Stroke of genius

Teaching pro Gary Battistoni puts many of the area's top junior golfers in the 'zone'

News Sports Reporter

The school day is over and the run is on. Here comes Billy Hanes, the willowy St. Francis High School sophomore who two years ago won the state 14-under championship. Let's watch him tee it up and fluidly, seemingly effortlessly, drive it 300 yards.

There's Jimmy Pizzutelli, son of Buffalo Sabres head trainer Jim Pizzutelli and a senior at Williamsville East. He's dropping wedges all over the flagstick. You egg him on, tell him you want to see the power side of his game. Pizzutelli pulls out a 3-wood, knocks a few 270. A late bloomer who's down to a 1-handicap, he'll be trying to make the golf team at Bowling Green as a walk-on.

That sweet swing over there belongs to Lisa Andrzejewski, a junior at Orchard Park. A couple of years ago she was shooting in high double and low triple figures. Now she averages 80-83 from the ladies' tees, 83-85 from the men's. Golf programs for girls are in short supply in Western New York; next year, she'll be gunning for a spot on the Quakers' boys team.

Meet Raman Luthra, a Nichols senior and runner-up to Tim Hume, the area's top-rated amateur, in last summer's Tournament of Champions at East Aurora Country Club. He's headed to Miami of Ohio, where he hopes to join Orchard Park High's Matt Thomas on the golf team.

They've gathered off Main Street in Clarence, at the Battistoni Golf Center, the hub of Western New York junior golf. They are students of Gary Battistoni, 41, who's turning out young players of national regard at a rate that defies Western New York's track record as well as its abbreviated golf season.

It all began about 10 years ago with Tim Smith, the St. Francis graduate who plays at Xavier. Smith first came to Battistoni around the age of 12. He won the state junior championship in 1996. In '98, he reached the finals of East Aurora Country Club's International Junior Masters, which hadn't had a local semifinalist in 12 years.

Mark Nihill of Canisius High School followed Smith to the Battistoni Golf Center, excelled, and now plays at American University. Kyle Hess came on board, went to the semifinals of the Junior Masters and the state junior tournament in '99, landed on the golf team at Richmond and, this fall, as a junior, shot 66 in the James Madison Invitational.

Word spread and Battistoni's business boomed. He estimates he conducted 2,000 lessons last season and that his assistant, Keith Zahner, gave another 1,000.

"A couple kids in my high school, they wanted to make the (golf) team," Pizzutelli said. "They would work with him in the summer and be 10 shots better."

"Everybody gets better," Zahner said.

"I think our success rate," said Battistoni, "is probably 95 percent."

He's taking Hanes through his weekly 45-minute lesson. It's all fine-tuning, practicing shots and situations.

"Just mark my words, and I'll say it in front of Billy," Battistoni said. "He understands humility. He's going to be the first kid I've taught that's going to play the (PGA) Tour. Right there. You're looking at him. Remember I told you that. It's going to be eight or 10 years maybe. But I'm serious. He's going to be that good."

Player, not a teacher

Battistoni was, himself, a golf prodigy. He took lessons from Ed Pfister and Dean Jewart at East Aurora Country Club, went to the state championships four times out of East Aurora High School and earned a scholarship to Bowling Green, where he was all-conference and captained the team his senior season.

He spent three years after college bouncing around tours in South Africa, Europe and South America, hauling his clubs, luggage and a swing unreliable in the heat of competition.

"The problem was I was a very good golfer myself, but to a certain degree I really didn't even know how I swung," Battistoni said. "I played the Porter Cup six times and I shot a lot of rounds in the 60s, but I also shot some rounds in the 80s, and I was never really able to put four rounds together.

"The ability to rationalize that my technique was going to work, I'd just get to a certain point and then I couldn't do that anymore."

He left competitive golf and completed the requirements for his Class A teaching license. He gave lessons, although he doubted his students were getting much out of it. How could they? He didn't have much to say.

"I didn't know what I was doing," Battistoni said. "I'd go to the lesson tee with the members and I'd hit balls for them. I say, "Here, watch what I'm doing. You got to bring the club from the inside, swing out to the right.' You get a guy to hit a draw and he's happy. And I played a lot with the members and they'd see me shoot 68 and they'd think, "Well, this guy must know what he's doing.' I guess my ability to play gave me the credibility I needed to skid my way through it. But I wasn't going to develop any Billy Haneses that way.

