Is This the Worst Golf Instruction Book of All Time?
Photo by Mark Hooper
Before Facebook, before Snapchat, before the Internet even, it went viral. It was "the secret" to better golf. Hogan's Five Lessons had nothing on Square-to-Square.
And then, almost as quickly, it was golf's Edsel/New Coke/Trump Steaks, the game's great cautionary tale. And it was our flop, too, one of Golf Digest's first books, and a doozy.
The Square-to-Square swing arrived in the late 1960s when Jim Flick, a young teaching pro from Cincinnati, gave a talk heard by Dick Aultman, the editor of Golf Digest. Aultman was enthralled by Flick's swing concept and, in 1970, authored and published The Square-to-Square Golf Swing. When Square-to-Square Golf in Pictures followed in 1974, Flick was co-author. Both have since died, Aultman in 1997 and Flick in 2012.
The books promised a swing designed for modern equipment; less handsy because the stiffer shafts didn't require it. It was a swing easier for regular golfers to repeat, Aultman and Flick said, because it didn't require them to "fan" the clubface open on the backswing, then return it to square by impact. The popular swing of the era relied too much on timing, they said. Average players needed something simpler.
And what was simpler than setting the clubface in a square position at the start of the swing and leaving it there, the authors asked. "Putting the hands and clubface into the impact position during the takeaway, when the swing is slow-moving, is intended to eliminate the need to manipulate them into the impact position either at the start of, or during, the faster-moving downswing, when such manipulation requires split-second timing," they wrote. It was a swing that emphasized pulling of the left side on the downswing, and using the big muscles of the back and legs, rather than the small muscles of the hands and arms, for clubface control.
To clarify, Square-to-Square meant the club stayed square to the target line, not the path. In fact, it mostly created a closed face relative to path.
Simple as it sounded, the concept caught on like the Kardashians. "Never in 20 years has Golf Digest published anything that has created such a commotion," the magazine's publisher, Howard Gill, told The Kansas City Times in one of the hundreds of columns about Square-to-Square in those days. Young stars such as Bert Yancey, who developed one of the game's most fluid swings, swore by the method. From 1970 to '74, he finished top-five in majors three times. He won the '70 Bing Crosby National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach and the '72 American Golf Classic, losing two other tour events in playoffs.
"I am sold on the method as being the most efficient way to swing," he said back then.
Teachers also were intrigued. "I can remember Flick doing a lot of PGA of America seminars. Word got around," says Gary Wiren, then the association's education director. "It involved a 'backward-K' look to the golfer at setup, and the curl of the right hand under the left on the backswing. At the top the face is shut, not unlike some of the bigger hitters today; then comes a drive with the legs. Not a lot of club rotation in that swing."
Can you do that? A lot of people couldn't. Others could, but not consistently. The authors said it took "dedication."
That was an understatement. That first move back, with the curling of the wrist, was neither natural nor easy for a lot of golfers. And the idea of holding the face square to the target line was a challenge. Hall of Fame teacher John Jacobs said it was a swing designed to solve "the problems of its creators." The curling-under move occurred in their swings, Jacobs said, because they had "flattish actions begun by rolling the face open. If I'd been teaching them, I might have advised them to feel as if they were curling under. But that doesn't mean that fix should have been given to the golfing population at large."
Some were not as diplomatic in their assessment. One teacher who knew Harvey Penick said Penick shied away from clinics in those days, because he didn't even want to discuss Square-to-Square. Bob Toski, who later would establish the Golf Digest Schools with Flick, saw the dangers from the beginning and said so: "I told Dick Aultman to burn the book."
Not only was it unnatural, Toski says, it lacked power. "You couldn't create any speed, because there's no hinging. Think of throwing a ball. Your hand works open and then toward the target and then closes. Think about a door. You open the door. You walk through. You close the door. You can't shut a shut door. They were trying to simplify things, but they complicated them." What's more, on instinct, many golfers wouldn't keep the face square. "The more they tried to keep it square to the line with no wrist cock, the more they wanted to open the face at impact. So 90 percent of them were slicing and pushing the ball," Toski says.
The second book, Square-to-Square Golf in Pictures, tried to correct "certain misunderstandings" that made the swing so difficult to execute. Those who interpreted the first book's reference to a relatively upright swing plane as meaning perfectly upright had overdone it, the authors wrote. And so had readers who took "square to the target line" literally, visualizing a swing path like a "moving Ferris wheel;" a path on which the clubhead would never leave the line. "Of course it does leave the target line," they wrote, trying to clarify former edicts.
Even with those clarifications, adopters struggled. The authors used Jack Nicklaus as a model to prove the swing worked but failed to realize that Square-to-Square required Nicklausian strength—strength that a lot of weekenders lacked. "To keep the face on line as you swing the club back and through," says Hall of Fame instructor David Leadbetter, "you needed to be pretty darn strong. Years ago I tried it. It felt awkward."
One of Tiger Woods' former coaches, Hank Haney, working back then for Jacobs, also disapproved of the method. "We kind of made fun of it, because it made no sense to us." It also led to injuries, Toski says, because of the wrist positions needed to keep the clubface square. Golfers were likely to develop tendinitis or other stress-related issues.
