EVOLUTION of the Golf Swing

evolutionMany of us know that Byron Nelson is considered the father of the modern swing. Yet, Nelson’s swing is but one of many stages of evolution the golf swing has undergone throughout history. In fact, the concept of the ideal swing has changed somewhat since Nelson’s prime. We’ll get to that later in this article.

For a few hundred years, the “St. Andrews swing” was considered the gold standard in British golf, dictated by the ball. The “feathery” consisted of wet down or feathers stuffed into a wet leather pouch, which was then sewn together. When the feathers dried, they expanded, and when the leather dried, it contracted, making for a hard, playable golf ball.

Since the science of aerodynamics was slightly less advanced back then, no one really put much thought into that aspect of the ball. Because the feathery had no dimples, and thus very little in the way of lift and carry, it was pointless to try to hit the ball high into the air. Greater distance and control could be achieved by hitting it low, which necessitated a flatter, more roundhouse swing action – the “St. Andrews swing.” In concert with this motion swing, the stance was closed and the ball was played farther back in the stance than you see today, both of which promoted an inside-out swing path. This set-up and swing produced a low draw, which gave maximum distance and accuracy for this ball.

In 1848, the gutta-percha ball came into being. Made out of sap from trees found in Southeast Asia, the “gutty”
soon replaced the feathery as the ball of choice. The gutty was much cheaper to produce than a feathery, lasted longer, and flew farther after it got nicked up a little bit. Players and ball makers soon noticed the latter factor, and began to carve patterns into the ball. Later, molds evolved to do the same job.

Even though the gutty could be flown higher than the feathery, the swing did not evolve to take advantage of this fact, until the great champion Harry Vardon happened on the scene. Vardon employed an upright swing, which apparently was in common use in the area where Vardon grew up. He writes, “There is some mystery as to why we Jersey players hit up on this method in preference to the other. Possibly it was that we just naturally took the club up to the top by the shortest route.”

For whatever reason he developed his swing, it allowed Vardon to better take advantage of the improved aerodynamic properties of the gutta-percha ball. He was known to hit the ball higher, straighter, and farther than his contemporaries. Vardon also influenced the way the majority of professionals hold the golf club, by employing the overlapping grip.

Vardon claims he invented the grip, while others say he merely popularized it, but no one can dispute he is responsible for the widespread use that came about from his using it.

In the 1920’s, another great champion emerged. Bobby Jones, using Vardon’s upright style that had become the standard, took golf to new levels. With his boyish good looks and charisma, Jones also employed a great turning action of his body. Since the hickory-shafted golf clubs of the day had lots of torque, timing the swing to get the clubface back to
square was somewhat problematic. This was easier to do with a fuller body rotation and active hands throughout the hitting area.

Although steel shafts were patented in 1910, they didn’t become legal for play until 1924, when the USGA approved them for tournament play. The R&A followed suit in 1929. About this time, Byron Nelson was developing what became known as the “modern swing” as a young caddie in Fort Worth, Texas. His swing was more conducive to the lower torque found in steel shafts. Nelson introduced elements that we see in today’s swing: less body turning on the backswing and greater coil, strongly initiating the downswing with the lower body, and less hand action through impact.

A contemporary of Nelson’s, Ben Hogan, wrote a series of articles for Sports Illustrated in 1957 that were made into the historic book, “Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.” Hogan’s main contributions were the idea of a weaker grip and the concept of the swing plane. Hogan advocated that the grips’ V’s point no farther right than the right eye. Also, his idea of the swing plane promoted a somewhat flatter swing than did Nelson’s.

When Jack Nicklaus rose to prominence, the concept of the ideal swing changed again. Nicklaus had a stronger grip than Hogan did, and he also swung on a higher plane – a swing more reminiscent of Nelson’s. Nicklaus, though, through the teaching of his long-time coach, Jack Grout, emphasized a wide swing arc for power by extending the left arm and cocking the wrists on the backswing as late as feasible. Nicklaus also employed a strong lateral leg drive and a slight reverse-C finish, which were taken to a new level by Johnny Miller in the mid-1970’s.

Throughout the 1970’s and early 1980’s, a swing with a strong lateral leg drive and reverse-C finish was considered the standard. In 1985, then-little-known teaching professional David Leadbetter started working with Nick Faldo. Prior to this, Faldo utilized a strong lateral leg drive and reverse-C finish, but he was unsatisfied by the inconsistency he felt this swing gave him. Leadbetter didn’t believe this swing was the best, and he advocated a more rotary motion, with the legs used mainly for support, not power. He also didn’t believe it was necessary to stretch out the left arm as far as possible on the backswing, instead preferring an earlier cocking of the wrists to promote the rotary action
he preferred. Leadbetter also wanted Faldo to get rid of his reverse-C follow-through by instead finishing in a more straight-up manner. It took two years of hard work, but afterwards Faldo went on to win six major titles and numerous other golf tournaments.

Just when many teachers and players were figuring that the permanent ideal was the Leadbetter-Faldo swing, along came Tiger Woods. Where Nicklaus’ swing emphasized power and Faldo’s swing emphasized control, Woods sought to incorporate both elements into his swing. Working with teaching professional Butch Harmon, Woods combined the wide arc of Nicklaus’ swing for power with the rotary action of Faldo’s swing for control. The results? As of this writing, Woods has 39 PGA Tour wins and eight majors.

So, does this mean that Woods’ swing will remain the gold standard? For the foreseeable future, probably, but don’t bet on it in the long run. For, as we have seen, the ideal swing of the day has undergone many changes, even as its practitioners thought things could not get any better. Still today, advocates of such methods as Natural Golf and other alternative methods are touting their swings as superior to the one employed by Woods.

Will there be a day when most everyone on tour employs one of these methods? Time will tell. But, one thing we can say for certain: it’s likely that the concept of the ideal swing will continue to change as long as golf is played.

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