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For Better Or For Worse

It’s nothing new, this business of top players inexplicably changing swings after great achievements, one in particular that we’re going to try not to mention.

As superstitious as golfers are, especially the professional species, you’d think that when one of them wins a major championship, they’d resist changing anything, even socks. Yet, there’s a long list of players who took their games completely apart after a major win, looking for something they didn’t even know was lost.

Ian Baker-Finch won the 1991 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale and almost immediately started to change his game, all in the name of “getting better,” which is no more than a euphemism for “hitting it longer.”

Baker-Finch had a putting stroke like a rhapsody, yet he felt he didn’t hit the ball far enough, and within a few short years, he was off the pro tour and into a television commentary booth. Baker-Finch got so bad that he once hit it out-of-bounds – on the left – on the 150-yard wide fairway at the first hole of the Old Course at St. Andrews.

Padraig Harrington won three majors in 13 months – the 2007 and 2008 Open Championship and the 2008 PGA Championship. He, too, said he wanted to “get better.” Yet, the truth is that Harrington is a serial tinkerer and he wandered off the reservation so far that he has not come close to winning on any tour since August 2008. He has become the worst player to have won three majors.

Michael Campbell won the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, beating this one player that we’re trying not to mention here, and almost immediately he tried to “get better,” too. He has practically disappeared from competitive golf.

Logic would tell you that if you had what it takes to win a major, the same thing would be sufficient to win two majors or three or even 14, which is the number this player we’re trying not to mention has amassed.

Jack Nicklaus never radically changed his swing, thinking that what was good for one major was good enough for 18. He saw his teacher, Jack Grout, once a year for a tune-up on the basics – grip, stance and alignment. The rest of the year, he figured out things on his own, owing to the fact that he had the best mind in the game.

Sam Snead was thought to have one of the best swings – if not the most admired – in the game, yet his was not entirely technically correct. He lined up slightly to the right of his target and came over the top a bit, resulting in a slight fade. Snead worked hard on his swing, but it was tempo that he worked on most. He often practiced barefoot to get the desired rhythm.

Snead played perfectly by feel – and no instruction – saying often that the swing needed to “feel oily.” He also said about the swing as an individual adventure, “You gotta dance with the one that brung you.”

Certainly, this was the age before gurus and video and TrackMan and the incessant need for change at any cost. Jim McLean, a student of the swings of Snead and Ben Hogan – and a great teacher in his own right – tells a story about playing college golf at the University of Houston with his teammate Bruce Lietzke.

Lietzke was called “Leaky” because of his ball flight produced by a swing that took the club inside and looped over the top. It caused a slight fade that Lietzke could dial up on command and was as reliable as the sunrise.

Concerned about his unorthodox action, Lietzke’s coach, Dave Williams, took him to Austin to see the legendary Harvey Penick. Lietzke hit balls under Penick’s watchful eye on the range at Austin Country Club for half an hour and Penick never said a word.

Finally, he asked Lietzke, “Son, do you ever have any trouble hitting the ball?”

“No, sir,” came the reply.

“All right, let’s go over to the putting green and let’s see if we can do anything for you there,” said Penick, who knew not to mess with results, no matter what the swing looks like.

Even for non-major winners, radically changing a swing can be a lottery at best. Matt Kuchar, who won The Players, made a big change two years ago, which he says took him all of five balls — not millions — to “get it.” On the other hand, Kevin Na is making a big change after winning in Las Vegas last year and it has him completely and inexorably untaped.

Hogan was the exception. He was thought to have the most fundamentally sound swing ever produced and he took his game apart, even after winning three majors, after his near-fatal automobile accident in 1949.

Hogan fought a vicious hook early in his career and he taught himself how to hit a low fade after weakening his left hand grip and “digging it out of the dirt,” as he described his venture into new territory. After he returned to the Tour, he won six more majors, including the only three he entered in 1953.

“The only two people who have ever owned their swings are Ben Hogan and Moe Norman.” That was said by the player we’re trying not to mention, even though he was once thought by many to be the greatest who ever lived.

Apparently, in the three separate incarnations of his professional swing, he’s never owned any of them, particularly this latest one, even though he has 14 majors with the first two. At best, he’s just renting.

Besides, if Snead was right, this whole thing is just a dance and you’re always better off moving to the music rather than merely counting steps with two left feet.


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