I’ve been a golfer all my life, right from the age of two when my parents handed me a cut-down hickory shafted club, pointed at a ball, and said “Now, hit that!” Here I am at age 6 with my 4-year-old brother on the bag, no doubt telling me, “I like that club! Commit to your target!”
Our parents were members of a small 9-hole course and that’s where they brought us every afternoon directly after school. At the time this picture was taken I was already on first-name terms with most of the members of the club and comfortable in their presence. I feel blessed to have had such a wonderful upbringing and to be honest, I don’t ever remember not being able to play golf because they started us so young it was as natural as walking.
I got down to a handicap of 3 by age 17 and represented my country in the late 1970s at Schools level and on the Under-18 National team. However, I was never a long hitter and the best players amongst my peers (who included two future Ryder Cup winners) were a good 20 yards longer than me off the tee, maybe more. So I was usually hitting first to the greens, and unable to reach most of the par-5s in two. I had a stiffish upper-body rotation type of swing, along the lines of Scott Simpson, and was something of a grinder, hitting the ball mostly straight and keeping myself in contention with my short game. And it showed in my demeanour. Once, a girl came up to me in the bar after a round and said, “Can I ask you a question?” “Sure”, I said, never having been asked that particular question before…
At which point, in the immortal words of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, “She looked at me with those big brown eyes, and said…”
“Don’t you ever smile on a golf course?”
Of course I didn’t. Golf wasn’t meant to be fun, was it?
Now, I was always trying to hit it farther, but what did we have in those days? No video technology of any kind, and tips in the golf magazines from supposedly Top 100 Teachers that said things like “throw the club at the ball”, “retain the lag ’til the very last second”, “slide hard with both your knees to the target”, “grip the club so lightly that if you had a bird in your hands you wouldn’t crush it”, and “imagine you’re chopping down a tree with an axe”. Now, to be fair, some people really did take all those tips to heart. I played with lots of guys who really did throw the club at the ball – after they’d hit it – and who certainly looked to me like they were chopping down a tree with an axe. But in all seriousness, we literally just stumbled from one tip to another, with no feedback other than the feel of the ball on the clubface and the flight of the ball in the air to tell us if we were on the right track or not. And while I know that’s how Hogan did it too, I wasn’t Hogan and it was very much just trial-and-error.
Once I finished school and started college and then began my career I had to put golf on the back burner, and it was only in the mid-1990s that I was able to get back to it again with any degree of seriousness. And that was when I met another guy who was even more obsessed about the game than I was, and we embarked on a journey to try and see just how good we could become.
My buddy was a student I had taught in college. He was a member of the same club as I was, and several times a week we’d get together to play or practice, and shoot the breeze about golf swing theories. We talked about Hogan, Moe Norman, the single-plane swing, and how the advent of more forgiving clubheads like the Great Big Bertha and stiffer, more consistent graphite shafts would make it feasible for golfers to start building themselves up and going at the ball harder.
Most of all, we were fascinated by Tiger. He was still an amateur, on his way to his second or third US Amateur, but we’d seen and heard enough about him to be in awe of his talent. It was the early days of the commercial internet, and we spent hours scouring whatever golf forums and websites we could find, trying to see if we could figure out why he was so long.
We even emailed one of his Phys. Ed. coaches in Stanford – one of the very first emails I ever sent – to see if she would tell us what sort of training program he was on. A few weeks later we received a polite reply saying that he was on a general conditioning program of stretches, flexibility, and weights in the gym. So nothing earth-shattering there, and no explanation for why he was so good.
But we were beginning to get insights from other sports too, such as hearing for the first time about plyometrics and overspeed training. And it began to dawn on us that several of the throwing disciplines in athletics, especially the discus, had similarities in their rotational characteristics to the golf swing. In fact, I remember watching gold medallist Lars Riedel competing in the discus event at the Olympic Games in 1996 and remarking that I had just witnessed “the best golf swing motion I had ever seen, and it wasn’t even by a golfer”. Not literally, of course, but it was all there; the upper-body wind-up, the shift onto the front foot, pressuring into the ground for power, the full forceful hip release, and the flail. A different projectile being launched, by one hand, not two, and from hip height, not the ground, but powerful and beautiful to watch as everything flowed in sequence.
So we bought the classic Bill Bowerman’s High-Performance Training for Track and Field and started looking into the training methods of field athletes, and decided to commit ourselves to doing some serious training in the gym. And that was where our results began to differ.
I trained hard in the gym for three years, doing the type of exercises Tiger’s Stanford coach referred to in the email. I didn’t push very heavy weights but still gained quite a lot of strength. And yet despite all that effort, my driver swing speed barely budged. My average was around 102 mph, just 2% faster than it had been before I went on the program, and I never managed even once to go beyond 108 mph.
My buddy, on the other hand, made remarkable progress. He too did general weight training but got to pushing much bigger numbers than I did. He also used a swing fan and started doing overspeed training, swinging golf shafts with no clubheads but with small weights epoxied onto the tip. In addition, he really worked on his hip rotation, firing his lead hip out of the way really hard to start the downswing. Over that same three-year period, his average swing speed went from 115 mph to about 127-128 mph, and I once saw him do a 132 mph swing in the TV room of his house, where he had set up a practice hitting station. How the ceiling didn’t come down on top of us I’ll never know, because there were some close calls in that room.
