The passing of John Jacobs at the age of 91 last week was noted by too few, and a great loss for those of us who teach the game of golf. Jacobs was the best golf instructor I ever saw, and clearly the one I learned more from than any other. He revolutionized the way the game is taught and showed an entire generation of his proteges that golf is “what the ball does.”
“The purpose of the golf swing is to apply the golf club correctly to the ball,” Jacobs said. “The method employed is of no consequence if it can be repeated.”
That simple thought was a such an eye-opener to the teaching community who were still immersed deeply in the old-school style of teaching, which placed an emphasis on certain “classic” positions. In it, the club was held a certain way, the player set up a certain way and he or she went through a series of motions deemed correct by the swing experts of the day.
During my training as a golf professional, I can recall vividly observing a lesson from a Class A Professional (we were required to apprentice under a PGA member) during which the teacher asked the student to set up to hit a ball. Before one shot had been struck the teacher said, “Get your elbows a little closer to your body and move the ball further back in your stance.”
I was still a tyro in the trade, but I remember having the common sense to ask myself, “WHY?” I had watched Moe Norman hit balls for a few hours the week before and his arms were a MILE from his body… and he started with his club a MILE behind the golf ball. But the old-school style of teaching said this setup was incorrect, so the instructor changed the student before the ball was struck.
It’s just one example of many; in fact, this was the adopted style of teaching for many years, especially in the time when the game was predominantly taught by players and former players. Jacobs came along and asked a very basic, albeit almost rebellious question: What is the ball doing? He thought that should be the starting point of a lesson.
That point of departure not only made sense; it rendered the old approach obsolete and exposed it as simply wrong… or at least far too limited. All anyone had to do was look in the golf hall of fame to see the myriad styles and the great variety of grips, backswings and other positions to understand there are many ways to set up and swing the golf club. Even the fabled “impact position” has more variety than the standard square-face, in-to-in path and correct attack angle that everyone heralded. Some great players impact their shots with a slightly open or closed face; some are steeper than others and some even swing from slightly outside the line. The commonality is they all learned to make the ball behave.
Jacobs has been the single greatest influence on golf instruction in the modern game, and some of the biggest names in the trade often give a nod to him as the man who most directly influenced their teaching. They include Butch Harmon, Hank Haney, Jim Hardy and even Jim Flick, who confided that to me personally. Flick, of course, was one of the great teachers responsible for the early Golf Digest Schools, which was a huge step in the transition from former tour players teaching the game to full-time professional teachers.
To observe John Jacobs doing a golf lesson was a study of a man totally in command of the subject matter in front of him. He could get students to impact the golf ball better and more quickly than anyone ever; it was a joy to watch. And those of us who learned from him and his proteges are all the better for it. I taught golf before Jacobs, but it wasn’t until meeting him and learning his style that I really got in stride as a teacher. What I learned from him made me confident I could help ANYONE, and helped me more directly to the source of any golfer’s problem.
Jacobs, of course, achieved so much more than teaching the game of golf. His influence on European golf, his Ryder Cup Captaincy, as well as his own fine play are also a part of his legacy and life devoted to our game. But as one who followed the path of instruction, I will be eternally indebted to John Jacobs for making an illogical game more logical, and a counter-intuitive one more intuitive. The teaching community stands as one in admiration and respect to the best of the best.