Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Inside Como's journey to becoming Tiger's consultant

    • Inside Como's journey to becoming Tiger's consultant

    • Chris Como (far right), working with Texas Woman's University professor Dr. Young-Hoo Kwon, has incorporated biomechanics into swing analysis and instruction. (Robert Seale/Sports Illustrated) Chris Como (far right), working with Texas Woman's University professor Dr. Young-Hoo Kwon, has incorporated biomechanics into swing analysis and instruction. (Robert Seale/Sports Illustrated)

    Chris Como gave his first lessons for free to friends, instructing them on the artificial-turf mats of a short Southern California public course. I know. I was one of those friends.
    I’ve known Como for nearly 20 years, since we worked together at the Westlake Golf Course, a 5,000-yard layout about 30 minutes north of Los Angeles. I was too stubborn to listen to his counsel. I probably should have.
    He now holds the most high-profile post in golf instruction as Tiger Woods’ swing consultant. Como’s ascension is testament to the possibilities when talent is mixed with perseverance.

    It’s been inspiring, and fun, to watch his career progress, like watching that band make it from the local bar to the Billboard charts. His sacrifices have been plenty -- moving around the country to work under top instructors, taking night classes for his masters in biomechanics while working full-time and going into debt to buy his first Trackman.
    It’s all paid off.
    He never viewed golf instruction as a vocation, telling me many times that it’s never felt like work. He didn’t make the sacrifices to become rich and famous. Becoming a better instructor has been his life's focus. Each golf swing is a puzzle, played out over three dimensions and influenced by innumerable variables, that he wants to solve. It's constant stimulation for a curious mind.
    I’ve always described him by first saying he’s the smartest person I know. You can see his mind in motion when he talks. His eyes are attentive when he listens. He’s curious, constantly acquiring information, respectfully dismissing what he believes is incorrect while retaining the good stuff.
    That's why, outside of the driving range, most of our time together was spent in a bookstore, often the Barnes & Noble just a few miles from Westlake Golf Club.
    Westlake also is near Sherwood Country Club, where Woods used to host his World Challenge. The courses are separated by about 10 miles, but close in geography only.
    Sherwood is a Jack Nicklaus design that counts Wayne Gretzky among its members. Westlake is a par-67 course with just one par-4 over 400 yards. Artificial mats are the only option on the driving range. Rebels who tried to sneak a few shots from the turf were usually caught by an eagle-eyed employee who’d yell at the offender from across the range.
    What Westlake may lack in length it more than compensates for in character.
    It was about a half-hour from his home, but Como worked there, instead of a closer course, in part because of its night-lit driving range. Westlake, not much longer than an executive course, attracted a surprising amount of skilled players per capita, in large part because the lights allowed them to sneak in late-night practice sessions. Actors Will Smith and Martin Sheen have been seen getting their golf fix there. Bubba Watson once shot a cell-phone video there while competing in the World Challenge.
    The instructors at Westlake included Ted Lehmann, who played a season on the PGA TOUR, and Chris Zambri, a Tour player who would give lessons during off-weeks. Zambri is now the men's head coach at USC. A strong junior program, through which members could get $6 greens fees after completing a rules and etiquette test, made it an attractive, and affordable, place to play.
    Employees also got unlimited golf and range balls, an invaluable perk. I worked in the cart barn while Como, five years older, worked there and the pro shop. During slow times, he’d hit balls off the concrete slab behind the cart barn, picking them cleanly in the ultimate test of one’s impact position. I opted to stick to the mat back there. We’d congregate in the one-story pro shop at evenings to discuss the swing, or in the parking lot after our shift, analyzing swing positions under the street lights.
    Working at Westlake had its unique challenges. Range balls were transported to the pro shop via a perilous 50-yard drive from the cart barn, the yellow wire baskets resting on a slab of plywood on the back of a gas cart that had a pesky habit of backfiring. It was almost inevitable that at least one of the baskets would tip over en route, sending 100 red-striped range balls spilling across the putting green. Each night, the 40 artificial-turf mats had to be piled onto the back of a cart. You learn a lot about using the ground to create force when you’re trying to fling that final mat 10 feet in the air at 10:30 p.m. Especially if they were water-logged after a rainy day.
    We’ve both moved from California but still see each other at TOUR events. Even if Como was unknown to many until Saturday, he has had respect in his industry for several years, receiving accolades from both Golf Digest (Top 40 Instructors Under 40) and Golf Magazine (Top 100 Instructor; he’s the youngest on the list). Sean Foley, who preceded him as Woods’ coach, mentioned him in an interview on “Charlie Rose” last year as a young instructor doing revolutionary work. His stable of TOUR players is steadily growing, and the research he’s done with Dr. Young-Hoo Kwon, the Director of the Biomechanics Laboratory at Texas Woman’s University, is cited by many teachers. He’s not a new name on the TOUR.
    Como’s hiring by Woods has been a great opportunity to reflect on the unique place where we fell in love with golf. It was a great place to play and work. There was one time when it could be exceedingly stressful, though. This was the late-90s, when Woods was all the rage. After he won an event, especially a major, the driving range would be overrun by those inspired by his dominance. People would wait in line for mats to open. It was difficult to keep the pro shop stocked with range balls.
    Now it could be one of Westlake’s old employees that helps fill the range again.

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