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Out of the cold and into the zone

Grab your gear and come to where seasons cannot intrude on your game

On a snowy day last month, Taylor Fontaine, 18, Southbridge practiced his swing from a heated bay at Harmon Golf and Fitness Club in Rockland.
On a snowy day last month, Taylor Fontaine, 18, Southbridge practiced his swing from a heated bay at Harmon Golf and Fitness Club in Rockland. (Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe)
By Ron Driscoll
Globe Staff / January 11, 2009
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Plenty of New Year's resolutions have already been attempted and abandoned. But because it's still the dead of winter, there is ample time to formulate a strategy that will help you prepare for your favorite outdoor sport this spring.

If you're a golfer, there are several places where you can hit practice shots, strengthen specific muscles, or have your swing analyzed so that when the course opens, you'll be much more likely to enjoy your round.

Baseball and softball players are still several weeks away from organized indoor workouts, but it wouldn't hurt to take some swings or have a trained eye study your hitting or throwing technique for flaws and fine-tuning. Players in the Worcester area can even schedule an evaluation by Rich Gedman, the former Red Sox catcher who is a member of the staff at The Strike Zone baseball and softball training center there.

Harmon Golf and Fitness Club

The philosophy of this Rockland club is to help golfers improve through practice, swing analysis, and fitness. When it opened in 2002, it marketed itself as an addition to a golfer's primary club, but the pitch has changed.

"In this economy, people are looking for value," said Jim Battista, Harmon's membership director. "At a lot of private clubs, all you get is the golf course. Here you get a fitness center, a golf course, and a practice facility."

After assessing a player's core strength and flexibility, trainers assign a fitness handicap, similar to the rating a player carries for his game. Just as on the course, the goal in the fitness center is to become a "scratch" player, with no discernible weaknesses.

"The golf and fitness instructors work hand-in-hand," Battista said. "Your golf instructor may want to work on an aspect of your swing, but they can't because you are hindered physically. That's where the fitness program comes in."

The club was founded by three of the four sons of legendary golf instructor Claude Harmon (excluding Butch Harmon, who tutored Tiger Woods for several years). Its campus features a nine-hole course and extensive outdoor practice areas, but in winter it's common for players to practice and receive lessons as they hit balls out of heated bays onto the outdoor driving range, while their swing is gauged by launch monitors and recorded for instant feedback and analysis.

The club offers complimentary trial visits on its website, and it also has public programs for fitness and lessons.

"People don't want to give up golf completely because of the economy," said Battista. "In tough times, golf is an escape from the difficulties."

168 Concord St., Rockland. 781-871-7775, 866-942-7666. www.harmongolf.com. Group and individual instruction; golf- or fitness-only memberships available.

Elite Indoor Golf Center

Jeff Dantas had an idea 10 years ago, after giving lots of golf lessons.

"It's very hard to improve taking one lesson a week," said Dantas, director of instruction at this Seekonk facility. "After the lesson, you go off and practice by yourself, and pretty soon, you get stuck."

Dantas, who has won more than 50 regional tournaments, opened the 6,000-square-foot Elite Indoor Golf Center building four months ago. It has 15 hitting bays, all with Launchpad simulators, video capability, and full-length mirrors to track the path of your swing.

"In the past few years, golf equipment has improved; instructors have better teaching tools; and yet, handicaps keep going up," said Dantas. "What we offer here is something you can't get by paying a pro $100 or more for an hourly lesson."

Elite's "Practice with a Pro" membership offers, in essence, 24 hours of lessons for a monthly fee of $129 (based on a 12-month membership). A half-year plan for the same level of instruction costs $179 a month.

Dantas and the other four teachers monitor each player's practice sessions. "In 12 months, we're going to make them the best player they can be," he said. "I want people to step up on the first tee in the spring and hit the ball and have their buddies say, 'What the heck did you do this winter?' "

Dantas likes to tell about one of his pupils calling from Florida.

"He was on the fifth tee, and he told me he was hooking the ball," Dantas said. "I told him what he was doing wrong, and he called me back after his round to tell me the tip had worked perfectly."

