A Life Full Of Lessons

December 14, 2010


*For more than 60 years -- as an English club professional, at his eponymous schools, consulting various national programs and advising the greats of the game -- John Jacobs has taught more golfers well than perhaps any instructor who has ever lived. The charismatic Yorkshireman has done it with wit, charm and empathy, but most important by imparting a breakthrough unifying principle: diagnosing swing faults by looking at how the ball flies. Because he cut to the game's essence, a who's who of today's top teachers, including Butch Harmon

, Hank Haney, Jim McLean and Jim Hardy, name Jacobs as one of their most important influences. Along with a record of success, Jacobs' experience testing technique in the fire of competition -- he played in 14 British Opens and won his singles match at the 1955 Ryder Cup over then-Masters champion Cary Middlecoff -- gave him added credibility with the best players. Over the decades Jacobs has "had a look" at, among many others, Peter Thomson, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus

, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Ernie Els. "It's frightening, because you could do real harm," says the 2000 World Golf Hall of Fame inductee. "But I would go forth because something inside that I could not ignore told me I was right." *

Awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1997, Jacobs also achieved fame as a television commentator, author of several books (including the best-selling Practical Golf), a two-time Ryder Cup captain, and, from 1971-'75, the first director and chief architect of the modern European Tour. Senior Writer Jaime Diaz visited Jacobs, who turns 86 in March, at his home in the south of England. One of the game's great givers is about to share with you some brilliant nuggets from his vast, accumulated wisdom.


I explain well because I was a dunce in school. I've never been so miserable in my life as I was on the first day of class after the glorious summer break. But it's why I became a good teacher. I was always so bored and confused in the classroom, so I know exactly what it's like to not understand. I make sure to give people a careful, logical explanation, along with some fun. I don't want their time with me to remind them of school. But I want them to understand.


I FOUND I HAD A GIFT for feeling like the people I was teaching. Watching their movements, I could put myself in their bodies and even their minds. Probably because I had so wanted to be a great player, I'd already experienced just about every possible problem in the swing. But mostly it's a sixth sense.

MY TALENT TURNED OUT to be teaching, but I wish I'd been given Peter Thomson's talent for competition and winning. He had all those Open Championships, and I sometimes think I'd trade all the teaching for one of those. But in the end I don't think I would. People love when you help them hit it better. You make a million friends among the hackers and choppers. It's an intimate experience, and I've been able to go on and on. I count my blessings.

IN MY FIRST BOOK, Golf by John Jacobs, I remember that the first thing I wrote down on paper was, "Golf is what the ball does." That was my breakthrough as a teacher. I look at what the ball's doing, and then I ask, "Why?"

THE GOLF SWING has only one purpose: to deliver the head of the club to the ball correctly, and to achieve such impact repeatedly. Many unorthodox players achieve correct impact -- so long as it's repeatable, it's OK. If golf were about getting into correct positions throughout the swing, then the greatest players in the world have had it wrong. The only position that matters is the club's at impact, which is determined by the clubface alignment (the most important factor), the path of the swing, the angle of attack and the speed of the clubhead. The biggest step in becoming a good player is understanding how the flight of the ball teaches the correct geometry of impact.

I'VE FOUND TRUTH in just about every book or article I've ever read on the golf swing. But there's usually one thing or another in any particular piece of writing that, when applied by the wrong person, could cause a real setback.

GOLF INSTRUCTION has two distinct phases. There are basic principles, which can be presented as fairly hard and fast and form the skeleton of a good swing. The other has to do with different methods of playing the game, about which a teacher cannot be too dogmatic.

MANY THEORIES HAVE come and gone. Most of them I've disagreed with. Many arise from the originators being focused on fixes that apply to their own games. When the Square-to-Square theory was unveiled in the late '60s, advocating that the takeaway should be initiated with a counterclockwise curling under of the left hand, I found that both co-authors -- my good friends Jim Flick and Dick Aultman -- 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.

BEN HOGAN'SThe Modern Fundamentals of Golf kept me in business. High-handicappers would buy the book and immediately weaken their grips and begin rolling the club open. After that, all they could do was hit a glancing blow 50 yards to the right. The book should have been called How I Play Golf, and it would have been a great anti-hook book. But the title suggested it was good for everyone.

THE FEELING OF WANTING to take the club straight back, rather than on an arc, is intuitively human, but it's the core of many faults. We think the longer we can make a straight line, the straighter the ball will go. But golf is a side-on game with the ball on the ground, so it's the opposite.

THE HARDEST THING about golf is that the natural correction is wrong. Slicers see the ball go to the right and aim farther left. It only makes their slices bigger.

THE CORRECTION given to a student is inevitably going to be uncomfortable because in all likelihood it's an exaggerated contrary of the student's fault. But the real challenge is imparting the fix so the particular individual will understand. Because if they can grasp the "why," they'll stay with it.

WE DON'T ALL react to words in the same way, and the differences in our imaginations, particularly about a thing so subjective as golf, make us more likely to grasp an idea in different ways. Put it one way, and maybe 40 in 100 will get it. Put it another way, and another 20 will get it, and so on.

