Be a match-maker
Golf Things Considered column by John Rogers
Good golf and good golf instruction are like all these new on-line dating services – they try to bring together things that are compatible. Golfers tend to think that there is a perfect swing, and they spend their days trying to dig it out of the dirt, as Ben Hogan put it. In my mind, a swing is good if most of its components fit together. A swing is less functional if one part is plaid and another part is polka dots. In other words (so I can use three different metaphors in one paragraph), there are a lot of ways to skin the cat when it comes to hitting a golf ball; the trick is to make sure you’re using only one way.
For example, there is a type of golfer that I call “The Slinger.” The Slinger is usually a young, flexible, aggressive golfer. There tends to be a big shoulder turn and an even bigger arm-swing with the lead arm swinging across the chest, or behind the body, in the backswing. Then the slinky-like junior golfer will dramatically thrust and turn the hips on the way down, tilting his spine away from the target. This backswing with the wrap-around arms and the downswing with the tilted spine tend to make the club swing toward right field (for a right-handed golfer) with an open clubface. If there is nothing to fix this situation, the young golfer will repeatedly hit pushes to the right of his target.
Over time, The Slinger’s setup and swing will evolve to fit his tendencies. He will find that a strong grip with the hands rolled around the handle toward his right leg helps him to close the clubface. He will learn to stop his rotation and thrust the arms chicken-wing-style through the hitting area so that his arms catch up with his body. He will develop a flip of the hands, which is a lateral hinging of the wrists that helps to close the clubface and move the club more towards centerfield.
In a sense, Slingers have three or four parts of their swing telling the ball to go to the right, and three or four parts telling the ball to go left; so the ball ends up going fairly straight. Slingers hit the ball very far (partly because the flip of the hands takes the loft off of the clubface), tend to fight the hooks, and tend to be erratic with their wedge-play. But the point is that a Slinger has a good swing if the pieces fit together.
Someone offering some well-intentioned advice to a young Slinger might suggest that he get rid of his revved-up hyper-strong grip. After all, a perfect swing wouldn’t use such a grip. But if the Slinger weakens his grip, the rightward parts of his swing now outweigh the leftward parts, and his ball flight will suffer.
If I work long-term with a junior golfer, I generally will turn him or her away from Slinger tendencies. I like to see as many parts of the swing as possible telling the ball to go straight. I think it makes a more efficient, quieter swing. But a Slinger can have a very good swing if the parts are compatible.
Back in 1997, a young Slinger started his first full season on the PGA Tour. It only took a few weeks for Tiger Woods to show that he could dominate the best players in the world in the Masters. Butch Harmon later helped Tiger tighten his swing, but I have a hard time calling Tiger’s old swing bad or messed up when it made him the number one player in the world.
Swings often evolve from certain starting points. For example, a shorter person will tend to stand more upright (especially if the clubs are therefore proportionally long for him) when addressing a ball. The upright posture and longer clubs go well with a flatter turn of the shoulders and a flatter plane for the club to swing through. The flatter plane goes well with more forearm rotation and a stronger grip (which is a bunch of teaching-pro mumbo jumbo, but trust me). If the shorter golfer tries to swing the club in a more upright plane, he will likely struggle to hit the ball straight or solidly. The plane would not fit the rest of his setup and swing.
Much of what is found in Hogan’s instructional masterpiece The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, derives from the fact that Hogan was a shorter man with Slinger-like tendencies. Jack Nicklaus, on the other hand, swung the club in a more upright plane (tells the ball to pull or slice) and tilted his spine during the swing (tells the ball to push or hook). His tendencies would have made him more likely to hit behind the ball (and to blow out a hip, which he did), so he learned to hover the club above the ground at address. The best player of all time (for now) did not have a perfect swing, but he had a swing made up of pieces that fit together very well.
Swings can evolve based on body types, physical traits (strength, flexibility, etc.), personality types, and a number of other factors. Any of the various swings can be good. Like the great teacher Harvey Penick said: Don’t fear the player with a bad grip, and don’t fear the golfer with a bad swing; fear the player with a bad grip and a bad swing. It might not be a pretty picture, but at least the pieces of his puzzle fit together.
The holy grail of consistency in golf is a matter of compatibility and repetition. The challenge of instructors and students of the game is that we need to be good match-makers when it comes to building a golf swing.