"So I figured if I was going to start teaching I had to get some information on how the swing is governed. Certainly it had something to do with physics and the laws of motion, so I decided to go to Tom Tomasello, who taught Jodie Mudd in the late '70s and early '80s, and he learned from Homer Kelley, who was the gentleman who wrote "The Golfing Machine.'

"Now if the average person picks that up, it's impossible. It's all about directional force vectors and impact physics and the geometry of an object that moves on an arc. But what he did is, he gave me a starting point where it was based on the math of it. I understood how to apply the principles of engineering to how a person was to move. I developed an understanding for how centrifugal force worked in a golf swing. The center of the body only has to move 5 miles an hour to make the clubhead go 100."

Three-zone system

Battistoni used his early teachings to test his theories. What worked? What didn't? And, in either case, why?

"I used to make lists of stuff to try," Battistoni said. "I would try different things with students, and if I had 12 lessons that day and I told everybody from the top of their backswing to push the club straight down before their body turned and everybody hit the ground behind it, that gave me a pretty good indication that that didn't work. And I systematically worked it into a methodology where about five years ago I came up with this."

Battistoni's system consists of three zones. Zone One covers address: grip, posture, ball position and stance width.

"If there's a technical part it would be the setup," Battistoni said. "It's static. It has to be done a specific way. That's technical."

Zone Two deals with the backswing: shoulder turn, right knee flex, left arm extension, the left wrist and eye plane/head position.

"The backswing is technical but it's moving more toward feel," Battistoni said. "You're trying to feel your shoulder turn a certain way. You're trying to feel your right knee maintain its flexion. You're trying to feel your left wrist hinge properly. So now you're into a technical application of getting into a position at the top that's correct. But we're moving toward feel."

Zone Three takes us to the aspect of the swing many a golfer dreads: the downswing, that moment when the eyes message the brain, which relays instruction to the hands and hips and shoulders and, all too often, the swing deteriorates into a mass of senseless, ineffective movements.

Here's the simplistic beauty of Battistoni's system: Make it through the first two zones properly and when it comes to the third zone . . .

"You can close your eyes," he said. "Because the clubhead wants to go through that space if you trust the body motion to do it correctly. You have to get from the top of Zone Two in the right position to that balanced finish by timing that pivot. The downswing movement always has to be initiated by the core, the hub of the body. All your arms do is they raise the club up, they lower it.

"As the center moves, centrifugal force just aims your club. And centrifugal force doesn't have a nervous system. It can't make a mistake. The Zen of it is having the ability to slow down in your mind and trust that feel."

His students are believers.

"That's the big thing about Gary's technique," Pizzutelli said. "It's almost flawless. Through pressure it's there for you, you can depend on it. You don't have to worry about hitting loose shots under pressure. It's easy to learn and it's easy to do."

"He's easy to understand. Really easy," Hanes said. "And he takes it step by step. He doesn't try to make you change right away. It would have been a lot harder if I didn't go to Gary to get where I am right now."

Math by feel

"I laugh when someone says, "You have a natural swing,' " said Zahner, a Grand Island native who played at Niagara University and coaches the golf team at the Park School. "I tell them, "No, I have a learned swing. It's not natural. (The golf swing) is not instinctive at all. Natural is me throwing a ball to Gary and moving my whole body and looking at him."

Zahner spent two years as Battistoni's assistant before he was permitted to give lessons on his own.

"I taught him my methodology and he knows it and he sticks to the system," Battistoni said. "Two thousand lessons a year and the only people I see that don't get better are the ones who are flawed fundamentally in this first zone to the point where they've created a dysfunction, or ones who won't listen."

Hanes shot 67 last week at East Aurora Country Club. And he three-putted twice. For now, he's Battistoni's prized student, the ultimate verification of his system. But you know what? Others are coming up fast behind Hanes. Players 10 years old, 12 years old, are settling into the Zones.

"People go, "How do you know it's going to work?' And I say, "Well, it has to,' " Battistoni said. "It's going to work just as surely as you're going to let a ball go and it's going to fall and hit the ground. It's math by feel. It just makes sense, really."