Decathlete Ashton Eaton: Just getting started

By Ron Bellamy | Golf, Oregon |

World-record holder Ashton Eaton learns to get ‘golf ready’ in PGA program

CRESWELL — On the practice range at Emerald Valley Golf Course, Ashton Eaton paused for a short break after hitting golf balls for a while.

“You getting tired?” asked Emerald Valley general manager and head professional Todd O’Neal.

“Are you kidding?” responded the world record-holder and Olympic gold medalist in the two-day, 10-event decathlon.

“I’m just getting started.”

Which he was, on that perfect evening, going on to hit prodigious 5-iron shots 190 yards.

And which he is, in golf, as part of a national program of the PGA of America called “Get Golf Ready,” designed to introduce new players to the game.

Outfitted with a new set of Nike clubs, courtesy of his chief sponsor in track and field, the former University of Oregon star who competes for Oregon Track Club Elite underwent the five-lesson program at Emerald Valley to promote the program for the PGA of America, which filmed his last session. He’s scheduled to be interviewed in the broadcast booth on the Golf Channel next Tuesday during the 46th PGA Professional National Championship at Sunriver.

“It’s a national push to get people off the driving range and on to the golf course and feel like they have a good sense of direction in terms of being first-time players,” O’Neal said. “Not only are we teaching how to chip, pitch, putt, hit shots and hit tee shots, but we’re also trying to educate a little bit more about how the game is played.

“We talk about etiquette, we talk about what standard procedure is, how to make a tee time, what your responsibilities are once you enter the golf course, what’s considered standard practice, so that nobody has that embarrassing feeling of should I be out here or not. A lot of people start to take the game up, but nobody really walks them through the process.”

Had Eaton ever played before?

“I think you need to define ‘play,’ ” Eaton said, smiling. “I’d been to the driving range. I think the most I’ve ever played was, like, nine holes of golf.”

That was with the father of his fiancée, heptathlete Brianne Theisen, in Palm Springs, Calif., a couple of years ago.

“I was terrible,” Eaton said. “I was losing balls left and right. I was interested in educating myself, so that if somebody asked if I wanted to go golf, I didn’t look like an absolute putz. … Putz, get it?”

Yes, the lessons include an introduction to putting — “the worst,” Eaton said of his short-game performance — from how to mark a ball and proper putting order to the mechanics of the stroke. Other topics include picking the proper tee boxes, playing “ready golf,” the purposes of the different clubs, and an introduction of how to swing them.

The “Get Golf Ready” classes are being offered at Emerald Valley — cost is $119 for the five-lesson series of hourlong sessions — RiverRidge, Laurelwood and other participating courses. They represent another effort by the PGA of America to grow the game in the face of declining participation nationally.

“People hit balls, but they don’t know how to take it to the golf course,” O’Neal said. “The series is about taking it to the golf course. … It’s about planting enough of a seed to make people believe that they can actually do it. Let’s face it, golf can be a negative game. Just to hit one good shot can be extremely frustrating at times, because it can take so long to get to that one that you’re really satisfied with.”

Or, as former UO hurdler Eric Hersey, who took the lessons with Eaton, mused after an errant shot: “The more I think about it, the harder it gets.”

Most of the information was new to Eaton; for example, when he got his set of clubs, he asked O’Neal about the use of the “screwdriver” that came with the package, having never heard of an adjustable driver.

And, for example, the numbering system for irons — the lower the number, the farther the distance — had Eaton musing about the “counterintuitive” nature of the sport.

But, make no mistake, the “world’s greatest athlete” has a few natural advantages when it comes to picking up a new sport. After all, an athlete with the coachability and body control to throw the discus, javelin and shot put; to clear bars in the pole vault and high jump; and to run swiftly over hurdles, can understand and execute the concepts of grip, spine angle and turn.

“If the coach says you have to do this, and this is the right way to do it, or this is part of the technique, I can dial that in,” he said. “ ‘This is the correct technique. Stay there.’ ”

To get started in golf, all Eaton needed was a little guidance.

“I never got attracted to golf, because any time I hit a ball it would always go to the right,” Eaton said. “I would go, ‘What is the point?’ I would switch everything around, and it didn’t matter. Within the first few lessons with Todd, I started hitting straight, good balls for the first time, and it felt really good.

“I think before, there was no outside shot of me doing remotely well. Now, maybe there’s an outside shot of me doing remotely well.”

Maybe more than an outside shot.

“There’s not much that he touches that he’s probably not going to be good at,” O’Neal said, suggesting that given three months of coaching and practice, Eaton could sport a handicap in the single digits.

Eaton said the lessons of the multi-events are applicable to golf.

“Patience,” he said. “Letting the club do the work. A lot of time, that’s how we are with the body, letting the body do the work. … You don’t have to kill it for the ball to go far. You just have to have the right technique, and then it will go far. That’s the same thing in multi-events — right technique you’ll jump far, throw far, things like that.”

Over the years, Eaton has watched Tiger Woods and other great golfers on television.

“I always marveled at the skill,” he said. “In track, we get three attempts. In golf, the tee’s there, one attempt, whoosh, and nine times out of 10 they’re on the green.”

In his recent session at Emerald Valley, Eaton had his share of beginner’s hacks. But with clubhead speed that only a gifted athlete can generate, he also had purely hit balls as well.

“Wow,” he said, as one shot soared high and far, “that is the best shot I have literally hit in my entire life.”

And, as he said, he’s just getting started.

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