From the Golf Journal Archives - The History of Golf Instruction

Nov 18, 2011

It’s only swinging a stick at a bally, isn’t it? But this simple act has spawned literally hundreds of thousands of pages of how-to over the centuries. Part one of two.

By Curt Sampson

(Note: This article originally appeared in the January/February 1993 issue of Golf Journal.)

GOLF INSTRUCTION through history has been a stew of the bogus and the brilliant, with dashes of originality and insight blended with lots of snake oil and large chunks of baloney.

We eat golf instruction up. Whether or not it is good for our games is beside the point. For golf is so lonely and difficult that there is a psychic benefit merely from receiving counsel, regardless of its baloney content. If the advice does not click, we fret that we were inadequate to receive it, not that the advice itself was flawed. In golf the teacher is to the tyro as the Wizard of Oz was to Dorothy.

Golf instruction has not improved with time. Though the photos and drawings here prove that some of the early teachers were clueless, no modern how-to golf writer is more graceful or incisive than two of the pioneers, Horace G. Hutchinson and Sir Walter G. Simpson. As for hands-on teaching, there was simply a lot less of it in the old days, and a lot less was expected of the lesson. Golf was primarily a match-play sport; strategy and psychology were more important than technique.

Many champions found instruction unnecessary. “I learned to play by trial and error,” writes Byron Nelson in his forthcoming autobiography, How I Played the Game. “(We) were nearly all self-taught.”

“Never had a lesson in my life,” Harry Vardon said in My Golfing Life.

“Although Stewart Maiden has quite properly been known as my first instructor,” wrote Bob Jones in Golf is My Game, “it is yet true that I never had a formal lesson from him while I was in active competitive play.”

Even Jack Burke, Jr., and Arnold Palmer, the sons of teaching professionals, are strong believers in self-help.

Then again, you have Jack Nicklaus, Tom Kite, and Nick Faldo, who depended on the intercession of their gifted instructors. But it’s a good thing these guys weren’t born 150 years ago. Golf instruction hadn’t been invented yet.

It’s Christmas, 1840. Under your tree are some dandy new Hugh Philp autograph model clubs and three John Gourlay leather golf balls. In this day before golf magazines, golf books, and teaching pros, how do you learn to swing, how to play?

Observation and imitation would have been the keys to your golf education. Novices and experienced golfers who wanted to improve were advised to watch the best players at their club, then do as they did, and be alert for their casually dispensed wisdom at the 19th hole.

The swing you learned would have been short and flat, and your stance very closed, all the better to hit low hooks. Thomas Kincaid described the ideal in his diary in 1687: “Stand as you do at fencing... hold the muscles of your legs and back and armes... fixt or stiffe, and not at all slackening them in the time you are bringing down the stroak. Your armes most move but very little; all the motion most be performed with the turning of your body about…”

Why the cautious peck of a “stroak?” Because your three leather-and-feather golf balls cost almost as much as your entire set of clubs. A lost ball was a financial disaster.

If you received any actual coaching, it would have been from a caddie. James Balfour, in his Reminisences of Golf on St. Andrews Links, recalled one such gent, Lang Willie, who was much taken out as an instructor of beginners ... his look was rather stupid (but he) used to insist that he drank nothing but sweet milk."

Out of the ranks of the caddies – “ragged children, miners out of work, discharged coachmen and butlers, drunkards who have spent their all, and ex-criminals” – evolved the golf professional.

It’s your birthday, 1860. Your wife – is she the bonniest lass in Scotland, or what? – presents you with another new set of clubs, shorter, stouter, and more upright than those old-fashioned long-nose sticks, and a dozen of the new, high-tech gutta percha balls. “Put those Philps in the fire!” you say. “They’ll never be worth anything. And give those dang feather balls to the dog!” You put the clubs under your arm – no golf bags back then – and march down to the golf links, where you book a lesson with the professional.

“Ye canna strike a ba’ li’ tha’!” your pro, Sandy McHoots, tells you a dozen times the next day. Sandy looks tired, for in addition to intoning such sage advice and dropping consonants, his duties include custodianship, greenkeeping, caddieing, and playing in an occasional challenge match. Picture Carl, the assistant greenkeeper in the movie Caddyshack, but in tweed.

Like all pros, McHoots gives only “playing lessons,” and like all his brethren, he is laconic. Teaching vocabulary – “over the top,” “laying off,” etc. – has not been invented yet. Besides, his job is to demonstrate, and yours is to emulate.

Your new clubs and balls demand a new swing path (upright) and stance (open). The gutty is harder to get airborne than the feathery, but losing one is no fiscal tragedy. Let ‘er rip!

