Swinging into action

As usual, my head is swimming with golf tips this week. I played in a tournament last weekend and found myself caught between a rock and a hard place — that is, between conflicting swing theories. Nothing unusual there, but I think you might be able to learn something from my experience. Heck, I’m trying to learn something.

Here’s my problem: I often can’t decide whether I’m a swinger or a hitter of the golf ball. Sometimes I believe in the Ernest Jones’ method, which is based on swinging the club head. Jones lost a leg to a war injury and still was able to break par because he let the club do the work. His arms and legs followed his body. I play this way from time to time and do fairly well. But inevitably I lose the feeling and the action. It feels like the club head is flipping around — an unpleasant sensation that gives me the golfing willies.

The “big-muscle” swing

That’s when I revert to the modern “big muscle” swing, where the golfer rotates his upper body while keeping his hands and arms quiet. The idea behind this theory is that the hands and arms will follow the turning body. The body leads and not the hands. This isn’t swinging the clubhd, it’s using the body. A decade ago I asked Nick Faldo, then one of the best golfers in the world, to define this swing. He did so, easily.

“It’s the turning of the upper body against the resistance of the lower body back and through,” Faldo said during breakfast at the Hotel Europe in Killarney, Ireland. And that’s all there was to it. I’ve hit the ball very nicely when I’ve managed to make this body-dominated swing without feeling tense. But, in the end, I feel robotic and revert to swinging the club head.

Swing or be swung

So you can understand my predicament. I’m caught between a swing and being swung. When it reaches this point, it’s time to sit down with a glass of wine or a whiskey and think about what I’m trying to do in golf. Maybe my thoughts on the matter can help you. No doubt you’ve been caught between the same poles from time to time. We all are.

I like to think of Bobby Jones at such times. Nobody swung the club more fluidly than Jones, who won the 1930 United States and British Opens and Amateurs. His four wins gave him the then Grand Slam of golf, after which Jones retired. He had no more worlds in golf to conquer. Jones was only 28 when he retired from competitive golf.

But he continued to think about the game and to write beautifully about it. His book Bobby Jones on Golf is one of the best instructional volumes ever published. The original edition came out in 1966, and was based on columns Jones wrote for the Bell Syndicate from 1927 through 1935.

Remove the tension

Jones writes that the golfer does well to remember that there are no forces to oppose in golf. This statement is so lucid as to make one stop and shake his or her head and say, “Yes, of course.” We’re not boxing or hitting a moving ball or smashing somebody, as in hockey or football. There’s no need to put body tension into the swing. Think about the way you make a practice swing. Is there tension? Of course not. Do you try to assume a contrived position? Of course not.

“It is very rare that tension is observed in a practice swing,” Jones wrote. “And this is so because the player, not feeling the necessity of being entirely correct, comes closer to assuming a natural posture. Let him take this naturalness into the actual shot; let him simplify his preliminary motions as much as possible; and let him start the ball on its way without hurry, yet without setting himself on point before it like a fine bird dog on a covey of quail.”

That is, be relaxed over the ball. Don’t worry about whether your body will swing your arms or vice-versa. Don’t do anything that introduces tension into your address. And make no mistake about it: errors in the golf swing often begin at address, when we try too hard to be right, whatever right is.

Golf isn’t a reaction sport like baseball or tennis or hockey. It’s a sport where the golfer makes something happen on his own. We all learn, especially as we get older, that tension ruins just about any action. You’d think we’d have learned by now to relax into our games, into our best golfing selves.

Clear your mind

I usually get myself out of my golfing funk by thinking of Jones. It leads me to other ideas, such as those espoused by the great Canadian golfer George Knudson. Knudson advised the golfer never to do anything at the expense of balance and reminded us to be target-oriented and not swing-oriented.

These ideas help me get past swing thoughts and remind me that golf is not all that complicated. The legendary golfer Gene Sarazen once said that it’s easy to get all fouled up in the mechanics of the game, and that when this happens to him that he likes to think of simply “riding through the ball.” Sam Snead likes to feel what he called “oily.”

I like to think of Bobby Jones — a tension-free Bobby Jones. I empty my mind and let myself play rather than force myself to swing, or be swung. Try it, and let me know if you like it. It could be the idea that kick-starts your golf season!