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Avoiding the “Athletic Swing”

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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.

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Win Neagle is a novelist, freelance writer, and college instructor. He and his wife, Rebecca, live in Raleigh, N.C.

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The Book That Almost Wasn’t a Book: Ben Hogan’s “Five Lessons”

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Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf,” written by Ben Hogan and Herbert Warren Wind, continues to be the largest selling golf instructional book in history. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the book, which was first published in 1957.

Sports Illustrated

The story of how the book was published revolves around Sports Illustrated, which was owned by Time Magazine. The weekly magazine launched in 1954 as an experiment to see if an all-sport publication could survive. In 1956, the publication was on the brink of disaster, having yet to find its audience.

This is the backdrop against which Sydney James, the magazine’s managing editor, received a call from Ben Hogan. Hogan had an idea for an article. Would Sports Illustrated be interested?

James promised to get back to him shortly with an answer. And he did, telling him that the magazine would be very interested in collaborating with him, and that he would begin making the necessary arrangements to get the project off the ground.

Texas Three-Step

James explained his plan to Hogan, which was to arrange for the magazine’s most talented writer, Herbert Warren Wind, and top-rated freelance illustrator, Anthony Ravielle, to visit Hogan in Fort Worth to further discuss his idea.

“Would that be agreeable” he asked?

“Yes,” Hogan replied. He would make himself available as needed.

Writer and Illustrator

Herbert Warren Wind, a graduate of Yale University, was not just a writer, but a literary craftsman. He was without question the finest writer of his time, contributing regularly as a columnist for The New Yorker magazine from 1941-47.

For his part, Ravielle was quickly earning a reputation as one of the most talented illustrators in the country. His expertise was drawing the musculature of the human body in life-like detail. And then having the unique ability to convey a sense of motion with the human form.

A Single Idea

A few weeks later, the two met with Hogan at his office in Fort Worth, Texas. They then made their way to Colonial Country Club. And once there, they walked out to a part of the course where they would not be disturbed. And then Hogan began to explain to the two men what he had in mind.

As they listened to his ideas for the article, they suggested that he consider a five-part series. What they proposed was a sequential pattern of lessons beginning with the grip, the setup, the backswing, and the downswing. The fifth chapter would be a summary and review of what had been presented in the first four chapters.

Hogan liked the idea and agreed immediately.

As Hogan began to explain his thoughts on the swing, Wind began to scribble in his notebook, not wanting to miss a single word. (In later years, when interviewing a subject, modern-day reporters would use a tape recorder, but at that time it had not yet been invented.)

Wind would at times stop Hogan to ask a question or to clarify an important point. And when he reached the point at which he couldn’t possibly absorb another thought, Wind gave way to Ravielle, who armed with a still camera, snapped one photograph after another, capturing the various positions that would ultimately mirror Hogan’s thoughts.

During the next few days, Hogan continued to elaborate on his theories about the golf swing and the logic behind them. As they finished, the three men agreed that they would meet again, either at the end of 1956 or after the first of the year.

Scratch Board

After returning to New York, Wind began writing a rough draft of the five-part series. At the same time, Ravielle started working from the photographs that he had taken earlier. He began by drawing pencil sketches that he would later show to Hogan for his approval before moving on to the final version.

The three gathered together again for a week-long session in January 1957. Hogan was extremely impressed with Ravielle’s sketches, believing that he had managed to capture the very essence of what he was attempting to covey to his would-be readers.

The pencil sketches would be transformed a final time using a “scratch-board” technique that Ravielle had mastered. The scratch-board technique created a uniquely vivid picture, which invited the reader to reach out and touch the seemingly life-like image on the page.

Wind’s spirits were buoyed after meeting with Hogan a second time as he wrote, “Hogan had gone into a much more detailed description of the workings of the golf swing then we had anticipated. Moreover, he had patently enjoyed the challenge and had given it everything he had.”

On returning to New York, Wind and Reveille begin working together, side by side, laying out the text, the illustrations, and captions in page form for each of the five chapters.

Seminole Review

As Wind recounted, “When an installment was completed and had gone through the production department, we airmailed photostats of the pages to Hogan, who was in Palm Beach getting ready for the Masters. I would telephone Ben at his apartment at an appointed time each week, and we would go over each paragraph line by line. A session usually took between 45 minutes to an hour.”

During these sessions, as they reviewed the copy, Hogan was insistent that each word and phrase precisely communicate exactly what he intended to say. Wind recalls one example, when he had written “that at a certain stage of the swing the golfer’s weight had shifted to his left side.” Hogan corrected, “Let’s not say left side,” Adding “That isn’t accurate. In golf, there’s no such thing as a player’s left side. At this point in the swing most of the golfer’s weight is on his left foot and left leg.”

Wind found these discussions exhausting as Hogan worked his way through the copy with a “fine-tooth comb.” As wind wrote, “After these protracted checking sessions with Hogan, I did some deep-breathing exercises to relax myself, but I also had the bracing feeling that even Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t be able to detect a smudged adjective or a mysterious verb in the text.”

As they were nearing completion of their work, Hogan asked Wind if he had any suggestions for the series name. As Wind recalls, “I thought for a long moment and then tossed up ‘The Fundamentals of Modern Golf?’”

Hogan mulled it over for a moment and then asked, “How about ‘The Modern Fundamentals of Golf?’” Wind agreed that the reversal in wording was a definite improvement. The series now, for the first time, had both a name and an identity.

The Magazine and the Book

The series was very successful, of course, boosting not only the sales of the magazine but also its circulation. The content of what would eventually become the book appeared in five installments beginning with the March 11, 1957 issue, which in Wind’s exact words, “sold like hotcakes.“

The book was released some five months later in September as a joint venture between Hogan and the magazine.

A Triple Play

Why has the book endured?

The first reason is because of the public’s fascinated with Hogan, not only as player, but as a man. He was a great ball-striker, maybe the best of all time, but there was more to the man than his ability to play golf. He is one of the more complex sports figures in the pantheon of great players. He was a man of secrets who preferred the shadows to the light.

The second reason is the wonderful prose of Herbert Warren Wind, which flows with ease from one paragraph to another, giving the reader at times the feeling of floating on air from one sentence to another.

The third reason is the illustrations of Anthony Ravielle, which describe in dramatic fashion the essence of what Hogan wanted to convey to the reader.

“Five Lessons” was then the collaboration of three men, each one of them the very best in their fields. They were, through luck and circumstance, thrown together in space and time. And maybe once joined together, they sensed the opportunity to create something very special with one purpose in mind — to write one of the best golf instruction books ever. And they succeed.

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