May 2, 2010

The Big 4: On demand

When we decided to ask the top four teachers in golf to sit around a table and talk shop, we weren't sure what it would take. Answer: four phone calls. OK, it wasn't exactly a 3-wood from 250 all carry into the wind; we were drawing on their considerable respect for one another and a combined 68 years' worth of history with Golf Digest. So given the chance to compare notes, these great teachers--the top four on Golf Digest's ranking of the 50 Best in America

--cleared their calendars. Their discussion on the game, how it's played and its great champions was spirited and revealing, and shows why teachers, tour players and golfers like you tell us they're the best. Here we start a series based on their sessions (See sample video clips at golfdigest.com/ondemand

).

GOLF DIGEST: Since Golf Digest started publishing 60 years ago, we've seen an evolution in instruction and in the swing itself. Let's look at that in terms of the great players. In 1950, Ben Hogan was king. What is it about Hogan's technique that has left a legacy for golfers to follow?

BUTCH HARMON: I think he left a legacy that's both good and bad. The good part is that he was probably the most consistent and phenomenal ball-striker of any player any of us has ever seen. The negative part is that everyone tried to copy Hogan. Unless you had his body type or the rotational speed he had, it was pretty hard to play from such a flat position. But for me, watching him strike the ball, I don't think I've ever seen anybody who could control a golf ball through the air like Ben Hogan could.

JIM MCLEAN: He left a tremendous legacy with his book [Five Lessons]. I'd say that all of us have probably read Hogan's writings more than anyone else's. He was way ahead of his time on a lot of things. And he had that Hogan mystique.

Ben Hogan

DAVID LEADBETTER: Also, if you look at his book, it was the first anatomical approach to golf. In fact, when you look at the muscularity in the skeletal drawings, it was extraordinary. And it really broke the swing down to such an extent, not only from a player's standpoint but from an instructor's standpoint as well.

But I agree with Butch--I think he messed up a lot of people. Remember, Hogan in his early years was a huge hooker; he did everything in his power not to hook it. His legacy is that he thought about the golf swing more than anybody, probably before or since.

HARMON: He was doing everything to keep from hooking, and unfortunately 80 percent of people slice the ball. So when they try to copy Mr. Hogan's motion--first of all, without that body rotation and the speed that he had--it's tough. And there isn't one of us sitting here, because we all admire Ben Hogan, who didn't try to copy what he did.


GOLF DIGEST: Then came Arnold Palmer. What did Arnie bring to the game?

__LEADBETTER:__Swashbuckling, because he just went for everything. I mean he had that sort of flamboyancy. He had the strength. He had one of the steadiest heads in golf, and strong as a blacksmith. I'll always remember a shot he hit at the Open when he uprooted a gorse bush [1961 at Birkdale].

His golf swing certainly was self-made. And it was just through strength alone that he was able to achieve what he did. In the early years he was a great putter as well. As he got older, he wasn't as good, but early on he was great.

HARMON: He made a lot of long putts. As a kid, Arnold Palmer was my idol. I used to try to swing like him and wear clothes like him, just do all the stuff he did. He made 40- and 50-footers like they were nothing.

MCLEAN: The other thing is the respect that other players on the PGA Tour have always had for Arnold Palmer. More than anybody, I think, in the history of the game. The players have always really loved Arnold. He's been the King to the public, but also the King with the players.


Jack Nicklaus

GOLF DIGEST: Jack Nicklaus. What's his legacy on how golf is played?

__HANK HANEY:__His record, the major championships. That's what people seem to measure greatness by, and he's won more than anybody else.

HARMON: He was the first one to bring yardage books into vogue on tour. He was the first one to chart golf courses and actually come up with the distances, and how he would hit every shot. In his early days the old-timers would laugh at him because he had this book that he wrote out. And you'd see him out in the fairway looking at a yardage from maybe this sprinkler head or this tree or something. A lot of the players who came before him played by feel. Jack was the first real mechanic to go out there and do it by the numbers.

