Dennis Carson stood over a treacherous chip Thursday afternoon. After overshooting his target on a 60-yard approach, the Serra High senior had left himself with a downhill shot with little green to land his ball. Carson calmly surveyed the situation, bounced the ball in the rough inches short of the fringe and watched it coast into the hole for a birdie on the par-4 fifth hole at Green Hills Country Club in Millbrae.
One hole removed from a double bogey, he tossed his club to the ground in celebration and went on to finish his nine-hole round with a 1-under-par 35 on the Alister MacKenzie layout.
"I didn't hit a fairway," Carson said after his team beat second- place Bellarmine by four shots in a dual match. "But I got up and down from everywhere."
Carson is the top golfer in the West Catholic Athletic League this season, averaging 34.6 strokes per nine holes in 11 matches for the first-place Padres. So Thursday might have appeared to be a typical round for Carson, who signed a letter-of-intent Friday to play golf at UC Davis. But typical performances are what drove the 6- foot-2, 205-pound Carson to make an enigmatic leap when he left Serra after his sophomore year and enrolled at the IMG David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Bradenton, Fla., for his junior year. Carson - the once-pudgy kid who grew up slamming balls at Peninsula driving ranges and winning one junior tournament after another - had a vision. He wanted to be a PGA Tour player. He wanted to end his days of inconsistent play. He wanted to scrap his trophy-winning swing and build a new one in the Florida heat.
"I was ticked that I would go out to a tournament and shoot 79, 67," Carson said. "I said, 'I'm sick of this.' "
But this wasn't akin to Andris Biedrins or Shaquille O'Neal revamping their foul-shooting technique. Carson was the guy who made all his shots in practice. He already had a good swing, but he wanted one that could absorb the nerves and pressure that come with a tense tournament situation and produce results.
"A lot of people don't understand," Carson said. "They say 'you were good before.' But it's more for the long run."
Yes, the long run - that elusive PGA Tour where the allure of big money has many families weighing the risk-reward of investing in a golfing education.
"It was a big expense for us," said his father, Bruce Carson, a superintendent with an industrial electrical company. "But I wanted him to be the best he could be. I wanted him to take it as far as he could."
So for a $46,100 tuition, Carson bid goodbye to regular high school and adopted a strict regimen at the boarding school, dedicating his mornings to school and the afternoons to golf training.
With the help of his instructors, Carson attempted to mimic the swing of Ernie Els, a player who had a similar body type. They worked on changing his setup and posture and let those factors dictate the changes in his golf swing.
The elder Carson, whom his only child calls a "26 handicap who reads a lot of Golf Digest," has watched his son become acclimated to his more efficient swing, and watched his education take on another dimension.
"He learned to listen to others and learned to correct himself," Bruce Carson said.
And there was the element of being away, too.
"I was there for a purpose," Carson said. "I think of fun as hitting chip shots on greens and having contests with my buddies. And being with kids who thought the same way was really a nice thing."
Carson was one of a handful of Northern California junior golfers who were enrolled at the academy seeking a certain golfing enlightenment.
"The Leadbetter way," Carson said.
The golf teaching legend never did watch Carson hit a ball, but the student came away satisfied with his time there.
Carson will join some of the top prep golfers in the region Monday for the 18-hole De La Salle Invitational at Diablo Country Club. He sees every tournament is an opportunity to allow his driving-range dream swing to continue to evolve.
"I still haven't had a day yet where it's all clicked," Carson said.
Thursday's nine holes without hitting a fairway didn't seem to disappoint him, though. He hit his driver every chance he had.
"I don't like to lay up," he said.
A year at the IMG Golf Academy doesn't sound like he does.