The golf teaching profession has come a long way since 1989 when the USGTF was founded. Hi-tech tools that weren’t even a thought back then are now commonplace in many teaching circles, such as launch monitors and slow-motion replays complete with computer graphics, and the ability to instantly communicate with students electronically. We also have training aids and training programs that are state-of-the-art.

What  hasn’t  changed  are  three  aspects  of  instruction  that  are  important  to  differentiate,  and  they are principles, fundamentals and preferences. Before we continue, let’s turn to Merriam-Webster for some definitions:

Principle: “The   laws   or   facts   of   nature underlying the working of an artificial device.” In the  case  of  golf,  the  artificial  devices  are  the  golf  ball and golf club, and the laws are what we more commonly  know as the  ball-flight  laws: clubhead path, clubface angle, solidness of the clubface strike, angle of attack and clubhead speed. These five things are all the ball knows.

Fundamental: “Of or relating to essential structure, function, or facts.” In golf, fundamentals directly   impact   the   ball   flight   laws.   Through  experience  and  observation,  we  know  that  there  are  some  fundamentals  that  must  be  followed  in  order  to  achieve  certain  aspects  of  the  ball  flight laws.

Preference: “The power or opportunity of choosing; one that is preferred.” Preferences in golf are not fundamentals, but they are an individual golfer’s best way of executing the fundamentals.

Proper  fundamentals  are  necessary  in  order to   execute   the   principles,   while   preferences   are  an  individual  golfer’s  best  way  of  executing  the  fundamentals.  Some teachers may confuse fundamentals for principles (a minor teaching flaw), or  preferences  for  principles  (a  major  teaching  flaw).

Let’s  take  the  case  of  hitting  an  iron  shot  in  terms of principles. The clubface angle must be in harmony with the clubhead path.  If  the  clubhead  path  through  impact  is  down  the  target  line,  the  clubface  angle  must  be  square  to  the  path.  If  the  clubhead  path  is  to  the  right,  the  clubface  angle  must be angled to the left of the path at the proper angle, and vice versa. The ball must be struck first instead  of  the  ground,  so  a  descending  angle  of  attack  is  needed.  The  right  amount  of  clubhead  speed is required, and if all four of the previously-mentioned  ball  flight  aspects  are  correct,  the  ball must be struck squarely on the clubface.

(If  one  or  more  of  the  ball-flight-laws  aspects  are  compromised,  another  must  be,  in  effect,  “compromised” in order for the ball to finish close to the target. There are endless variations of this and beyond the scope of this article, so our assumption will be a normal well-struck shot.)

As for fundamentals, a golfer needs a grip that will reliably return the clubface square, a ball position and alignment that will promote a proper clubhead path, and a swing that allows the clubhead to give optimal results. For example, clubhead lag, where the lead arm and club shaft form a straight line  for  the  first  time  at  impact,  is  a  fundamental  because  it  allows  the  ball  to  be  struck  first  with  maximum  force,  as  well  as  honoring  the  laws  of  physics when it comes to levers.

Preferences might include the type of grip to be employed (interlocking, overlapping, or 10-finger), an  open,  square  or  closed  stance,  whether  the  weight  is  predominantly  on  the  front  or  rear  foot  at  address,  or  steepness  or  flatness  of  the  swing plane.

An  example  of  a  teacher  who  mistakes  a  preference for a principle would be one who insists students  must  employ  the  overlapping  grip.  They may also say all their students must use a perfectly square stance, when an open will likely be better in the case of a student who finds more consistency in fading the ball.

There can be a gray area between fundamentals and   preferences,   so   discerning   between   the two can be difficult, even for experienced and knowledgeable teachers. Bubba Watson’s footwork would never be taught as a fundamental, but it can be said that it’s his personal fundamental – another  way of saying preference.  After  Ben  Hogan’s  book Five  Lessons came  out,  it  was  considered  a  fundamental that the swing plane was determined by a line from the ball to the top of the shoulders. Yet today, we see all sorts of golfers violating this supposed fundamental, including Watson and Jim Furyk, among others.

Some  examples  of  fundamentals  that  teachers agree on for a good swing are the lower body leads the  downswing  while  the  upper  body  responds (leading   to   the   aforementioned   fundamental,   clubhead  lag);  position  of  the  grip  determines Clubface angle at impact; pressure shifts to the rear foot during the backswing, and finishing in a well-balanced position on the front foot. Examples of  preferences  would  include  a  strong  or  weak  grip,  backswing  path,  and  swinging  smoothly  or aggressively.

Teachers   almost   always   should   start   with   examining the principles of ball flight laws as they relate to a non-novice’s  game.  The  student  might be  hooking,  so  we  know  with  certainty  that  the  clubface is closed at impact relative to the clubhead path.  We  might  see  the  grip  is  in  a  too-strong  position,  so  fundamentally  we  should  probably  change the grip.

We then might see the student doesn’t transfer his weight forward correctly, leading to the arms and hands flipping the clubhead over too quickly. So  the  fundamental  here  would  be  to  have  the  student transfer weight forward, but the preference would  be  in  the  how.  Some  students  would  fare  better  firing  off  the  rear  foot,  while  others  might feel a pulling of the lead hip.

To   summarize,   teachers   should   examine  the  execution  of  the  ball  flight  laws  first,  then  ask  themselves  which  fundamentals  are  being  compromised  that  affect  this  execution.  Finally, they need to figure out which preferences best Benefit that particular individual in this particular instance.  Longtime USGTF examiner Ken Butler’s words are particularly relevant here: “Students have many locks.  We need many keys to open those locks.”

With novices, most every teacher will start with fundamentals  in  the  belief  that  this  will  lead  to  a  more faithful execution of the principles. However, there are times when non-novices need to go back to square one with the fundamentals, depending upon their goals. A 90-shooter who wants to become a scratch golfer really has no choice but to basically start over.

A trend that has returned in recent times is teaching to the ball flight laws. In the video age of the 1980s and 1990s, more attention was paid to technique in the belief it would lead to proper ball flight, but today an increasing number of teachers pay attention to proper ball flight in the belief this leads to proper technique. This is a way of saying that  a  much  wider  variety  of  student  preferences  are  now  being  tolerated  by  teachers,  as  long  as  they get the job done.

In  effect,  this  is  a  “back  to  the  future”  trend,  as  teachers  in  the  pre-video  age  depended  upon  proper  ball  flight  to  determine  technique.  It’s a trend that well may become a more permanent part of the teaching landscape; time will tell.
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