The Evolution of the Golf Swing

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The golf swing is changing as you read this.  There is no such thing as the perfect swing, but the influence of human sports performance sciences has given us a powerful look at a biomechanically efficient motion.  Some say this represents a "standard model".  The author of this website agrees with this view.  Others demand a need for individuality.  Here we see both similar techniques and individual swing features.  These images are not a representation of the greatest players in history, but a quick look at "swings that work".

The swing has changed for many reasons which include:  weather/clothing, turf management, course design, ball construction, equipment and technology.

  

          


From the ancestral home of links golf in Scotland to the modern courses in the sun, clothing has played a critical role in the evolution of the golf swing.  When you can't move, you adapt your swing motion.  As clothing became less limiting to your movement, the swing motion became more free flowing.  Turf management has also changed the style of the golf swing.  On hard turf, most players are inclined to sweep the ball off the turf.  Well watered, softer turf encourages a steeper angle of attack which aids in the compression of the ball which in turn creates better control and power.

 

The evolution of the golf ball has also influenced the shape/style of the swing.  As balls got softer, players began to swing with more force generated from a longer, more precise yet free swing motion.

Visualize your swing when playing off of hard turf, with a hard ball with a club without any off center forgiveness and throw in some cool weather.  Can you say "alligator arms"?  Steel shafts may have brought some consistency to the results, but it also more effectively transferred the "sting" of off center hits

Swing Styles

The style of the swing is closely associated with both pre-swing and in-swing fundamentals.  What we call fundamental today was not considered standard form in past eras.  I might be appropriate to remember the generally accepted definition of what constitutes a fundamental.  A fundamental is a generally accepted principle of the day which can evolve over time.  A fundamental is also a cause of another effect.  Fundamentals are reduced to opinion when teachers incorrectly practice or teach the art.  Important pre-swing considerations include stance alignment (open or closed), ball position (forward or center), weight distribution at address (balanced or favoring one or the other foot) and grip strength (strong or weak).  In-swing considerations are directly influenced by pre-swing fundamentals.  In-swing considerations include: dynamic weight transfer on the backswing, transition and foreword swing, swing plane on the backswing and swing path into and through the ball.

The original Feathery balls were expensive, limiting the number of players who could afford to play.  There were also hard.  A mis-hit was a thing to avoid because of the harsh feel.  Adding a padded grip increased the size of the handle which required a shortened swing motion. The "St Andrews" style dominated the game until the introduction of the "gutty" ball and the Vardon grip.  The St Andrews style featured a closed stance alignment, a centered ball position and a strong grip.  All producing a flat swing plane and an inside to outside strike of the ball, producing a low hooking shot.  A low trajectory ball is all you could get from a feathery ball.  The fierce winds also demanded a low trajectory.  It allowed the Scots to generally play a  "ground ball" game.  With the freedom to swing more efficiently with lighter clothing, new problems were introduced. 

The changing to softer and higher flying balls allowed the grips to be reduced in size causing the swing to have a longer motion.  Long nosed clubs with long shafts gave way to shorter nose length and shaft lengths.  The large amount of torque in the hickory shafts of the era required a longer motion to maintain control over the whippyness and inconsistency of ash then hickory shafts.  Using the hands was a primary way of controlling the club.  Vardon, Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen and others used this style to produce championship results.  An accurate, relative comparison of the skill of players of this era to modern players is impossible due to the changes in equipment, playing conditions and knowledge/application of biomechanical principles.

The introduction steel shafts and players taking a closer, more scientific look at the mechanical properties of their swing motion caused a very dramatic change in swing styles.  The swing continued to evolve from the generation of the Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen era which ended the hands and arm dominant motion required to control the high shaft torque in the hickory shaft period.  With the coming of the steel shaft around 1929, the swing motion was again shortened.  The introduction of shorter and lighter clubs produced more accuracy and control.  The consistency of the shorter shafts changed the typical golfer's posture and allowed a more powerful body swing to enter into the game.  The role for the the use of the hands gradually evolved as a primary factory in the swing.  The hands became more of a passive connector rather than an active controller or hitter.  The leading swing styles belonged to Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan.  Snead and Nelson used a stronger grip and more upright swing plane as they blended the earlier motions of late hickory shaft players with a more rounded motion of the torso considered to be an early fundamental of the new steel era.  Snead and Nelson were transition players who "worked" the ball in both directions. 

                  

End of the Hickory era, into the Transition Era ... Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead

                

Early Power Era ... Mike Austin, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus

Of the "modern" era of players, the first true body swinger was Ben Hogan, Hogan used a flatter swing plane and weaker grip to fight a devilish hook.  He generally played a power fade.  Ideas about how to best hit a ball were being refined and the player skills were improving.  The concept of "keep the head still" remained from the Jones era.  Keeping the head still meant there was a strong look of a forward leaning at the top of the backswing.  In a poorly skilled, current player, this position might be called a "reverse pivot" error.  Being in this position required the player to make a backwards "tilt of the T" (spine and two collarbones) to initiate the transition from the backswing to the forward swing.  This small movement required some athletic ability and hand-eye coordination many recreational golfer did not possess and had a difficult time learning. 

Since the Reverse C era, the modern swing has evolved with the introduction of quality video analysis which was followed by computer analysis which was coupled with the application of solid biomechanical principles.  Video allowed everyone to see how the words in the books and magazines did not always match the pictures.  More people of different backgrounds looked at the videos and saw different things.  Traditional, often wrong concepts began to soften when compared with new ideas.  The addition of motor learning science refined teaching concepts/methods even further.  Technologies like computer digitization and analysis, force platforms and electromyographical analysis provided new information that had to be digested.  Opinion began to give way to measured fact.  The largest obstacle to growth has been hardhead golf pros with an investment in their old ways of doing things.

                     
Current Era ... John Daly, Tiger Woods, Stack and Tilt, Natural Golf and Model Biomechanical Composite

With the introduction of quality video capture, computer analysis and internet technology of the current era, there has been a proliferation of "expert" golf pros.  It is more clear than ever ... there's more than one way to hit a golf ball.  This said, there is also a biomechanically efficient model which produces professional results.  Thankfully, along with this technology, there has been both a tightening of fundamental concepts ... with a stubborn persistence of individuality.  This can be observed by the current crop of European and players from South Africa, Indonesia and Australia.  Player from these regions seem to have a more defined swing motion while American players demonstrate more individuality.  A small change in technique which produced good results for both professional and recreational players came from the teaching of Jimmy Ballard "connection" technique.  In this technique, the head was allowed to move laterally on the backswing.  This small detail produced much more freedom and reduced the need for high level coordination.  It also widened the swing arc for more power

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