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

Harry Vardon, Byron Nelson & Ben Hogan

Harry Vardon, Byron Nelson & Ben Hogan

Golfballs.com is proud to present the second 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.

To determine the future of golf, let’s go back to the past.

A Quick History Lesson

While remembering that there have always been individual approaches to the golf swing, and that any swing style might show up in any time period, we can nevertheless divide golf history into five broad eras of golf technique.

First came what Harry Vardon referred to as “the old St. Andrews style of driving,” where the club was taken back quickly to the inside on the back swing and then looped upward. Most golf fans would recognize this as the swing of Bobby Jones, which he learned from Scottish professional Stewart Maiden. This was the prominent style until the late 1800s.

Around that time — our second era — a style Vardon called “the modern method” became popular. (Vardon wrote about both styles in his 1907 book The Complete Golfer, now in public domain in the US and available free from this page at Project Gutenberg.) In this style, the club was taken back and up in a straighter line — we would now say it’s “on plane” — which he considered “easier and productive of better results.” This is the style most of us think of as the classic swing and is the technique of teachers ranging from Ernest Jones to Manuel de la Torre. Vardon himself, the first golfer to win majors on both sides of the Atlantic, is the classic example.

Around 1930, there was a paradigm shift that changed golf technique dramatically. Although the steel shaft had been around for decades — indeed, innovators had been testing a number of materials in search of a replacement for hickory — it wasn’t legalized by the R&A for tournament use until 1927. This move inaugurated the third era of golf technique, the modern swing. It’s generally agreed that Byron Nelson worked out the basic technique, and that he and Sam Snead became the most notable practitioners.

The fourth era, the Hogan swing, began in 1957. Many people think Hogan’s swing is the modern swing but it’s actually only a specific approach to the modern swing. I start this era in 1957 because that was when Hogan’s book Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf went into print and Hogan’s approach became widely available for study.

Over the next few decades different versions of both the classic and modern swings developed, although Hogan’s swing became the dominant influence. Still, I believe we can identify one more era, which I’ll place roughly around the year 2000. This era is the result of a number of influences:

  • Increased technological advances in equipment design and manufacture
  • Improvements in training techniques and sports medicine
  • The explosion of communication technologies, most notably high-speed internet and Golf Channel
  • And of course, the advent of Tiger Woods, who brought a singular focus to all of these influences

In this fifth era, a bewildering array of swing technique variations have developed and information about them has become easily available to the average golfer. The touring pros we try to emulate sometimes change swing methods as often as they change instructors, with varying degrees of success. Despite the best efforts of modern teaching professionals, the average golfer tends to “mix and match” a variety of golf techniques that don’t always work together. As a result, the only thing we know for sure is that our handicaps are going up.

And that’s where we find ourselves now. The game is not only expensive and time-consuming, but most potential players view it as being far too difficult to learn.

However, knowing the game’s history is different from understanding it. In the next part of this series we’ll delve into how and why the techniques changed.

©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.

Brad Pecot

Director of Marketing, Golfballs.com

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