__I'VE FOUND THAT__about 80 percent of players will underdo a fix and revert in the direction of their original tendency. Only about 20 percent will overdo it.

THE DANGER WITH GOLFERS taking lessons is, whenever they try something new, their first instinct is to tighten up, and that starts with the grip. As Peter Thomson used to say, "Always grip lightly because you'll instinctively firm up at impact anyway."

MANY PLAYERS never start in an address position that makes a windup back and through possible. If you set up right, it's all done; you don't need any more thoughts. Leave the rest to the good Lord.

GOLF IS NOT PLAYED exclusively with the hands, nor is it played exclusively with the body. The whole art of the game is to synchronize body action with hand and wrist action. You just can't play well enough with either one alone. It's a swinging wrist cock. I like to call it two turns and a swish. That's the correct coordination of movement.

THE COMPLETE FREEDOM of the club from end to end is what we're all looking for. It will come square at impact because we are geniuses. Absolutely we are geniuses. That's one of the things you have to be fearful of losing in the individual. Getting very deep into technique can lead to some successes, but it's dangerous for most.

BEING A GOOD DEMONSTRATOR is important. It helps you be authoritative. Why should people believe you if you can't do it? I was a good demonstrator.

TRYING TO REPEAT a practice swing when actually hitting the ball seldom works. A golf swing is only as good as the position of the clubface at impact, so there is a natural and necessary apprehension about making square contact with the ball. A practice swing has no impact and so is devoid of the necessary focus.


always best known as the sharpest eye in teaching.

__I TAUGHT SO MUCH__that the only time I got to practice was when it rained. As a result, I became very good in wet weather.

I NEVER REALLY TAUGHT the short game. Basically I would say, chipping is arms, while pitching is arms with some wrist in it, but never independent of the body. I did enjoy the short game, but I made a mistake myself in that I never practiced it enough. I wasn't good enough for the level I wanted to be. I got it wrong with putting as well by trying to be too straight. I saw the line and tried to take it straight back and through the line. But putting is a side-on game, too. I figured that out after I finished playing. Stupido.

I WAS VERY SYMPATHETIC toward the bad golfer who tried. I got huge pleasure out of getting someone hitting good shots. I remember Mrs. Calendar, who took up the game at age 60, after her husband died, to get her mind off her loss. She saw me every week and did exactly as I told her. I was good at teaching that sort of person, and her dedication brought out the best in me. In two years, she had a handicap, played with the ladies' group, and became very fond of the game. And that's probably the best job I've ever done.


MY PRIORITIES in a good player are: one, temperament; two, technique; and three, physical strength. Of these, the right temperament for tournament competition is by far the most important.

I WASN'T AS CONFIDENT as a player as I've been as a teacher. The first hole was critical to me: If I made a bogey, I rarely played well. Great players don't think like that.

IF YOU'RE A TOP-LEVEL competitive golfer, nobody knows your golf better than you do. Only you know what's in your mind. You can hit a shot and say, That's no good, but I reckon I can get through the round that way. And that's so key to being able to compete.

THERE IS FOR MANY people an ideal golf swing and a competitive golf swing, and taking the ideal swing into competition can be a mistake. Know the easiest shots for you, and don't try the difficult ones under pressure. The way to win competitions is to hit all shots no worse than 80 percent of their potential.

GOLF CAN BE such a difficult game because there are so many different ways of playing it correctly. For golfers to improve, they have to first decide on their own correct way, and then stick with it.

THERE ARE VERY FEW times in life, even with the best players, when everything is working to the effect that you can do what you want. But it can give you a false sense of security. I often went to tournaments playing very well and then wouldn't play well because I lacked a reference point. But when I came in thinking, Well, unless I remember that, I'm in a real mess, I'd often have a good tournament. I was better when I knew what I couldn't do.

WHEN YOU'RE TEACHING good players, they might turn your explanation into a different thought that works for them. You've helped them because they know how to help themselves. A handicap golfer will tend to hang on the words more literally, which makes it more important to find the right words.

AFTER HOGAN and beginning with Nicklaus, good players gravitated toward a more upright swing, thinking this was progress. But it led to more players than ever taking the club back too straight, with the corresponding compensation of excessively driving the legs. This dropped the club underneath the correct downswing plane, causing a massive push-fade off the tee (or sometimes big hooks) and poor contact from the fairway. I called it rocking and blocking, and after the 1971 U.S. Walker Cup team couldn't handle the tight lies at St. Andrews, The American Disease.

THE MISS WITH the opposite swing -- flat going back and then slightly over the top of the plane -- is a much safer, left-to-right flight that's not long but tends to move back toward the intended line. Such a swing has a lot to recommend it: a one-direction miss, better contact with the irons and lower maintenance. It's a wonderful way to play golf badly.

THE MOST HELPFUL fixes for rocking and blocking are standing taller to the ball and making sure the clubhead is neutral to slightly open at address. Both take the steepness out of the backswing and encourage the correct rotary motion. So does hitting shots with the ball above the feet, as well as hitting drivers off the ground, where good contact is impossible if the path is too inside.

