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Friday, April 25, 2014

Classic VS Modern Swing: Telling the Difference Part 1

Weekend players are always picking up tips from different sources. Some of those tips work, some don't. The reason is simple: While all swings are built on the same basics, some swings put more emphasis on one basic than another. And these differences generally show up in the full swing. Ironically, most teachers teach the same basic short game techniques. (That's a good thing to know, don't you think?)

A good example of this is the difference between the classic swing and the modern swing. I've been talking more about the differences lately, both because I've been experimenting with the differences on my own swing and because we're starting to see a greater variety of swing techniques among the pros. I started thinking, "Wouldn't it be helpful if we could tell what kind of swing each player was using at a glance? Then we'd have a better idea which players swing more like each of us does and would know who we might want to copy."

Well, it's not quite that easy. You see, different instructors have their own "swing blends," just like grocery stores have different coffee blends. But we can make some generalizations that might help us avoid wasted attempts to copy swings that aren't really like ours.

Hence, I'm going to do a post or two that might help you get a better handle on how to recognize what the best players are doing... and whether what they do is something you might want to try.

Shafts are at the root of swing evolution. In your golf swing, shafts act somewhat like springs. When you change direction at the top of your backswing, you cause them to bend or flex; we call that "loading the shaft." Then the shaft unloads when you hit the ball and adds its stored-up energy to the strike. If you use shafts that are too stiff, you can't load them enough to help you; but if you use shafts that are too weak, you won't be able to control the shot.

The classic swing was developed back in the days of hickory shafts. Hickory was extremely flexible and you had to be careful how you loaded the shaft. If you put too much force on it when you changed direction at the top of your backswing, it would flex too much. This is why the great Walter Hagen was so wild off the tee. If you look at footage of his swing, it looks as if the shaft bends 90 degrees on the way down. And if you read Tommy Armour's book How to Play Your Best Golf All the Time, which teaches a classic swing using steel-shafted clubs, you'll find that he recommends getting shafts that are more flexible than you think you need.

The modern swing developed along with steel shafts. Steel shafts actually needed more force applied if they were going to load properly. Sam Snead once said that going from hickory to steel was the hardest thing he ever did. The key to making the change was how you used your legs. Byron Nelson figured it out first; compare his swing to other players of the time and you'll see him using his knees a lot more. Eventually Ben Hogan codified this new method as a hip movement driven by the legs.

The classic swing continued to be used long after hickory shafts became museum pieces. Certain well-known teachers focused on classic techniques -- for example, the late Jim Flick, who worked with Jack Nicklaus after his childhood teacher Jack Grout died; Bob Toski, who often taught with Flick and who is probably best known right now as Ken Duke's teacher; and Manuel de la Torre, who taught 2-time LPGA major champions Carol Mann and Sherri Steinhauer. But the modern swing was considered the way to go -- after all, who could argue with HOGAN??? -- and so it dominated most teaching over the last few decades.

So why are we starting to see more successful players who use classic techniques? I think you can blame Frank Thomas, the former Technical Director of the USGA and the inventor of the graphite shaft. For all practical purposes, graphite is synthetic hickory. It has all of the benefits and none of the drawbacks of wooden shafts. It can be tailored to a specific player's needs with far more control than steel can. Once again the classic swing has become not only a practical way to swing but, in some cases, a preferable way to swing.

As a result, the classic swing is making a comeback in professional circles. You could make a good argument that the best teachers in the world are Butch Harmon, Sean Foley, and Pete Cowen. Of these, Cowen (who once taught Lee Westwood and still teaches Henrik Stenson, Graeme McDowell, and Louis Oosthuizen among others) teaches a classic-style swing; Foley (who teaches Tiger Woods, Hunter Mahan, and Justin Rose among others) teaches a modern-style swing; and Harmon works with whatever style his student happens to use already. (As a side note, Cowen rarely shows up in "Top100 Teachers" lists because they focus on American instructors. Cowen is based in Europe.)

Yes, I used the terms "classic-style" and "modern-style" in the last paragraph. I'll come back to that in a minute. But first, I'll just say that if a player works with an instructor known particularly for teaching the classic or the modern swing, it's reasonable to expect that instructor's students to use the same techniques. (Duh!) So that's one key you can use to help you sort things out.

But, as I said earlier, not all swings are the same "flavor." Just as not all modern swing instructors teach exactly the same thing -- there's Hogan's two-plane swing, Hardy's one-plane swing, and Bennett & Plummer's Stack and Tilt, to name a few -- not all classic swing instructors teach exactly the same swing. There's a whole spectrum of swings with the classic swing at one end, the modern swing at the other, and various permutations in-between! So how do you recognize when you're looking at a classic swing and when you're looking at a modern swing?

Tomorrow I'll show you the keys I look for when I'm "sorting swings." It's really not that difficult when you know what you're looking for.

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