Anyone who’s played golf for any length of time knows how difficult it is to improve. Therein lies the seed of my numero uno golf rant – modern golf instruction. As someone who’s tried it all, you might want to read what I have to say…it might save you some time and money.
My journey with golf began in earnest with a copy of Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons in an empty field on the grounds of Fort Gordon, an Army base in Augusta, Georgia, in 1989. Oh, I had been fiddling around with golf for a few years, but it was during my Family Medicine clerkship at Eisenhower Army Medical Center that the golf bug really bit. Maybe it was the warm spring air, or, more likely, the afternoons off to attend Masters practice rounds (I timed my spring schedule perfectly), but whatever the reason, I set off that spring to try to master the golf swing, and was pretty confident I could do it. Little did I know what I was in for.
Like many of you, I suppose, the Hogan/Wind/Ravielli Magnum opus was my first foray into golf instruction. For a physician-in-training, everything about the book – the precise, scientific, dogmatic instruction, the anatomical drawings, the literary craft of Wind – was intoxicating, and filled me with delusions that conquering the game was as surely within my reach as, say, passing the next anatomy exam. And thus the groundwork was laid for about a decade of floundering around in my quest to become a low-handicap golfer.
I believe the field of golf instruction is the weakest part of our game, and by a large margin. We have excellent golf courses to suit people of all socioeconomic levels, a cornucopia of choices in high quality golf equipment, and a professional-level game and spectator experience that is as good as anything in the history of the game. We’ve made strides in just about every aspect of the game, with the exception of instruction. The fact is that the average handicap of golfers hasn’t really changed much in a century, and I think I know why.
Before I go any further, let me be clear that I am not saying our teaching pros are all doofuses, or that they don’t understand the golf swing, or that they aren’t, on the whole, genuinely nice, helpful, dedicated people who really try to improve our games. I’m also not saying that it’s impossible to learn to be a good golfer within our current system of instruction. Finally, most of my rant concerns the role of instruction for the experienced, seasoned player; for the beginner, instruction on the basics of grip, stance, body alignment, etc., is imperative and is excellent. But for most of the golf enthusiasts out there who already know the basics – people who read about golf on the Web and in magazines and watch Golf Channel and take golf trips and genuinely yearn to improve – the whole philosophy of teaching, the whole approach we take to learning golf is wrong, backwards, inverted, and generally counterproductive.
Modern golf instruction is obsessed with swing mechanics, and consequently many recreational golfers who try to improve finds themselves adrift at sea, trying to use six or seven or eighty different maps to navigate. Most never reach port. Instead, many of us wobble aimlessly from theory to theory in instruction books to tips in magazines and on TV, mixed in with an occasional live lesson, never achieving meaningful progress.
What is largely absent from the world of golf instruction is a sensible methodology for practice and improvement. In other words, we get 99% on what to learn, but only 1% on how to learn it.
When I started medical school a couple of years before that fateful spring in Augusta, I was not given a stack of textbooks and told “go out and see some patients and come back next week and tell me how you did.” I was given many textbooks, yes, but was given them in a prescribed order, such that each subject could provide a platform for ascending to the next level. And although the program of medical education has changed and evolved through the years, the point is that there has always been some plan in place. Students are shepherded along so as to make the educational process efficient and to avoid dangerous gaps in knowledge.
When was the last time you had a lesson or read a book in which a teacher told you, specifically, how to practice? I’m not saying nobody teaches this, or even that many don’t touch on it a little, but generally if it is included in teaching it’s usually an afterthought.
What sells instruction books and makes for good TV is a new swing theory.
Jim McLean brought us “the X-factor” about eight years ago, and then about five years later brought us “the Y-factor.” I’m waiting to see how he’s able to work the Z in there. The current flavor of the month, the “Stack and Tilt,” seems pretty similar to the “one-plane” option of Jim Hardy’s method, and both borrow from the Homer Kelly “Golfing Machine.” Dave Pelz has written three books with detailed, engineering-style photos demonstrating the “pure in-line square” putting stroke, and Scotty Cameron uses similarly sophisticated methods to assert the opposite, that an “arc stroke” is the proper way to putt. Jim Flick says the hands control the body, and Jimmy Ballard, among others, wants the body to control the hands. David Leadbetter started with his own method, but in recent years has apparently run out of original ideas and has started rewriting classic instruction books with his own commentary.
The examples above – and dozens of others I didn’t mention – are generally well-thought out, compelling, mostly mechanically sound ideas. But the point is, we don’t need them. We don’t need an endless litany of rehashings of how to swing a golf club. We need to teach people how to learn to repeat a few basic things well enough to play decent golf.
The over-emphasis on golf swing mechanics carries the implication that there is a perfect, Platonic, ideal, “genuine” swing, which, if we could execute perfectly, we would always hit perfect shots. I don’t believe this is true. The list of mechanical “flaws” in the swings of touring professionals should be enough to show us there is no one set of perfect mechanics. Jim Furyk stands too close to the ball, Arnold Palmer stood too far away. Corey Pavin’s grip was too weak, Paul Azinger’s too strong. Lee Trevino lined up 30 yards left, Sam Snead 30 yards right. All are major championship winners. Colin Montgomerie tilts and doesn’t turn, Allen Doyle has a short, fast backswing, and Craig Parry comes over the top.
With such a range of technique among the greatest in the world, how can anyone argue that there is a perfect swing out there, or even that mechanics really matter that much?
I know someone who in his youth was a six handicap and was in the final round of his club championship. He was a strong guy who could hit his steel-shafted, persimmon driver about 230 yards, pretty good in the mid-1970s. He lost in the championship match to a 50-something guy who couldn’t hit it more than about 180 yards, with a swing that was more Picasso than Hogan. But as my friend said, “he repeated it, and he could control the golf ball as well as anyone I’ve ever played.”
The above club champion played to a four handicap at the time. In the obsession with distance, hot equipment, leveling our shoulder turn, or honing our pre-shot routines, the message that you can play low-handicap golf hitting it 180 with an “ugly” swing has been lost. (Adjusting for the changes since the 1970s, maybe that number would be a little higher, but you get the idea.) You just have to be able to control the ball, which is accomplished by repeating a swing and trusting it.
This is what we all need to learn – how to repeat, and trust, our own, personal swing.
I’m not saying that mechanics are meaningless, and that better biomechanics can’t improve the efficiency of one’s action, add a few yards, control trajectory, etc. I just think that these are “fine points” that don’t matter very much to the average recreational player, including many in the single digits. Perfect mechanics may be a proper focus for the touring professional wanting to win a major, or the scratch player who wants to compete consistently in national or regional events, but for 99.999% of us, they ain’t that important.
And even for these elite players, before they reached their vaunted status, they all learned to repeat. How? Most pros and good amateurs will tell you that they learned the game in their youth by some variety of intense, total immersion. Some tell stories of playing 36 or 54 holes per day all summer long, and as much as possible during the school year, or of hitting balls on a range three hours per day for six years after school. The key is not the specific mechanics of the swing that evolved, but that they practiced it enough to make it repeat.
Most golfers take up the game as adults, and don’t have the opportunity for the immersion approach. So is it too much to ask our teaching professionals to figure out a way to teach us to repeat a servicable swing, rather than trying to make our swings look like Nick Faldo’s? If they can make a machine that tells us the spin and launch angle of a ball going 180 mph, why can’t they make a machine that gives us the sort of feedback we need to learn to repeat?
I’m sure it can be done. Someone just has to try.