1. Find your own rhythm
Smooth, rhythmic golf swings are often likened to music. But great swings really are more like dancing, because they contain a pattern not only of sound but also of movement. Longer swings (think Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Payne Stewart) are especially beautiful because they're done to a graceful waltz rhythm. Shorter swings can be as beautiful in their own way but are performed to a driving, straight-beat rhythm (think Ben Hogan, Nick Price, Greg Norman).
People who watched Hogan play said it was like watching a machine stamp out bottle caps, and that plain and steady rhythm gave it that look. Keep in mind, you can swing to a fast waltz or a slow waltz, a fast rock beat or a power ballad. Just make sure you stick with it all the way.
2. Don't fight your inner clock
Tempo is the rate at which you execute the rhythm--the speed of the waltz, to use our example above. The swings of Sam Snead and Tom Watson display nearly identical rhythms, but two very different tempos. Watson is a fast thinker and, therefore, his swing is relatively fast. His swing is plenty long but brisk. Same with Lanny Wadkins. Snead's swing was slower, which is how he did everything. Phil Mickelson, who has an ambling gait and gives long answers, has a swing that reflects his personality. The idea is to marry the rhythm that synchronizes your swing with a tempo that fits your personal temperament and inner clock--your "tempo-ment." You can't fight your natural tempo. If someone says your swing has gotten quick, be wary of trying to slow it down. Instead, check your rhythm and make sure you're completing each stage of the swing.
3. Dial in your practice swing
If you watch Tiger Woods make practice swings early in a round, you'll notice that they're quite varied. Some are short and fast; others long and slow. He usually doesn't play his best early because the rhythm and tempo he's aiming for don't always fit the shot he has in mind. But on the last few holes you'll notice his practice swings are shorter and more brisk. Those swings are the real Tiger in my opinion, and they unify the rhythm and tempo of his actual swing. When Tiger incorporates those crisp practice swings, he becomes truer to himself. That's when he closes everyone out. When you practice, work on tying together your rhythm and the pace of that rhythm. It will solve a lot of flaws.
4. Try to emit a 'flash of geometry'
The final component of a swing that is aesthetically pleasing is the "flash of geometry." The angles and positions of the swing have an ephemeral quality of perfection, like a moving work of art. Hogan's swing was the best at evoking that. The brain sees triangles, lines, planes and so on, all perfectly aligned and occurring in sequence. You can pick them apart and point to each one, but it's the way they fall together that inspires awe. When someone tells you your swing is looking great, they're seeing that flash of geometry.
5. Strong legs can save you
There never has been a great player who didn't have extremely strong legs. Jack Nicklaus might have had the strongest legs ever. After Tom Watson lost the 2009 British Open to Stewart Cink in extra holes, he said, "I had no legs in the playoff." Without the stability, balance and drive that strong legs provide, the sequence of motion is disrupted, and it's impossible to find good rhythm.
But take heart, because legs can be strengthened. Moe Norman used to load up a tour bag with balls, throw it over his shoulder and walk up and down hills. Lunges and climbing stairs are great leg strengtheners. Carry your bag when you can, and go for a walk after work. If you make a little mistake with your swing, strong legs can save you.
6. Beware of a too-light grip
Poor grip pressure, be it too light or too firm, will channel from your hands into every part of your body and make a smooth swing impossible. Amateurs err on the side of gripping too lightly; Sam Snead's adage that you should hold the club as though it were a bird wrecked an awful lot of swings. Jackie Burke said that what Snead didn't tell you was, the bird was a hawk. See, Snead had incredibly strong hands, so a grip pressure of "2" for him might be a "9" for you.
If you have average hands and hold the club too lightly, you'll instinctively tighten your grip during the swing and disrupt your rhythm. How firm should it be? You should be able to hit five practice balls in a row without having to regrip the club. Weak fiingers can be strengthened. Hogan squeezed tennis balls; Henry Cotton liked to hang from a metal bar for as long as he could. Remember, control of the club rests in your hands.
7. Dance your way into the shot
When you're walking onto the dance floor, you're already dancing. You start to pick up the rhythm and beat as you move out to your spot. It's the same with the swing. You pick up the beat, then you come in.
Putting teacher Geoff Mangum told me that if you want to get your timing right, imagine there's a band playing and you're going to join in and play your part in time. Good players follow a rhythm from start to finish, from how they select the club and hold it, to how they step into address, even to the completion of the waggle. Think of your swing like a solo in the middle of the song: Simply begin the swing when your "part" comes along.
8. Don't let visuals disrupt rhythm
When I won the Players in 1997, I was proud of how I detached myself from all the danger on that course. Visuals can be a real threat to your rhythm. Whether it's out-of-bounds, bunkers or other hazards, the architect is trying to disrupt your mental and physical flow.
Playing with someone whose swing is faster or slower than yours also can throw you off. Snead didn't like to watch Hogan because he feared it would disrupt his own rhythm. See visual dangers for what they are, and be objective about them. There's no reason you can't make your driving-range swing in any situation.
9. The alignment that really matters
Every year there are hundreds of guys at Q school who look unbeatable on the range. Very few make it, and people often ask me why. What is the principle of golf? It's the "line of compression," or the ability to send the hands to the precise spot that aligns the club with the desired ball flight. This is the one alignment that trumps everything, and your build, age and technique don't matter.
Witness Jim Furyk, Johnny Miller and Lee Trevino--all experts in the line of compression. It's their mastery of the position of the hands in time and space that separates these great ball-strikers from merely stylish swingers.
10. It's never too late
Loren Roberts, Fred Funk and Kenny Perry have long been accomplished players, but their ball-striking now is better than it was 20 years ago. For whatever reason--maybe freeing their minds by accepting their swings more--each of them has found something in his sequence of motion or rhythm or tempo that turned on a light. Whatever it takes to do that, keep trying. Whether it's something you read here, a song on the radio, advice from your pro, whatever, you might find the thing that makes everything line up. It's never too late to learn to play with the band.
To see an expanded version of this article in video form, go to secretinthedirt.com.