Former tour pro Bobby Clampett, a longtime student of golf swings who has his own instructional school, Impact Zone Golf, says the lasting moral of Square-to-Square is that no one swing fits everybody. "When you study the swing close up, you see every possible variation of backswing among great players," says Clampett, who added that his pursuit of honing various methods undid his playing career. "Looking for answers in the style of swing rather than what the player is creating at impact is an epidemic that's killing the game."
To that point, Wiren quotes a Hindu philosopher. "This is my way. What is your way? There is no the way," he says. Eventually Flick saw the light. "He backed off Square-to-Square concepts, because he grew like we all do," Wiren says. "He learned more about the golf swing."
In 1971, Flick joined Toski and launched the Golf Digest Schools. Their philosophy: Small muscles in the hands and arms, not large ones in the legs and back, control a swing's motion. "When he joined Toski," Leadbetter says, "what they taught was about as far from Square-to-Square as you can get."
One student who saw Flick years later in Arizona posted this note on the Web: "He told me [Square-to-Square] was the worst thing he ever taught." That's impossible to confirm, but former Golf Digest editors acknowledge that the subject embarrassed Flick, and they steered clear of it. For Flick, it was both a personal and professional shock.
"It proved that when you think you know it all, you're just getting started," Wiren says. "His teaching changed after that. He never taught a method again."
Nevertheless, that method endures, thanks in large part to Flick's relationship with Champions Tour player Doug Tewell, whom the teacher mentored in the early 2000s using some of the Square-to-Square principles. Tewell won eight times afterward and swears by a somewhat modified Square-to-Square technique that he teaches through his website, Squaretosquaremethod.com. He has sold 350,000 videos on it, he says. "It's really an easier method for most players than the modern rotational swing," Tewell says. "Fewer moving parts. Keeping the club in front of you; not trying to exaggerate the shoulder turn, which average golfers, especially aging, inflexible ones, can't do."
So for Flick, Square-to-Square represents a legacy and a blemish on a Hall of Fame body of work.
"In retrospect, Jim had two careers," Leadbetter says. "He was fortunate he didn't have social media."
METHOD TO MADNESS: OTHER INSTRUCTION BOOKS TO READ CAREFULLY
You've met the refugees: The guy stuck forever on his left side. The one who can't get off his right. The friend who started his backswing halfway back until he was all-the-way lost. The perennial hooker who now slices on command.
The Square-to-Square Golf Swing is not the only instruction book to mess people up.
"The lesson is, methods rarely work," says instructor David Leadbetter.
For example, Ben Hogan's Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf is the most widely known instruction book of all time, and the one many teachers use to justify their theories. But it has been a disaster for anyone who lacks Hogan's need for an anti-hook swing or the strength to pull it off. It has literally sent thousands of balls into the woods or water on the right.
Another famous attempt to homogenize instruction came from Jimmy Ballard. His How to Perfect Your Golf Swing debuted in 1981 and gained traction when Curtis Strange won U.S. Opens in 1988 and '89 with Ballard as his instructor. Among the book's key points was a healthy, connected body shift away from the target in the backswing.
"That's because there were so many golfers who had a problem with reverse pivoting," says instructor Hank Haney.
The problem was, however, that the pros of the time who were Ballard students, such as Strange, Hal Sutton and Jesper Parnevik, were much more adept at this shift than the average 20-handicapper. The amateur result was often a hang-back mis-hit.
Three decades later came the book that recommended the opposite—keeping your weight on your lead foot. The Stack and Tilt Swing, in 2009, by Mike Bennett and Andy Plummer, advocated that you stack weight on the left side and increase pressure on the left during the swing. The idea was to ensure solid contact by removing the timing issues involved with Ballard's weight shift. In essence, you are pre-setting your impact position at address. Sean Foley, one of Tiger's coaches, took a similar approach—although his star pupil never fully adopted the principles. Stack and Tilt was so widely discussed a decade ago, the authors were quizzically interviewed by PBS' Charlie Rose.
But critics said it led to back problems, required unusual strength and didn't generate enough power. Some tour pros who were coached by Bennett and Plummer, namely Aaron Baddeley and Mike Weir, eventually drifted to more conventional swing methods.
Perhaps the most unconventional swing ever touted in an instruction book—actually two books—was inspired by the unique action of one of the game's all-time best ball-strikers. Peter Fox's Natural Golf: a Lifetime of Better Golf and Natural Golf: Get a Grip on Your Game, took the elements of Moe Norman's homemade swing and tried to sell them as the true way to play golf. Turns out, Moe's action was just too awkward a change for many.
Finally, from awkward we turn to just plain confusing. No book has stupefied more golfers than Homer Kelley's The Golfing Machine, a 1969 treatise based on a geometric approach to the swing. Made popular by tour player Mac O'Grady in the 1970s, and recently cited by PGA Tour winner Bryson DeChambeau as the manual for his swing, the book was disastrous for most people trying to interpret it without a skilled instructor. Kelley's analysis offered options and once you choose, it started a progression. Miss a step and your swing is toast.
"When they say you have to do everything in the method, that it's the only way—watch out," Leadbetter says. "Actually, it's one way."
Haney agrees it's dangerous, but adds: "Every method is good for somebody. Just make sure you're the right somebody." – Bob Carney