The other thing I remember about Jack Nicklaus when he was younger--Hank, you know this--is how far he could hit the ball. With a wooden driver and a soft ball. He hit the ball a mile.

__HANEY:__And how high he could hit it, too.

__HARMON:__And how high he could hit it with a 1-iron. He could hit a 1-iron like most people could hit a 9-iron. This thing went straight up and came down so soft--and traveled so far. My gosh, he was so strong.

MCLEAN: I think Jack Nicklaus was way ahead of players of that era because of the time he spent at the beginning of each year with Jack Grout. He had a teacher he stayed with, and he and Mr. Grout actually started each year pretty much like Jack was a beginner. He had that German mentality--this, this and this--and he had his own teacher to watch him. Not very many players were doing that at that time.

LEADBETTER: Apart from the ball-striking, you'd have to say that he's probably the greatest strategist. You always hear, he wasn't particularly good with little flop shots, so he would never leave himself that shot. He was a great charter and a great thinker. So not only was he able to strike a ball well, he was able to think his way around a golf course.

__HARMON:__His record is what stands out. The 18 majors are sensational. But go back and look at the seconds and thirds he had in majors. He had a 20-something-year period when every time a major was played, he was right there on the last few holes with a chance to win. He was the guy who, if you beat him, you probably were going to win the tournament.

__LEADBETTER:__He was able to change the Hogan philosophy. Because honestly, philosophies tend to go around players of certain eras. And when Jack Nicklaus came onto the scene, people started to swing more upright. It was a fuller swing [than the flatter Hogan swing], which for the average player was helpful at that time.

GOLF DIGEST: Tom Watson almost won his sixth British Open last summer, just before turning 60. That says a lot about his longevity. What's been his contribution?

HARMON: Well, Stewart [Cink] is one of my students, so I was happy that Stewart won, but if Tom Watson had won the Open Championship, which he was a putt away from doing, I don't think there's anything in sport that could have matched it. I don't know what sport you could go to or where we could find a champion who could have pulled that off at his age. Most guys, when you look at films from when they were younger and you look at them now, their swings are much shorter because their bodies don't let them do it anymore. He's actually in a better position at the top now than when he was younger.

LEADBETTER: Plus, we always have to remember, he came up in the Nicklaus era. That made it tougher for him to achieve what he's achieved. Phenomenal player, and you have to think if he had putted as well in his 40s as he did in his 20s and 30s, how many tournaments he would have won.

HANEY: Yeah, that's amazing that he can still win, and almost won the British with the way he has putted. Early in his career, he putted like you were talking about Arnold, making all those long putts. You just remember him always gunning putts by and making every single one coming back. Now he hasn't putted as well, yet he still wins. It's amazing.

__LEADBETTER:__One of the things with Tom, too, is how he loves the game. He has a passion for the game, more so than you see from any other player. He'll go out in any type of weather. He's the first to admit, he loves it when the weather is bad. He just has that love to play.


Seve Ballesteros

GOLF DIGEST: Seve Ballesteros, the great Spaniard.

__HARMON:__He was probably the most fun to watch of any great champion I've ever seen. He was like an artist. If you put him in trouble, he'd hit these miraculous shots. You put him in the middle of the fairway, he'd be liable to miss the right bunker. But if you put him in trouble, where he didn't have to think about mechanics or what he was trying to do, he just hit the most gorgeous shots. His short game was unbelievable.

Whatever it is, Seve had it. If he walked into a restaurant at night with that blue cashmere sweater thrown over his shoulder and standing tall, everybody in the place stopped and looked at him.

I remember around 1995 I did some work with Seve, and I went over to where he lived in Pedrena [Spain]. After dinner we were practicing in the fairway--there was no range--and he was hitting it all over the place. So I walked up about 30 yards in front of him--he had a 5-iron--and I said, "Now hook some balls around me to the caddie." Every one of them went right around me to the caddie out there. He hit a high hook; he hit some low fades; he hit some high fades--no problem.

