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Tuesday, 13 January 2015

The Unruly Right Hand or Three Right Hands

Sometimes people talk about the mythical "natural golf swing."  The reality is, there isn't much that's exactly natural about the golf swing.  Just ask Bobby Jones, or Ben Hogan.  They'll tell you; or they certainly would have.

Hand any right-handed beginner a right-handed golf club, and ask them to hit a golf ball, and you will generally observe them snatch the club away with the right hand, usually sharply to the inside, lift it, instead of turning their body, and strike at the ball with their right hand.  The result is generally not a good one, and the swing is not likely to be very pleasing to the eye.  It is perhaps natural that they might swing this way, but the golf swing isn't necessarily about doing what comes naturally.

Moe Norman thought hitting a golf ball was dead easy, and they have even developed a system of teaching the golf swing that is supposedly built around his action.  But Moe was not only a ball-striking genius, he hit more than a million golf balls on his way to becoming the person many who saw him consider to have been the best ball-striker ever.  It's interesting that, when asked whether anyone should copy his swing, Moe responded with a categorical, "No."  But, that's another story.

I played golf with Herb and his son the other day.  He was hitting some dramatic pull hooks, which, as far as I could tell, were the direct result of an unruly right hand.  Herb gripped the club with his right hand turned under, in a very strong position, and had his right thumb pressed against the shaft in an effort to hold the face square.  He swung hard, his left side stopped, or stalled, fouled-up the works, and his strong right hand produced some prodigious hooks.

The right hand, or rather an unruly right hand, ruins more shots for a right-handed player than just about anything.  I have called my blog Top Hand Golf for this reason.  All the great ball strikers, from Bobby Jones to Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Lee Trevino, and Moe Norman, stressed the importance of the top hand in the golf swing.  For right-handed golfers, this is the left hand.

I was introduced to this concept as a youngster.  I had my first, and only, formal golf lesson in England in 1969.  The young professional had me hit balls with my left hand.  That was the lesson, or at least all I remember from that lesson.  I thought he was nuts, and, as he made no effort to convey to me the value, or the rationale, in what he was having me do, I promptly dismissed the whole thing as having been a big waste of time.  I suppose he didn't want to get too technical with a twelve year old, but had he been able to convey to me the importance of what he was teaching, it might have proved very useful, and saved me a lot of grief, and a lot of searching, in later life.

The point he was making to me was the importance of controlling the swing with the top, or lead, arm and hand.  As a right-handed person, playing golf right-handed, this is contrary to what comes naturally; as is the case in most things in golf, as we eventually come to learn.  But the fact is, while golf is indeed a two-handed game, you are going to be in big trouble if you don't keep that right, or bottom, hand under control.

Speaking of the unruly right hand, in Bobby Jones on Golf, under the subject of Delaying the Hit, Bobby Jones wrote:

"Whenever you see a player (who is apparently going along easily) blow wide open under the strain of competition, the chances are that the most immediate cause of the detonation is an unruly right hand, a hand that has gotten out of control because of the anxiety and nervousness of the player.

I think I can say truthfully that I am always on guard against a misapplication of right-hand power, but that even then it gets me.  For a right-handed person it is, of course, perfectly natural to want to do everything with that hand, and it becomes necessary not to call it in when it is needed, but to keep it out when it is not.  The consciousness is of exclusion rather than of use.  To my mind, the right hand is absolutely useless, except as a steadying factor, throughout the entire backswing, and nearly half of the downstroke, or hitting stroke.  It's first real use comes when it assumes command for the actual delivery of the blow.

If we allow the right hand to take hold at the very beginning of the downstroke, we are hitting too soon.  The swing has not a chance to get started in the right groove, and the power is apt to be spent too soon; the wrists will have been uncocked before the stored-up energy can be expended upon the ball.

Of course, so long as we swing a golf club with two hands, in order to swing it properly, both hands must be used correctly.  But with most players the effort must be to subdue the right at certain important stages, rather than to direct it to positive activity.  It has been said that the correct swing is a wholly artificial, unnatural procedure.  In the sense that a naturally right-handed person must force the left side and discourage the right, this is certainly true.

This alone is sufficient reason for stressing the left side most strongly; since it must be used, and yet it is unnatural to use it, it requires more conscious direction than the right.  A right-handed person, swinging a right-handed golf club, will not need to think about hitting with his right hand; he will need only to make certain that he does not begin to use it too soon, or incorrectly.  On the other hand, if he does not think about moving his left side, it will surely get in the way, and gum things up.

My conception of the correct swing is built around the one thought of making the left side move, both in taking the club back and in swinging it through.  This is the main idea.  The use of the right hand, though important, is yet a subheading.  It has to be thought of only in order to keep it from over powering the left, and asserting itself in a disastrous way."

I remember talking to a well-known teacher, who will remain nameless, about this idea of the top hand and left side controlling the swing.  As I was not a PGA master professional who had been voted teacher of the year for his State, like he was; and in spite of the fact that, when we played nine holes together, I had outplayed him; he perhaps had reason not to want to engage me in any meaningful discussion about the golf swing--unless, of course, I was paying him.  However, his brief, and rather dismissive, response is worth discussing.

First of all, he said that, were he to stress using the left hand to hit shots to his students, they'd all slice the ball.  Secondly, as though it provided an irrefutable answer to my question, he said, "Ben Hogan wished he had three right hands."  To him, that was it; end of story.  Essentially, He was telling me that I  didn't know what the hell I was talking about.  Well, I suppose you can't blame the man.  He probably has to listen to people like me wanting to discuss their favourite swing theories all the time.  

However, contrary to what he asserted, I have found that any of the people, including myself, who have followed the top-hand approach, do not generally slice the ball.  In fact, if they don't hit it straight, they tend to draw it; and, if they miss, the miss is generally a hook.  But, the more important issue, is the rather smug reference to Ben Hogan, as though his comment refutes any notion of a correct swing being controlled by the left hand and side.  Mr. Hogan is often quoted as saying he wished he had three right hands.  But, he is not being quoted in context.  When just that quote is given, without the preamble to it in Hogan's book Five Lessons the Modern Fundamentals of Golf, it can be very misleading.

In his book, Five Lessons, Hogan spoke of the swing being a two-handed action, using the analogy of throwing a medicine ball at a target.  When talking about this he wrote:

"The great value, as I see it, of thinking in terms of a two-handed action is that it keeps the left hand driving all the time.  During the climactic part of the swing, the left wrist and the back of the left hand begin to supinate very slightly... (this is where Hogan gets into pronation and supination, which sounds very complicated because of the fancy words, but is actually quite simple.  The crux of what he teaches is so important, it is in capital letters.) AT IMPACT THE BACK OF THE LEFT HAND FACES TOWARD YOUR TARGET, THE WRIST BONE IS DEFINITELY RAISED. IT POINTS TO THE TARGET AND, AT THE MOMENT THE BALL IS CONTACTED, IT IS OUT IN FRONT, NEARER TO THE TARGET THAN ANY PART OF THE HAND.  When the left wrist is in this position, the left hand will not check or interrupt the speed with which your clubhead is travelling.  There's no danger either that the right hand will overpower the left and twist the club over.  It can't.  As far as applying power goes, I wish that I had three right hands!"

So, there you have it.  Hogan wished he had three right hands; but only so long as the back of his left hand was driving toward the target, and supinating very slightly, so as to ensure that those three right hands couldn't ruin the shot.  Besides, Hogan might have wished for three right hands; but we are not Ben Hogan.  One right hand, kept from becoming unruly, should suffice for us mere mortals.