Ben Hogan and the fundamentals of golf

by Ian Butcher, PGA Teaching Pro at Kings Acre Golf Course

“Some measures, long esteemed to be of paramount importance in the swing, are really not that important at all. On the other hand, some measures considered only to be of secondary importance seem to me as invaluable.”  (Ben Hogan)

It may seem self-evident, but actions that cause the results you are after are the only true fundamentals of golf. And what golfers are seeking is a correct, powerful and repeating swing. That’s it. That’s all.

As an advocate of the kind of teaching that allows the player to learn the exact feeling of movement, I’m going to make available to you the things I’ve learnt about developing a correct and powerful and repeating swing, and from here on, when I talk about the golf swing, it’s the correct, powerful and repeating I’m talking about.

There are those who would have you believe that learning, understanding and using the golf swing is impossible, but this is simply not so. However, in order to develop the swing it is absolutely essential that your thoughts are focussed in the right direction. You may well need to take on board that every natural instinct you have to accomplish your objective is wrong – absolutely wrong.

The golf swing is counter-intuitive and probably against every natural instinct you may have.  The probability is that, for most golfers, doing the precise opposite of what they are inclined to do is likely to bring them much closer to having a perfect swing. While every good golfer learns this the hard way, some find it a little more readily.

There is no such thing as a perfect golf swing – don’t believe anyone who tells you that there is, don’t strive for it and, most importantly, never get frustrated if one day you think (wrongly) that you’ve found it only to discover that the next day you’ve lost it again.

If you are serious about your game, you need to study the true greats of golf. Of these some, but not all, have been able to describe how they developed their game and how they arrived at a golf swing which was was correct, powerful and repeatable in all conditions. Foremost of these in both his game and his unique ability to describe it is Ben Hogan.

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Ben Hogan

Hogan’s view was that good golfers learn, by laborious trial and error, a set of fundamentals or moves that are right for them because these fundamentals stand up under pressure. He said that he had never seen a successful player who does not adhere to their fundamentals.

Hogan also expressed the view that muscular freedom is probably more important in golf than in any other sport. So the key is building a swing you can depend upon; one that can withstand all conditions, and also the vagaries and conscious interference of the mind.

Ben Hogan won the first of his nine major championships in 1946 and his Power Golf was published in 1948. Strangely, Hogan started golf playing left-handed, then shifted to play right handed, then tried cross-handed, before becoming established as the right-handed player we know and remember. In the first chapter of his book Power Golf (called The Evolution of the Hogan Grip) Hogan said that he made a radical change in his grip in 1945, arriving at this as a result of a series of trial and error experiments which commenced when he first took up the game.

“Contrary to anything you may have read on the subject, there is no such thing as an individual born golfer; some have more natural ability than others but they’ve all been made.” (Ben Hogan: Power Golf)

While Power Golf was written over 60 years ago, I think it is important for anyone serious about improving their golf swing to listen carefully to what Hogan said in this early book. What he says in his early works are of as much relevance now than they were then. I also think that his early thoughts have more  insight and therefore more relevance than his later, and more famous, Fundamentals as it is possible that by 1957, when that book was written, he had become more than a little fed up with people asking him about his ‘secret’. (The elements Hogan regarded as fundamentals to every good swing are the proper waggle, the proper hip turn and the proper backswing plane.)

It was as early as 1947 that Hogan made the startling statement that he had discovered the secret of hitting a golfball correctly and that he would no longer have to work at his game as hard, nor suffer the doubts about how his swing would function from day to day. How golfers throughout the years have longed to be able to make a similar statement!

However it was not for another eight years (1955) that he was prevailed upon to reveal his secret to Life Magazine and, of course, another two years before the publication of Fundamentals. In order to really understand why it took him so long to reveal his secret we need to understand the sequence of Hogan’s development.

The writer Herbert Warren Wind said that Hogan was about 13 years old when he started working on his game conscientiously. The first thing he worked on and changed was the movement of his left knee. However it was 1932 when he learnt the importance of the waggle by observing Johnny Revolta and not until the mid 30s before he got the the correct hip turn by studying movies, and 1938 when he grasped the concept of the plane, by analyzing the plane on which a baseball batter swings.

So it wasn’t until 1946 that Hogan felt confident about his game – confident enough to expect that whenever he went out for a round of golf it was reasonably predictable how he would play. Clearly his scores could vary, but Hogan felt that he could pretty much play in the same way as the day before. Prior to 1945, Hogan says that he had no confidence that his game one day could be the same as the next.

His confidence was gained by not trying to do a great many things perfectly, but by grooving his fundamental movements.

‘All that is really required to play good golf is to execute properly a relatively small number of true fundamental movements.’  (Ben Hogan)

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Jack Grout and Jack Nicklaus

It is revealing that, a couple of decades later Jack Nicklaus said that his teacher, Jack Grout, had also formulated an approach based, not on achieving the perfect swing, but on a handful of fundamentals. Two of these were keeping your head still and proper foot action. Grout also told Nicklaus that Hogan used to practice keeping both heels on the ground and would slide his right foot into the shot as he hit it.