I walked away and the balls went all over, which said to me when he's in trouble and has to create, all he does is see the shot and create it. When he's not in trouble, I don't know why, the mind would shut off.

LEADBETTER: I worked with him for a year, and I'll always remember that I tried to get him shorter and more compact, because his back couldn't stand that old swing of his. As he got older, not only did he hit it crooked, but he hit it short and crooked. Not a good combination.

In his early years with that huge turn--he had probably a 120-degree shoulder turn--he hit it a long way. But he didn't change his swing. His mentality was such that he wouldn't allow himself to make changes. He wasn't a mechanical guy; he was purely feel.

__MCLEAN:__Watching him play in New York, where he won the Westchester twice, he created unbelievable energy in the crowd. I watched him tee off on the 10th hole [a short par 4]--it was the Friday round--and it was packed. And he blew that driver right on the center of the green, and people just went crazy. They loved seeing him pull that headcover off.

HANEY: He was to the short game what Hogan was to ball-striking. Besides the recovery shots, everybody tried to copy his short game, learn from his short game. You always hear stories about him pitching with a 3-iron and hitting lob shots with a 3-iron. At the tournaments, everybody would want to watch him hit those short-game shots.


Nick Faldo

GOLF DIGEST: How about Nick Faldo?

__LEADBETTER:__Yeah, he was the modern-day Hogan; he had to know everything about what he was trying to do. He was the ultimate mechanic, but at the same time he had tremendous feel. He was a guy who really made it through hard work, and he wasn't the most popular guy, that's for sure. That's the way he operated. He was very self-centered and very focused. I think he changed the way players thought about the game by how hard he worked at it. He was one of the first guys since Gary Player who got into the fitness side of things.

I always felt that he lost a little bit when he came over to the States and played full-time. When he was in Europe and made these little forays over here and played in the majors, he was pretty much favored to win every major--well, maybe he and Greg [Norman]. But he lost that aura. He lost that intimidation factor that Tiger certainly has over players today. That's when he started losing it.

HARMON: David, when you worked with him to change his swing, didn't he take almost a whole year off from playing and just worked on it?

__LEADBETTER:__Yeah, he played some, but basically we laid out a plan. This was going to be a two-year deal. He lost a lot of sponsors during that time. From my standpoint it was very interesting when you have a talented player like that. He was just so bound and determined to make it, you could see ultimately something good was going to happen, with the amount of effort he put into it.

His whole goal was to win the British Open, and he wanted to learn to flight the ball. At the time when I started with him, he hit these shots, these spinners, and he had no run, so into the wind, he was atrocious. It obviously wasn't the greatest credential to win a British Open. So that was really what we set about doing: controlling the flight of the ball.

HARMON: For me, the three players I thought were the best ball-strikers were Hogan in his era, [Lee] Trevino in his era, and then came Nick. And just for that exact reason you said, that he controlled the ball through the air so well. Once you got a hold of him and changed his swing, which I loved--getting more on top of the ball--all of a sudden his ball flight was just perfect.

And from Hogan to Trevino to Faldo, those are the three that I look at who probably hit the ball, tee to green, as well as anybody.

__LEADBETTER:__I have to say, too, he admired what Hank and Mark [O'Meara] did together, because probably prior to Nick and myself getting together, Hank and Mark did, and you were seeing some great results at that time. So I think he looked at it and thought, I really do need some help.

__HANEY:__Mark O'Meara actually told him, "Hey, you need to get some help. You should work with David and put the time in."

MCLEAN: I would also say that Faldo was a lot like Nicklaus in being able to have a game plan and sticking to it. I always remember he made a double bogey at the first hole on Sunday at the Masters one year when he won [1990], and he just continued doing the same stuff. You know, if he was going to hit a 3-wood here, if he was going to play to this part of the green; he just kept going. He had that kind of mentality, to really put the blinders on. You still hear him talk about that on TV.

