Use the Force, Luke.... Trust me, Luke.
Jim Furyk did a double take the first time he saw his golf swing from behind. It was January 1994, and he was tied for the second-round lead of the Northern Telecom Open in Tucson. Since Furyk had local ties—his parents lived in town, and he had helped Arizona win the NCAA championship two years earlier—he was all over the nightly news. Furyk was at his folks' house watching TV when the sportscaster went to the videotape. There it was, the up-and-out backswing, the right elbow doing the Macarena, the inside loop that Miller Barber could My through and the forward swing that looked like Lee Trevino's, 20 pounds or 20 years ago. Startled, Furyk turned to his dad, Mike, who had helped develop the unusual move, and said, "Wow! It doesn't feel like that."
Such a revelation would have unnerved most Tour rookies, but not Furyk. He believes in himself and his swing. He trusts it, and even if he didn't, he's probably too darn stubborn to change. So the day after viewing the mortifying Loop, Furyk shot 67 and remained tied for the lead. He wound up sliding to a tie for seventh, but that was enough to prove that he—and the Loop—belonged on the Tour.
Now, three years and two victories later, Furyk, 26, has established himself as one of the Tour's top young players. Phil Mickelson, with nine wins, and Ernie Els and Tiger Woods, with three each, are the only players under 30 with more victories. Still, Furyk is not often mentioned when the young lions are discussed, even though he has as many wins as Steve Stricker, one more than Justin Leonard and two more than David Duval and Tommy Tolles. Blame it on the Loop, which often obscures how well Furyk plays. Two weeks ago he nearly retained his Hawaiian Open title, losing a four-hole playoff to Paul Stankowski, who birdied three of the four extra holes. In 1995 Furyk led the Tour in putting, and last year he finished 14th in accuracy off the tee. Terrific putting and straight driving are the keys to success on championship courses, which explains why Furyk, in '96, tied for fifth at the U.S. Open, 13th at the Players Championship and 17th at the PGA. He can also play a surprising number of shots. In the third round of this year's Hawaiian Open, for instance, Furyk had 253 yards, downwind, to the pin at the par-5 18th. His caddie, Steve Duplantis, suggested that he bump a four-wood, but Furyk envisioned something else. "He pulled out a three-iron and hit a low heater," says Duplantis. "It still goes farther than 250. He could've hit a bloop three-wood or whatever he wanted. Among the younger players he's as good a shotmaker as any of them."
Furyk has the single-mindedness to win majors and play in Ryder Cups, so we might as well get used to the Loop. "I've described it on television as a) 'an octopus falling out of a tree' and b) 'he writes Merry Christmas on the backswing and Happy New Year on the follow-through,' " says CBS commentator David Feherty. "But I'd love to have his swing. His position at impact is as good as anybody's. It's remarkable the way he does it. It's unusual to see a swing like that in the U.S., where the college system churns out players with textbook swings."
In an age of video-aided instruction and homogenized swings, Furyk stands out as a throwback to the days when Barber, Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Doug Sanders and Trevino, among others, had swings that weren't considered orthodox. "All the older players had unique swings because their only feedback was the ball," says swing coach and CBS analyst Peter Kostis. "Only when cameras and then video came along did players sacrifice ball flight for stylistic movement. Too many writers, and even some players, have this equation: Good swing equals low scores, bad swing equals high scores. That's not it. A good swing has to have a shape to it. Whether that swing is like Sam Snead's or Trevino's, you can always feel a rhythm. When you try to go up and down on a perfect line all the time, it's too easy to make a mistake either way. Jimmy's got the ultimate swing in terms of shape, which allows him to focus on rhythm and timing."
Furyk's father was a club pro in Pennsylvania who later moved into the golf-equipment business. "I realized his swing was different," says Mike Furyk, who as a kid in the tough steel and coal town of Lower Burrell had to hide his clubs because his father considered golf to be an elitist game. "But this is the swing that feels good to him. If anyone put him on plane, he said, 'I can't tell where it's going. I can't trust it.' So we tried to perfect the swing he trusted."
Furyk's natural athleticism allows him to make the adjustments necessary to execute the Loop. He's 6'2" and played quarterback in junior high; catcher on the Manheim Township High baseball team in Lancaster, Pa., until he quit in his sophomore year to focus on golf; and point guard throughout high school. Playing the other sports helped. "He clears his legs like a champ," says Paul Azinger, another player whose style is considered unorthodox. "It's an athletic move. Hey, when Nicklaus came out, some said he'd never last. The bottom line is, there's no such thing as a model swing."
Furyk also putts unconventionally—cross-handed. At a corporate outing years ago in Uniontown, Pa., Mike Furyk asked Palmer and Gary Player what they would do differently if they could start over. "Palmer said, 'I'd probably putt cross-handed. I really believe it's a better stroke, but it's hard to change in the middle of your career,' " Mike says. "I asked Player the same thing and got the same answer. I thought, Two great players like this can't be wrong." So when Jim took up the game at 12, his father insisted that he putt cross-handed. He has since holed so many putts that nobody has bothered to try to change his style.
Change his swing? Yeah, that did come up as Furyk considered college scholarship offers. "I remember one guy who watched me play in a tournament that I won," he says. "He told my dad, 'I can't wait for Jimmy to come down to our school. We'll fix his swing and make him a really good player.' " Furyk's dad told the coach, "You're exactly what we're not looking for."