Delving into the at-times muddled world of golf instruction can be as simple or as complex a task as you wish to make it

Getty images: Central Press

“Every champion, no matter how good he may be, stands on the shoulders of the champions who came before him.”

I heard my father say this with absolute sincerity. Though a five-time Open champion, he lived and played tournament golf always aware of the men who had pioneered the professional game. At first, I took this to mean that no current champion is any better than the champions of old. But now, what I think he might’ve meant is that any generation of players owes a debt to those who, in the years and decades before them, risked their reputations and sometimes their families’ funds to keep the golfing public deeply interested in tournament golf, and thus attract sponsors. Money, in other words; enough to make playing for a living possible. Maybe he meant both things.

To understand the origins of tournament golf you need to read and absorb at least two recent books: Tommy’s Honour by Kevin Cook, and The Long Golden Afternoon by Stephen Proctor, the latter being my favourite. Both are an enlightening exposition of the historical context of what we see today on TV screens, or, if we’re lucky to secure a ticket to a major tournament, what we witness in person. The drama, the pain, the thrill of competitive professional golf has not changed since the mid-Victorian age, even if the tools have advanced and the turf care has reached an extreme close to absurdity (e.g. Augusta National Golf Club).

As the child of a champion golfer, as I grew up I was vaguely interested in the golfers of a century ago. Vardon, Braid, Taylor… then Bobby Jones. They seemed elusive figures. How did they achieve their victories? What clubs did they use? It wasn’t until I took up hickory golf in my early 50s that I began to understand why they remain so revered. Compared to drivers and irons circa-2020, their clubs were ludicrously crude, yet the hickory shafts were – and some remain so a century later – beautiful to wield. In April this year I won the Japan Hickory Open (original clubs division) with a set made before and about the time Jones was conquering all and sundry. I owe my winning shots to the quality of those shafts.

Those great champions – Braid, Vardon, Taylor and Jones – all wrote books about golf. Perusing their chapters and reading their words of advice and instruction is a revelation: nothing much has changed in a century.

John Henry Taylor won The Open five times in 20 years. He founded the British PGA and had a noted course-design career. In 1903 he published a book, Taylor on Golf: Impressions, Comments, and Hints. At 330 pages, this semi-encyclopedia of the game at the time covers everything from Ladies Golf to Machine and Hand-Made Clubs to The Upkeep of Golf Links. Yet for we present-day aspirants to a Stableford score of 36 points or more, the chapters on instruction are timeless.

Regarding the driver: “A good grip spells success, a bad grip naught but disaster… The club must be gripped not by the palm of the hand… but by the middle of the fingers upon either hand.”

Taylor’s various rulings on the different shots a golfer must make are so precise and voluminous such as to amount to a degree course at a university. Yet he came up with the occasional gem: “It is one of the most difficult tasks in the world, the making clear to the pupil that he must conform to the decline of the ground during the playing of a stroke.”

This dictum put me in mind of what Kel Nagle wrote some 60 years later in The Secrets of Australia’s Golfing Success, a worthy read if you can find it in your club’s library. In Chapter 7, “The Chip,” Kel wrote: “There are many weird theories on the art of chipping and putting… but the real secret is practice… One of the fundamentals in all golf is the importance of the clubhead travelling along the slope of the ground. A lot of golfers fluff their shots to the green because their clubheads are not sweeping through square to the ground.”

There we have it: J.H. Taylor and Kel Nagle offering essentially identical advice. Remember, these men fed their families not by gazing at a column of figures, by addressing a judge or by diagnosing a patient, but by studying the lay of the ground and fashioning a golf stroke accordingly. Doubtless, modern golf instruction in magazines or online is worthy of our attention, but let’s acknowledge that an hour or so in the club library poring over dusty old books will deliver equally useful insights.

Having absorbed some of this ancient advice I once dared to ask my father what he thought of it. He was, to be honest, uninterested in the subject, but he tolerated my asking him.

“Hey, Dad. Harry Vardon said, ‘Let the clubhead lead, the left wrist turning inwards, the arms following the clubhead and the right hip screwing next.’ What do you think about that?”

Dad looked bored. “Gee whiz. The writing isn’t very clear. He was a good golfer but not a very good writer.”

“Right. What would you say instead?”

“Draw the club back… stop. Let the clubhead lead… the left wrist will turn inwards. But you don’t have to do these things. They happen. In fact, you can’t avoid them. He’s explaining what’s happening, but you can’t do anything else. It’s a natural thing.”

I had a better response when I quoted Bobby Jones on sand shots: “With bunkers shots, fundamentally every shot is the same. The difference depends on how exactly you guess the resistance of the sand. Take a long backswing and float the club into the sand behind the ball. Short shots off a clean lie in a bunker are dangerous if you don’t take sand.”

Dad in response: “I could chip off the sand often. I never did learn the explosion shot. I reckon the best way to deal with bunkers is to keep out of them. The shape of the club comes into it. Locke was a terrible bunker player, like me. He learned from Von Nida… he gave him a lesson. The outcome was whatever you do, swing it long. The longer the better. You can never have a long enough swing in a bunker.”

These words illustrate how irritating he regarded talk of golf technique. His approach to the game was entirely counter-intuitive: figure out how to hit a ball to where you want it to go, then hit it there. If it doesn’t work out, think harder.

The ancient books are worth a read because the laws of physics have not changed. A century ago, when prizemoney was ungenerous, writing a golf book was a means of earning extra income. These days our favourite players may well have something useful to say about how to hit the shots that confront a golfer from week to week, but which of them would bother to pen a few lines, let alone write a chapter or a whole book?

Dear reader, if you want to play your next round in fewer strokes, perhaps it’s worth turning your back on the digital age for a few hours. Repair to the library and read Taylor, Vardon, Braid, Jones, and then Nagle and a trifle of Thomson. Theirs are the paragraphs that may well deliver you the win you crave. And if it doesn’t work out, think harder.