The details of the orthodox swing of 1860 were tribally determined. If you and McHoots were Carnoustie men, for example, you would be shown a huge, wrap-the-hands-around-the-neck stroke, so that on the backswing “it seemed the club must inevitably hit the left knee.” The St. Andrews swing featured a huge sway, a full shoulder turn, and the high rising of the right elbow and the left heel, with a throughswing that was a long, gradually accelerating sweep. There was also the shorter, more accurate Hoylake swing, the hybrid English swing, and the Jersey swing of Harry Vardon.

Father’s Day, 1899. Your gifts include a wheelchair, an ear trumpet, and some books on golf. If only I’d had these 30 years ago, you think. You mean the books.

From The Art of Golf by Sir Walter Simpson (1887):

“The more fatuously vacant the mind is, the better for play. It has been observed that absolute idiots … play steadiest .... Alas! we cannot all be idiots. Next to the idiotic, the dull unimaginative mind is best for golf. In a professional competition I would prefer to back the sallow, dull-eyed fellow with ‘quid’ in his cheek, rather than any more eager-looking fellow.

“A professional can play. It does not follow that he can teach others.” The golf professional can eat and especially drink others under the table; “is he therefore an authority on dietetics?

“Games at golf ought not to be played for nothing .... Are there many cases of golfers crippling their resources by betting? Even if there were, who made us their grandmothers?

“The player whose driving is feeble should hit harder. Unless it is because he is nipping, in which cases he ought not to nip.”

From Hints on Golf, by Horace G. Hutchinson (1896):

“Now the great secret of all strokes at golf... is to make the club travel as long as possible in the direction in which you wish the ball to go.

“Continued steadfast looking at the ball is likely to weary the eye.

“When a friend is telling you at some length of the exceptionally fine shot he played up to the 17th hole, do not interrupt him in order to describe the even finer one which you yourself played to the 18th. The merits of your stroke, possibly even of your company, may fail to meet with their due appreciation at such a moment.”

While such written advice was thought-provoking and useful, it wasn’t enough. Sometime during the gutty (or after 1900, the rubber-core ball) era, the first modern lesson was given. A caddie deposited a bag of balls on a little-used patch of golf course ground, then ran out onto the pitch with the empty bag. A student hit balls in the general direction of the shagger, while his instructor rubbed his chin and said, “Bend your knees. Three dollars, please.” “Wild Bill” Mehlhorn recalled shagging for Walter Fovarque’s lessons at Skokie Country Club around 1913. The pupil would hit exactly 12 balls during the session. “And I always caught hell when I didn’t come back with a dozen,” Mehlhorn said.

“There was a lot more demonstration in a lesson back then,” says “Lighthorse” Harry Cooper, whose father taught at Cedar Crest in Dallas starting in 1917. Cooper, like Mehlhorn, was one of the first great American professionals. “My father concentrated on getting people into the right frame of mind for golf.”

Photography, which might have helped those early pros and their students, was still too primitive to be much help. Substantial exposure times required subjects to pose unmoving for long minutes, which is apparent from the hilarious positions Jack White froze himself into in his Easier Golf (1924). When the camera attempted to catch the moving swing, as in Picture Analysis of Golf Strokes, by James Barnes (1919), the club often disappeared. As late as 1946, Byron Nelson was still making like a mannequin for the photographs in his Winning Golf. And Horace Hutchinson thought so little of the medium – and its expense – that he dispensed with it altogether in Hints on Golf, in favor of what he called “demons” or “skeletons.”

Photography improved in the modern era, of course, and with it came steel shafts, the Vardon grip, improved playing surfaces, motion pictures, and a stunning rise in the popularity of the game.

While the last seven decades have yielded instructional treasures by Harvey Penick, Ben Hogan (Five Lessons), and Bob Jones, it also gave us treatises like Square To Square, The Reverse C, and the worst golf book ever written, The Golfing Machine. Technology has allowed us to really pick the nits in a golf swing. This led, unfortunately, not to insight, but to faddishness and an impulse to dissect – and finally, horribly, to golf magazines (with the notable exception of the one you’re now holding).

(To be continued...)

Although the swing was a bit different around the turn of the century, gripping a club properly (in this case, the Vardon, or overlapping, grip) was as essential as it is today. (USGA Museum)


Even at an advanced age, Old Tom Morris didn’t leave anything in the bag when it came to power. (USGA Museum)


Jim Barnes’ clubhead speed made the photographer’s task next to impossible. Although you get the idea that Barnes has a good swing, the club from grip down is a blur. (USGA Museum)