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At The Turn: Parkinson Project explores elusiveness of lasting golf improvement

Matt Parkinson takes a lesson at "The Golf Lab" with instructor Carson Hau in King City, Ont. on March 10, 2018. It's the most inspiring week on the recreational golf calendar, with the snow slowly receding, the Masters heralding the approach of another season and the impulse to get out and knock the rust off the swing proving almost impossible to resist. THE CANADIAN PRESS/James McCarten
April 04, 2018 - 5:00 AM

KING CITY, Ont. - It's the most inspiring week on the recreational golf calendar, with the snow slowly receding, the Masters heralding the approach of another season and the impulse to get out and knock the rust off the swing proving almost impossible to resist.

But for many, another reality also dawns: the start of April can't stop the march of time.

Career and family priorities are always demanding, and once-supple bodies age. Despite fervent hope and desire, most of us aren't becoming better golfers. Indeed, we're getting worse.

Matt Parkinson, for one, is determined to prove it doesn't have to be that way.

A tall, burly pillar of power who excelled at high school athletics, Parkinson, 36, might not, at first glance, fit the template of the typical Canadian recreational player. But look past his prodigous distance off the tee — 300 yards is no problem, but direction usually is, he says — and you'll find a familiar narrative.

"Three years ago, we had a kid, and that totally derailed the playing and practising, as it does," said Parkinson, whose young family makes its home in Newmarket, Ont.

"I know I'm not going to get out once or twice a week anymore; that's just not realistic with a young kid and job and stuff. To get out and practice maybe once a week, and play maybe every other week, would be the goal eventually, and to create a swing that would endure that and would allow me to do that without getting too frustrated."

Enter Liam Mucklow — the self-proclaimed "mad scientist" at the heart of The Golf Lab, an evidence-based, technology-driven teaching facility based at King Valley Golf Club in King City, just north of Toronto.

Mucklow has agreed to take on Parkinson as a client for the 2018 season, to help The Canadian Press explore what makes golf so beguiling and so maddening for so many: can lasting golf improvement prevail against ailing backs, demanding careers and the ever-present challenges of family life?

"I liked the idea of the project because I'm in the same boat as Matt: I'm busy, I play golf six times a year, I don't practice, I've got a young family — you know, I was in 17 countries last year," said Mucklow, whose roster of PGA and LPGA Tour clients includes Graeme McDowell, I.K. Kim, Padraig Harrington and Canadian upstart Ben Silverman.

"We want you to work smart, not hard, so when you do have an hour, let's make sure you're doing what's going to have the most return on investment for your time. We want to have maximum effectiveness with minimal invasiveness."

Under the expert guidance of certified Golf Lab pros John Randle and Carson Hau, Parkinson will practise, train and learn at Golf Lab's King Valley facility throughout the year, devoting one or two hours a week to correcting the faults and developing the specific skills that Mucklow's team believes can provide the shortest path to tangible improvement.

During Parkinson's maiden visit to the Golf Lab, Randle and Lau put him through his paces, using state-of-the-art devices like 3D cameras and sensors, the K-Vest swing analyzer and a Boditrak ground force plate to fully understand his swing, his power sources and his weaknesses.

"You're a case study of a guy who played a lot when he was younger. Life happens — career, family — and you don't play as much or practise as much, and your skills sort of erode, your game doesn't live up to where it used to be," Randle told him.

"There are some variables that, with a high number of reps, you can sort out — the balancing act of thrusting and twisting and maneuvering can be done, if you get enough reps in."

The Canadian Press will check in periodically to document Parkinson's progress, as well as the steps he's taking to get there.

"Very rarely — almost never — does a massive swing change result in better scores on the scorecard," Mucklow says.

"Within reason, Matt's patterns are his patterns. He is who he is, he moves how he moves, and we want to teach him how to get the most out of what he's got. We want him to get better, not different."

Parkinson's youth was dominated by the usual assortment of Canadian athletic pursuits, including hockey, basketball, volleyball and badminton — he even played competitive baseball for about a decade, beginning when he was about seven.

But it was as a 10-year-old boy, during an outing with his dad, that he and his father — to say nothing of the foursome playing in front of them — discovered that his combination of height, strength and hand-eye co-ordination would work well on the golf course.

"My dad said, 'Oh, it's OK, they're far enough away, you can hit,' and I poked one out there and it hit the top of their golf cart," Parkinson recalled.

"That was kind of when it was, 'Oh, I can hit the ball far — this is cool.' That was kind of what my schtick became when I was younger."

Direction, however, has remained an elusive goal. While 300-yard drives are common for Parkinson, the ball's final landing place remains an open question.

"That, probably, is what built my recovery skills — desperation," he chuckles. "It's a strange skill set that I seem to have: I can score decently, but off the tee I don't look like I can score very well."

And despite his efforts over the years, consistency and regular improvement have proven elusive. Sound familiar?

It's a chronic problem that can be traced to the way recreational players typically practise, Mucklow says: mindless bashing of practice balls, often with the same club, without much thought, if any, about what they’re trying to accomplish, and why.

"It's like showing up to hockey practice and your coach goes, OK, go take slapshots for 45 minutes; great, OK, go skate some laps; OK, we're done.' Well, I don't know how to play hockey."

So how does he like Parkinson's chances?

"If he starts to understand how to control the (clubhead) speed that he's got, he starts to understand what his dominant shot shape is, how to target the lines, how to understand the tactics of how to score on the golf course and understands how to practice with purpose?

"Dude's going to get so much better, it's crazy. And that goes for pretty much every golfer."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2018
The Canadian Press

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