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How this backswing 'fault' supercharged Jack Nicklaus' golf swing


Jack Nicklaus’ best year on the PGA Tour was 1972. He won two major championships, the Masters and U.S. Open, and claimed seven total victories. He also lapped the tour in earnings and took home his second (of five) PGA Tour Player of the Year awards.

In the 1970s, Nicklaus was known for his power off the tee. With his driving distance back then, he would outpace many of today’s tour pros, and he was using a persimmon driver and a balata golf ball. Safe to say, Nicklaus knew how to launch it.

Thinking about this, I realized that his power secrets were likely sitting in Golf Digest’s archives, waiting for someone to find them. After perusing every issue from 1972, I found a bit of wisdom from the Golden Bear’s best tour season that can help you max out your distance.

Nicklaus sometimes was called out for his distinct “flying elbow” on the backswing, where his right elbow would pull away from his side as he swung to the top (pictured below). At that time, a more around-the-body swing shape was in fashion. But, what looked like bad form to some was actually a key to his massive tee shots.


Walter Iooss Jr.

“My ‘flying right elbow’ and ‘upright’ plane have sometimes been criticized as poor backswing form,” Nicklaus said in an article in the May 1972 issue of Golf Digest. “Well, I could change both—but if I did, I’d certainly lose distance.”

In the article, Nicklaus explained that his signature swing features allowed him to make a wider backswing arc, something he said was a major factor for increasing power potential.

Nicklaus said, “Hugging the elbow to my side would limit my arc and thus my power.”

He also figured out that he could increase the width of his backswing and his body rotation by swinging the club a bit more upright on the backswing.

“I also favor a fairly upright swing plane to widen my arc,” Nicklaus said, “Stretching the club straight back from the ball as far as possible, without swaying, then stretching it as high as possible, gives me a much fuller arc than I would achieve by swinging more around my body on a flatter plane.”

This wide takeaway and full body turn helped Nicklaus deliver power and speed into the ball, which translated into distance—and a lot of it.

Use Jack’s fundamentals to maximize your distance


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You can use Nicklaus’ swing principles to get longer off the tee but consider this warning.

“If you decide to try for a bigger arc by swinging on a more upright path, the danger at first might be a tendency to sway or lift your shoulders instead of coiling them and stretching your arms,” Nicklaus said.

To prevent yourself from swaying or lifting in the takeaway, Nicklaus advised gripping the ground with your spikes and feeling like you’re stretching your clubhead away from the ball in a smooth, one-piece motion. Your clubhead, arms, shoulders and hips should feel like they move as one as you do this, according to Nicklaus.

Voila! Now you know how to achieve the powerful backswing positions that helped the Golden Bear blister the ball by his playing competitors.

For more instruction from golf’s greatest players and instructors, check out the Golf Digest Archives.