Swing doctors hold sway in ongoing power struggle
Published 20/03/2011 | 05:00
At the conclusion of the WGC Cadillac Championship last Sunday, Butch Harmon sat preening himself on television while being congratulated on a one-two finish at Doral. In this age of ubiquitous golf coaches, the surprise was in not hearing the ninth and 10th place finishes of Hunter Mahan and Tiger Woods being attributed to Canadian tutor Sean Foley.
Where top players once sought for answers "in the dirt" of the practice ground, it seems that many practitioners in the modern game are incapable of functioning without a coach close at hand. As a consequence, they are denying themselves the fascinating voyage of self-discovery which characterised such players as Seve Ballesteros and our own Christy O'Connor Snr.
After learning the fundamentals from Bob Wallace, the professional at Galway GC, O'Connor effectively became his own coach throughout a remarkably productive career. But how good was he in terms of technical excellence? Very good indeed, according to his contemporary, John Jacobs, whose coaching skills earned him the sobriquet 'Dr Golf'.
"Without a shadow of a doubt, Christy is the best striker I have ever seen," Jacobs told me. "People talk of Sam Snead and Ben Hogan and I've seen them all. And for me, Christy was tops. Absolutely superb." Analysing O'Connor's position at impact, another contemporary, Henry Cotton, enthused: "Note the bent right arm, seen in all class golfers."
Given the subject's obvious appeal to him, I sought the views last week of Neil Manchip, national coach to the GUI. "Christy obviously had incredible self-reliance, which is what every golfer needs, especially in the heat of tournament play," he said. "He knew what he was doing. This, at the end of the day, should be every golfer's objective.
"I suppose a coach's responsibility is to help players understand what they're doing so as to effectively coach themselves on the course. I imagine self-taught players would have had very little confusion in that regard. Granted, O'Connor's way was a slower way of acquiring knowledge, but it carried the bonus of generating great self-reliance. It's still there in the modern player. The danger of becoming over-reliant on other people is that you lack the ability to solve your own problems."
Manchip went on: "What a brilliant mind Seve Ballesteros had! His ability to see things like curved lines, totally different imagery from his rivals at the time, allowed him to get up and down from all over the place. He was a creative genius whom, I suspect, coaches could never hope to fully understand."
Woods, too, is a golfing genius, but with a surprising reliance on the support of others. I remember the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama where, only five months after a stunning 12-stroke victory in the US Masters, he experienced serious putting problems. His first thought was to try and contact his father, Earl, in California. And on failing to do so, he ended a much-vaunted debut in the event with only one and a half points.
"I was looking at some aspects of his swing on YouTube clips the other day and certain things look very tidy, though the tee-shot remains a problem," said Manchip. "When he gets it right, though, it's pretty devastating. Maybe growing up with his father, who seemed to do a terrific job as a full-time coach, has something to do with it. I believe Tiger has won so many tournaments simply because of the way he was brought up. The downside, however, is that from always being told what to do, he needs having somebody there on the practice ground, filling his father's role, even if it's only for companionship."
While clearly prospering through the riches in the modern game, coaches have also benefited greatly from a growing emphasis on power. Even with exceptionally good technique, hard-hitting inevitably reduces the margin for error. Yet it is revealing that the players who challenged the Blue Monster most effectively last weekend were Nick Watney and Dustin Johnson, both long hitters.
I'm reminded of Joe Carr's comment about his great rival Tom Craddock. "I suppose what I admired most about Tom was his lovely, smooth action," said Carr. "They say that hitters linger and swingers last. I was a hitter and Tom was a swinger who lasted, despite all the physical problems he had later in life."
Manchip has observed the change. "There are definitely more hitters around these days," he said. "It has been facilitated by technology in bigger-headed drivers and golf balls that go further and further. Mind you, I believe we're at the limit of developments where technology is concerned.
"There are certain guys, big and strong who are not too bothered about accuracy. They're chasing distance the whole time, confident they can muscle it through thickish rough if it goes off line. And length is undoubtedly a wonderful advantage to have, provided you're not sacrificing too much accuracy. Other guys, like Zach Johnson, believe they give themselves the best chance of winning by hitting fairways.
"In an ideal world, purity of technique is the main thing you're looking for without ever hitting the ball hard. That's where Moe Norman, said to have been the game's best-ever ball-striker, excelled. And technically, nothing has changed since his day. We still have the vital impact factors -- the speed of the club-head, the alignment of the club face, the path the club is swinging on and the angle of attack."
In his work with the GUI, Manchip teaches that the art of playing golf boils down to getting the ball into the hole in the fewest number of strokes. This is done by playing to one's strengths while progressing from position to position between tee, green and ultimately, hole. "I like to think I teach a smart game," he said.
It's as simple as that. Yet while coaches continue to flourish on the tournament scene, Pádraig Harrington proved that another factor, far more difficult to measure, still determines success at the highest level. According to Bobby Jones, competitive golf is played "on a five-and-a-half inch course -- the space between your ears." And he contributed this nugget almost 80 years ago.
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