On the golf course, his transformation was remarkable too. Par-5s became meat and drink to him, and virtually every par-4 was a drive and a wedge. His handicap tumbled from 3 to +2, and he got to compete in the British Amateur Championship on three occasions, at Royal St. Georges in 1997, Muirfield in 1998, and Royal County Down in 1999. He even found himself practicing beside Sergio Garcia in 1998, the year Sergio won the championship. As to how far he was hitting it, well, for comparison I followed Adam Scott at a tournament on our home course in 2001 when everyone was raving about how Scott was “the new Tiger”. Based on what I saw that day and knowing the course as I did, my buddy hit it farther. And for the record, when Scott first appeared on the PGA Tour statistics for driving distance in 2003, he ranked 15th, right beside Retief Goosen, Davis Love, and Tiger himself, at 299 yards. So that was quite a journey my friend had made in just a few short years!
What Happened Next?
So what happened next? Well, here is the crux of the matter: for all the miles per hour he’d put on, his swing was built around a very fast rotation of the hips on the downswing. That, of course, left him open to damaging blocks and pulls if everything wasn’t flowing in sequence. It’s why throwing circles in field sports have netting around them. Bad things can happen. On many courses, his ball would just sail over all the trouble and land in an adjacent fairway, so no harm done. But when he went to the really demanding championship courses for big events he sometimes found himself deep in the sand dunes and running up a big number. He tried to reduce the risk as much as possible by using very low-torque shafts (we used to pore over the shafts section of the GolfWorks and Golfsmith catalogs looking for shafts that basically had the same qualities as rebar!) but still, the risk of hitting a really destructive shot off the tee was always there.
Around about then, life caught up with us, and we both had to attend to our careers and families, and once I moved away to another part of the country the story pretty much ended. But from time to time when we talk on the phone we can’t help but comment on the latest stuff coming from the professional tours, and smile:
“Bryson getting pumped in the gym? Been there, done that”;
“Padraig doing overspeed training? Been there, done that too”;
“Some guru talking about using the ground? Hammer, discus, shot put, javelin..we know”.
They say there’s nothing new under the sun, and while that may not be completely true, a lot of what you see and hear today is just something that has been re-purposed and re-packaged and most likely turned into a product. But one thing that really has changed – and changed dramatically – is the amount of data golfers have available to them, which if used correctly can be hugely beneficial.
You see, when it comes to learning, feedback is everything. Twenty-five years ago, we were on our own, fumbling around in the dark, and all we had was a rudimentary Bel swing speed meter and whatever research papers we could decipher from the sports science literature. Today, sports science – including neuromuscular physiology, biomechanics, and especially the technology of data capture and analysis – is at a completely different level compared to what it was back then. What we wouldn’t have given for a launch monitor, home simulator, and K-Vest with all the information and feedback they could have provided!
A Few More Reflections
I’ll end with a few more brief reflections about those early years. My buddy had another friend who appeared to have a lot of raw swing speed, and he was curious to get him onto the practice tee to see how fast he was, with a view to maybe training him to be a long-drive competitor. The guy was about a 10 handicap, and very erratic, so on the face of it, he was nothing much to write home about. But one morning we put the swing speed meter behind him and after firing off a few loose ones to warm up he finally put one good driver swing on the ball. The meter registered 133 mph, and the ball took off like a rocket, soared through the air for what seemed like forever, and came to rest in a place I’d never even come close to in all my years of practicing from that same spot. We should have been delighted but to be honest, it was heartbreaking to see the God-given gift of speed this guy had inherited because he, himself, was quite oblivious to it and had no interest at all in pushing himself any further. Imagine, 133 mph, untrained! What we both could have done with a foundation like that.
Another interesting thing happened when my buddy went to one of the practice days at a golf tournament in 1997 at which Ernie Els was competing. It was shortly after Ernie had won his second US Open at Congressional. Now, we had always thought, from all the “oohing” and “aahing” about The Big Easy on TV, that he was a mighty hitter. So my buddy watched him hit a couple of 3-woods off one particular tee and then said, “Hey, Ernie, do you mind if I put this thing behind you for just one shot?” Ernie had no idea what it was. “Wot’s det?” he asked. And when my buddy told him it was a radar device that measured swing speeds he said, “Really? OK. Cool.” So Ernie hit a nice smooth 3-wood, as per usual, and my buddy looked down and saw the meter registering 115 mph – which probably would have made him about 120 mph with the driver. My buddy had to bite his lip to keep a smile off his face. “Wimp”, he was thinking.
Another evening we were playing a friendly match against our Club Pro and his assistant. The pro was a big, strong guy with a textbook swing and the only thing that stopped him from being competitive with the best professionals in the country was a very shaky short game – or to be more specific, the pitching yips. I often saw him hitting drives to places I’d never come close to and then literally laying the sod over the ball with his wedge. He held it in his hands like it was a rattlesnake. Anyway, that evening we put the swing speed meter down behind him and he absolutely pured a driver right down the middle, smooth as silk, and registered 121 mph. My buddy looked at me and shook his head as if to say, imagine being able to strike a ball as pure as that. He had the same swing speed as Ernie, and not much less than Tiger, yet no one had ever even heard of him.
Well, that was then and this is now. So what’s the difference? Twenty-five years ago we could see the game was changing. Now, the change is there for all to see. Today, there are data for everything, and training devices too. Both give you feedback and help you train smart. If something works or is valid, you can see it. And if it’s nonsense you can see it too and not waste your time or money on it.
But we’re only at the beginning of where this game is going. We thought Tiger was awesome, but the young players growing up today with simulators, launch monitors, video, training aids, and science-based fitness and swing-coaching programs will be capable of doing things with the golf ball that we could only have dreamt about. Provided they can keep their mental focus and desire, that is.
And that, as they say, is a whole ‘nother story in itself.