ALTHOUGH IT WORKED wonderfully for them, I think the team of Nick Faldo and David Leadbetter set a bad precedent for players becoming too dependent on instructors. I preferred that players work alone and ring me when they had a problem. When they did, I'd ask, "What's the ball doing with the 5-iron and the driver?" Then I'd suggest a fix, and the player would go back and find his own way, building his self-sufficiency. I would say Jack Nicklaus had the right formula with Jack Grout: Meet once a year, with occasional visits for emergencies.

I'M PROBABLY OVERSTATING it because of my own point of view, but nothing would bore me more than seeing a player hit shot after shot after shot. I'd be bound to say too much. And that's dangerous.

I'VE NEVER CHARGED playing professionals for lessons. I've been well paid because I've been thrilled to be asked, and I've enjoyed their success. good players generally know how to find their games. What's most difficult in golf is keeping it. No one has been able to keep it for very long. I suppose it's because we're human beings.


BYRON NELSON is my golf hero. The best hitter I ever saw. The way he flattened his swing at the bottom with his legs was genius. You could never teach that move. It was better than orthodox, almost beyond technique. He told me that after he went away for six months early in his career to make his backswing more upright, he knew he'd never play badly again. Imagine being able to say that.

PROBABLY THE TWO MOST correct swingers I've ever seen are Roberto De Vicenzo and Ian Woosnam. Roberto was an amazing specimen who had the most beautiful turn that produced a perfect draw, though he got better when he learned to marshal his power with a fade. Woosie is the best exemplar of clubhead speed correctly applied. He is a better Hogan -- more fluid and correct in that he doesn't have to drive through as aggressively and hit as late as Hogan did.

SAM SNEAD was exceptional at keeping his swing in tune. When he would start drawing the ball a bit more than he liked, he would aim off to the right for that week, put a check in his pocket, then go to the practice ground and aim left. He'd find the right medium and go on a tear, until he started to fade it a bit too much, at which time he would reverse the process. Sam was uncanny at staying within the outer perimeters of his tendencies.

BOBBY LOCKE is the most underrated player of my lifetime. He took it inside, looped it over and fell on the ball without any effort, producing a slight hook that ran with the driver but had plenty of spin with the irons. He could have hit other shots, but almost always chose not to, explaining that he wouldn't be as good if he deviated from his repetitive shot. There's a lesson in that.

I DON'T THINK there was ever a golfer who managed his game better than Peter Thomson. He had a low ball flight because he trapped everything, which made it difficult for him to properly flight the driver. But he didn't change, because he knew he had the perfect swing for 13 clubs. As well as the perfect temperament.

JACK NICKLAUS WAS not an exceptional striker in that his shots were not pure in the absolute sense. But his swing was very repeatable when it came to controlling a slightly open face at impact, and I can't recall him ever flipping the club over. He didn't really have a danger shot, which was mostly due to his huge mental strength.

JACK WAS A BIT lost with his technique when I followed him during a practice round at the 1969 British Open, spraying drivers because of a too-steep backswing. When he asked me what I thought, I told him his head and shoulders were too bent over at address, and that raising his chin would allow him to stop tilting and start turning. I didn't pull any punches with Jack. I told him, "You have tremendous physical strength, tremendous mental strength, and you're an incredible winner, but you're doing it wrong for most people." I just had to say it the way it was, because I knew it to be true. I dare say I think he became better because of me.

WHEN I WAS the Ryder Cup captain in 1981, Tom Watson asked me for swing advice at a dinner but understood why I couldn't help him that week. When we saw each other again before the 1983 Open at Birkdale and he complained that he could no longer draw the ball, I had a look. Tom's was a common fault at the time: He was presenting the club in a delofted position -- too strong -- which set up too straight a takeaway and the inevitable rocking and blocking. We put the club in a neutral position, and coincidentally or not, he won his fifth Open.

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Jose Maria Olazabal all had the same flaw as Watson did. Faldo was the best listener of the three; Seve the worst. Olazabal was stubborn, but he was diligent about the driver-off-the-deck drill. And he had the gratifying trait of being more receptive before a big occasion.

WHEN TIGER'S MIND was clear, he was probably as good as Jack, but I wouldn't say better. Jack was not as well equipped in his short game, so he had to be better internally, and that's where Tiger is being tested now. Tiger hits more bad shots than Jack did, but he has saved them with his putter and short game. Going forward, he should be focused on hitting fewer bad shots and needing his putter less.

I DON'T KNOW if he's going to pass Nicklaus. My guess would be no, because I doubt whether he'll ever get that super confidence back. But he might if he can get a good golf swing that he believes in and stays with. He's been extremely good technically before, but he's never quite been satisfied with it. He needs total belief that he doesn't need to change his swing again another time.

FOR ABOUT 20 YEARS, beginning in the late '60s, golf wasn't taught very well, but teaching today is better than ever. Why? Well, forgive me, but I think I pointed things in the right direction. Isn't that awful? I just think people have followed my ideas, which are founded on one principle: The flight of the ball tells all.


This driving net behind Jacobs' home outside London was perfect for players needing quick fixes.