News & ToursDecember 16, 2010

Letting talent rise

Lost in the discussion about great ball-strikers is Bruce Lietzke. The 13-time winner on the PGA Tour and 2003 U.S. Senior Open champion is probably better known as someone who would rather go fishing or spend time with his kids than beat balls, which is true. But the full-swing talent he displayed over the past 40 years is remarkable.

Jim McLean, No. 4 in Golf Digest's ranking of America's 50 Best Teachers, yesterday uploaded on Twitter a terrific video analysis of Lietzke's swing. They were roommates in college and have been very close ever since.

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Did you know that Lietzke led the tour in total driving at least five times? And did you know that he was No. 1 in greens in regulation three times--and probably would have been more except some years he didn't play enough rounds to qualify and they didn't start keeping those stats until Bruce's sixth year on tour.

As McLean points out, this was all done with what we consider a very unorthodox swing. Bruce has always taken the club back well to the inside with a shut clubface, then looped the club back to the ball on a near-perfect path, right down the target line. Two other players you might have heard of also swung this way: Bobby Jones and Sam Snead. But what makes Bruce unique is the way he held off the clubface through impact, creating a consistent fade ball flight that repeated itself over and over. His rhythm, timing and balance through to the finish was so superb that he rarely hit his ball off line.

McLean contends that if Bruce were growing up today, almost every teacher out there would try to "fix" his swing--and might ruin his career in the process. Jim says that one of the secrets to being a really good teacher--serious teaching as he calls it--is recognizing this kind of talent and leaving it alone.

How many times have we seen a really great young player with a "flawed" action try to become more conventional and then only get worse. For example, it might have been the downfall of Sergio Garcia, who spent a couple of years trying to make his inside downswing and downcock less severe. The same might be true with another TPC winner, Craig Perks, who is not even listed now in the PGA Tour Guide.

McLean is teaching the 15-year-old phenom Alexis Thompson, whose swing is not picture-perfect. But as Jim told me in an email, "I'm treating Alexis as I did Cristie Kerr and Erik Compton. All grew up down here and all had major talent. I think the fact that my roommates in college (Lietzke, John Mahaffey and Bill Rogers) all had unique swings but went on to be great PGA Tour players really helped me. You are right, I must not ruin her natural swing. Believe me, I think about it all the time. It is much easier to ruin a great talent than to build greatness."

--Roger Schiffman, Golf Digest Managing Editor

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