From the Golf Journal Archives - The History of Golf Instruction Part II

Nov 25, 2011

The instruction business booms, replete with contradictory theories, profit motives, and a touch of gold among the dross. Second of two parts.

By Curt Sampson

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

For part 1, visit here.

GOLF IN the United States advanced by fits and starts after 1930. Bobby Jones reached hero status with his Grand Slam that year, but the Depression soon caused 1,000 courses to close. The introduction of the steel shaft made golf easier to play – and easier and cheaper to play badly with a lift-and-chop stroke that had rarely been attempted with flammable-shafted clubs. Literally millions of people have taken up the game since World War II, and the wonder is that about 60 percent of beginners stay with it, not that 40 percent drop out.

Golf instruction in the modern era developed a strange similarity to the fashion industry. Like hemlines, lapels, and neckties, different golf techniques were alternately stylish, then passé. “Turn in a barrel” was in, then out; now it’s in again. Same with how and when the wrists cock, flat or upright swing planes, strong or weak grips, and on and on. Occasionally, both fashion and golf were hit by short-lived, hopefully never-to-be-repeated trends. For example, roughly during the Time of the Leisure Suit, we were told that the new, best way to swing was Square to Square. Today, few of us will admit that we participated in either of those bold experiments.

Other aspects of instruction echoed golf’s earlier history. More books were published, but influential or insightful ones were written only about as often as before. Steel shafts, invented in 1894, were not permitted under the Rules of Golf until 1925. The change to them from hickory shafts was about as jarring as the introduction, then demise, of the gutta percha ball. And, as in the days of Robertson, Old and Young Tom Morris, and Harry Vardon, we attempted to imitate the strokes of golf’s masters. More – and more efficient – mass media made this mimicry easier to do. The sincerest form of flattery reached an odd climax on August 8,1955, with the publication by LIFE magazine of “Hogan’s Secret,” in which The Hawk explained to a nation of slicers how never to hit a hook – at least, if you’re Ben Hogan.

“Hogan’s Secret” caused a sensation and can be thought of as the precursor to the modern monoliths of instruction, the golf magazines. The timing was perfect. The Eisenhower-Palmer-television golf boom had created millions of new players, hungry for more secrets. The idea that the golf swing is composed of reluctantly revealed mysteries gained wide acceptance. Thus teaching and learning became ends in themselves, obscuring the presumed goal, playing.

One of the first great American instructors was John Joseph Burke, Sr. After a day of teaching and tending the oil-rich members at Rivercrest Country Club in Houston (a job he held from 1925 until his death in 1943), Burke would talk golf at the dinner table with his son, Jack, his assistant pro, Jimmy, and one or more pilgrims who had come to learn how to teach from the master. Jack Jr. would win the Masters and PGA and write several books of instruction; Jimmy was Jimmy Demaret, a three-time Masters winner; and among the visiting pros was Jack Grout, who would gain notice as the man who taught Nicklaus. The influence of men like Burke on golf instruction is hard to overstate.

“My father used to say, ‘My only system is no system,’ ” recalls Jack Burke, Jr. “Only a lazy person has a system. He gave me the two swing thoughts I used my whole career: point the clubhead at the target at the top of the backswing, then wrap the club around your neck on the follow-through … The dissected swing is bull.

“To teach people how to release their hands at impact, he’d have them take their club back, come down … and throw it. I’d have to go pick those clubs up.”

Burke Sr. would have been in perfect agreement with Percy-Boomer, an English pro who taught at St. Cloud in Paris. He wrote in his On Learning Golf (1942), the bible of the “feel” school: “Most of us over-rate the value of good mechanics. Control your golf by sensations, instead of by thought. … Do not tie yourself up with theories, stand up and give the ball a crack – that is the most positive thing in golf … The swing is a continuous flow of movement, and we destroy its continuous character if we divide it arbitrarily. There is no upswing, no downswing; there is the swing complete.”

For others, however, the impulse to slice and dice was irresistible. Bobby Jones, for example, in the series of movie shorts he made in 1931, split his swing into segments on hip action, impact, downswing, and so on. The films are fascinating, but you suspect that the medium was the message, that Jones could not have known, for example, how his hands behaved in the hitting zone until he saw the movie. Perhaps Boomer was thinking of Bobby when he wrote, “The masters play as it suits them to play and then evolve (sic) theories to explain why the particular movements which they discover themselves employing are right!”

Tommy Armour was, like Boomer, a champion of simplicity. In his How to Play Your Best Golf All the Time (1953), he deplored the ever more complicated teaching: “When a high-speed camera takes pictures of a golfer making a shot, it’s customary in most instruction books to break the action into each spit second of the swing... [such photographs] may be interesting to look at, but my instruction technique is to teach you a few things to do right … From that standpoint, such a great number of pictures is meaningless and confusing.”

