Short game gets long attention

With most new golfers, the easiest part of the game to learn is usually putting. After all, everyone has played miniature golf right?

“I did, but I was never very good, and I almost always lost,” said Odette Clemente, whose yearlong project to go from novice to single-digit-handicap player is being chronicled each month by The State.

In December, the 21-year-old USC student seemed clueless as a putter, with little or no feel for distance or direction. But in her third month of golf lessons from instructor Brad Frick, she has come a long way.

“Not bad, not good,” she said. Frick rates her about a “5” on a 1-10 scale. “She’s definitely improved since January; she doesn’t hit it 10 feet right anymore.”

Indeed, on a recent afternoon on the practice green at Charwood Country Club in Cayce, Clemente even looks more confident. She wears a black Under Armour golf shirt instead of her long-sleeved T-shirt.

Frick begins their putting session by affixing a small, metal bracket to the face of her putter (“She’s not too fond of this,” he said), a teaching aid developed by putting guru Dave Pelz that forces the player to strike the center of the face. Miss it, and the edges of the bracket knock the ball sideways.

‘There’s about a quarter-inch on either side of the ball,” Frick said. As Clemente gets better, she’ll use a bracket with a smaller margin for error.

Using her “left-hand-low,” or cross-handed grip, Clemente begins with 3-foot putts. This is a regular drill done at Frick’s Palmetto Falls Mini-Golf on Charleston Highway, next to Par Tee Driving Range in West Columbia — with one difference.

“There, we have putting contests, four balls each in a circle 3 feet from the cup,” Frick said. “The loser does push-ups (20 for him, 10 for her).”

Next, to develop distance control, Clemente performs a “ladder drill.” She putts a ball about 10 feet, and each successive putt is supposed to roll 2-3 feet beyond the previous one. Odette uses a putter with a “whippy” fishing-rod-like shaft, then her own putter.

Finally, Frick sets up a 10- to 12-foot “alley” of tees stuck in the green. The alley follows a two-foot, right-to-left break, helping Clemente see a line to the hole and making her allow for the break. This also teaches pace: too little, and the ball slips left and hits a tee; too much, and she hits tees on the right or blows past the cup.

Other February lessons have included three nine-hole rounds at Hidden Valley Country Club and the Country Club at Woodcreek Farms. On Feb. 4, Frick said, Clemente recorded her first “legitimate” par, on Hidden Valley’s par-4 15th hole.

Frick sees progress in her iron play.

“She almost always takes a divot, where before she was afraid to hit the grass,” he said. Her usual draw sometimes becomes a hook, but Frick adjusts her grip, usually with positive results.

As with most beginners, Clemente’s progress sometimes seems like two steps forward and one backward.

“It’s a matter of putting two good shots together,” Frick said. “Chipping or pitching, especially over a bunker, is still a weakness.”

But her putting is not. In an impromptu contest with a bystander — three points for a made putt, one point for closest to the pin — Clemente wins 11-8.

“I’m getting better,” she said. The loser doesn’t do pushups, but Clemente, grinning, already is anticipating her next putting showdown with Frick.

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

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC