Golfballs.com is proud to present the final 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. Just as steel caused a paradigm shift in golf technique, a second shift has already occurred; it just hasn’t been recognized as such yet. In the last installation of this series, Mike discusses the second shift and what he believes the future of golf holds.
The Second Paradigm Shift
That shift is the graphite shaft and, while it doesn’t require any change in technique, it certainly SHOULD cause one. And this paradigm shift will help determine the future of golf.
When Frank Thomas invented the graphite shaft (many claim that date was 1973 but Thomas himself puts it around 1968) he may not have realized what it would ultimately become. It appears the original goal was to create a shaft as stiff as steel but lighter. However, after much development—graphite shafts didn’t really come into their own until the 1990s—it became possible not only to make shafts that were light and stiff, but also to make them light and flexible without giving up the consistency that made steel so attractive originally.
Consider this: softer graphite shafts allow players to use the simpler classic swing and still achieve the accuracy of a steel shaft. So if the graphite shaft had been invented in the early 20th Century, it’s quite possible that the modern swing would have never been invented.
Just as it was back in Snead and Nelson’s time, many modern players struggle with the leg action demanded by the modern swing; the classic swing might be just the ticket for these players. And now we have the equipment to let instructors teach it properly.
Please understand that it’s not that the classic swing has no leg action—quite the contrary. Just go to YouTube and search for “Ted Ray” (the third player in the famous Harry Vardon-Frances Ouimet duel at the 1913 U.S. Open) or Walter Hagen; you’ll see classic players with a lot of leg action. But the leg action in a classic swing is more like the natural movements of a tennis player or baseball pitcher (that’s what I think of when I see Ted Ray smack a drive) rather than the bigger drop-and-slide action of a modern swing.
Additionally, most modern players use classic technique in their short games, so they already have some familiarity about the swing. A consistent approach that teaches the same techniques in both the short game and the full swing would certainly simplify the game for many players.
So What Is the Future of Golf?
Predicting the future is always an iffy proposition. Today’s sure thing is tomorrow’s trivia quiz answer. But we’re already seeing the emergence of potential trends in our game.
While the Hogan swing is generally considered the most aesthetically pleasing by analysts, the fact remains that more and more of the world’s up-and-coming stars use other swing methods.
For example, although I’m uncertain that players are consciously saying “I’m going to use the classic swing,” we are beginning to see the emergence of successful pros using classic techniques. Bubba Watson, Victor Dubuisson, Stacy Lewis, and Shanshan Feng are four who immediately come to mind—each with a very individual swing that includes classic technique and each having success on the big stage. These pros and others like them will inspire younger players to try this simpler style.
Likewise, with Tom Watson, Singh, Jiménez, Mickelson and others continuing to push their younger counterparts, the Snead-style modern swing will become more appealing to weekend players as well. I believe it’s only a matter of time before sports physiotherapists recognize the true cause of the chronic back problems plaguing modern golfers—the exaggerated hip move of the Hogan swing, which puts the lower back in an unnaturally stressful position, being further over-stressed by the increased power of today’s iron-pumping athletes. With so many other swing options available, they will eventually recommend the Hogan swing only in special cases—and even then, with strictly limited practice time to minimize back damage.
Since equipment manufacturers finally have the ability to control virtually every parameter of graphite shaft design, I can see the concept of “synthetic hickory” taking hold in the industry. The fundamentals of the classic and Snead-style modern swings are largely identical (although, granted, the feel is different), so a range of shafts could be designed to easily fit the demands of each swing’s flex requirements.
Instructors could make the simpler classic swing the basis of their teaching methods. (Just watch Shanshan Feng swing if you doubt how simple yet powerful the classic motion can be. Shanshan has a smooth weight shift during her downswing that allows her to swing the golf club as fast as she can, yet you’ll see no bobbing up and down. This swing makes her an incredibly accurate ball striker; at only 5’7” tall, she’s 37th in Driving Distance, 26th in Driving Accuracy, 6th in GIR, and 7th in Scoring Average as of November 2014.) Most students would likely prefer this method but, if particular students seemed better suited for the modern swing, instructors could make that method available as well.
I believe this is the potential future of the game: A standardized 9-hole round, a half-set of clubs for weekend golfers, a less-confusing set of rules for casual play, and a return to our roots with a technically simpler golf swing. These aren’t major overhauls to the game; they’re all things that have been a part of our game at one time or another. But by picking the best of our past, we can go a long way toward ensuring the future popularity of the game we love.
©2014 Mike Southern
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.