Around the time my son was born, a little more than six years ago, I realized that I was probably never going to play golf again. At the very least, I was never going to achieve my goal of being just good enough to keep up with my better-than-average friends. Thousands of dollars spent on lessons over 10 years or so had proven fruitless, as different coaches had done nothing more than contradict each other, confuse me, and make me loathe the game. If anything, I’d always be the jester of the foursome, along for the ride to provide witty commentary in between terrible shots.
The problem, of course, is that golfers who surrender to the demons of embarrassing handicaps are always haunted by a dusty set of clubs in the garage. Every time I look at my large Nike bag, I feel that urge to get back out there and, dagnabbit, just give it one more try.
Easier said than done.
Few things can destroy a person’s confidence like a bad golf shot, and that makes it arguably the easiest sport to quit. Fortunately, Alex Nieuwmeyer wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Playing golf on my first visit to Divi Aruba never crossed my mind—I didn’t even know this resort had a golf course. I was on the island to experience the inaugural “8 Michelin Star Dinner,” so, if anything, I expected I might pick up some culinary tips. I’d only just met Nieuwmeyer, the Managing Director of Divi Resorts who recently passed away far too soon, but he was as fascinating as he was imposing, and I’d barely mentioned my golf woes before he insisted that he had the solution to my problems.
“We might only have nine holes, but we have one of the Caribbean’s best-kept secrets,” he proudly boasted during a whirlwind golf cart tour of the Divi and Tamarijn Aruba All Inclusive properties. Where we were heading at that moment I may never know, because Nieuwmeyer took a sharp turn for a change in plans. He was hellbent on introducing me to Donald Ross.
“Donald Ross? That’s a heck of a name,” I told my host. He offered a polite half-laugh, telling me without telling me that he’d heard it plenty before. Still, to be a golf teacher and share the same name as one of the most important course architects who ever lived, well, that’s a lot of pressure. It’s like being a Little League pitcher named Cy Young; people are going to have lofty expectations. I was excited to meet him, if only to ask about this unusual burden.
Alas, I’d have to wait for my next trip. Donald was recovering from surgery and his daughter, Karin, was holding down the fort at the Donald Ross FeelGolf School. Fortunately, she is also well-versed in her dad’s philosophies, and so she introduced me to his too-simple-to-be-true methods.
As she handed me a wedge with a peculiar paint job—a bold green face—I politely warned her: “I’m pretty sure I can’t be fixed.” I grumbled on about two noteworthy “coaches” who all but gave up on me halfway into various lesson packages, but she laughed and assured me everyone could be fixed. If anything, her positivity was enough to make me believe change is possible.
With the wedge in my hands, Karin told me a phrase that I’d hear a lot over my visits to this peculiar school. “Golf is a lazy slack, sloppy, wristy flick,” she said with a grin. If that wasn’t enough, she laid her father’s windbreaker jacket on the table to show me that he believes this mantra so much that he actually wears it. Still, I had no clue what it meant. “Swing the club,” she insisted.
In situations like this, I already know that whatever I do is wrong, so I just sucked it up and took my practice swing, expecting to hear screams of horror from behind me. Instead, she showed me what her father’s weird phrase meant. A quick adjustment of my hands and a slow-motion swing revealed that I wasn’t rolling my hands over, or I wasn’t making that wristy flick. The wedge’s green face should vanish when I’ve made contact, and instead I was doing whatever it took for my ball to sail about 40 degrees to the right.
“Swing it again, and make sure you rotate your wrists,” she told me with glowing confidence, as if she’d already seen this movie. I looked down, addressed the ball, begged it to go straight, and then brought my club back. With a simple motion and that unmistakable sound of a perfectly struck ball, I sent it dead straight, right into the practice net. Karin smiled.
“That was amazing,” I said in sheer disbelief. “But there’s no way I’ll do that again.” She kicked the next ball forward and nodded, as if daring me to prove myself wrong. I tapped the ball into place, put my head down, and—whack! That sound, again. That perfect straight shot again. My dumb face with the jaw on the ground, and her laughter filling the warm Aruban air. “Do it again,” Karin ordered.
I hit approximately 30 more balls in that session and maybe one took a wayward path. It was the most confident I’d ever been with a golf club in my hands, and she assured me it was no fluke. My game wouldn’t be fixed overnight, but at least I was probably going to have a little more success during my 9-hole round with Nieuwmeyer that morning.
And it wasn’t the best round of my life, but it was fun. Aruba’s wind presents a difficult challenge for golfers of any skill level, so I didn’t have great expectations. But as I closed out the ninth hole with a towering 9-iron shot over the water, the ball landing squarely on the green and setting me up for an eventual two-putt for bogey, I told my host that I was ready to spill his secret to the rest of the world, even if I hadn’t actually met Donald.
One year later, my game better but still rusty, I was on a flight back to Aruba. Despite a full itinerary, the only thing I cared about was learning from the man, the myth, the legend this time. Nieuwmeyer explained that when it came to finding a golf pro for his resort’s course, there was only ever one man for the job. In fact, he flew to Spain to track Ross down at a tournament, and he practically begged the Scot to move to Aruba and teach Divi’s guests.
When I finally met Donald, I instantly knew where Karin got her smile. His charisma is infectious, which is a far cry from the stoic, all-business/no-nonsense approach of most coaches I’ve worked with at home in Florida. If there’s a bad thing about spending time with this man, it’s that there’s not enough time to spend with him. He’s as much a gifted storyteller as he is a great golf instructor, and I could have listened for hours to his anecdotes about working with golf’s colorful legends like Miguel Ángel Jiménez.
But we still had work to do on this ordinary shlub.
“Golf is a lazy slack, sloppy, wristy flick,” he told me, with an old binder laid out before me. In it, he had pages and pages of old golf magazine pages with various instructions on them. Some also had marker on them to show what the pros were doing wrong in their lessons. (He has some interesting and entertaining conspiracy theories on how his methods have been lifted by some of the most famous teachers.)
His primary point was that most of us just need a simple fix. Just as Karin did a year before, he rolled a ball to me, told me to turn my hands when I swing, and smiled knowing what was about to happen. Sure enough—whack! The ball sailed straight as an arrow into that practice net, just as it did with the next 30 balls. “Un-expletive-believable,” I said as he shook with laughter.
Part of his conspiracy theory is that the David Ledbetters of the world don’t want us to know how simple it is to be better at golf. With just one 30-minute lesson that blew away so many previous hours and so much wasted money, I was fully subscribed to Donald’s ideas. Especially because I went out and made my par on the ninth hole this time, and him being there to watch made it so much sweeter.
“Aruba isn’t a golf destination,” Donald told me when we first met, and it was a revelation that hardly blew my mind. This island’s golf selection is limited to The Links at Divi Aruba and Tierra del Sol, located just south of the California Lighthouse. But as this charismatic teacher offered me his simple pointers with old stories about his PGA peers peppered in between, I ultimately got the sense that he wasn’t being honest.
Aruba is a golf destination, or at least it should be. And that’s because of Donald Ross.