Why the Future of Golf Lies in its Past – Part Three

Hickory Golf Shafts, image: worldhickoryopen.com

Hickory Golf Shafts, image: worldhickoryopen.com

Golfballs.com is proud to present the third part in a series of guest blog posts by Mike Southern, curator and writer for one of our favorite golf blogs, Ruthless Golf. Read on for Mike’s take on why he believes the future of golf lies in its past.

Let’s take another look at the changes during the five eras of golf.

The Evolution of the Golf Swing, Revisited

As Vardon noted, the change from the St. Andrews swing to what we think of as the classic swing was relatively minor, intended to make the swing easier and more consistent. Hickory shafts had notoriously unpredictable behavior, and club makers experimented with alternative materials for many decades—various woods, steel, aluminum, and even “exotic” materials like bamboo. But hickory, for all its flaws, remained the most practical of the available options.

Many modern players believe the modern swing replaced the classic swing because it was a “better” swing, but that’s not true. Sam Snead, in his book The Game I Love, wrote:

One of the hardest things we all had to adjust to in the 1930’s was the changeover. We went from the hickory shaft to the steel shaft. (p13)

The swing wasn’t the problem; it was the shaft material that forced the change. While the extra stiffness of a steel shaft made shots more predictable, it required more effort to load the shaft—a necessity if you wanted to get distance.

It might help if we take a moment to consider the real differences between the classic and modern swings; they aren’t as dramatic as you might think. Most modern players think hickory shafts resulted in shorter drives, but that’s far from true. Harry Vardon, using a 42-inch hickory-shaft driver (that’s the length of a modern 7-wood), considered 250 yards a common drive for a pro. And Dr. David Williams (author of The Science of the Golf Swing) used computers and footage from a Warner Brothers instructional film to calculate how fast Bobby Jones swung his driver. The result was 113 mph, comparable to that of a typical modern Tour player. No, the main difference between the classic and modern swings is swing focus, and that depends on shaft flex.

It’s common for modern analysts to say “the game is played from the ground up.” Their swing focus is on the activity of the feet and lower body and on how they start the swing. But when you swing a tennis racket or try to catch a baseball, do you think about your feet? No, you focus on getting your hands—or possibly the racket in your hand—in position to intercept the ball. Yet these activities also begin from the ground up. It’s physiologically impossible to play sports any other way!

The difference is that the golf analyst focuses on consciously controlling the lower body when making a swing, while the tennis or baseball player focuses on the ball and lets his mind subconsciously control his lower body—indeed, his entire body—and get it to move in such a way that the hands can get where he wants them to go.

This is also the main difference between the classic and modern swings. The classic swinger focuses on how his hands will get the club face on the golf ball, trusting that his mind will sequence the rest of the swing properly without additional conscious input. In contrast, the modern swinger consciously focuses on lower body action to whip the hands and club head into the proper position to hit the ball—and if anything goes wrong between shoe and glove, the shot doesn’t come off as planned. The modern swing requires a very accurate setup and sequence of moves to get proper results, while the classic swing often gets results that defy explanation with a seemingly awkward swing.

Still confused? Just listen to swing analysts try and explain Bubba Watson’s swing. They can tell you what he’s doing… but they can’t tell you how he does it. That’s because Bubba has a classic swing; he focuses on the shot he wants to hit and lets his mind take care of the details of body movement. For example, he doesn’t consciously jump at impact; his foot movements are totally unconscious.

Now, getting back to Snead’s remark…

Hickory shafts were soft enough for a player to load them with his hands and arms—in fact, they were too easy to load. (In his book, Vardon even gives specific details on how to relax your grip at the top of the backswing in order to control that very problem.) But steel shafts required you to use the big muscles of your body to load them properly, which completely changed the feel of the swing.

The early modern swingers like Nelson and Snead managed to work out a method that kept the long flowing motion of their classic swings while emphasizing the big muscles, a necessity for loading the stiffer shafts. But that took Nelson a good five years after the R&A made the shafts legal to figure out the technique… and he still did it faster than anyone else!

In other words, the modern swing was much more complex to learn than the classic swing it replaced, but the available technology left players with little choice if they wanted to stay competitive.

When Hogan came along he added a new wrinkle, further complicating the modern swing. David Leadbetter may have summed it up best, albeit unintentionally, in his book The Fundamentals of Hogan:

In Hogan’s case, his hard work culminated in his finding, by 1946, his so-called “secret,” a formula to eliminate the persistent hooking problem that early on threatened to ruin his development as a tournament player. (page 3, emphasis mine)

Hogan’s swing, while a work of genius, was designed to correct a persistent duck hook that he immortalized in his own words as “the terror of the field mice.” He accomplished this largely through exaggeration—pushing his hips forward dramatically during his downswing. Doing so altered his downswing plane, forcing him onto an in-to-out swing path from which even he had trouble hooking the ball.

The reverence with which Hogan was regarded elevated his method among golfers. Everyone wanted to swing like Hogan, although few realized that they didn’t have the duck hook necessary to make the swing work properly. As a result, a golf swing designed to prevent hooks became the model for teaching golfers who can’t stop slicing. Do you sense a pattern here? If so, you aren’t alone.

This realization that the golf swing has become overly complex fuels the innovations of the current (fifth) era of golf. Enterprising instructors make note of their students’ particular problems, and they develop new swing methods to overcome them. Significantly, many of those swing methods are moving away from the Hogan swing and back toward the modern swing models of Nelson and Snead. And the competitive longevity of players like Tom Watson, Vijay Singh, Miguel Angel Jiménez, and Phil Mickelson is helping to fuel this movement—especially since these players seem to be facing fewer chronic back problems, despite their age.

In the upcoming final part of the series, we’ll be discussing the second paradigm shift in golf technique that occurred due to an even more recent technological advance in golf clubs.

©2014 Mike Southern

Blogger Bio

Mike Southern, ruthlessgolf.com

Mike Southern, RuthlessGolf.com

Mike Southern learned the basics of golf from Carl Rabito, the PGA Professional who coached LPGA major winner Jeong Jang to her 2005 Women’s British Open win. He’s played in a few local professional tournaments and written numerous instructional articles for Golfsmith.com. He has also written seven golf instruction guides, including Ruthless Putting, Stop Coming Over-the-Top, and Think Like a Golfer, and currently writes the long-running “Ruthless Golf” blog (ruthlessgolf.com), which is aimed at helping weekend players improve their game without overtaxing the rest of their lives.

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