Swing sets up nicely

One month into her year-long project to become a golfer, Odette Clemente knows the drill by now.

The 21-year-old USC student starts a recent practice session at West Columbia's Par Tee driving range as usual: hitting short pitch shots toward a towel, about 10 yards away. Her goal is to hit the towel on the fly as many times out of 10 tries as possible.

Her best efforts so far: three or four per 10.

"I wanted to challenge her to a little 'up and down' contest," said Brad Frick, Clemente's instructor, with a laugh. "She talks a little smack."

In December, Frick — who teaches at Par Tee and runs the adjoining Palmetto Falls Mini-Golf on Charleston Highway — offered Clemente a guinea-pig challenge. A golf novice, she would commit to a year's lessons from him, for free, with a mutual goal of transforming her, Pygmalion-like, into a player with a single-digit-or-better handicap.

The first couple of weeks in December, he said, Clemente showed marked progress. But she took a two-week hiatus around Christmas, traveling with her parents to New York, where she was limited to watching instructional DVDs and practicing her swing indoors.

"She was a little rusty" upon her return last week, Frick said.

So it was back to basics: chipping and pitching to establish feel, gradually moving to full shots. To remind her tempo and to not over-swing, Clemente warms up with a special wedge and driver, each with a whippy, fishing-rod-like shaft.

"We focus on the driver and the wedges," Frick said. "You can't score if you can't drive it in play, and the wedges are all about scoring."

"I've gotten over trying to hit it as hard as I can," Clemente said. "It goes longer when you have everything right."

Once the pitching "competition" is done, Clemente, a former soccer and basketball standout at Greenville's Eastside High, hits wedge shots to targets (hula hoops) at 35, 50 and 70 yards away. The idea is to establish a feel for how the length of her backswing translates to precise distances, a method Frick took from short-game guru Dave Pelz.

"Your backswing gradually gets longer; your hands go to the 7:30, 9:00 and 10:30 (on a clock face) positions" to calibrate distances, Frick said.

Clemente is starting 2008 with new Ram golf clubs, gifts from her parents to replace a set of hand-me-downs. Later, Frick will have her fitted for clubs on a launch monitor provided by Brian Gibbs, owner of Woods and Wedges on Two Notch Road, but "we're waiting until she's more consistent," Frick said.

What has a month, more or less, of practice accomplished? Clemente, whom Frick chose as his project because he said she possesses a "natural swing," has learned to keep her swing plane aligned and her arms in proper position. Watching Webcam videos help her see and feel those positions.

One major hurdle — putting — was immediately improved when Clemente switched to a "left-low" grip to maintain a square putter face at impact. "She's much better now," Frick said.

In December, Clemente went to Hidden Valley Country Club near Gaston, playing with Newberry College player Kathryn Puryear and Limestone's Ben Ross, both Frick students. Puryear showed Clemente how to determine what clubs to use in particular situations and distances.

Par Tee remains her comfort zone. "The hardest thing for me is still hitting off grass (she uses a mat at the range)," Clemente said. "I'm afraid to take a divot."

That will come, Frick said. What may take longer is convincing skeptics the two can reach their goal.

"I heard someone at the gym say, 'Who does this guy (Frick) think he is to turn a beginner into a scratch player? There's no way in (heck) to do that in a year,'" Frick said.

Frick and Clemente remain convinced they can. Their goal for February: taking her range game to the golf course again.

Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.