For golfers of all abilities, swing changes are almost impossible to resist

September 4, 2013

Nine years after he won his last of eight majors titles, Tom Watson discovered something on the range at Hilton Head—at 3:15 p.m. on a Tuesday, as he tells it—that changed forever how he hit the ball. Watson realized that by “swinging left” and feeling like he was coming way over the top, he could all but eliminate fat shots and blocks. At 42, he had an answer to a problem that had plagued him for years.

Stories like these pervade the professional ranks, epiphanies hitting players of all ages like falling bricks, dividing time in their minds into B.E. (“Before Enlightenment”) and A.E. Sadly, this process also happens in reverse. The only difference is when players’ games sour, the deterioration happens not instantly but slowly and painfully. Ralph Guldahl won the U.S. Open in 1937 and ’38 and the Masters in 1939. By 1941, he had retired from the Tour. Guldahl, it is said, analyzed away the magic while deconstructing his swing for an instruction book.

And therein lies the maddening rub: Change is like a drug that can produce wonderful, soaring highs, but also lonely, miserable lows. It’s intoxicating and irresistible, because within every golfer lies an insatiable appetite for improvement and, consequently, a deep-seeded desire to try something different, to find a new fix. (It’s likely the reason you read Golf Magazine.)

The fix-it phenomenon permeates all levels of the game. Years ago, when I lived in San Antonio and played at Oak Hills Country Club, I frequently played with a Dr. Wilhoit. He was a 3 or 4 handicap, a lefthander with a lovely draw that was so predictable I called him Dr. Will-hook. Still, like all of us, Dr. Will-hook wanted to get better still. Having an unlimited budget to sink into this pursuit, he went to see a you-better-have-an-unlimited-budget teacher to the stars. When he returned, his formerly inside-out swing was gone and so too was the draw, replaced by an unpredictable array of misses that never coalesced into anything resembling his once-formidable game. Last I checked Dr. Will-hook had quit golf.

Another doctor friend of mine also played at Oak Hills. He was in his 70s and regularly broke 80 but was always after me for advice: “How can I hit it longer?”, “How can I hit more greens?”, “Who’s the best teacher?” Finally, I caved and sent the doctor to the best swing doctor I knew, Harvey Pennick.

A month later I saw my friend and asked him how his lesson went. He said Harvey watched him hit 10 shots, then said, “Dr. McMahan you can beat 99 percent of the doctors in this world and that’s as good as you need to be.” Lesson over. Dr. McMahan was furious. He had driven 80 miles to Austin, and he felt Harvey was blowing him off. In fact, Harvey had employed one of his greatest teaching assets: knowing when to leave well enough alone.

For my own part, I can remember two “light-bulb moments” that took my game to new heights. The first came when I was 14 and trying to learn how to hit the ball higher. I developed the sensation of “throwing the club” at the ball, flipping my wrists as fast as could I to uncock them at impact. With this thought in mind, my shots flew higher and straighter, and that imagery has never failed me since. Years later, I noticed Payne Stewart started his lower-body shift toward the target as the club was still going back. I tried this and immediately began making more solid contact. Ironically, the only tournament I won on Tour, the 1998 Greater Vancouver Open, I beat Payne by three, with his lower-body move always at the fore of my mind.

Change, of course, doesn’t always come so easily, or with such handsome rewards. On the contrary, I have made literally thousands of swing revisions, grand and small, which arguably proved to be my undoing. I was always searching, tinkering, never able to escape the vortex of creation. That’s the trouble with change: It can make you a world-beater like Watson, or just as easily make you forget how you ever played the game.