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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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Let’s Retire Old Man Par: A Modest Proposal

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In 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote a satirical essay entitled “A modest proposal,” in which he suggested that the Irish eat their own children. As might be expected, the piece drew a great deal of discussion and controversy. He was of course not serious, but simply attempting to make a point. As you will read this piece contains “A Modest Proposal” as well, but it is not intended to be satirical. I am for the record dead serious.

The golf industry is wringing its hands, trying to find a way to bring new players into the game, while at the same time keeping those that are in the game from leaving. They have initiated any number of programs designed for this purpose. How successful have they been? I would venture that they have barely moved the needle.

Barriers to the game

What we do know is that today there are three major barriers that confront the industry. They are first, the time required to play the game; second the costs associated with playing the game; and third the difficulty of the game.

There are among those adults that start the game, three distinct different groups:

  1. Those who would like to start playing golf but for any number of reasons decided not to take up the game.
  2. Those who once played more frequently but have reduced the number of rounds that they play.
  3. Those who started to play the game but then after a short period decided to leave it.

Those who leave the game

Those in the golf industry, the hand-wringers, have developed any number of programs to bring new players to the game. I would ask the question, “What is the point, when almost an equal number of players that start playing the game each year, decide to give it up within a span of a few months.

Does it make any sense to continue to put water into a bucket when there is a hole in the bottom? Of course not, but that is effectively what is being done. The first question to be ask, why do these new players quit the playing after a short time? In my opinion, the number No. 1 reason is the method of scoring being used.

Were an exit poll to be conducted asking these people why they quit playing, I seriously doubt they would answer truthfully. Who would want to admit that they were discouraged by their inability to succeed at any endeavor? The two answers that would be given the most often would be 1) that golf is too expensive to play; or 2) that they simply didn’t have time.  In this case both answers serve to preserve the individual’s dignity. And who could blame them?

The concept of par

Why did these individuals find the game difficult? The short answer is that while golf is a hard game to learn, there  is a more compelling reason.  I would venture, that the underlying reason they quit the game is that it ceased to be fun because of how they viewed their performance. And for one central reason… the concept of par. The idea that an amateur golfer, especially a beginner, should measure their level of success against an imaginary set of numbers that represents what an expert player would score on each hole is on the surface ridiculous.

You might imagine a beginning player scoring an eight on a par-four hole after hitting six good shots and then two putting for an eight. In the context of their ability, they should be ecstatic — but of course they are not (because as their playing partner reminds them) they were four-over par on that hole. The time has come for Old Man Par to retire. And retire permanently. He is killing the game.

Perceived failure

In another scenario, the beginning player scores sixty for nine holes, which is an excellent score given the short amount of time they might have spent playing the game. And yet their nine-hole score was 24-over par. How would that make you feel? Would you be encouraged or discouraged? You might imagine yourself back in school and regardless of the amount of work that you put into a given class you always receive an “F.” At some point, would you give up?

Why should every golfer be judged by the same standard when there is such inequality in their ability? The equivalent would be placing a high school freshman in a graduate-level college course, expecting that they could perform at the same level as the other graduate students. The disparity in knowledge, based on age and experience, is precisely the reason why there are different grades in school. The same disparity exists among golfers. In this case, the difference being the ability to perform on the golf course as opposed to the classroom.

What about the second group of players that now plays less than they did in the past? Could it be that they are no longer having fun playing the game?And then there is the third group, those that consider playing the game but abandon it for another sport. Could it be that they are intimidated by the scoring system, knowing that as a beginner par is an absolute impossibility?

Old man par 

The legendary Bobby Jones was the first to coin, perhaps with the help of his friend O.B. Keillor, the phrase “Old Man Par.” Jones was, of course, the greatest amateur to have ever played the game. He won the Grand Slam in 1930, retiring then at the age of 28.

The time has come to retire “Old Man Par” and devise a new system for measuring a golfer’s progress in the game. I know that those in the USGA. would reject the concept immediately for fear of, and here is a $10 word used primarily by attorneys, “bifurcate” the game. What that word essentially means in this context in having more than one standard. The USGA is responsible for preserving the nature of the game, but at the same time it should be equally concerned with preserving the future of the game.

Personal par

What I would suggest is a system based on the principle of what might be termed “personal par.” This was essentially the system that was used to groom a young Tiger Woods. As a young child, he was not capable of reaching the longer holes in regulation, making par a virtual impossibility. Consequently, his coach wisely devised a system in which par was adjusted upward based on his ability at a given point in time. This served to keep the young child feeling good about his performance and subsequent progress.

This is the type of system that needs to be devised for the health of the game. The system would begin at a nine-hole level using a par of thirty-six as a basis. The actual numbers are not as important as the basic concept. There would be within the nine-hole and the eighteen-hole groups five different levels as follows with assigned par for each hole and eighteen holes roughly equal with the player’s ability.

As players improved, they would graduate from one level to another based on their total score. The handicap system would work in similar fashion as it does now with a single modification. The strokes give from one player to another would depend on the level in which they fall and the par assigned to that level.

The personal par handicap system would not be as exacting as it is presently used, but it would be sufficient to allow players to be reasonable competitive without any significant sacrifice. There would then be two scoring systems then, allowing players to choose which one they wanted to use. Or a recommendation might be given that until they reach a given scoring threshold that they use the personal par scoring system.

There would, of course, be the usual concern with something new being injected into the system, but the proposed change would be no greater than when the system of equitable scoring was introduced or when courses were first assigned a course rating number.

A few years ago, when life-long teacher and educator Dr. Gary Wiren was inducted into the Golf Teacher’s Hall of Fame, he wanted to pass along a single piece of advice to those teachers in the room. “Gentleman,” he started and then paused for emphasis. “We must find a way to make the game more fun for our students.”

I’m in full agreement with Dr. Wiren. The question is, “What is the best way to accomplish that goal?” I believe that that the first step in that direction is to change the scoring system so that golfers experience more satisfaction and accomplishment. That is what makes learning fun.

And so, I would have you consider “The Modest Proposal” that I have put forward. And rather than attempting to find reasons why a revised scoring system couldn’t never work, for the benefit of the game, look for the same number of reason why it could work. The time has come for Old Man Par, as we know him, to retire. He has served us well, but he has become an anarchism. He is as obsolete as the horse and buggy. Let’s hand him his gold watch and let him enjoy his golden years in peace.

And at the same time, let’s welcome the “new kid on the block” who will pave the way for the next generation of golfers pioneering a scoring system that promises to make the game more “fun.”

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TG2: What’s the most annoying breach of golf etiquette?

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