He's changed a lot from his playing days. I remember Bruce Lietzke told me he played a round with him at Doral, and Nick didn't talk to him--zero for the round. On TV he's got a great personality, and he's funny. That's a big change. He was kind of a Hogan-type guy as far as not looking around, just down the fairway.


Greg Norman

GOLF DIGEST: David, you mentioned Greg Norman. What will be his legacy?

LEADBETTER: Obviously Butch has worked so much with Greg, but I think his legacy will be that he didn't win what he should have won. Because for as great a player as he was, winning only two majors is really very sad. Here's a guy who at any given time could take it to them by the throat. He was just snakebitten in majors.

So much charisma, and people would gravitate toward Greg. I mean, you just didn't know what to expect. Sort of an Arnold Palmer combined with Seve, I suppose.

HARMON: Unfortunately, like David said, he's going to be remembered for the tournaments he didn't win. Greg Norman to me is one of the best golfers I've ever seen in my life. I'd never seen a guy who could take over a golf course like this guy could. This was obviously before Tiger came along and could do it. He was so confident.

But he was the best driver of the ball with a wooden driver. He not only could hit the ball long, he could put it in the right parts of the fairways. His short game was amazing. I don't think he'll ever get credit for that. He was an incredibly aggressive player at all times, and I think often that's what hurt him. Then again, that's what made him so popular.

To this day, the best round of golf I've ever seen was at Royal St. George's in '93, the last round, when Greg shot 64. I bet there was a 25-mile-per-hour wind, and he literally never missed a shot.


GOLF DIGEST: What was it about Norman's driving technique that made him so good?

HARMON: Mechanically, his swing changed through the periods of his life. In his early years, he had a big reverse-C type of swing and threw the ball way up in the air. And the years that I was with him, I tried to get him out of that reverse-C, to take the block to the right out of his swing. That's why I got him shorter and tried to get his arms in front of his body, and he flighted his ball down a little more. He had a great sweeping motion for a driver. I mean his M.O. in his mind and in his body was geared toward hitting drives. When he set up to hit a driver, man, you knew he was ripping the thing.

And he had a tremendous amount of guts. He wasn't afraid of any shot, and that was one thing that hurt him, especially in majors. You can't be that aggressive in majors all the time and get away with it.

MCLEAN: He led all four majors going into the last round in 1986. Things could have been different for Greg, as you say. He was right there. The guy was unbelievably talented. And like a lot of the great drivers, he had a lot of width in his backswing, and just exploded through the golf ball. There was no fear in that swing.

LEADBETTER: He was a great Jack Nicklaus fan. He grew up reading Golf My Way. What he wanted to do was to adapt it to be able to become a great iron player, which he was. Greg really didn't look comfortable in his little three-quarter shots; he looked comfortable hitting full shots.

__HARMON:__It's funny, in the years I worked with him, we'd be at the [British] Open, and he'd always say, "I'm going to take a little off of this." He'd flatten his ball flight out with his irons and just hit it perfect every time. Tony Navarro was his caddie, and we used to say to Greg, "Why don't you just hit every iron shot like that?" And he'd say, "No, that's not an iron shot."

__LEADBETTER:__But you know what? At Birkdale a couple of years ago when he tied for third, he was hitting those shots. So why the hell didn't he hit those shots in his heyday, you know? Probably the best player with the worst record, with all due respect.

HARMON: And you can't really put a lot of it down to luck, either. I mean, the Bob Tway shot [1986 PGA Championship], when he holed it out of the bunker at Inverness, that was a heck of a shot. But Greg shot 40 on that back nine. If he takes care of business, it doesn't come down to that bunker shot. But that's just him being aggressive. He's like that in the way he drives his car, the way he scuba dives. It's the way he does everything.


