleitell with a tour pro. He does not possess the graceful swing of Ernie Els or the power of Tiger Woods. Judging by the marks on his driver, he has a tendency to hit the ball toward the toe of the club rather than the sweet spot in the middle.
On a chilly but sunny day in May, Fleitell and 46 other aspiring apprentice golf professionals gathered at the Poolesville course for their PAT.
Fleitell began preparing in March, spending his free time hitting yellow practice balls on the Poolesville driving range or hopping in a golf cart and playing a few holes. On Thursday mornings, he took lessons from Bob Dolan, the head professional at Columbia Country Club in Bethesda.
By Fleitell’s own admission, his problem sits on his shoulders. “My biggest thing is the mental game,” he says while hitting range balls after work in April. “Tournament golf is pressure. That’s what I’m trying to prepare myself to do.”
Fleitell enlisted Mike Aldrich, the head pro at Poolesville, as his mental coach. “He is unbelievable,” Fleitell says of Aldrich. “He never, I mean never, has a negative thought in his head.”
Mental strength might be what separates Tiger Woods from the rest of his tour competitors. Earl Woods, a former Green Beret, recognized his son’s physical talents for the game and toughened him mentally. The elder Woods banged sticks on trash-can lids while Tiger practiced to help him develop his powers of concentration. “I have to be like Tiger,” Fleitell says. “I can’t let anyone inside me when I’m playing.”
Fleitell is amused by golfers who beat themselves up because they don’t hit perfect shots. “I spent my whole career in a high-pressure environment. As the producer of shows and musicals at the Kennedy Center and for corporate meetings, there is a zero tolerance for errors,” he says. “That’s how I lived for 35 years. If you are doing eight shows a week for thousands of people at the Kennedy Center, you can’t screw up. My aim is just to be able to play golf. There is no perfect in golf. You can only worry about the next shot. If I can do that, I will be okay.”
On the face of it, passing the PAT does not sound that hard. A golfer has to shoot a two-round score equal to or better than double the golf course rating plus 15 strokes. (A course rating is a numeric value that determines the relative difficulty of a golf course.) The PGA dictates that the course is played from the middle tees—6,405 yards at Poolesville.
By way of comparison, Congressional will play at 7,204 yards for the AT&T National and present the best golfers in the world with a very tough challenge. The course rating from the white tees at the Poolesville course is a little over 69, which meant the target score for Fleitell and the other contestants was a 36-hole score of 154. So Fleitell and the other contestants had to shoot two rounds of 77 to pass the PAT.
The pressure the PAT players at Poolesville felt on May 7 was every bit as gut-wrenching as that faced by the tour players trying to win at Congressional. “I’ve seen guys throwing up in the bathroom before their round,” said one local pro who passed the PAT on his second attempt.
Aldrich, the Poolesville pro who passed the PAT on his second try, says the problem for PAT players is that the event is a 36-hole marathon over nine hours with lots of self-imposed pressure.
The PGA does not limit the number of times a player can attempt to pass, no matter what score he posts. MAPGA officials know one golfer who has taken—and failed—the PAT so many times that he wears a hat that says pat tour.
At the Poolesville PAT, Fleitell’s nerves showed as his opening drive missed the fairway and left him blocked by pine trees. After a nice recovery shot and a short pitch onto the green, his 30-foot putt for par just missed. After bogeying the next two holes, disaster struck. Flietell’s drive was just off the right side of the fairway. He tried to fade the ball around some trees to the green and instead hit it dead straight and out of bounds. After taking a penalty stroke and replaying the shot, he put his ball on the green and missed a putt for a triple bogey. That put him six over par, and he needed to play perfect golf for the rest of the round to shoot 77.
But Fleitell’s swing betrayed him as he hit shots that put lots of pressure on his short game to make pars. “I just psyched myself out,” says Fleitell, reflecting on his rounds of 92–90. “It was just stupid, stupid stuff.”
Of the 47 entrants in the Poolesville event, 10 passed the PAT. One contestant shot rounds of 105 and 109. Two other players turned in scores higher than Fleitell’s 182. Karla Knight, who works at Clustered Spires Golf Club in Frederick and was the only woman attempting the PAT, missed passing by five strokes.
