Wednesday, July 25, 2007

End your putting problems forever

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I’m not usually the confessional sort, but I am going to take a minute to come clean: I have a problem. My putting stroke is unreliable.

You non-golfers out there might ask, ‘‘What’s the big deal? There are bigger problems in the world,” but let me assure you, it is a big deal. Especially when I’m playing with friends from college, and the heckling starts. I try not to let it show, but it hurts.

I’m not the only one, though. Every golfer has struggled with the dreaded yips every now and then. Just look back to last Sunday, when Sergio Garcia lost a chance at his first major victory when he lost the British Open to Padraig Harrington in a four-hole playoff. Garcia had led the tournament for three days, and went into the final round with a six-shot lead over Harrington, but cost himself the title by missing several makeable putts, including a putt for par on the final hole that would have avoided the playoff. One of the best ball strikers in professional golf, Garcia’s putting maladies have plagued him throughout his career, and after three relatively calm days, they came back when the pressure mounted. It is enough to make you want to give up the game.

That is, unless you could do something about it. Mark Diley, a PGA teaching professional who owns the Liberty Road Golf Center in Boyds, was at a crossroads a few years ago. After taking up golf as a junior player — his father was in the Navy, and Diley learned to play while his family was stationed in Hawaii — Diley found success. In 1971, Diley won the Maryland state high-school championship in his senior year at Surrattsville High, and then went on to become the captain of the University of Maryland’s golf team. A veteran of Maryland State Golf Association tournaments, Diley won his share of titles, including the two-man team title in 1975. But one day in 1992, he lost his putting stroke and could not get it back.

‘‘I won a lot of tournaments, but all of a sudden I had this flaw in putting stroke,” Diley, now 54, said. ‘‘I could not figure it out.”

Instead of sulking, Diley went into his garage one night, and by morning he had devised a swing trainer designed to correct putting flaws. After tweaking it here and there, the Ego Personal Putting Coach was born, and received so many good reviews from Diley’s friends and family, he exhibited at the PGA Merchandise Show and had it in the marketplace by 1994. He sold 2,000 devices, and even had PGA Tour player Kenny Perry endorse it.

‘‘It was one of those things where it was a totally unique experience,” Diley said. ‘‘I built it for myself, and all of a sudden I had PGA Tour players using it. Kenny Perry went from 108th on the Tour in putting when he started using it and moved up to eighth.”

The device, which is a harness that fits over a golfer’s shoulders to correct the motion of the upper body, reduces wrist action and creates a smooth putting stroke, and may already be in every golfer’s garage, if not for a bit of adversity. In the mid-1990s, Diley contracted Hepatitis B during a back surgery, and was seriously ill. Only after undergoing chemotherapy and an experimental drug program at George Washington Medical Center did he finally beat back the disease. All the while, his invention was put on the back burner.

‘‘I really had to put all my energy into getting healthy,” Diley said. ‘‘It was touch and go for a while, and I sort of just let go of [the putting trainer]. I got healthy in 1999 and went back to teaching.”

Yet, recently, the Ego Personal Putting Coach has come back into Diley’s life. In 2004, a friend saw a version in Diley’s basement and convinced him to continue tinkering with it. Diley made a simplified version, got it patented, created a Web site ( and started distributing it again. It was not however, until the Golf Channel came up with its new reality show ‘‘Fore Inventors Only,” that Diley decided to go national with his invention.

‘‘We kind of did it on a whim,” Diley said. ‘‘My wife and I drove up to New York in February when we heard about the show and then we got a callback, and we went down to Orlando when we showed it to the judges. It was an interesting process to go through.”

Diley’s invention was also interesting to the judges. On day two of the panel auditions, which aired last Tuesday at 10 p.m. on the Golf Channel, PGA Tour professional Fulton Allem, instructor Bill Harmon and Golf for Women magazine senior editor Stina Steinberg all gave the Ego Personal Putting coach the thumbs up. Diley will now move on to the field testing stage, and if he can advance through the show, which will continue to air on Tuesday night’s through to the live season finale on Sept. 4, he might get a chance at the grand prize. That lucky winner will receive a fully developed infomercial for his product, shelf space at the golf retailer Golfsmith and $50,000 worth of commercial and promotional airtime on The Golf Channel. The only thing that Diley is hoping for right now, though, is a little more face time on the show.

‘‘They showed some of the other demos, but I came in at the end of the show, and they showed maybe a four- or five-second clip,” Diley said. ‘‘I’d like to see them show my actual demonstration because I got a great reaction from the judges. My invention is the kind of thing that you need to see in order to understand what it teaches you, so hopefully people will get to see it more.”

Diley almost went down this road on his own. In 2005, he raised $500,000 to create an infomercial for the Ego Personal Putting Coach starring Rick Smith, who was Phil Mickelson’s swing coach at the time. Yet, with Mickelson struggling, Diley sensed that Smith and his star pupil were about to part ways, and pulled out of the deal. Mickelson went on to team up with Butch Harmon, Bill Harmon’s brother and Tiger Woods’ former instructor, while Diley decided to open his driving range.

‘‘Being a teaching professional myself, I could see the writing on the wall,” Diley said. ‘‘I knew that if Smith did the infomercial and then he and Mickelson split we’d be hung out to dry. Things were moving just a little too fast and I felt like I was losing a little bit of control so I decided to back off.”

But now, The Golf Channel has given Diley another chance at getting his invention out into the wider world. For a guy used to putting down his score in hard numbers, letting his fate get decided by others is a hard transition to make.

‘‘I know that win or lose, it’s not up to me,” Diley said. ‘‘It’s up to a bunch of judges. It’s a little frustrating that it is out of my hands but I know that my product works. I started this for selfish reasons — it was about fixing my own putting stroke — but to me an invention is a flash of insight that creates a unique and different product that fills a need and makes your life easier. That’s why I went up there [to be on the show.]”

Tune in on Tuesdays to see if the judges decide the same thing. But whether Diley wins or not, I’m just about ready to pick up his invention. And while I’m at it, I might send one to Sergio Garcia, too.