It would be wonderful to live in a world where we could clone everyone to swing exactly the same, but we don't. With the most unusual position at the top that I've ever seen, Natalie Gulbis' swing is famously unorthodox. The reason so many people know about it is she's been very successful playing that way: In 1997, at age 14, she was the youngest winner of the California Women's Amateur and the youngest to Monday-qualify for an LPGA Tour event. Now an LPGA rookie at 19, she's poised to become a star.
Both Natalie and Tiger Woods came to me through their fathers, who felt that they had taken their kids as far as they could on their own. There's only one Tiger, but Natalie is very athletic and very strong, and a competitor with a good disposition for golf. Smart, too: She knew she needed to alter some things about her swing in order to keep progressing.
In this article, I'll highlight the key aspects of Natalie's swing and explain what we've been working on to improve it. We're not trying to make any dramatic changes -- I don't believe you should throw away what people do naturally. You just want to make it better. That's especially true with pros; they have to play through any changes and continue to play well.
It doesn't take a genius to see the big idiosyncrasy in Natalie's swing. The shaft is way across the target line at the top -- pointing to the right -- a position that makes it impossible for most players to be a consistent ball-striker. Only through repetition and tremendous natural ability has Natalie been able to make do with this flaw. But the causes of the flaw are a lot less obvious.
Natalie has very little wrist-cock in her takeaway. To compensate for the lack of leverage this creates (combined with the added flexibility she gets from an extra vertebra in her lower back) she over-turns and puts the club and herself in that funky at-the-top position. Even there, though, you can see one aspect of improvement: Her clubface used to be much more closed, which led to either a quick snap-hook if she released her hands or a big block to the right if she held on. The crux of our program is to change her position at the top by getting her to hinge the wrists a little more and move the clubhead before she moves the hands and the handle.
Lost in the fuss over what's odd about Natalie's swing are the many things she does well. She has an athletic setup that puts her in a good position to respond to the takeaway. She holds her spine angle beautifully throughout her swing. Best of all is her downswing: Natalie has excellent rotation of the lower body, and her arms match up perfectly with the unwinding of the upper body. The clubhead comes down right on plane (from Natalie's position at the top, the average player would end up with the club stuck too far behind the body) and she arrives at an ideal impact position that she carries through to the finish. The lesson: With talent and hard work, you can excel without the mythical "ideal" swing.
Butch Harmon, voted No. 1 among America's 50 Greatest Teachers in Golf Digest, oversees the Butch Harmon School of Golf at Rio Secco Golf Club in Henderson, Nev.