Achenbach: Utley able to talk the talk, and walk the walk

Stan Utley hits a shot to the 14th green during the first round of the 2013 U.S. Senior Open.

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OMAHA, Neb. -- Here’s all you need to know: Short-game wizard Stan Utley, who perpetually shows up on every modern list of top golf instructors, hit just seven greens in regulation Thursday and still shot 70 in the U.S. Senior Open.

Before the round, I was skeptical about his chances in this national championship for seniors. Utley and 18-hole rounds of golf are strangers these days. When I asked him how much he plays, he replied, “Five rounds this year, keeping score.”

Regardless, Utley performed his magic here at the Senior Open at Omaha Country Club. He continually saved par. He totaled 26 putts. On 18, he ended his round by hitting a 60-foot bunker shot within two feet of the hole.

“I did not play very pretty today,” he said. “It was a total scramble.”

It got so bad that Utley was taking full-swing advice from his caddie, who just happened to be his son, 15-year-old Jake Utley.

“I was moving off the ball,” Utley said, “and Jake noticed it right away. Whenever I start moving (his head and body) to the right, I hit bad shots.”

Utley is nothing if not honest. He treats himself and his students the same way -- he is incisive and straightforward. There is no sugar-coating in the world according to Utley.

I admire his candor. And his bravery. How many famous instructors would willingly seek the spotlight of a national championship, knowing that professional embarrassment is a distinct possibility?

Utley, 51, is a former winner on the PGA Tour (1989 Chattanooga Classic). He is intimately familiar with the highs and lows of competitive golf.

I know many golfers -- myself included -- who would never take a lesson from an instructor unable to perform at a high level. The theory is simple: If a teacher has done it himself, he can provide believable insight into the elusive world of low golf scores.

In this regard, Utley is the real deal.

“My focus is helping people with their golf games,” said Utley, who has given lessons to dozens of touring professionals but doesn’t necessarily like to take credit for it. “I work mostly with individuals, not groups. I have students from all over the world.”

Utley admits his own swing changed dramatically after he left the PGA Tour and began spending time with other top instructors. He gives particular recognition to teachers Jim Hardy, Mike Adams and Rob Akin.

Here’s what I learned watching Utley play 18 holes: He is fast and decisive on the course. I wish all golfers could learn this lesson. Furthermore, Utley is unafraid to employ a variety of shots around the green. I saw him hit spinners, rollers, lobs and soft shots that appeared to land with no velocity.

How to learn these shots? Utley is based at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., for most of the year, although he and his family are spending their summers in Merrimac, Wisc., where he teachers at Devil’s Head Resort.

And what wedges does Utley carry? The answer might surprise you because he did not have four wedges in Thursday’s opening round. There were just three (with lofts of 48, 56 and 60 degrees).

On Jan. 1 of this year, Utley became as a member of the Ping equipment staff. He has alternated between Titleist and Ping during his career, and he said, “I’ll be a Titleist guy for life,” referring to his golf ball.

He went on to explain that “It’s kind of a natural thing with Ping. I live in Scottsdale and Ping is in Phoenix. I can go hang out over there and try to be an asset to them.”

Meanwhile, there is a Senior Open to be played and plenty of golf lessons to be given. Utley is doing something most instructors can only dream of -- teaching a national champion one day (Darren Clarke being the most recent example) and playing in a national championship the next.

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