GOLF DIGEST: So we come to Tiger Woods. He's obviously in the middle of his career, but to this point, how has his game changed the game?

HANEY: His work ethic is something that I look at. The amount of effort he puts into it and his will to win. When I first got into teaching, I always heard the same thing [about the best ball-strikers]: Hogan, Trevino, you heard Moe Norman and Nick Faldo. But none of those players could get the ball in the air. Not like a Nicklaus or a Greg Norman or a Tiger Woods. And if you look at the game today, you almost have to change your criteria for what you consider a great ball-striker. Because when you have pins that are three from the edge and greens that are rolling at 12, and they're rock-hard, you have to be able to get the ball up in the air.

Tiger's ball-striking is a lot better than people probably give him credit for. A lot of times they get lost in some of the wild drives, but when you're powerful, that comes with the territory. You can't compare every powerful player to Greg Norman, who, obviously, we'd all agree is the best driver ever. There's a little give-and-take somewhere. You can't be the best at everything.

HARMON: You touched on it: his work ethic. That's in the gym and in his preparation. He'll look at his yardage book at night, and go over how he's going to play every shot the next day.

The other thing about Tiger is how many times he's changed the mechanics of his swing. He did it a couple of times under me, and you guys [Hank and Tiger] have done a couple changes. He has a desire to excel, and never thinks he gets there.

When he was younger, he didn't spin the ball very well. I used to encourage him to talk to Jose Maria [Olazabal]. So when he was chipping, he'd go over to Ollie and say, "How do you spin the ball? I can't spin it." Look at him now with his wedges--he's a Houdini. He'd take a weakness and make it a strength.

Today, these young guys come up to him and ask. And he's happy to help, because that's how he learned. That's a pretty cool thing and separates our sport from any other.

__MCLEAN:__At Doral, where he's won three times, we've had the chance to watch him practice. He hits these different shots at different heights. Draws, fades, straight balls. He hits a lot of shots at half speed. He just looks to me like he's tremendously creative.

HANEY: The whole basis for his playing is that you have nine shots. So a low, medium, high straight ball--exactly what Jim's referring to. And then right to left--low, medium, high--with the ball starting right of the target and not hooking past the target. Then the same thing with the fade, ball starting left--low, medium, high--then fading, but not past the target on the right. And he'll play those nine shots from 20 yards out.


Tiger Woods

GOLF DIGEST: Hank, most of the great players we've been talking about had a stock shot, even a shot they made famous. Does Tiger have a stock shot?

__HANEY:__His normal shot is a little bit of a draw from right to left. But exactly what Jim is saying, he tries to find out what he needs to work on through those different shots he plays. But he'll play any shot at any time.

MCLEAN: There's not a lot of guys out there who are working the ball like some of the old-time players, who would work a shot to a back-left pin or a right-front pin. But Tiger does it.

__HANEY:__If you have power, you can work the ball. You don't have to because of the equipment today. But there's no doubt if you can play different shots, it's a better way to play.

HARMON: Hank knows this as well as I do. If you ever want to get Tiger to do something, just tell him he can't do it. He's going to prove you wrong--and I mean quickly. If there's a certain shot he's struggling with, tell him, "Oh, we'll go to something else, because you can't hit that shot." In five minutes he's hitting it.

MCLEAN: Nicklaus was like that. If he knew he had to make a putt, he made it every time.

__HANEY:__Tiger pulls off some incredible shots. I remember the year [2005] he won Augusta when he holed out [on 16] from off the green. He played 21 tournaments that year on tour, and that was only the second shot he holed from off the green all year long. But he plays memorable shots--that one at Augusta, we saw it 10 million times--so they stick in your mind.

__HARMON:__Tiger gets the ball up and down better than anyone. On a back nine, when he absolutely has to stay in a tournament, he has this extraordinary ability--Nicklaus had it--to get the ball up and down. Every time. Whether it's a 15-footer, or it's hitting a great pitch shot, he just has that ability.