Hogan believed that how you look and how you think you look during a swing are two different pictures. While you can learn some things from watching, he said that imitation is a flawed approach. What golfers actually need is to be able to feel the sensation which is associated with a properly made swing.

Hogan says that it took him years to work out the muscle memory system and be in the habit of performing the proper routine drills and duties. He understood that the problem for any golfer is getting the muscles to be aware of what they should do (muscle consciousness). However, muscles can, through repeated swinging of the club, be trained to perform properly in making the golf swing. Also we need to understand that there is a huge difference between tension and tensity. Tensity is a stiff and joint-locked whereas tension is a spring like coiling as is essential to the powerful swing. Only by repeatedly practicing the correct swing will you get the correct feeling  – a feeling that Hogan suggests that a waggle is vital as a trigger to the series of feelings that will then continue without conscious effort throughout the swing.

Henry Picard had helped a struggling Hogan with game in the late 1930s. Picard’s was often quoted as saying that, if the club is not in plane, you can ‘quit talking about what you are doing down at the ball’. Picard had himself learnt a lot from Alex Morrison, and Picard says that what Morrison had taught him was about the coordination of arms and body as a unit, and how you get this organised is critical – this includes footwork, the rolling of the ankles, posture, balance, and the plane of the swing. Picard strongly felt that the vast majority of golfers swing out of plane.

Picard believed that Hogan could really bend around, and that he had ‘great posture, footwork, everything’. It was Picard who, in the 30s, had told Hogan to weaken his left hand grip. This was necessary because of Hogan’s flexibility and the amount of counterclockwise motion with his left hand and arm in the downswing. It was Picard who told Hogan to ‘wheel it’ and to ‘turn it loose’, because he believed that if you have a true swing (as he believed Hogan possessed by then), ‘the harder you hit it, the better you hit it’. If you return the club at full capacity to the ball, the club head will true itself up at impact.

It is significant that Henry Picard and Jack Grout also worked together because these underlying fundamentals link Nicklaus with Hogan.

At the 1953 Open Championship, Ben Hogan had a discussion with Bob Halsall, Pro at Royal Birkdale. Both agreed that controlling the right elbow and forearm, and not allowing them to overpower the left, was key to a successful swing. Joe Norwood, who was Pro at Los Angeles Country Club, has previously said that Hogan had ‘the greatest left arm in golf’. Hogan told Norwood that he had spent two years working on his left arm.

In 1955, Hogan gave a key speech at a PGA meeting on how to develop a swing that repeats.

“Here are the fundamentals I think are applicable to everyone: 1. Grip, 2. Posture 3. Arms 4. Swing 5. Follow-through. As you swing through the ball the right arm straightens and, most important, the body follows the swing.”  (Ben Hogan)

Hogan went on to say that he has noticed one other vital thing; that good golfers have their left wrist leading at impact. ‘It seems a small thing, but I have found it universally true’. At impact the left wrist of a good golfer is slightly convex, while that of a poor golfer is generally concave.

The Walsh brothers, both Professionals, studied top players. They were interested in left-handed tendencies and observed a loop in Hogan’s swing. They discovered, by studying hours of movie footage, that when the downstroke was started the initial club head motion was towards the right hip pocket. This produced a looping effect.

Al Watrous

Al Watrous

Al Watrous, another famous player, reckoned that Hogan had some sort of special sequence. He observed, by watching live, Hogan’s apparent ability ‘pass’ the club through the ball. He noticed a delay of the club head but also terrific speed. Watrous said he didn’t know how to initiate the movement but was convinced that it was somewhere in the body. He reckoned there was something in what Tommy Armour had talked about with hitting with the righthand, and also observed a ‘heaving action’ with the body. This seems to relate back to Joe Norwood and his comment about ‘using the body as a counter weight’.

Alex Morrison stated that ‘once you have mastered the correct swing, the excellence of your game will depend upon the the extent to which your mind takes charge and the nicety with which your body responds to its commands.’

Finally, according to Hogan’s contemporary Jimmy Demaret, Hogan’s game took roughly 30 years to develop.  Demaret famously said that Hogan ‘dug his right foot in and used a swing which is power-jammed at the base’ and that a good deal of his control secret lay in his understanding of the spin of the ball. Hogan himself also said that he wanted to know how the ball would react and how it would behave upon landing.

So, as these great players, teachers and analysts have all found, when improving your swing, you need to understand that there are fundamentals and moves. And you will discover that these fundamentals accumulate, both in what they describe and how they are described. Demaret said that Hogan could tell you what fundamentals and moves he used and how he used them but would understand that a different set may be right for someone else.

And for Hogan, a total package was always the goal: Fundamentals and moves, along with the integration of fine technique, clarity of thinking along appropriate lines, and a predictability and understanding of shot making, what happens to a spinning ball and how to play each hole.

‘Standing to the ball takes little talent, but does take a great deal of knowledge.The most difficult thing about the golf swing is staying bent over for two seconds.’  (Ben Hogan)

 

 

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