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The difference between “ugly” and “unorthodox” golf swings

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I’d like you pretend for a moment that you were asked to name the five ugliest golf swings by players who had won a major championship. Who would you select, and what criteria would you use to make that judgment? You might say you’re not sure, but you would have no difficulty identifying an ugly swing if you were to see one, right? The question is, what factors would move you toward that decision?

I struggled with this exact question when it was posed to me and others who were members of Golf Magazine’s “Top 100” panel at the time. In making my decision, I was concerned that I did not confuse UNORTHODOX with UGLY. The fact is that some of the greatest golfers throughout history have been considered to have had unorthodox swings.

  • The word “unorthodox” is defined as that which is contrary to what is usual, traditional or generally accepted.
  • The word “ugly” is defined as that which is unpleasant or repulsive in appearance.

In comparing the two definitions, they are clearly quite different. The word “unorthodox” suggests something that is different from the norm, while the word “ugly” relates to the appearance of an object regardless of its status. The problem with labeling any golf swing as unorthodox is that the definition of that condition varies with time. What was once considered to be unorthodox may later be considered perfectly acceptable, and we’ve seen this happen over and over again in golf instruction.

Case No. 1

It was considered unorthodox when Harry Vardon moved his thumbs toward the top of the shaft and placed the little finger of his right hand over his left forefinger knuckle. The standard grip in his era featured both thumbs to the sides of the shaft. The club was held more in the palms of both hands and with all ten fingers, rather than more diagonally through the palm as in Vardon’s Grip. As Vardon began to win, however, his competitors copied his grip. What once was considered unorthodox became orthodox.

Case No. 2

Hogan and Nicklaus were paired together in the final round of the 1957 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. The dichotomy between their backswings couldn’t have been more evident. This was due to the way in which they utilized their right elbows in the backswing. Nicklaus allowed his right elbow to work up and away, pointing more outward at the top. Hogan’s right elbow was closer to his body and pointed more downward.

At the time, Hogan’s backswing was considered orthodox while Nicklaus’ swing was considered unorthodox. As Hogan faded from the winner’s circle and Nicklaus began to emerge, what was once thought to be unorthodox later came to be considered orthodox.

There are some swings that most observers would agree are both unorthodox and ugly. For example, most observers would say that Jim Furyk’s swing is not pretty — they might even go so far as to categorize it as ugly. This is despite the face that Furyk has had an outstanding career and has a U.S. Open victory to his credit. What is it that observers find so offense in his swing? The answer is the differential in planes between the backswing and the downswing, or what might be referred to as a “loop” in his swing.

In Furyk’s case, the club is taken well outside what might be considered the traditional backswing plane. Then it is looped well to the inside and back into position on the downswing. This is is a perfectly acceptable way to play golf, which is evidenced by the size of his bank account and the number of trophies on his mantle. As you might surmise, because of his golf swing, Furyk has not been asked to write any full-swing instruction books.

The problem is that, in the eyes of the observer, the combination of the two distinctly different planes gives a disjoined appearance to the swing. Does it follow then that the variance in the backswing and downswing is the primary factor in determining if a swing qualifies as being ugly? The problem with reaching that conclusion is that it doesn’t hold up to comparison with other players who employ a similar pattern… beginning with Freddy Couples. He begins his swing by lifting his arms well outside the traditional plane line. With a delayed turn of his torso, he then brings the club back into a more traditional plane at the top.

In the case of both Couples and Furyk, their backswings operate well outside the traditional plane line with both players “looping” the club back into position prior to impact. And yet Couples’ swing is universally admired, while Furyk’s swing is in some quarters ridiculed. This begs the question of why Couples’ “looping” swing motion is considered more acceptable than Furyk’s. The answer to that question is two-fold.

  1. Furyk’s loop is created ostensibly by a change in plane with the arms and the hands, giving the swing a frenetic appearance.
  2. Couples’ loop is created with a graceful turn of his body with the arms following in perfect harmony.

And so, when taking the swings of Couples and other “loopers” into consideration, it would seem that the dramatic change in plane between the backswing and the downswing in and of itself does not warrant the classification of ugly.

