From the Golf Journal Archives - The Myth of the Perfect Swing

Mar 23, 2012

From the beginning of time man has searched for El Dorado and the perfect swing. Neither exists, but the hunt goes on.

By Al Barkow

(Note: This article originally appeared in the November/December 1979 issue of Golf Journal.)

IT IS LEGEND, the ends to which golfers have gone to discover the secret to the most perplexing mystery man has ever purposely inflicted upon himself: to wit, how to hit a golf ball time after time after time with the purity of driven Calvinists. These efforts reached something of a zenith when, in 1968, a book entitled The Search For The Perfect Swing was published. This is an exceptionally thorough and thoughtful scientific study of how golf equipment functions and of how the human body performs during The Great Act Of Hitting a Golf Ball.

The amount of learning brought to it is most impressive. Each of the authors, Alastair Cochran and John Stobbs, holds a doctorate in physics from Edinburgh University, in Scotland, and writes professionally about golf with a deep special interest in the mechanics of the game and with extensive practical experience in gunnery ballistics. Furthermore, to help them with the research and analysis, they engaged physiologists, experts in biomechanics and aerodynamics, ergonomics, cybernetics and other scientific disciplines relevant to the subject. Needless to say, all these mystics play golf; some of them quite well.

These were not cold, dispassionate technicians at work, and The Search For The Perfect Swing (copyright by the Golf Society of Great Britain and published in the United States by J. P. Lippincott Co.) is a wonderful book, well worth examination even if many of the findings only prove or disprove scientifically what a lot of relatively uneducated ball-beaters have come to know by the experience of having conscientiously beaten thousands of golf balls over the many years.

For all that, did this study of shaft flex, the coefficient of restitution, wrist reaction time, etc., etc., find what it was looking for? No, it did not, and while the scientists (and dreamers) probably did not expect to unfold once and for all THE SECRET, I contend that even if they had, not only would most golfers be unable to do it because everyone has his own physical capacities, but that, in any case, perfection is not necessary in order to achieve some golfing peace and happiness. In short, chasing the perfect swing is to scavenge after El Dorado – a myth. As an example in extremis of my point, you are referred to the golf swing of Miller Barber and the success he has had on the world’s most demanding professional golf tour.

The lay golfer’s conception of the perfect swing can be limited to actual movements of body parts, and an attempt to describe these motions will be offered shortly. However, golfers have a notion of perfect that is also based, in large part, on simple visual perception. This might be generalized as graceful physical motion, a balletic flow. Thus, when Miller Barber yanks his club back or up from the ball on his takeaway in the manner of a homeowner attacking his weeds, we do not see perfection. When Sam Snead does his syrupy smooth “thing,” aahhh, “perfect.” And yet, even this perception is subject to trompe l’oeil – a trick played on the eye.

THE REFERENCE TO SAM SNEAD is not accidental. Some years ago, I was with Julius Boros, in Atlanta, watching Snead hit practice balls. This was prior to a match Sam and Julius were to play for the television program Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf. Boros and I were sitting directly behind Sam, and at one point I remarked how beautiful was Snead’s move, how perfect was his swing. At that, Boros said, in his quietly sly way, “Look at where his body is aimed, and look at where he’s looking to hit the ball and where it goes.”

I did, and I was astonished. In all the years I had watched Snead, mesmerized by the fluidity of his total motion, I had never noticed this. His body was aimed toward a thick line of trees to the right of the practice fairway, but he looked at his target, the shag caddie, some yards to the left, which is where he hit the ball ... every time.

“He comes over the top on the downswing,” Boros explained. “That’s why he aims right.”

Of course. Boros was right. In other words, Sam Snead did, and had always done, something absolutely contrary to conventional golf instruction; he did what the average golfer is told to avoid at all costs, for it is a basic cause of the dreaded slice.

IT IS TIME TO DESCRIBE the perfect golf swing as it is envisioned by our non-golf professional, non-scientific perceptions. [To all those who may differ, the editor entertains reader response, if it is entertaining.]

He who is making the perfect swing will stand fairly erect at address and at such a distance from the ball that he does not stretch excessively or become cramped; the right shoulder will be a bit lower than the left, the hands positioned a touch ahead of the ball for the irons, about even with it for the woods. An imaginary line drawn through his shoulders and down the line of flight will run parallel to and about a foot or two inside another such line running from the clubface to the target. Clubfaces are square to target, toes of feet are at slightly oblique angles to the ball.

These address positions are pointed out because, as any golf teacher will tell you, variations on them – such as Ben Hogan’s squared right foot and “opened” left foot – bring about or are compensations for less than perfect swings of the club.

From the perfect address, the path of the club on the backswing and the downswing will be virtually the same. This is key. Drawn on a piece of paper, the path will describe an ellipse. The ellipse will tilt at an angle of approximately 40 degrees in relation to level ground. With the longest perfect swing, with the driver, the shaft will be parallel to the ground at the conclusion of the backswing; if it is allowed to drop from there, it would fall halfway between the tip of the right shoulder and the base of the neck. At impact, the right shoulder will be lower than the left.

