There are plenty of hidden finds at the National Golf Expo

By Kiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Sugarloaf Golf CourseGolf shows can be crowded clearinghouses of discontinued off-the-rack seconds and mass-marketed stay-n-play scams. They can also be fantastic opportunities to test equipment and research out-of-the-way courses. To the discerning golfer, the wealth of information amassed in one location presents a unique opportunity to research two aspects of the game that are far too often neglected: Instruction and custom-fitted equipment.

The annual National Golf Expo at the Bayside Expo Center is the ideal place for New England golfers to comparison shop regional golf schools as well as equipment. For those of you who missed it, we slashed our way through the thronging duffers at the 2004 show to uncover some of the best instructional programs in the Northeast and some of the biggest trends in equipment (along with a few quirks).

Instruction

City Golf Boston's VideoThe golf season in the Northeast is painfully short. For golfers who want to work on their game despite the snowdrifts outside, indoor instructional facilities are the ticket. And fortunately, those tickets are getting almost as easy to come by as tickets to L.A. Clippers games. Two excellent facilities are located in the greater Boston area.

City Golf Boston (30 Broomfield Street, (617) 357-GOLF, citygolfboston.com) boasts ten indoor hitting bays, two with video capabilities, two with CitySim simulators that let you "play" some of the most famous courses in the world, and three with swing analyzers. There are six PGA teaching professionals on staff all year round. Perhaps coolest of all is the possibility to rent out the entire facility for group events. Imagine having your whole office play a round at Pebble Beach during a Nor'easter!

The Kevin Frawley Golf Academy at Golf Masters Natick Golf Center (218 Speen St., Natick, (508) 651-0426, golfmastersonline.com) offers year-round lessons, video swing analysis, and a full-service pro-shop staffed by expert clubfitters. Kevin Frawley Golf AcademyIn the summer, the center takes on a country club feel, with its outdoor pool where members' kids can swim under the watchful eye of lifeguards. Even my daughter would love to go to the range with me if she could swim the whole time.

When winter finally begins to ease its icy grip, and snowbound golfers can once again think about hitting authentic outdoor courses, it's hard to resist heading up to Vermont for some early-season cross-training. At Killington Golf Resort (killingtongolf.com, (877) 4-KTIMES), the ski and golf season tend to overlap a bit, and according to director of golf Dave Pfannenstein, its not uncommon for the more energetic guests to hit the slopes in the morning, have lunch, and then tee off in the afternoon. The resort's Mountain Golf Schools offer a wide variety of stay, play, and learn packages.

The Mount Snow Resort (mountsnow.com, (800) 451-4211) in Vermont and Sugarloaf/USA Resort (sugarloaf.com, (800) THE-LOAF) in Maine are both affiliated with The Original Golf School (thegolfschool.com), which offers, along with standard lesson packages, junior golf camps starting at $469 all-inclusive for three days. Mount Snow also hosts Nike Parent/Child Golf Schools, where parents and their kids can practice, golf, and just plain hang out together. The Original Golf School is rather unique in that it guarantees no more than a 4-to-1 student-teacher ratio, and offer on-course lessons, all at a very reasonable price.

And if you simply must take non-golfers along on your "golf" vacation, the Grand Summit Spa at Mount Snow is cushy enough to make even the most ardent anti-golfer happy to spend some time away from you while you're on the course.

Equipment

After years of singing the praises of custom-fitted clubs, we're edified to see that the hottest trend in equipment is custom fitting. Golf shows offer a fantastic opportunity to sit down with clubfitters from all the major equipment companies, take some swings on a swing analyzer, and get fitted for a new set of clubs -- usually FOR FREE.

Ping (pinggolf.com) is still the king of OEM club fitting. Their color-coding system makes it easy to test and evaluate one clubhead, shaft, putter, etc. against the next. The "Image Makeover" award goes to MacGregor (macgregorgolf.com). The 107 year-old stalwart has shed its stodgy image in favor of a new spokesman (hip Australian Aaron "Badds" Baddeley), and, more importantly to the post-pubescent crowd, a smokin' hot line of clubs, featuring the extraterrestrial-looking Eye-O-Matic Driver and the PGA Tour darling Bobby Grace V-Foil MOI putter series. These aren't your grandpa's golf clubs.

But you don't read these e-pages for news about mainstream OEMs that you can get in all of the golf magazines subsidized by those same companies, do you? No (or at least not exclusively). You want to hear about the small, off-beat equipment makers who don't have a cadre of touring pros and golf writers on staff.

So here you go

Smartech Golf in Utica, New York (curvgolf.com, (877) 559-5796) was founded six years ago by William J. Fahy. Fahy was an engineer for GE for 30 years, with some 30 patents under his belt. When he retired, he decided to put all that engineering skill to work to help golfers, and developed the Curv Convex Putter (MSRP $150). That's right -- the face of this putter is actually convex, i.e., it's not flat. Fahy contends that the convex shape actually forces the ball to go straight (or straighter), irrespective of the face angle of the putter, as long as the stroke is true. Skeptics will have to read up on the physics (drivers have incorporated bulge and roll technology for years), and then try the putter themselves.

On the other end of the spectrum from Fahy, is Eric Letson, founder of FeelTech Golf ((978) 323-0889), of Lowell, Mass., who just launched the company's flagship putter, the Evolution-1 (MSRP $180). Letson has no engineering experience, and he's only been golfing for 12 years, but his obsessive tinkering has actually resulted in an intriguing putter. The heavy, center-shafted, 365-gram steel putter features a hollow face and a bulbous "dome" that places considerable weight above the equator of the ball. The idea is that the weight gets the ball rolling forward faster. The Evolution-1 isn't much to look at, but it does feel very solid.

The RackbagAnd what golf show would be complete with out one really goofy idea? This year's goofiest equipment idea is the RackBag (rackbag.com). This contraption is a frame onto the exterior of which you snap your clubs. For the life of me, I cannot figure out what the advantage is over a traditional golf bag. On the RackBag, your clubs are exposed to the elements, the clipping mechanism is unwieldy and would seem to be prone to breaking, the frame seems heavier than an equivalently loaded golf bag, it doesn't have many pockets, your clubs scrape against your back while carrying the thing, and it lies rather low to the ground when you set it down. All this for just $190!?!

But then again, there were those who snickered at the first steel shafts, too.

Kiel ChristiansonKiel Christianson, Senior Writer

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Illinois. Read his golf blog here.


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