The Downside of the Modern Golf Swing
The sudden change of direction at the top puts more stress on a golfer’s lower back
By JOHN PAUL NEWPORT
Brandel Chamblee, Golf Channel’s astute analyst and a former Tour pro, doesn’t shy from controversy. He mercilessly criticized Tiger Woods’s swing changes after Woods stopped working with coach Butch Harmon in 2003, and in 2013 wrote that the then-world No. 1 was “a little cavalier with the rules.” Chamblee has now written a book, “The Anatomy of Greatness: Lessons from the Best Golf Swings in History,” that takes on the golf swing teaching establishment.
In a nutshell, Chamblee contends that the orthodox compact modern swing robs golfers of power and leads to injuries that shorten careers. By contrast, the swings of all-time greats like Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus were longer, more naturally rhythmic and more enduring. Most lifted their left, or lead, heels on the backswing, a no-no in the modern orthodoxy. That helped them make bigger hip and shoulder turns, which gave them more space at the top of the swing to generate power and more time on the downswing to correct for any flaws.
“Too many instructors now teach to the aesthetic,” Chamblee said last week in an interview on the Golf Channel sound stage at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, Fla. By aesthetic he meant swings that look pretty and orderly on video monitors, with superimposed lines defining proper planes and precise hand, body and club positions at each point in the swing. In Chamblee’s opinion, such instruction is too theoretical and disconnected from hard-won practical wisdom about actual shots as traditionally passed down from successful players. Many modern instructors, he said, “are like plastic surgeons, trying to make everybody look the same.”
The modern swing can certainly work, he acknowledges. Proponents maintain it promotes consistency and control with no loss of power. Adam Scott, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, as examples, have impeccable modern swings. But Chamblee argues that such swings require constant monitoring and tinkering, which pros have time to do but most everyday players don’t, and that the modern swing comes with a significant disadvantage: grinding wear and tear on the body, especially the lower back.
A hallmark of the modern swing is tight, controlled resistance with the right side (for right-handed players) on the backswing—teachers talk about “coil”—and a sudden, explosive change of direction at the top. “When you resist with the lower body like that, as most of the players out here do now, it requires a lot of strength. That’s one of the reasons they have to go to the gym. And it’s reasonable to conclude that that violent change of direction puts more stress on the lower part of your back, which can lead to injuries in the long term,” Chamblee said. “I would argue that if Tiger had lifted his left heel, his swing would have endured.”
Woods in his prime had one of the great swings of all time, Chamblee said. The 14-time major championship winner made up for not lifting his left heel with an extremely wide takeaway, a pronounced weight shift to the back foot and tremendous shoulder turn. But of the 19 male players who have won five or more majors, according to Chamblee’s analysis, only Woods and Nick Faldo didn’t lift their left heel when swinging with the longer clubs. The price Faldo paid was shortness off the tee.
Lifting the left heel isn’t the only commonality Chamblee found in the great historic swings he studied. Others include a stronger than normal grip (Hogan being an exception), a kicked in right knee at address and a convincing waggle or other dynamic trigger to start the swing. Several of the greats, including Nicklaus and Annika Sorenstam, raised their heads up on the backswing to create more space and momentum for the downswing. The concisely written volume (Chamblee said he tried to mimic the brevity of Harvey Penick’s “Little Red Book”) is loaded with photographs.
But the lifted left heel stands out from the other commonalities because of its implications for longevity and distance. “Look at whose swings lasted,” Chamblee said, before ticking them off. Nicklaus, who Chamblee said was the longest, straightest driver of all time compared with his peers, won three of his 18 majors in his 40s, including the Masters at 46. Sam Snead, whose syrupy swing best epitomizes the commonalities in Chamblee’s book, was the oldest ever to win on the PGA Tour, at 52. Vijay Singh, with his old school swing, won 22 Tour events in his 40s, the most in history.
Among the relatively few current Tour players who often or always lift their lead heel with the long clubs, Chamblee singles out Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson, who together have won five of the last 12 Masters. “Bubba and Phil are among the longest, highest hitters in the game, but neither have gym-looking bodies. Bubba’s arms are as big around as a Coke can,” he said. Both have “crazy” swings that don’t stay within the lines on video analysis, but their flowing backswings generate power and leave ample time for the clubhead to get to the proper position at impact. Both play with an imagination that Chamblee believes is connected to their swing styles.
The commonalities Chamblee identifies don't constitute a “method,” he said, because he isn't preaching conformity. “For recreational players, these are things you can incorporate into your golf swing, and if you do all of them, you don’t have to think about technical things like swing path or whether you’re crossing the line or if you’re laid off. You can just swing hard at the ball. There are a million ways to do it,” he said.
“The real goal of the book is to try to bring swing instruction back to a less technical place. The tendency these days is to coach to the middle of the bell curve, where everything is nice and neat, but genius is out at the corners, where things are messy. We’re losing our genius in the game.”