'Everything you know about the swing is wrong'
Paul Nusbaum hated, hated, hated golf.
"It made me want to slit my wrists," says the West Virginian, 56, a health-care administrator. "I wanted so badly to get better. I went to golf schools McLean, Leadbetter, Flick. I bought all the tapes and gadgets and had teachers on speed dial. I spent about $70,000 over 15 years, but the harder I tried, the worse I got." One morning, the 27-handicap carded a front-nine 37 and thought, I've got it! "But I shot 59 on the back. So I gave up."
Then, late one night in 2002, a Golf Channel infomercial caught his eye. A.J. Bonar, an owlish teacher in a bucket hat, was enticing viewers with "the truth" about golf, which could be theirs for $89.95, the cost of his DVD. "I started yelling 'You fraud!' at the TV," Nusbaum recalls. "I was pissed. I sent him an e-mail that said, 'You're lying to the American public! You're all fakes!'"
The fake wrote back: "You're just swinging wrong. Come to my school. No improvement? No charge." Says Nusbaum, "On the first day, I start killing 7-irons and crushing my driver. I dropped seven strokes in a month and won my club's championship." He laughs. "Now I sound like an infomercial, but golf is fun again."
Who is A.J. Bonar? He's not famous, though he has sold a million copies of his DVD series, A.J. Reveals the Truth About Golf. He doesn't teach top pros. He spent eight years as head golf coach at Bowling Green State University, 12 more running the San Diego Golf Academy, and has headed the A.J. Golf School, in Carlsbad, Calif., since 2000. Solid credentials, but hardly Harmonesque. Yet Bonar, 62, boldly claims that your teacher is screwing up your game, and that he holds the sacred secret to the golf swing.
I'd seen the infomercial. I'd heard breathless accounts of hackers emerging from his school with gleaming new swings. I doubted that golf's "truth" lay in the land of the Ginsu and Flowbee. But gimmick or not, I was desperate. Golf had been sticking its steel-tipped spike in my rear for years. I had taken countless lessons from pros who preached the same gospel: head still, hands quiet, clear out. Nothing dented my 15-handicap. At times the planets (and my shoulders) aligned, but my swing flaws always returned, barged in and threw their muddy feet up on my couch. I was tired of skulling irons, of cussing like a gangsta rapper with a stubbed toe. It was time to think outside the tee box.
The A.J. Golf School hardly impresses at first glance. Bonar works not from a high-tech learning center or cushy country club, but rather a ragged, matson-concrete range in Carlsbad. The setting doesn't have much charm, but A.J. does. He begins class with a snappy magic trick.
"Pick a card," he says to his huddled students. The king of clubs (get it?) is buried and reappears gasp atop the deck. Not bad, but if I wanted tricks, I'd hire David Blaine. Let's hit some balls! "Golf is like magic," he says. "You watch a magician and think, 'That's amazing!' But when you learn the trick, you say, 'I could do that.' It's the same with the swing.
"There's a trick, but most people don't know it." He vowed to show us how to saw the lady in half. "Everything you know about the swing is wrong," he added. "You play piano, you improve. You play tennis, you improve. But in golf, you can work and slave, and get no better. Why? Because the swing rules square the face,' 'swing with the body are myths. Millions of golfers have been taught wrong."
Taught wrong? I formed a carefully worded query: "What the hell are you smoking?"
As Bonar tells it, in 1968, golf instruction changed with the publication of The Search for the Perfect Swing, by Alastair Cochran and John Stobbs. Based on tests commissioned by the Golf Society of Great Britain, the book was the first comprehensive scientific study of the ballistics of the golf swing. Among their key findings, the authors concluded that golfers can't use the hands to reliably manipulate the club on the downswing. The clubface, they added, must stay fairly square through impact. "The Search gave rise to the theory of square-to-square, which became the accepted method and informed teachers like Flick, McLean, Leadbetter. Square-to-square made logical sense. Turning over the face seems reckless."
But the book was flawed, Bonar claims. It dubbed a square clubface king but ignored the fact that all good players close the face by about 120 degrees in the two feet before and after impact. That second lever, the rotating clubface, imposes tremendous energy on the ball, he says. But by swinging with your big muscles, you lose the lever. "It's like hitting a tennis ball with all arm, no wrist. You lose that extra pop."
If this sounds all too theoretical, you should know that Bonar spent four years in the mid-1990s as the director of education for a California-based custom-fitting company called Zevo Golf, where he oversaw the fitting process. (He was also an R&D consultant at TaylorMade.) Bonar's eyes light up when talking about his lab days.
"At Zevo, we found out some neat shit! We tested David Toms, Julie Inkster, Duffy Waldorf, Billy Ray Brown and others," he says. "We confirmed that, with top players, the toe rotates much faster than the heel through impact up to 19 mph faster. That creates a draw bias, a face hook, worth about 30 extra yards on drives. It's like hitting a homerun in baseball but swinging square is a check swing."
My mind reeled. Were the pillars of golf instruction built on quicksand? Had the game's top teaching pros perpetuated a Da Vinci Code-like fraud against millions. ("So dark the con of golf!") It made some sense. It explained why I never get better, how Ernie Els tags it 300 yards with a flip of the wrist, and why the average American golfer's handicap (16.2) hasn't budged in 15 years, despite golf schools, movable weights and Academy Live! Maybe we were taught wrong.
To show that his method works from even the worst of lies, Bonar stepped on a ball in the bunker, burying all but the "T" in "Titleist." He grabbed an iron, swung and thump it popped out, high and soft. A nice shot, but no big deal, right? He then revealed his club of choice: not a sand wedge but a 6-iron. Jaws dropped. I grabbed the club, equaled his feat and asked, "You sure this swing is legal?" Onto the range.
A lot can happen in seven minutes. You can shave. Or walk your dog. Or listen to Rick Springfield's greatest hits. Or you can find your swing.
That's how long I beat balls before it happened. My first swings yielded Baker-Finchian hooks, but my timing improved. Then on the downswing, I tried feeling as if my right hand was hitting topspin forehands in pingpong, and I started ripping 7-irons 170 yards. Wow. This was different. Not this time. I flipped my wrist, and the ball got smaller and smaller. Over and over. My mind, normally a mosh pit of swing thoughts, was blank. I swung with my hands, my body riding merrily along. My wounded spirit rose from its deathbed. I loved the game again. No, I was in love. (Is golf is seeing anyone? Or thinking about me? Sigh... Golf.)
Day 2 was a playing lesson. The feeling was still there. The game seemed simple. Flip a driver 275 yards, toss a wedge, two-putt, par. Yawn. I shot 80. Only a few rounds since have been so blissful. Ten months later, I'm not scratch. But I threaten 80 often, break it now and then, and hit tons of greens. I know where my ball's going. I have control. And that's all I really wanted. "It's sad," Bonar says. "Most golfers accept mediocrity. They're told that golf works in mysterious ways. Well, the game is easier than you think. Not easy, but easier. And if you use the club properly, it's a helluva lot more fun."
A.J. Golf School, Carlsbad, Calif.
Half-day school, $295; two-day, $895; three-day, $1,195.