Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Could Bobby Jones Have ‘Cut It’ Against Today’s Pros?

One popular topic for debate in most sports concerns how well great athletes from other eras would compete against today’s stars. That’s particularly true in golf, primarily because our equipment has changed so much over the years; it makes such a comparison very difficult.

But this isn’t the case with Bobby Jones; we can know for certain that he could have held his own against modern PGA players. The reason I can be so sure is simply this: Bobby Jones wrote a tremendous amount about the game of golf, and even more was written about him. More importantly, Jones filmed two series of short movies about how to play the game for Warner Brothers just after he won the Grand Slam. (These are available on DVD, by the way.) His swing and game have been analyzed more than just about any other golfer in history. Because his game is so well-documented, we can know with some degree of certainty how he would probably do.

And he would do well. Let me show you the evidence.

First of all, could he have putted on the glass-slick greens of the PGA Tour? Puh-leeze! We’re talking about the man who won three Open Championships and one British Amateur, on links courses where putting was paramount. We’re talking about the man responsible for Augusta National, home of the Masters and some of the slickest greens on the planet. We’re talking about the man whose stroke was so magical that even his putter was known by name: Calamity Jane. To put it simply, Bobby Jones could putt; consider this one a non-issue.

The biggest argument against the legends playing the modern game is often length off the tee. But while equipment may have changed, swing speed hasn’t; if we can make a reasonable measure of a player’s swing speed, we can tell a lot about how that player would play today. But do we know what kind of clubhead speed Bobby Jones could generate?

In his book On Golf, Jim Flick tells about studies of Bobby Jones’s swing done by Dr. David Williams (pp. 53-54). Williams fed videotape of Jones’s swing, taken from the previously-mentioned movies, into a biomechanical computer and made all sorts of measurements of the swing. The tape showed Jones driving the ball 250-260 yards, and measured his swing speed at 113 mph.

I did some searching on the Web and, while figures vary from site to site, the numbers that kept coming up put the average pro’s swing speed between 110 and 115 mph. Jones’s 113 is well within this range, and with the lighter equipment used by pros these days, it’s not unreasonable to think Jones might even gain another 1-3 mph. So it would appear that Bobby Jones could swing the club plenty fast to compete with modern players.

But using modern equipment… that’s always the rub in this debate, isn’t it? Equipment has changed so much…

Well, we can eliminate the difference in shafts. With modern graphite technology and puring techniques, not only could Jones match the feel of his original hickory shafts but he could make the new ones behave more consistently than his originals. That still leaves the rest of the technology though, and we’ll never know about that… will we?

Suppose I told you that we have records of Jones’s performance with an oversized, deep-faced driver?

Many of you may know that Jones was a lawyer, but you may not know he earned an engineering degree first. In fact, he got his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Tech in 1922, and later helped design the first set of matched clubs for the A.G. Spalding Company. But in the winter of 1923-24 he began a special project, described by Jones researcher Sidney Matthew in a limited edition book called The History of Bobby Jones’ Clubs:
…Jones described his first attempt at clubhead design for a hickory-shafted driver as follows:

“I felt I was losing length and that the type of shot I was hitting was handled too freely by the wind, if any. So I tried out club after club, deeper and straighter in the face―a series of unhappy experiments which culminated in the winter of 1923-24 when I was at Harvard with the design of a driver which I fancied would be just the thing for me. I worked a long time at this design and when made up for me it was indeed an odd-looking club.

“The head was not of the so-called Dreadnaught type, which is long and wide and rather shallow, so the title promptly bestowed on my pet bludgeon, the Super-Dreadnaught, was entirely a misnomer. This head was little if any larger than the usual head, fore and aft. But there was a lot of wood in it just the same; as Virgil might have said, it was no small part of a tree.

“The face was 1-5/8 inches in depth, with a bulge of 3/8 inch, and virtually no loft at all. I suppose it was as near a 90-degree club as ever was used from the tee.”

With this design Jones achieved drives in the 340 yard range. Nevertheless, the shot had to be accomplished with “scrupulous precision” and smothering the ball was not an uncommon event (pp. 38-39).
Read that again: “Jones achieved drives in the 340 yard range.” Without the forgiving hollow-headed perimeter-weighted designs made possible by modern technology, the sweetspot must have been fairly small; “scrupulous precision” would certainly have been required to get a pure hit. As for smothering the ball, that also makes sense; using such a heavy head with so little loft would certainly have tended to overflex the shaft at impact, causing the head to “snap” into a shut position and result in a duck hook.

Such information causes me to question just how much extra distance modern technology really gives us, as opposed to simple design; after all, this club was built with hickory and persimmon, not lightweight modern alloys, and yet it could produce some very modern-sounding results. But here’s the point: If Bobby Jones could hit such a modern-sounding club as far as 340 yards, doesn’t it follow that he could have hit a high-tech, graphite-shafted club at least far enough to compete on today’s longer courses?

So in the end we find ourselves looking at a classic player who could putt with the best, whose swing speed was typical of modern players, and who could use equipment of a modern design with results similar to those of the best modern players. For me, there’s no more debate. Bobby Jones could do more than hold his own today―he could be a star all over again!

In fact, the only truly unanswered question is this: Would Tiger have run up such an impressive record if he had to play against Bobby Jones? Now that’s a real question for debate!

4 comments:

  1. Exellent stuff ! I'm with you whole heartedly. Bobby Jones could definitely compete in this modern era - partly for the equipment, but mostly for his mental abilities.

    I think he would have a better chance today than he would have had from the 60's to the 90's, assuming the same swing he was using with his hickory shafts. Graphite shafts can be made to behave more like the hickory - with even more power. His swing would have needed huge overhauls to be as affective with steel shafts.

    On the putting, I agree with the end, but not how you got to it. The greens on the great links courses are not "fast" compared to most PGA Tour courses in the US. Tour players today are used to putting on greens that run at a minimum of 11.5 and get as fast as 15 depending on weather conditions. The greens at Augusta National were bermuda until the 80's when they switched to extremely fast bent grass. The conditions on the greens just don't match up.

    His wristy, "popping" style of stroke would not work very well on modern greens - but I have no doubt that he would have learned to putt just as well with a modern stroke since great putting has more to do with feel and reading ability than pure mechanics.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I both agree and disagree with you, Court. I did a pretty thorough study of Jones's putting stroke when I was doing my book, and Jones's stroke wasn't "wristy" the way most people think. He used his right wrist as an unpowered hinge, and the movement of his right arm and hands created a long low backswing very similar to a modern stroke. (In fact, on a long putt, Jones's hands could move as much as a foot or more.) Jones was different from almost all other pop putters, such as Billy Casper, who finally changed his stroke because he said his popping motion required too much practice.

    But I totally agree about the shafts. Jones himself remarked that his ball trajectory was much different with a steel shaft - that the ball rose quickly and dropped almost straight down, with virtually no roll - and that he would probably have to change his swing to use them effectively. The advent of graphite makes all of Jones's swing techniques viable again.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Just imagine if Bobby Jones actually played more golf. He was a part-timer and self-taught. No sport psychologists, no swing/putting coaches.

    I believe that if he played today and put in even half the time Tiger does, he would play a game of which Tiger was not familiar ;)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great article. It brings to light just what Bobby Jones means to the game of golf. He was truly a master of the game.

    I doubt that Tiger, Jack or Arnie would have been able to hold a candle to Mr. Jones.

    ReplyDelete