How to Play Your Best Golf was a huge success. It sold 400,000 copies in 1953, and reached number one on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list. Yet Armour’s style, his hauteur, is as enduring as his book. On the lesson tee each winter morning at Boca Raton C.C. in Florida, he sat like a potentate under a beach umbrella, drinking, in order and in volume, gin and ginger ale, scotch and soda, and Bromo-Seltzer. He charged $50 for a one-hour lesson, more than any other teacher. “Many of my pupils are men and women of high fame,” he wrote. “[But] in my field of endeavor I’m ranked as high, or higher, than they are in their work, and during this particular hour, I am in command.” Armour, the first superstar instructor, put to death the image of the teaching professional as a deferential, glorified caddie.

Hogan’s image as golf’s research scientist is one reason his Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf (1957) is the most influential instruction book ever. “It’s a masterpiece,” says Desmond Tolhurst, a Golf magazine editor. “It crystallized the modern swing.” It also gave us four-and-a-half pages on the waggle, a diagram showing the proper location of left-hand callus development, and lots of key points, like this one, shouted in all caps: “THE CONTRACTED MUSCLES OF THE LEFT HIP AND THE MUSCLES ALONG THE INSIDE OFTHE LEFT THIGH START TO SPIN THE LEFT HIP AROUND TO THE LEFT AT ONE AND THE SAME TIME, THE MUSCLES OF THE RIGHT HIP AND THE MUSCLES OF THE RIGHT THIGH – BOTH THE INSIDE AND THE POWERFUL OUTSIDE THIGH MUSCLES – START TO MOVE THE RIGHT HIP FORWARD.” Despite such excruciating detail, Five Lessons was made palatable by the brilliant drawings of medical illustrator Anthony Ravielli and the lucid writing of Herbert Warren Wind.

Other books weren’t so lucky. Homer Kelley, for instance, informed us in his The Golfing Machine (1969), that “the ball will respond to nonlinear (angular) force exactly the same as to linear forces only if the application can produce forces equally linear to the ball but not necessarily linear to anything external to the ball.” The whole book is like that; it should be read with a gin, a scotch, and a Bromo.

Hogan, Armour, Jones, Boomer, and scores of other instructors disagreed on points large and small. “I don’t think you should worry about the right arm except to keep it out of the stroke,” said Jones in 1931. “Whack the heck out of the ball with the right hand,” wrote Armour in 1953. “YOU MUST HIT AS HARD WITH THE LEFT AS WITH THE RIGHT,” quoth Hogan in 1957. In the late ‘50s, Golf Digest and Golf appeared, and contradictory information about the golf swing increased exponentially.

“We average 25 pages of instruction a month,” says Guy Yocum, Golf Digest’s instruction editor. “We have a mix of articles from our staff, club pros, and tour pros, so some conflicts and contradictions are inevitable. But it’s patently impossible to make it perfect for everyone. We try to appeal to the broadest group.” The mythical, typical Golf Digest reader is age 50 or older, has an 18 handicap, and is retired. Circulation is robust; about 1.3 million subscribe to Golf Digest and 1 million to Golf.

Yet the critics of magazine instruction are legion. “They either get too complex, or they offer too many shortcuts,” says Ben Crenshaw. “They should focus on fundamentals like the grip, or how to use your body.” Glenn Mahler, a teaching professional at the Meadow Club in Marin County, Calif., often comes across studiously confused students with David Leadbetter’s takeaway, Lee Trevino's grip, Hank Haney’s stance, and a Fred Couples follow-through .... The magazines are job security for me.”

Chuck Hogan looks at the monthlies in a darker light. “They cause mass confusion with one issue, then people get so bewildered that they need the next one. They create their own market.” Hogan is the founder of SEA, an instruction school that champions the value of mental discipline and imagination. “The magazines tell you you’re never done learning mechanics,” he says. “They have no vision beyond that.”

Golf and Golf Digest may or may not have vision, but they do have power. By 1970, in fact, the major magazines had become the most influential entities in instruction. That was the year Square to Square was introduced. Invented by Jim Flick, its radical feature was a flat left wrist throughout the swing, which meant the clubhead looked completely closed at the top of the backs-wing. It was designed to eliminate one of the major weaknesses of the hacker, the premature uncocking of the wrists. It looked good on paper; Dick Aultman put Flick’s ideas in a book and on the cover of Golf Digest.

Unfortunately, it was the hula hoop of golf swings, wildly popular one year and all but forgotten the next. The significance of Square to Square was not that we had succumbed to another fad – golfers have always been too quick to copy – but that the technique was from a teacher, not a player. No one won the Open with Square to Square. Instructors now occupied golf’s high ground, and still do. If Harry Vardon were alive today, he’d be studying under Hank Haney – or someone else of his ilk – and someone like me would be ghosting his instruction articles.

What’s next? “I don’t think we can go much farther with mechanics,” Desmond Tolhurst says. “The mental area is where we’ll see leaps forward in the future.” Perhaps we’ll get some really good teaching and writing about strategy, psychology, self-control … Like the stuff Horace Hutchinson gave us in 1886 …

Ben Hogan taught a generation of pros – and amateurs – how to hold a golf club properly. (USGA Museum)

Kids, don’t try this at home. “Square to square” has lost favor over the years, as the foibles of this arcane swing theory have revealed themselves. (USGA Museum)

Color and highlighting lend emphasis to this tip. (Hey, maybe you can learn something from print instruction…). (USGA Museum)