I am no coach, but I have pored over golf instruction for over two decades now—both in the quest for a better golf swing and in the course of work while editing a golf magazine.
I am no coach, but I have pored over golf instruction for over two decades now—both in the quest for a better golf swing and in the course of work while editing a golf magazine. I would like to believe that I have a fair understanding of the golf swing, yet even as I say that, I know that my understanding of my own golf swing is as delusional as most amateurs. If you think you’re different, just ask someone to record your swing video on the course. Chances are that you won’t believe what your swing really looks like! It’s unlikely to look anything like what you think it looks like.
But I digress: my reason for starting off with that disclaimer is simply to clarify that I make no claims of expertise when it comes to golf swing. My quest for a pretty and robust swing has been, and continues to be, as confounding and frustrating as it is for most of us. So with that context in place, please consider the ruminations that follow only as food for thought, not as qualified instruction.
Here goes: for the past one month, I’ve been watching a great deal of golf coverage from the 1980s and 1990s. Typically, footage from this era is decent viewing quality and showcases some of the best players of the baby boomer generation—Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo and others.
This extended trip to the past began when I unearthed a scrapbook containing strips of golf instruction that I’d cut out from Sportstar—a once-popular sport weekly for those who might not have seen a copy. That was my golf bible: for a 14-year-old in 1993, the notion of streaming videos from the Internet didn’t exist and ‘swing tips’ were worth their weight in gold. Sportstar would carry an illustrated strip twice a month (interspersing it with a tennis instruction strip) in which Jack Nicklaus would dispense one valuable nugget that I would proceed to work on for the next fortnight. As I write this, it occurs to me that there might be some insight here on why I played my best golf in my teens… but that’s another story.
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Coming back to the point, as I pored over Nicklaus’ tips, I found myself seized by a desire to actually watch him hit the ball and thus ensued a YouTube binge of tournament and instructional footage that is yet to abate.
There’s a lot I could talk about in terms of the impressions this experience has left on me: the conduct of players, their casual interaction with fans, humility—the players just seem so much more real and accessible. But for the sale of this column, I’m going to confine my observations to the golf swing. All these guys swung the club with way more abandon than the mechanical action you see players use today. There’s a great deal of lateral movement of the hips, over-swinging, that reverse-C position at the finish, leg-drive and, largely, an upright-swing plane. If you distill it down, there are two crucial takeaways: 1) none of these players made an attempt to restrict the movement of the hips on the backswing; and 2) the swing relied much more on the momentum of the club turning the body.
Now, modern instruction talks about the ‘X-factor’. Simply put, that’s the difference between the amount your shoulders and hips coil. The greater the ‘X factor’, the more torque and clubhead speed, hypothetically speaking, you can generate. All of us have tried that and while there’s no denying the fact that it works, it does require a great deal of athleticism and, I suspect, puts an unnatural amount of stress on the lower back.
Here’s another fact: how is it that all these greats of the game from that era are still playing golf? Nicklaus still hits it good; Arnold Palmer could swing a club literally till the last few years of his life; Gary Player still shoots par; Tom Watson famously nearly won the Open a few years back; and Greg Norman still hits the ball a country mile. For all the alleged strain that the old square-to-square swing puts on the body, none of these players have had their careers cut short by injury. Surely, they were doing something right.
To put this hypothesis to the test, I checked which modern players still swing like this. Admittedly, no one, with the big exception of Bubba Watson, lifts the lead heel of the ground in the backswing. But turning the hips is another matter: Phil Mickelson allows them to turn as much as required to get his back facing the target of his backswing. So do Dustin Johnson, Jason Dufner, Annika Sorenstam, Tim Clark and John Daly. If you talk to a bio-mechanist, as I did last week, he’ll tell you that when you resist with the lower body, it creates tension. Your upper body can then fire prematurely, coming over the top or leaving the club stuck behind you. You just don’t have the time and space to square the club.
I conducted some research to see how this theory holds up and here are the stats: 17 of 19 men with five or more majors titles lifted their lead heel. Forty-six of 50 men who have 17 or more PGA Tour wins lifted their heel. The women with the most major wins (Patty Berg), second-most major wins (Mickey Wright) and most LPGA wins (Kathy Whitworth) all lifted their heel. And in terms of longevity, Nicklaus won the Masters at 46. Sam Snead won on Tour at 52. And Watson nearly won the British at 59. They all lifted their left heel and made a big turn.
I can’t lift the heel—that feels too unnatural now—but over the past week or so, allowing my lower body to turn freely in the backswing seems to be working. I am hitting it more flush, with much better, almost metronomic rhythm, and with significantly less stress. Not sure if this will hold up on the course, but I’m certainly going to try. I’ll keep you posted!
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game