I can say with a high level of confidence that I’ve played with and studied Jack Nicklaus more than anyone, and because of this I know the secret to his success. Funny enough, this secret is probably the one thing for which Jack is most criticized, but I know better. That flying right elbow of his—the one the experts said broke too many rules to build a successful career—helped Jack forge a swing that was born to win majors.
Most players are taught to fold the right elbow early in the backswing, and certainly this is a reliable way to get the club to the top. But it also raises the risk of opening the clubface, and for amateurs beset by accuracy issues, folding the right elbow can exacerbate their slice. Check out any footage of Jack (the moves he made as a powerful young player in the 1960s are still evident in his swing today) and you’ll see him hold his right arm straight and allow his right elbow to fly out in his backswing. Looks a little funny, but these moves kept his clubface square longer than anyone so he didn’t have to worry about timing his swing to get it that way at impact. A lot of people don’t talk about it, but Jack also allowed his left elbow to fly through impact, which further held the clubface square (Lee Westwood does a little of this, too). Most players get the face to match the target line for a millisecond. By allowing his elbows to fly instead of fold early, Jack increased his “square time” to a level rarely seen.
Here’s the fun part: Because Nicklaus knew the clubface would hold square through impact and beyond, he was able to play the ball up in his stance without worrying about the clubface turning over and producing a hook. And the more forward you play the ball in your stance, the higher you’re going to hit it. So what you get—and what Jack exploited to perfection from his first major win in 1962 to his last in 1986—is a purely struck shot with a little fade action that also flies very high, the perfect recipe for holding the hard, fast greens typical of U.S. Open venues and Augusta National.