It’s back to basics at School of Golf

Improving the game, program all part of the plan at Pacific Coast golf school

Dan Hiestand
   A very bad day of golf four-and-a-half years ago gave Bellingham mortgage banker John Maurer a powerful drive to learn the game.
   “Up until I turned 40, I’d play golf with a baseball swing. I would play maybe three or four times per year and just hack it around,” Maurer said. “I’m a good athlete, and I can pick up anything and I can actually hit the ball, but I just wasn’t doing it right. One day, I just shanked the ball from the middle of the fairway off to the side, and I was disgusted.”
   After finishing that particularly disheartening round, he approached Mel Fish — the director of golf at the Pacific Coast School of Golf at Lake Padden Golf Course in Bellingham — for advice.
   “I walked in (to the clubhouse) after hacking it around, and I asked (Fish) to teach me how to play — to teach me the right way, as if I’ve never grabbed a club before,” Maurer said.
   Soon, Maurer was enrolled at the school, and his amateur golf career took off. The difference was nearly immediate, he said.
   “After about three or four lessons, I hit what I felt was just a perfect golf shot,” he said. “I’d never felt it. I’d never seen it, and never had that trajectory. And from there, the game became an obsession.”
   While the game occupies much of Maurer’s spare time, it’s a profession for the pros at Pacific Coast. The school, established in 2000 by the city of Bellingham’s Parks and Recreation Department, which also operates the Lake Padden Golf Course, was designed to help golfers of all skill levels in an effort to take them to their next level of play.
   The school of good shots
   Students enrolled at the Pacific Coast School of Golf — located in a simple house-like structure next to the public course — can engage in a variety of activities, said Phillip Gaggero, the PGA director of instruction at the school.
   “Somebody who would be a prototypical member … is probably somebody who has some time to devote to the game,” said Gaggero, who started working at the school in February, bringing 11 years of experience as a golf instructor. “The marriage between the facility that we have here and the community — which is largely a retirement community and a huge sporting community — couldn’t be a better match.”
   Fish said the average Pacific Coast student spends five days per week at the school — for a total of eight to 10 hours — working on various skills. Students sign a year-long contract at the school at a cost of about $1,000 (time frame and price is negotiable).
   The program uses the knowledge base of its three PGA Class-A member-instructors, who teach everything from the golf swing to mastering the art of putting. The facility also provides a private learning environment and driving range featuring an indoor hitting bay, as well as video analysis services. Additional amenities include grass tees, a large putting green, a short-game area with a greenside bunker and a fitness center.
   Among other benefits, the tuition allows students unlimited use of the driving range and four private lessons. In the future, Pacific Coast will offer plans based on various timeframes and student needs. Fish said the addition of a locker facility to compliment existing services is in the works for 2008.
   While Pacific Coast offers private lessons to its students, it also runs group lessons, clinics, demonstrations and corporate events for the public as part of its lessons program at the school.
   What makes the golf school unique is it allows privacy on a public course, Fish said.
   “There is nothing really offered in (this area) that I’m aware of like it,” said Fish, who has been the golf pro at Lake Padden Golf Course since 1990 and helped open the school in 2000.
   All of these choices and services — as well as time investment — helped Maurer improve his game, he said. Maurer said his flexible work schedule allows him to attend the school three or four times per week. He accumulates anywhere from six to eight hours of instruction, which doesn’t include time on the course.
   His skills have steadily and dramatically improved, he said. When he started instruction, he was a 20 handicap, and now he is closer to 4. While the school’s facilities are helpful, Maurer believes the real reason for his improvement comes from the golf instructors and their abilities to teach.
   “It’s nice to have the video analysis. It’s nice to have the freedom and no lines and not being around a lot of people,” Maurer said. “But it’s really (a place) where you can get some tips and then work on them uninterruptedly. And right now, it’s awfully underutilized. Hardly anybody knows about it.”
   Golfing destination
   The school was started in an effort to make Bellingham more of a golfing destination for out-of-town-golfers, while also appealing to the local golfing populace.
   “The thought process was to put in a golf school that encompasses the ability to serve all of those people,” Fish said.
   While the facility does serve out-of-area golfers on occasion, its primary focus is the local scene, Gaggero said.
   When it opened in 2000, it had approximately 30 member students. In recent years, those numbers have dipped — especially over the past year-and-a-half, said Gaggero — primarily because of staffing issues. However, with his recent arrival as a full-time employee at the school, activity at Pacific Coast has started to pick up again. Currently, the school has eight members, but that number is rising, Fish said.
   “This is kind of a building year,” Fish said. “When Phil (Gaggero) and I hooked up, this is the plan we came up with. This is an ongoing plan, a daily ongoing plan as we come up with ideas that members give us or that we come up with.”
   Among other goals, Fish and Gaggero hope to work on developing the skills of young golfers and creating a golf fitness program.
   “We want everybody who is passionate about the game to come, and we want to be able to develop their games — whatever that means,” Gaggero said. “Whether that means they couldn’t hit it off the tee before, and now they can do that, or whether they are trying to turn professional.”
   While Maurer continues to enjoy other sports — such as evening basketball games that don’t interfere with his daylight golf schedule — the golf course and school are the most likely places you’ll find him in his spare time, he said.
   “It’s bad,” Maurer said jokingly. “I’ve essentially given up all winter sports — skiing, snowboarding, whatever — just to play golf now … I think the more often you can have a club in your hands, the better off you’ll be.”

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