1865 Fall River Ave., Seekonk. 508-336-3776, www.elitegolfcenter.com. Rates vary with length of membership: six months unlimited practice, $125 a month, with a pro, $179 a month.

CityGolf Boston

This complex near Boston Common offers practice bays with swing analysis, individual and group instruction, and a golf simulator that lets players hit shots and have results measured and displayed on a video screen on any of 30 famous courses. Two people can play an entire round on say, Pebble Beach or St. Andrews, in about two hours.

The center currently offers a four-month membership with unlimited half-hour lessons for the price of three months ($1,000). That also includes unlimited practice balls, 1 1/2 hours a week on the simulator, free lunch on weekdays, plus an "on-course" playing lesson.

The prices drop significantly when you join with one or more golfers (up to five) and take group lessons. A foursome can take five lessons together for $190 apiece.

38 Bromfield St., Boston. 617-357-4653, www.citygolfboston.com. Practice only with 10 buckets of balls and handicap service, $79.

South Shore Baseball Club

Although baseball and softball are played with nine on a side, Frank Niles of the South Shore Baseball Club in Hingham notes that, "the batter's box and the pitcher's mound can be pretty lonely places."

The club opened in 1989 and offers an array of options for those chasing diamond dreams.

"We get them all," said Niles, who played in the Kansas City Royals' farm system before becoming a high school and college coach. "People are looking for ways to keep their kids busy and entertained, but baseball is a tough sport. It's less casual than some other athletic pursuits."

The club offers indoor "spring training" camps from February through April, two-hour sessions that run on four consecutive Saturdays and include instruction in infield and outfield play and hitting, and the chance to work on your swing in batting cages and at individual stations.

"They're designed to be more comprehensive and allow players to hit the ground running in the spring," said Niles. The club also offers individual instruction in hitting or pitching (for baseball and softball) at $35 per half-hour for members and $45 for nonmembers.

The club welcomes all ages, but Niles sees mostly 18-and-under players now, along with college players home on break.

"We'll see the more casual amateur baseball or softball player a little closer to the season," said Niles. "At this point in their lives and their careers, they're more likely to cram for the test, if you will."

55 Recreation Park Drive, Hingham. 800-464-4487, 781-749-6466, www.ssbc.com.

The Strike Zone

This 10,000-square-foot facility stresses its ability to accommodate players training for competitive teams as well as those who just want to hit a few softballs for exercise. It also offers individual instruction in hitting and pitching and the chance to work in small groups of two to four players to reduce costs (a half-hour individual lesson is $40, a full hour for four players is $35 apiece). A batting cage with all needed equipment can be rented for as little as $20 for a half-hour.

Gedman, who is the manager and director of baseball operations for the Worcester Tornadoes of the Can-Am League, an independent pro league, played 10 seasons with the Red Sox and was a two-time All-Star catcher. He is one of 13 instructors here, five of whom tutor softball players.

10 Mann St., Worcester. 508-752-4766, www.kzonecages.com.

Extra Innings

This chain of baseball and softball training facilities started in 1996 on Route 1 in Peabody and now counts about 40 locations around the country. Owners Rob Nash and Joe Luis, both former minor-leaguers who grew up on the North Shore, have retained ties to the region, with nine complexes in the Bay State (Agawam, Auburn, Middleton, Salisbury, Tewksbury, Watertown, West Bridgewater, Woburn, and Wrentham) and in Warwick, R.I., and Nashua.

They can also count successes among their attendees: Peabody's Matt Antonelli was a first-round draft pick by the San Diego Padres in 2006, and Ryan Moorer, also of Peabody, was a 12th-round pick by the Seattle Mariners in 2007. Antonelli got his first major-league hit in September against surefire Hall of Famer Greg Maddux.

Go to www.extrainnings.us and click on Locations to find contact information for each facility. Hitting and pitching clinics available. Player packs include varying levels of lessons and use of facilities.

Ron Driscoll can be reached at rdriscoll@globe.com.

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