Author Footnote: A point worth considering as part of this discussion is that there have been other accomplished players throughout the history of the game whose backswings have operated on the same principles as Couples. This would include perennial Champion’s Tour winners Kenny Perry, and earlier Jay Haas, whose swings were generally admired despite their unorthodox approach to the backswing.

What does this all mean? First, while a loop in the golf swing may be unorthodox, is not necessary considered ugly provided that the club is routed into plane with the turn of the body rather than just the arms and the hands. Second, as stated earlier, the definition of unorthodox can and does change depending on the era. And third, an unorthodox swing is not necessarily ugly. The two classifications are very different.

As you evaluate golf swings, remember this adage; an unorthodox swing is not necessarily ugly, but an ugly swing is always unorthodox.

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As a teacher, Rod Lidenberg reached the pinnacle of his career when he was named to GOLF Magazine's "Top 100" Teachers in America. The PGA Master Professional and three-time Minnesota PGA "Teacher of the Year" has over his forty-five year career, worked with a variety of players from beginners to tour professionals. He especially enjoys training elite junior players, many who have gone on to earn scholarships at top colleges around the country, in addition to winning several national amateur championships. Lidenberg maintains an active schedule teaching at Bluff Creek Golf Course Chanhassen, Minnesota, in the summer and The Golf Zone, Chaska, Minnesota, in the winter months. As a player, he competed in two USGA Public Links Championships; the first in Dallas, Texas, and the second in Phoenix, Arizona, where he finished among the top 40. He also entertained thousands of fans playing in a series of three exhibition matches beginning in 1972, at his home course, Edgewood G.C. in Fargo, North Dakota, where he played consecutive years with Doug Sanders, Lee Trevino and Laura Baugh. As an author, he has a number of books in various stages of development, the first of which will be published this fall entitled "I Knew Patty Berg." In Fall 2017, he will be launching a new Phoenix-based instruction business that will feature first-time-ever TREATMENT OF THE YIPS.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Mat

    Mar 25, 2018 at 2:33 am

    What wins on Sunday sells on Monday – especially with lessons.

    The ball doesn’t care how it’s propelled. The only thing you should be worried about is:

    #1 – Is the impact dynamic repeatable?
    #2 – Is the swing repeatable?
    #3 – Is the swing going to cause physical issues if repeated?

    The ball flight is always the best teacher. It never lies.

  2. acew/7iron

    Mar 24, 2018 at 11:49 am

    My swing just forgets who it is every other round…I can go from 77 – 87 overnight

  3. BIG STU

    Mar 24, 2018 at 4:28 am

    Exactly BD you get it– It is all about the position in the impact zone not how it gets there. I have said that about Furyk for years and no one listens

  4. Chris

    Mar 23, 2018 at 10:49 pm

    Example no 1 is not terrible well thought out, a grip change can hardly be seen at adress, and not at all during the swing.

  5. abba

    Mar 23, 2018 at 3:12 pm

    “ugly”… “unorthodox”… and the swing of 95% of all golfers worldwide… “abomination” 😮

  6. Brandon

    Mar 23, 2018 at 2:39 pm

    Im proud to say I have a ugly swing but its repeatable and playable!

  7. Brett Weir

    Mar 23, 2018 at 11:56 am

    The ball doesn’t care how ugly your swing is but it does care if it is hit solid and straight through impact.

  8. BD

    Mar 23, 2018 at 11:43 am

    As Arnie used to say, “Swing your swing”. I would rather have an ugly swing and play well than have a good looking swing and play poor. The look of the swing is irrelevant. It is all about impact. Hence, Jim Furyk. If you freeze frame his impact zone, it looks like most PGA Tour Pros.

    • BIG STU

      Mar 24, 2018 at 4:28 am

      Exactly BD you get it– It is all about the position in the impact zone not how it gets there. I have said that about Furyk for years and no one listens

  9. Tiemco

    Mar 23, 2018 at 11:03 am

    Tommy Gainey’s swing always looked terrible to me.

  10. Bruce Ferguson

    Mar 23, 2018 at 10:57 am

    I always thought Moe Norman’s swing was rather ugly. That said, I envied his consistency. To each, his own . . .

  11. Nack Jicklaus

    Mar 23, 2018 at 10:49 am

    My swing is both ugly and unorthodox.

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