We are seeing all kinds of weird varieties of golf swings on the PGA Tour, to the point that you wonder whether it’s better to be taught or untaught. There is Kevin Na’s neurotic stutter swing, Rickie Fowler’s hit-the-throttle accelerator swing, and Bubba Watson’s uninhibited big-door-on-a-small-hinge swing. Then there is Tiger Woods’s confused multiple-personality swing. What that ought to tell you is that there’s no “right” technique, and you should fire your instructor if he insists there is.
The real lesson weekend amateurs should take from pro golf’s most recent events is that we’re being oversold, over-studied and over-confused by a consultant class. For some the golf swing is a manufactured move, and for others it’s a more natural move. For Na, it’s a highly counterintuitive motion, self-conscious to the point of phobia.
“There’s a lot going on in my head,” he admitted during the Players Championship this past weekend. For Fowler, it’s an entirely different game — loose and fast and unthinking — but it led to first and second place finishes in the last two weeks. “If you asked me to discuss the mechanics of my swing, I’m afraid it would be a short conversation, I’m a feel player,” he once said.
Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee has been complaining for a couple of years now about “the cookie cutter, scientific approach to teaching” which he calls a cancer in the game, and he’s being proven entirely right. The idea of that there is one superior swing theory or teaching method — that Hank Haney’s “shaft plane” will result in a better ball flight than David Leadbetter’s $119 “swing setter” video — is strictly a modern commercial notion. You’re better off taking the advice of sports psychologist Fran Pirozollo, who once said, “A physicist can describe the perfect golf swing and write it down in scientific language, but the smart golfer doesn’t read it. The smart golfer gives it to his opponent to contemplate.”
Or better yet, why not take the advice of some of history’s most consistent winners, who cautioned against over-tinkering. Nancy Lopez refused to apologize for the flaws in her swing and never made the mistake of trying to fix them. “My swing is no uglier than Arnold Palmer’s, and it’s the same ugly swing every time,” she said. Jack Nicklaus believed that “all golf shots should be played with one basic swing,” as he was taught by his instructor Jack Grout, who preached self reliance over eternal tampering by teachers.
Watson, the self-taught wonder and reigning Masters champion, believes no player should adopt a technique that goes against comfort out of some misguided adherence to “theory.” He told Golf Digest, “Find your strong point physically, and take advantage of it. And be careful that an instructor doesn’t try to build your swing around a part of you that isn’t your strongest point.”
Which is not to say that all instruction is bad. Matt Kuchar is a self-taught “home made” player who won the U.S. Amateur back in 1997, yet after he went through years of struggles and the loss of his playing card, there’s no question he needed Dallas teaching pro Chris O’Donnell. He put his swing back together beautifully and simply, and it led to the biggest victory of his career at the Players Championship on Sunday.
But it is to say that too much teaching leads to too much thinking. “You swing your best when you have the fewest things to think about,” Bobby Jones said.
Last year, Martin Laird actually told his swing coach Mark McCan he wanted to see less of him. It’s not clear that Na’s swing change under coach Dale Lynch has helped him more, or driven him more crazy.
“Sometimes I just can’t get comfortable and have to back off,” Na said.
Though he tied for seventh in the Players, his twitchy waggles through the week were all raw insecurity.
“Its absolutely nuts,” commentator Johnny Miller said. “I mean pros don’t do that.”
No player has hyper-analyzed his game more than Woods, who seems to have totally abandoned his old feel for self-conscious mechanics, with little to show for it under the theory-addicted Sean Foley. A once-limber player is all stiffness and tension, and shot a 40 on the front nine in the final round at the Players.
His former coach Butch Harmon summed up the frustration the entire golf world feels with Woods’ navel-gazing in an interview with the Wall Street Journal: “Quit playing golf-swing and just hit shots; just say to himself, I’m gonna hit a low fade, and I don’t need anybody to tell me how to do it, I’m just gonna feel it. He’s Tiger Woods, for God’s sake. He doesn’t know how to hit a shot?”
British golf announcer and former player Peter Alliss was even more scathing about Woods’s mystifying habit for wonky over-complication.
“I do not understand the thinking of Tiger Woods,” Alliss said. “I think his golfing brain, for some reason or other, is completely addled . . . I’m not saying I’m a great teaching guru, but I’d love to have about a half an hour [with him]. If he couldn’t be put right in an hour, I’d go home and stick my head in a bucket of ice water, because it’s so simple. You stand and you swing.”
Historically, the greatest teachers of golf have taught what for lack of a better term might be called “The Childhood Swing.” Harmon is a believer in finding a player’s most “innate” swing. The late great PGA champion and TV analyst Dave Marr believed the best way to learn to play golf was to pick up a stick, and whistle it through the air. “There: That’s your golf swing,” he would say.
Perhaps most famously of all, there was the advice of revered late instructor Harvey Penick, author of the “Little Red Book,” who said the best tool for training a swing was “the common weed cutter.” The motion you made loping the heads off dandelions taught the perfect action, he advised, and it built muscles too, he said.
Go with it. You don’t need a video to learn that swing. It costs all of $14.
For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/jenkins.