SI Vault
Gary Player
March 21, 1966
Last summer South Africa's Gary Player won the U.S. Open Championship and, at 29, joined Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan as the only golfers to have won all four of the world's major titles: the Masters, the U.S. Open, the PGA and the British Open. In an era of long hitters Player has consistently excelled on lengthy and difficult courses, not by relying on power but by hitting the ball straight and keeping it out of trouble. Here, with Gwilym S. Brown, he discloses his theory of control golf
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March 21, 1966

Hit It My Way

Last summer South Africa's Gary Player won the U.S. Open Championship and, at 29, joined Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan as the only golfers to have won all four of the world's major titles: the Masters, the U.S. Open, the PGA and the British Open. In an era of long hitters Player has consistently excelled on lengthy and difficult courses, not by relying on power but by hitting the ball straight and keeping it out of trouble. Here, with Gwilym S. Brown, he discloses his theory of control golf

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Take a close look at the two pictures on these pages. They are strikingly alike, and together they show what I think is the essence of my golf swing. Most golfers underestimate the damage caused by a long but off-line shot that reaches the rough. It is difficult to get the subsequent recovery shot to the green, and pars become bogeys or worse. Thus inaccuracy undermines power. I am a strong believer in what I call control golf. I am convinced it is the best style for me—and will be for you. The secret of a controlled golf swing is to be in the same compact, functional and well-balanced position at impact as you are at address. At right I am merely poised to swing, while on the page opposite I am hitting as hard as I ever care to. Yet in each case, as you can see, five important things are nearly identical: 1) my head is well down, facing the ball or the point of impact; 2) my right shoulder is below the left at address, ready to move around and under my chin at impact; 3) my right elbow is tucked in snugly against my right side; 4) the line from the top of my left shoulder down to the club head itself is straight; 5) the back of my left hand and the palm of my right are approximately square to the target. In the following pages I will tell you how to achieve what you see at right, namely, duplicating at impact the position that you are in at address.

This is the first move of what modern golfers call the one-piece swing. It begins from a square stance, meaning that imaginary lines drawn across the toes, the knees, the hips and the shoulders all point to the target. The stance should be square, regardless of what club is being used. Frequent adjustments from shot to shot not only make the game unnecessarily complicated but also make accuracy far more difficult to achieve. The backswing should be initiated not by the hands, but by the left shoulder turning down and moving under the chin. The club, hands and arms move back together, almost as if they were all joined by a single spoke protruding from the hub of a wheel. This one-piece motion also helps keep the hands and club face on line with the target as long as possible.

At the top of the swing there should be no conscious pause, only the appearance of one. The fact that the club looks as if it has come to a full stop in this position is an indication that the backswing has been made slowly, smoothly and at a good tempo, all important ingredients in accurate hitting. As the club comes back, the wrists should remain uncocked and the club face on the target line until the rhythmic flow of the backswing, naturally and without forcing, eases hands and wrists into a coiled position. Meanwhile, the left shoulder must turn well under the chin and the right elbow remain close to the body. Finally, look at the left heel and remember it. This heel should never leave the ground on the backswing. Keeping it flat insures good balance, which is vital in control golf.

Golf professionals will talk for hours about the various theories of how to begin the downswing, but any method must achieve one thing: it must move the golfer's weight off the right foot and onto the left as quickly as possible. Some pros accomplish this by concentrating on pulling the club down sharply with the left hand at the start of the downswing. Others do it by sliding or turning their hips to the left. These are fine, but I favor a different method, a pushing action off the right foot. This seems to me to be a much quicker and more vigorous way to shift the weight. To get the feel of this, try thinking of a baseball batter about to swing. He strides into the pitch. It is this movement that gives him leverage and power. The same principle applies in golf. You do not move your feet, but by mentally stepping into the ball while keeping your left side firm you start the downswing with a good weight shift.

Having made a proper weight shift, you must now manage another motion that the weekend golfer too often ignores. This is turning the right shoulder under the chin and under the left shoulder through the downswing. It is not particularly easy to do, and it requires some practice and concentration, but without it a combination of power and accuracy is impossible. The correct turn of the shoulders provides accuracy, because it holds the club head on line to the target as the club head comes into the ball, as it hits the ball and then well into the follow-through. The correct turn provides power because the full force of the swing is directly behind the ball, not dragged across it from one side to the other. Think of keeping the shoulders working in a vertical plane, and make your chin dig down into your shirt, as I am doing at left. You may wear your shirts out, but your body turn will be fine.

