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.