It is not de rigeur, but to reach ultimate aesthetic value, the pace of the overall swing will be around three/quarter, or waltz time, somewhere between Lanny Wadkins’ jazz riff and Lloyd Mangrum’s swing, which, old-timers will recall, was on the verge of a dirge. And, at the completion of the move, the perfect swinger will have a straight back and will be well-balanced on his feet, although most of his weight will be on his left side.

THERE YOU HAVE IT. Now, as noted, Sam Snead does not quite conform. If his downswing path were the same as that of his backswing – inside, or left of target – he would hit the ball where his body was aimed – into the trees on the right. Instead, his downswing path shifts to the outside, away from his body, his right shoulder necessarily moving out with it and “coming over the top.” This is also accompanied by an again necessary big turn of his left side. He does not slice, however, because his right shoulder does stay below his left and because the clubhead continues on down the line toward his target immediately after impact. Instead of coming across the ball and hitting it to the left of the target at this point, Sam hits “down the line,” as the pros say.

If the great Sam Snead is less than perfect, one need not be disillusioned. The same can be said for every superstar in golf’s modern era. All of them have had (or have) some idiosyncratic piece of swing business. Consider: Walter Hagen had a quite wide stance, his feet not only well apart from each other, but also the left foot was set in the “open” position. At impact, he had already made an excessive turn of his left side (aided by the “open” stance) and had shifted his weight to the left far more than “normal.” Hagen pretty much lunged at the ball. It wasn’t pretty, and Hagen tended to be wild off the tee, but he had his compensations – the nerve of a safecracker with touch to match, especially with the putter.

Gene Sarazen had a flattish swing – his ellipse at about a 35-degree angle – and he punched the ball with a short, quick motion. Bob Jones “crossed the line.” That is, at the top of his backswing, the shaft was past parallel and pointed to the right of the target, a no-no by instruction tradition, because it is a mark of over-swinging. Byron Nelson came close to perfection in the eyes of many analysts, but by our definition he was too upright; his ellipse was around 50 degrees. Also, although Byron’s hips eventually did turn as he went back and through, there was a distinct lateral slide of his body during the process. And, Byron’s body dipped down a bit at impact.

Arnold Palmer takes the club back well inside with a big turn of his shoulders. Then, as does Snead, Arnold comes over the top and hits down the line. Arnie, however, is aligned to his target at address, and his downswing path would ordinarily cause the ball to be pulled or pull-hooked. Because of his tremendously strong hands and forearms, though, Arnold is able to keep his right hand from turning over at impact. He retains the “down the line” path for an exceptionally long distance, which accounts for his famous follow-through.

WHEN JACK NICKLAUS FIRST came into prominence, everyone commented on his flying right elbow, another departure from classical golf instruction that says the right elbow must be kept close to the body. In a recommended practice exercise, a handkerchief was tucked under the elbow, and the player tried to keep it in place through impact. Jack “flew” his elbow to make his quite upright backswing.

Lee Trevino stands so open at address that he is practically facing the target before he begins to move his club back. Much more can be said about the unusual features of Lee’s swing, but they are so obvious it seems unnecessary. Gary Player has a flat backswing, and with the longer clubs, he crosses the line as often as not. Also, Gary goes so vigorously into the ball with a thrust of weight to his left side that he often falls forward on his follow-through.

Finally, there is Ben Hogan, among the game’s ultra-greats, with an individualistic variation on the theme. As one observer puts it about Hogan, “He did a lot of funny things,” along with his aforementioned stance. Hogan’s backswing began on an upright plane. Near the top he flattened it out and, as Jimmy Demaret notes, “dropped the club into a different position.” His right elbow tucked into his side, and the heel of his left hand led the way to the ball for what many believe is the most extreme “late hit” position ever seen. The later the hit, the longer the delay in uncocking the wrists on the downswing. Could it be that because of his complicated swing, Ben Hogan had to be golf’s most diligent, persistent practicer? He had so many “funny things” to keep organized that one conjecture leads to another.

WE HAVE SEEN MANY golfers with swings that, by our definition, are perfect. More than a few have had fine careers that include victories in major championships. In the old days there was Macdonald Smith, Leo Diegel and Tommy Armour. More recently we’ve had Tommy Bolt, Tom Weiskopf, and in particular Gene Littler. Yet, none of them ever quite made it to that uppermost level occupied by Hogan, Jones, Snead, Nicklaus et at. Is it possible they didn’t because they were gifted by birth with the inherent ability to form a beautifully coordinated swing of the golf club, and so they were not sufficiently challenged to rise to the game’s godseat?

Could be. We all know of “naturals” in many fields of endeavor who did not fulfill the high promise inevitably assigned such a gift. Few of us are so endowed, and if what has been proposed in this little essay holds any water, we “unnatural” should count ourselves fortunate. We can, if we are smart, go with what we have and perfect it, which is to say, most of us should be searching not for the but a perfect swing. On the presumption that language not only reflects our sense of thing but also influences its formation, that substitution of one article for another is more than grammatical hair-splitting. It’s the stuff of fairway-splitting.

Ben Hogan had what was perhaps the latest "late hit" the game has ever known. (USGA Museum)

When Jack Nicklaus first came into prominence, everyone commented on his flying right elbow, another departure from classical golf instruction that says the right elbow must be kept close to the body. (USGA Museum)