When 18-year LPGA Tour veteran Penny Pulz arrived in Sun City, Ariz., three years ago, she was alarmed by the number of senior golfers who had grown so frustrated with the game that they were considering quitting altogether. With the goal of making the sport fresh and exciting again for retirees, Pulz, a two-time winner on tour, now runs an academy that uses state-of-the-art physical and mental training to meet the unique needs of senior golfers. Today, seniors arriving for lessons at the Penny Pulz Golf Academy are just as likely to end up in her "brain room" as they are to head down to the driving range. Pulz recently spoke with U.S. News about her efforts. Excerpts:
What was your impression of senior golfers when you first arrived at Sun City?
When I came in, I was surprised how many people were negative about their game. It was unbelievable. And they weren't getting any better because they got stuck. What was happening was seniors were stopping playing golf. It's very important that we continue to make golf viable for them mentally.
How important is it for seniors to be involved in a recreational activity like golf?
Absolutely imperative. Because you are integrating with diversity, and you are exercising. And you [have] to deal with people that aren't always on your page—and that is terribly important in seniors. The other thing is exercise is huge, [and] making it enjoyable is probably the most important thing you do. The critical thing why golfers leave the game is because they get frustrated. In the end, that's why the style of training must change.
What changes need to be made?
The training has to change in the teaching world. Because you can't turn like you used to turn [as a senior]. And it came to: What can a body do as a senior? What can you do as a senior with the body that you have? Can you have fun with golf? So we say, we don't change the swing—we get you to understand where your body is today so that you can play with the body that you have.
How do you do that?
I have together a brain and body gym. I work on the brain and the body. I was an 18-year tour player, so what I've done here is I've brought forward my training as a tour player into my academy. If you walk into my academy, you are seeing a tour player's brain. So I brought everything that I was taught as a tour player as far as brain, concentration, all these little techniques. We're not being superserious here. It's about educating with a bent on fun and enjoyment and being able to reach the goal that you choose. So they are learning as if they were younger, but they are learning now an acceptance of the body they have today.
What's in your "brain room?"
Let's step into it. Well, you walk in, and it's covered first of all in a cloth around the sides, so it's very quiet and very soft. You've got timing training, which teaches them how to have their body ready to go—feeling their swing before they swing—it gets the body buoyant and ready to hit the ball. If I have someone who's freaked out—[who thinks] "I can't hit the ball anymore; I'm going to quit"—I start [the student] in "brain gear shift," that's with the light and sound, and teach them very simple things like body relaxation. I can teach it in a half an hour or an hour—it's no big thing—and then they can do that at home. And then I teach them simple breathing things, and they get it and then they start growing. I work in vision training, because we are into bifocals and trifocals—so we need to keep our eyes exercised.
Do you begin with the mind or the body?
[Sometimes] I start with mechanics; sometimes I start with the brain. Like I have one guy for two weeks learning relaxation with me before I'm going to work with him on a golf swing because I don't want him freaked out the first time I say, "Swing slow," so I need to get him ready for that. You can't just work on a body. You have to know the person. You have to begin to educate on a much deeper level.
How important is it for senior golfers to work on the mental side of their game?
This is what all seniors need to be breathing in. It's good to do our exercises, but it's also good to have strong conversations, and it's good to exercise the brain. To me, doing sport and visiting and chatting are all [very important].
So by getting so frustrated with the game, seniors were giving up these conversations as well as golf?
You're giving up life. I mean, you go to Florida—you want to play a beautiful course and then have a lovely dinner and enjoy the experience. A golf course is absolutely beautiful. I mean, it's a beautiful lifestyle. And why would you want to get so messed up in the head that you don't see any of it? And that's my driving force here. I'm saying senior golf is exciting. I love it. And the people that I have conversations with—that have far more wisdom than I do—I glean stuff from every day.
What other innovations have you brought to your academy?
The other thing is I am bringing juniors in here as well. And why am I doing that in a senior world? [What] I see in my vision at the end of the day is juniors play with the seniors to make the seniors laugh, and the seniors are teaching the juniors respect and discipline. The other thing is those grandkids come to visit Grandma and Grandpa. Well, we have something for those kids. I'm just trying to turn everything upside down. And it's working.
How are things going for you so far?
It is working, and it is only going to get better. It's new. The bottom line is, let's have more fun. But also, let's maintain a solid, constructive quality of life, using our brains, [and] let's stay inquisitive about our bodies even though they aren't the same as they were at 25.