SOUTHERN PINES, NORTH CAROLINA | On an early spring afternoon when the breeze is warm and the pear trees are loaded with white blossoms, Jim Nelford sits in a cushioned chair overlooking the 18th fairway and green at the Mid Pines Inn and Club where he teaches golf.
Conjure up an image of the game at its best – the fairways are a brilliant green, the first tee is busy, and a group that has just finished playing is reliving what happened over a round of beers – and this place has it all.
Nelford fits the place. Dark blue slacks, a gray-striped pullover, sunglasses atop the bill of his cap. He looks like he could have played the PGA Tour and he did before a gruesome water-skiing accident – his right arm was caught in a spinning propeller and nearly had to be amputated – curtailed his playing career in the 1980s.
What Nelford doesn’t look like is a radical, a man who passionately believes that the game is in a crisis because of how it is taught.
“It is the worst taught sport in the history of sports,” Nelford says.
He intends to change that.
Nelford believes the game has been made unnecessarily complicated for everyone from beginners to the best players in the world, almost all of whom have been taught what he calls “golf in a box.”
Essentially a one-size-fits-all theory of teaching the game, a standardized version developed half a century ago and passed down from one teacher to the next – with a personal tweak added here and there – but focusing too much on the wrong things.
At its core, Nelford believes, golf is like baseball or tennis or hockey. But it’s not taught or learned that way.
“We pretty much swing a bat the same way, we swing a tennis racket the same way, we shoot a puck the same way,” Nelford says.
“The game is suffering because it’s about golf swing instead of about golf. You go out and play the game and learn it. If I had to spend that much time learning how to shoot a basketball, I’d have never played the game.”
Who is Nelford to challenge the game’s conventional wisdom?
A native of Canada, Nelford played multiple sports before settling on golf, where he was good enough to win a pair of Canadian Amateur titles as well as the 1977 Western Amateur.
He played the PGA Tour from 1978 through 1988, finishing second twice including the 1984 Bing Crosby Pro-Am where Hale Irwin beat him in a playoff but only after a tee shot on Pebble Beach’s famous finishing hole bounced off the rocks along the water and back into the fairway, setting up a playoff-forcing birdie for Irwin.
Nelford also worked for a time as part of the CBS Sports golf team, calling the Masters among many other events.
“I am changing it. One hundred percent. It’s going to change.” – Jim Nelford
Golf – particularly how the mind works and how the swing is taught – is his passion. As he sits on the Mid Pines porch surrounded by golfers, Nelford talks in detail about how the brain functions, the differences in right brain and left brain, how brain frequencies can be measured and, ultimately, about how the best of the best allow their right brain to guide them on the golf course.
He cites books and studies done by the best and the brightest, referencing them with the casual ease of someone who has done his research.
“Athletics is right brain stuff – balance, rhythm, spatial awareness,” Nelford says. “This is about ‘the zone.’ ”
Listening to Nelford talk about what he’s doing – he’s teaching at Mid Pines while developing plans to share his beliefs to a wider audience – his conviction is almost contagious. He doesn’t think he’s onto something. He knows it.
His intention is to change the way golf is taught across the board.
“I am changing it. One hundred percent. It’s going to change,” Nelford says.
He is reluctant to share many details until he can package what he is preaching but he believes change is needed. He’s not buying what the game’s best teachers are selling, either.
“What characteristics do these guys have? They’re all clever linguists,” Nelford says.
“They are very propagandish. They all can convince an Eskimo to buy a refrigerator. Do they have any special knowledge? None. It all comes from this myopic ‘golf in a box.’”
Consider the best players through the years, Nelford says. Almost to a man, their swings violated convention. Jack Nicklaus had a flying elbow. Lee Trevino had an ultra-strong grip. Jim Furyk, who was found to have the most consistently solid contact on tour, breaks the mold with his swing.
What frustrates Nelford is the way teachers essentially tell students to look the other way.
“Golf has been stuck in a box and no matter who has broken out, we’ve ignored them.
“Is there a proper (swing)? Nicklaus, Palmer, Trevino, Tiger Woods. There is no proper. There is just what works,” Nelford says.
“When it works what do you do? The grip isn’t (a fundamental). Posture isn’t one. Stance isn’t one. So what are the fundamentals of a good golf shot? Face. Path. Bottom of the swing. You get those three right, the ball goes straight.”
Nelford smirks at the Trackman generation.
“You buy a $25,000 machine to tell you that you slice the ball and the face was open. The ball told me what I did. The path and the face,” Nelford says.
No other sport, Nelford says, teaches athletes to play with a high center of gravity. Golf does. That’s wrong, says Nelford, who at 5-9, 155 pounds used his lower body to be one of the longest hitters of his generation with an average swing speed of 117 miles per hour in the 1980s, faster than the 114-mph average of the PGA Tour today. He could push it to 123 miles per hour, equal to the fastest on tour at the time.
“I had the most efficient golf swing in the world,” he says.
Nelford, who has worked with Fred Couples, Brad Faxon, David Toms and others, knows he’s swimming against the tide. But just as importantly, he knows where he’s going. Golf, Nelford believes, doesn’t have to be as difficult as it seems.
“When I got off the tour and got into some business, everybody was lying. There was no integrity,” Nelford says.
“I thought I’ve got to get back to the pile of golf balls. At least there’s truth there. It tells me the truth.”
The man sitting on the porch with springtime blooming around him intends to share that truth.
© 2021 Global Golf Post LLC
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