Jay Lindell, a 23-year-old assistant pro at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, shot the low score of the day, a one-under-par 141. Lindell, who played college golf at James Madison University, easily passed his PAT despite having played only eight holes at Poolesville before the event.
Lindell’s position at Woodmont is his first golf job after graduating from JMU a year ago. “This means a lot to me,” he said after the round as he relaxed with his girlfriend, who followed him for all 36 holes. “I’m pretty new to the PGA, and I hope this affords me the opportunity to play in the section events and start my work toward being an apprentice.”
Passing the PAT and gaining entry into its golf-management program are not guarantees of success. Jon Eisman, 30, spent the last ten years working in golf before leaving to work for a company that builds assisted-living centers for senior citizens. Eisman grew tired of the long hours and the low pay. “You work when everyone else is having fun, especially on weekends and holidays,” he says.
The PGA says that the average total income for apprentice golf professionals in 2005 was $27,434. Those pros working at private clubs earned about $30,000, while those pros at public golf courses earned $24,000.
“Golf professionals, historically, have been underpaid,” says Dick Johns, who came to the PGA after retiring from the Army.
Eisman, who worked at clubs in Northern Virginia, has few regrets about his years in the golf business. “It’s not like working in a cube at AOL,” he says. But he dismisses the notion that golf professionals play a lot of golf: “With the long hours, you don’t get much opportunity to play.”
Even though Fleitell will have to put his dream of being a PGA professional on hold until his next attempt at the PAT in late July, he is still optimistic. “I’m not giving up,” he says, nursing a cold beer at the end of his nine hours on the golf course. “I don’t understand it. My swing is good, but I need to get my confidence back. I was battling my nerves all day.”
Fleitell decides that he needs to take a week off from serious golf: “If I play, it will be for fun with my buddies at Hains Point.”
Neil Fleitell at the Poolesville course where he works. He’s a good golfer and good teacher but now has to convince the PGA that he’s good enough.
Photograph by VIncent ricardel
Finding the Right Golf Teacher
Ted Williams and Sam Snead once debated the difficulty of their sports. Williams said that nothing was harder than hitting a baseball pitched at 90 miles an hour. “That may be,” Snead replied. “But in golf, we have to play our foul balls.”
A good teacher can help golfers hit fewer foul balls. But many golfers, especially those who don’t belong to a private club, have a hard time finding a qualified and compatible golf instructor.
Dick Johns of the Middle Atlantic PGA recommends seeking help from a PGA professional, whether at a private club, public course, resort, or driving range. PGA pros receive training in how to teach the game to beginners and experts.
Gene Orrico, director of golf at Laurel Hill Golf Club, a public course in Lorton, says an ability to communicate is important. “A good teacher will find out a little about the person,” Orrico says. “Are they stressed out from work? Do they want to play serious golf or just learn enough to have fun?”
Orrico says some beginners do better taking group lessons with friends. “Taking lessons with people you know can make it more relaxing and enjoyable,” he says.
Orrico also suggests that golfers go to teachers who use video and computer systems because the student can see what the instructor is talking about. Orrico recommends looking at the PGA Web site (pga.com) to find a qualified instructor.
“I think it’s a lot more difficult than it might sound to find a good instructor,” says Steve Bosdosh, a teaching professional at the Members Club at Four Streams in Beallsville, Maryland. Bosdosh, who has been on Golf magazine’s Top 100 Teachers list for the past eight years, suggests interviewing potential instructors or taking a lesson to assess their ability to communicate. “Your personalities have to fit,” he says. “You don’t want a teacher you are not comfortable with.”
Finances also play a role in the selection of an instructor, he adds, noting that the better instructors are more in demand and charge more. The going rate for a PGA professional ranges from $30 to $50 for a 30- to 45-minute lesson.
Many pros discount their rates for juniors and for group lessons. For example, the Laurel Hill Golf Academy offers juniors one-hour classes on Saturdays for $30 a person as well as four one-hour clinics for adults at $150 a person. Bosdosh charges students $175 for one hour.