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Saturday, 13 December 2014

The Wisdom of Bobby Jones: Gripping the Club

In his book Golf is my Game, Bobby Jones devotes a short chapter to the subject of gripping the club. Bobby begins the chapter by eschewing the emphasis on mechanics, or as he describes it, "rigid adherence to prescribed routine," in the teaching and learning of the golf swing. Bobby writes: "Even if a person may not have begun to play golf at an early age, I believe that he may gain much by emphasizing naturalness in his learning processes. I think he has the right to convince himself that an effective golf swing can be made without rigid adherence to a prescribed routine and that there is room for differences in physical structure and capabilities. No matter how nearly equal in performance the top-rank players may be, yet they are recognizable by their swings as by their faces."

Imagine the freedom of not feeling obligated to follow a prescribed routine or set of contrived contortions in order to hit the golf ball. Imagine the freedom and peace of mind that might be experienced for the average golfer if he could stand up to the ball and just be himself when striking it, rather than being preoccupied with trying to swing like someone else, or as he has been told he should. Once again, as in the previous chapter, Bobby emphasizes the importance of knowing what to do with the clubhead; how to strike the ball, rather than worrying about the mechanics of the swing. He writes: "What the average golfer needs more than fine spun theories is something that will give him a clearer conception of what he should try to do with the clubhead... When we speak of sound method or good form, we mean nothing more than that the possessor of either has simplified his swing to the point where errors are less likely to creep in and he is able consistently to bring his club against the ball in the correct hitting position."

"We think, talk, and write so much about the details of the stroke," Bobby continues, "that we sometimes lose sight of the thing that is all-important --hitting the ball. It is conceivable that a person could perform all sorts of contortions and yet bring the club into correct relation to the ball at impact, in which case a good shot must result. The only purpose of discussing style and form at all is to make it easier for the player to maintain this correct relation. In a crude way, he may do it only occasionally. In a finished, sound, stylish way, he will be able to do it consistently and with assurance."

Bobby then explains why the grip is important: "Let's say that what we know now is merely what a golf club looks like and what effect it will have on the ball when the two come together in certain ways. Since the end of the club is mounted at one end of the shaft, and it must be actuated by a human being operating at the other end, the connection between the human being and the grip end of the club must be important."

In discussing the grip, Bobby says: "Many things, of course, can be said about the placing of the hands on the club. But just now I am thinking only about the over-all conception of swinging, and to that end I am only concerned that the club be held so that the action of the hands and wrists may be free, so that the club may be retained in the hands against the centrifugal force generated by the swinging of it, and so that the head of the club may be placed in comfort behind the ball."

As I read Bobby's following advice, I find myself thinking of just how many golfers I have seen, and how many more golfers there are out there, struggling to place their hands on the club as they have been instructed to do rather than in a way that feels natural and comfortable to them. Bobby states: "The precise placement of the club in the hands cannot be prescribed. The obvious requirement that the two hands work together should be a sufficient guide on this point. The grip end of the club should lie to some extent diagonally across the palms, but it must be controlled and felt mainly in the fingers."

Bobby describes feeling as though he is throwing the clubhead at the ball with much the same motion as he would use in cracking a whip. "By this simile, " Bobby writes: "I mean to convey the idea of a supple, lightning quick action of the hands. Stiff or wooden wrists shorten the backswing and otherwise destroy the feel of the clubhead. Without the supple connection of relaxed and active wrist joints and a delicate, sensitive grip, the golf club, which has been so carefully weighted and balanced, might as well be a broom-handle with nothing on the end. The clubhead cannot be swung unless it can be felt on the end of the shaft."

Rather than gripping the club as though it were a "venomous snake," thereby tightening the muscles and tendons in the wrists and forearms and losing all flexibility, Bobby talks about the need for a relaxed grip. Bobby writes: "The only way I know of achieving a relaxed grip which will at the same time retain adequate control of the club is to actuate the club and hold it mainly by the three smaller fingers of the left (top) hand. If the control is at this point, the club can be restrained against considerable force, and yet the wrist joints may retain complete flexibility."

"The great fault in the average golfer's conception of his stroke," Bobby notes, "is that he considers the shaft of the club a means of transmitting actual physical force to the ball, whereas it is in reality merely the means of imparting velocity to the clubhead. We would all do better if we could only realize that the length of a drive depends not upon the brute force applied, but upon the speed of the clubhead. It is a matter of well-timed acceleration rather than of physical effort of the kind that bends crow-bars and lifts heavy weights."

"My prescription is, therefore," Bobby concludes regarding the grip, "only that the club should be held mainly by the three smaller fingers of the left (top) hand, and that the shaft should be laid across the middle joint of the index finger of this hand. The remainder of the gripping should be done as lightly as possible, exerting pressure upon the shaft only as this becomes necessary in order to move or restrain the club."

Getting back to the importance of the hands in the golf swing, Bobby ends this chapter by writing:  "Let it be known right here that many acceptable golf shots and drives of good length can be produced by players who have nothing more than active hands and a good sense of timing. These players will never achieve the consistency nor the extremes in length attainable by the expert with good form, but they will, nevertheless, be able to get a lot of fun out of playing golf."

In summing up then, Bobby tells us that the average golfer has the right to convince himself that he is capable of making an effective swing without having to rigidly adhere to a prescribed routine. Rather than "finespun theories" about the golf swing the golfer needs a clear conception of what he is trying to do with the clubhead, and it is the striking of the ball that is important, not the mechanics of the golf swing. When speaking of the grip, Bobby again writes that it cannot be prescribed other than to state that the hands should work together and the club should be held in such a way that the wrists and forearms retain their flexibility. This is accomplished best by a relaxed grip in which the club is held primarily in the last three, or three smallest fingers of the top hand; the other hand and fingers exerting only as much pressure as is required to move or restrain the club.

Finally, and in my mind vitally important to remember is the fact, as Bobby says, that the shaft of the club is used to impart velocity to the clubhead, not to apply force to the ball; distance not being the result of brute force applied, but rather the speed of the clubhead. Furthermore, players with nothing more than active hands and a good sense of timing can produce acceptable shots and drives of reasonable length, which is particularly good news for us older, less flexible, and possibly handicapped players who might find it impossible to adopt the mechanics or follow the prescribed routine set forth in the modern golf swing. If we learn to swing the clubhead and retain the suppleness and flexibility in our hands, wrists and forearms, we can play decent golf.