Is the follow-through artistically showy but technically unnecessary? "It is what happens when the club head meets the ball that counts, not what happens afterward," some golfers say. True enough, but what happens when the club head meets the ball is often related to what happens afterward. In resolving to take a full, smooth follow-through you practically force yourself to do several things correctly earlier in the swing. Consider the two drawings above. The dreadfully familiar follow-through on the left is both incorrect and incomplete. It incorporates two mistakes that surely have had a bad effect on the shot. First, my right shoulder is too high, for it is level with the left. The chances are that I have sliced or pulled the shot. Second, since the club has not come all the way down behind my back, I quite probably eased up as I brought the club into the ball and also failed to shift my weight fully to the left. The result had to be a weak shot. At right you see none of these mistakes. My shoulders are on the proper planes, taking into consideration how much farther the club has been taken around. My hands are high. They have carried the club well behind me and into a position that can be reached only after a complete and rapid weight shift and a vigorous swing through the ball. So remember: if you take half a swing you are going to double your score.

Let's face a fact. Anyone who thinks he is going to become a good golfer without practicing has got more cheek than sense. But let's add two more facts: practice can be enjoyable in itself, and intelligent practice will certainly add to your enjoyment on the course. Here are the best practice tips that I know: 1) Especially after a long layoff, stand on the practice tee with your feet close together and hit shots with an eight-iron (below) while concentrating on only three elements of the swing—keeping your head still, turning your left shoulder under your chin on the backswing and turning your right shoulder under on the downswing. Because your feet are close together you will also develop more effective hand action. 2) Work on alignment by placing a club on the ground aimed at a target, take your stance with your toes touching the club and hit shots to the target. 3) When you practice, work on only one thing at a time. For instance, hit 20 shots thinking of nothing but taking the club back by turning the left shoulder, then hit 20 shots concentrating on getting your weight quickly over to the left side, and so on. 4) When you warm up for an actual round, take it easy. Loosen up thoroughly by swinging one club, then use plenty of time between practice shots. The rapid-fire method of warming up sends you out on the course with your swing askew and mind unsettled.

It is not exactly a violent sport, but even in weekend golf-especially on the final holes of a long, slow round—fitness counts. I am a little fanatical about fitness, partly because am small and need to put out extra effort to keep up with the Jack Nicklauses of this world and partly because I play professional golf, where stamina is a factor. The important muscles for a golfer are in the hands, wrists, forearms and legs. To strengthen these I do a great deal of running and weight lifting. Weekend players, understandably, seldom have the time for heavy doses of exercise, but there are some things I recommend. If you do not want to run, at least try running in place or skipping rope at home for five minutes a day. This will be good for more than your golf. Perhaps once a day take a pair of five-or 10-pound weights and rotate your wrists (below). This will build up the hands, wrists and forearms. Finally, find yourself a five-or six-pound length of pipe and swing it a few times a day as if it were a driver (above). This will stretch out and strengthen every muscle that is used in the golf swing.

So much for the physical aspects of control golf. But there are mental aspects, too. First, why, in this era when everybody is thinking about power, power, power, should you play control golf at all? I'll tell you why. You are not Nicklaus, who has the muscle to overcome the difficulties that his distance may get him into, nor are you Arnold Palmer, who has the boldness to ignore trouble. And neither am I, which is why I have based my whole philosophy of golf on keeping the ball in play. Last year during the U.S. Open, which I won at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, a survey was made by the USGA of every shot on the 7th hole, a routine par-4. The average score on the hole from tee shots not in the fairway was 4.28, compared to 4.05 from the fairway. In short, even the pros would lose something like four strokes a round by letting the ball get into the rough or sand. You would surely lose more, since your recovery shots would be weaker. Once you have convinced yourself about how much a shot into the rough costs, you will forget about power and concentrate on control.

By concentrate I mean use your head as well as your controlled swing. Consider your normal game. The chances are that you make more double or even triple bogeys than you do birdies. Many of these disastrous holes are caused by ill-conceived gambles for birdies. You must learn to study a course and play percentages. Let me give you two examples. The first is the 6th hole at Bellerive, a watery, 195-yard par-3 (below left) where the U.S. Open field scored twice as many double bogeys as birdies, not to mention a few 6s, 7s, etc. On this hole I decided to forget about fading or drawing the ball toward the pin (dotted lines) and instead aimed at the back of the putting surface and a well-mowed spot between two bunkers. This gave me no chance at a birdie, but set up an easy chip for a par and kept me well away from the calamity posed by the water. I got three pars and a bogey—which was better than most of the field. The 11th at Augusta National (lower right) is a 445-yard par-4 with a large pond along the left side of the green. We are all tempted to try for distance off the tee here, but where you drive the ball is much more important than how far. Though at first glance it may seem more dangerous, I always try to play to the left (solid line). This means my second shot is aimed away from the water. No matter how far he has driven, the golfer on the right side has more water worries than I do. A slight hook and he is sunk (dotted line). In my 35 rounds in the Masters I have never been in the water on this hole. Sound strategy pays off, so make it a part of your game.

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