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Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Henry Cotton on Playing With the Hands

Who knew golf could be so complicated? Or is it just the golf swing? As Bobby Jones wrote, "golf is played by striking the ball with the head of the golf club." He also said that while crafting his game as a boy, a game that was good enough by the time he was fourteen to get him into the US Amateur, he never gave any thought to the golf swing. In fact, he could not recall his teacher, Stewart Maiden, ever being drawn into a conversation about the golf swing. To Maiden, and to Bobby, the game was all about striking the ball, not swinging the club.

Harry Vardon admitted that he never thought about the golf swing until he was winning golf tournaments and was employed at a club trying to teach others. On the other hand, Henry Cotton spent much time as a youth struggling to learn the game by trying to mimic the swings of great players until he saw, what was for him, the light. What he ultimately found was that the way to play great golf was to train his hands to control the clubface and strike the ball. 

While Cotton never denied that much of the mechanical teaching, that focussed essentially on the body swinging the club, worked for some, he also believed that sort of teaching led to injury and was mostly effective when used by athletic players who would likely have been good players in spite of, rather than because of, this sort of instruction. The reality, according to Henry Cotton, and Bobby Jones for that matter, is that anyone can learn to play good golf with nothing more than a good set of hands.

This is particularly important for golfers like me, who are suffering from serious physical problems that make a swing governed by the body rather than the hands and arms a virtual impossibility. Henry Cotton, called the "ultimate hands teacher" in the book The Methods of Golf's Masters, had these things to say about playing golf with your hands:

    "Golf is a game of fingers and hands working in coordination with other parts of the body. Good hands plus balance and a swing of the clubhead in a free arc will take care of all the so-called positional basics.
     The best swing in the wirld us only as effective as the strength of the fingers to hang onto the club at impact. If your hands are weak, the shock of impact will move them on the club. Exercise your hands, overtrain them--they can't be too strong...
     A grip in which the back of the left hand ( for a right-handed player) faces the target at address allows that hand to turn more freely through the ball at impact while allowing the right hand to supply the power. (It's worth noting that this is something agreed upon from Harry Vardon, to Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus and many other great players)
     The right hand is the 'finder' hand. Think of it as being an extension of the clubface. It will naturally come from any backswing position to hit the ball squarely if it is properly trained and you allow it to do so.
     Most people's hands instinctively return to the same alignment at impact that they were in at address. If the back of the left hand and the palm of the right hand parallel the clubface at address, then they'll do so at impact if they are properly trained and if you swing freely without manipulating the club."

So, what do we learn from Henry Cotton? The grip is important. At address the back of the left hand and the palm of the right hand, for a right-handed player, should face the target, mirroring the clubface. The hands need to be trained, and they can't be too strong. Sam Snead, Harry Vardon, Henry Cotton, Arnold Palmer, and Ben Hogan, to name but a few of golf's great players, had large, powerful hands. They also had hands trained to return the club to impact correctly and with power.

That, you might say, is great for these players, and anyone else blessed with strong hands, but what about the average person wanting to learn to play better golf using their hands? Henry Cotton said we needed to exercise and train our hands hitting balls. But he also discovered, quite by coincidence, another way that was in some ways superior to even that.

Cotton arrived one day at his club and saw a tire laying on the ground near his parking space. Using the club he routinely carried, he started moving the tire by hitting it with the golf club. The light went on and he started using this exercise for all of his students. Having his students strike the tire, using just their left hand, then just their right hand, and then both hands, saw them built muscle and strength in their hands. wrists, and forearms; and they learned to return the club square to the target at impact, regardless of their backswing. It worked like magic.

Since then, of course, we have had impact bags that served the same purpose. But they don't appear to be a fixture in modern instruction or exercise, which focusses more often on other parts of the body. I guess it's up to you, but if you haven't thought about training and strengthening your hands; and you aren't having much success with just working on your swing; perhaps you should give the tire a try. It certainly couldn't hurt. And if you do, don't firget Henry Cotton, who was one of golf's all-time great players and teachers.