When Amy Schumer’s nude photo exploded on the internet she expressed laughing disappointment with the public reception: “When a nude photo of yourself goes viral, the word you don’t want people to use to describe it is ‘brave’.” Just as Schumer was wary of the “brave” modifier, there’s an equivalent adjective that golfers need to accept with caution: “athletic.”
Before we go further, we should be clear: few things are more athletically challenging than hitting the golf ball solidly and consistently. Hall of Fame baseball sluggers have been brought to their knees by stationary spheres of dimpled rubber in ways that 90 mph fastballs or wicked curves never could. However, it is because the striking of the golf ball in an effective and consistent manner is such a daunting feat that we must not make it any more complicated than absolutely necessary.
A few years ago I set a goal of becoming a single-digit handicapper, and I began the journey by crowd sourcing my golf swing and posting videos of my swing on social media along with requests for feedback. Nothing pleased this former all-conference hoopster more than to have some of the most accomplished golfers I knew describe videos of my swing as “athletic.” Surely that had to be a good thing. Months later I would learn, not so much. I found that when it comes to golf, “athletic” can be a way of saying that a swing is encumbered by more movement than necessary. Charles Barkley’s golf swing is athletic. In contrast, while Dustin Johnson may be strong and agile, athletic in multiple facets, when it comes to his swing, we see only smooth efficiency. Barkley’s swing looks like a circus act, a miraculous feat he performs each time he strikes the ball. By comparison, Johnson’s swing is a funnel of pragmatism, a vehicle for reliably utilizing his gifts to strike the ball in a consistent and repeatable fashion.
When I first crossed paths with master teacher Brad Clayton, he watched me hit a 7-iron for several minutes before stopping me and forcing me to make a choice. “Win, you can dance the merengue, or you can play golf, but you can’t do them both at the same time,” he said. I couldn’t believe what I saw when he played back some of my swings. What I had pictured in my mind as a Nicklaus-esque swing was in reality a spastic thrusting of the lower body, where knees and thighs expended energy that in no manner contributed to the physics of hitting the golf ball. By the end of the lesson he had settled my lower body; he had me focus on “smooth feet.” The next day I broke 80 for the first time. That single lesson was the biggest stepping stone in my eventually reaching the golf goals I had set for myself.
If an “athletic swing” is a problem for the casual golfer, it’s an even greater obstacle for someone who wants to play competitively. Intricate swings that can awe onlookers on the range are the first to break down under pressure. Conversely, efficient swings whose components are spare and utilitarian can be put on auto-pilot when the heat is on. Back in 1951, the legendary Byron Nelson convinced the fairly accomplished amateur Ken Venturi, winner of the California State Amateur title, to discard his swing and start from scratch. Nelson maintained that the young Venturi’s swing was too wristy and unnecessarily complicated. Venturi eventually capitulated, sticking with the new swing for months in what was a difficult and winless transition period. The effort paid huge dividends, however, and Venturi went on to be a Walker Cup hero, an accomplished professional and U.S. Open champion, and later in life, a mainstay in golf broadcasting booths.
So while it might be initially pleasing to hear one’s golf swing referred to as athletic, we should not be satisfied with such a description. Just as Schumer smiled at those who called her pics in the buff “brave” and then moved on with her career, we should realize that an “athletic” swing is a starting point, not a final destination.
Note: Of late, Mr. Barkley has been working hard to streamline his swing and seems to be on the way to a much more effective approach to hitting the golf ball.