2005: Big muscles don’t impress good-hands people

"Use the big muscles.”

“The big muscles are more reliable.”

“Take the hands out of the swing.”

“The hands should feel like they are totally passive.”

Today’s avid golfers have heard it over and over: The big muscles are in, the hands are out.

Somewhere along the journey that culminated with the modern golf swing, the hands got a bad rap. At least that’s the feeling of some golf instructors. These teachers aggressively advocate the proper use of the hands, which they consider the controlling force in the golf swing.

What we have is a good hands-bad hands debate. At the center of this debate are PGA Tour players. These players, along with their coaches, have bashed overactive hands so often that a half-witted observer might be tempted to chop his off and be done with it.

Laird Small, director of the Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Academy, teaches many skilled players. Small, a brainy observer of the game and its evolution, says unequivocally, “The hands basically hang onto the club. They are adjustable clamps, for lack of a better term. The hands should be as passive as possible in delivering the club to the ball. This is the way the game is played today.

“There was a time when many golfers rolled over their hands – just to keep the ball in play. But balls have changed, clubs have changed, swings have changed, and it just isn’t done that way anymore.”

To which instructor A.J. Bonar replies, “Tiger Woods seems to be trying to get rid of his hands (in his swing). He doesn’t appear to hit as many stingers anymore.

“For a guy who may have the most brilliant pair of hands in the history of the game, there is a question about whether this is the right way to go.”

Bonar, whose popular golf swing videos are said to have produced more than $20 million in gross revenue, talks about his hands as if they are his best friends.

“The hands and forearms are the only trainable parts of the motor system,” he maintains. “They’re teachable at a high level. We’re wired to learn that way.

“People say the hands are unreliable in golf. I want to yell out from the top of somebody’s roof, ‘Who told you that?’ It is the big muscles that are terribly unreliable when it comes to precise movements. The big muscles are designed to stabilize and support anything the fine motor system wants to do.”

Bonar defines the fine motor system as anything below the elbow – meaning primarily the forearms, wrists and hands.

Bonar says the best players in the world rarely can explain with precision how they hit different shots. They have mastered these shots by hitting tens of thousands of balls, and the accompanying motor skills mostly defy definition.

Yet, at the Titleist Performance Institute in Oceanside, Calif., co-founder Dave Phillips believes that science and research have led to a new understanding of the human body and its relationship to the golf swing.

Phillips says the proper sequencing of the body on the downswing is, in order, lower body, trunk, arms and finally the club. “The best players in the world all do it this way,” he says.

Phillips, who encourages and teaches young players to sequence their swings in this fashion, says he has “15-year-old kids who hit it 20 yards past Tiger Woods.”

This doesn’t mean they play with the instincts, accuracy or finesse of Woods. What it does mean, according to Phillips, is that the swing can be taught to a high degree – with the best golfers learning precisely how to sequence their hands and arms with the big muscles.

“The tour players honestly don’t feel their hands do anything,” says instructor Mike Malaska, headquartered in Scottsdale, Ariz. “They feel their bodies move, and their hands just stay in synch.”

This is not a new trend among tour players. Tommy Jacobs, runner-up in the 1964 U.S. Open and 1966 Masters, says simply, “When I felt my hands, I wasn’t playing very good. It was that simple. I wanted to feel very passive. I wanted to feel no release with my hands.”

On the other side of the argument is Jay Golden, a teaching pro in Orlando, Fla., and pro-hands advocate. Golden recalls watching legendary ballstriker Moe Norman hit balls on dozens of occasions.

“Moe would always say that the clubhead does what your hands do,” Golden says. “I believe that the No. 1 mistake in golf is that golfers don’t use their hands properly. Many golfers are weak hitters because they are not using their hands. Tour players know how to do this, but most golfers do not.”

Golden has developed a drill he uses with many of his students. He asks them to hit balls with their hands only, using practically no arm swing or body turn.

“I have them tuck their elbows against the body,” Golden explains. “They hit balls by hinging and unhinging their hands and wrists. Invariably they tell me they can’t believe how far the ball is going.”

Maybe so, but Roger Gunn, one of Southern California’s top teachers, calls the hands and wrists “an absolute power killer.”

Gunn tells a story about two unnamed Ryder Cup players. “They both told me they don’t do anything from the elbows down,” he says. “They just hold on – and not very tight.”

Gunn says most of the top players in the world hold the club loosely, which requires an equivalent amount of hand and finger strength. His view: The momentum of the swing builds up tremendous force, none of it coming from the hands.

Noted teacher Bob Toski, though, loves to hit mammoth drives from his knees. The point, Toski says, is that the hands, wrists and arms can generate a huge amount of power.

“I just don’t understand what these people (big-muscle advocates) are talking about,” Toski says. “The body can’t make a swing, because the body isn’t touching the club. You can’t get any speed from your shoulders.

“I try to teach hand-eye coordination. I teach people to get control of their games through their hands and arms. They have to sense what the bigger muscles are doing to support the smaller muscles, but the hands are the essence of the golf swing.”

Toski joined talk-show host Peter Kessler on XM satellite radio and blasted modern swing theorists.

“If Bobby Jones went out on the PGA Tour today, they would laugh at him because of the way he turned his body and how he used his hands,” Toski said, “but I guarantee you he could beat most of those idiots.”

Toski told Kessler, “The hands are the truism of the golf swing. My mind will always be on that part of my body.”

As the debate continues, one universal insight may provide a key to understanding the hands question: Different strokes for different folks.

Because bodies are built differently, and because some golfers are more flexible than others, golf swings are as distinctive as fingerprints. Some players are in touch with their hands, some are not.

Malaska, one of the most articulate instructors in golf, sums it up this way: “Your hands provide the only contact with the club. They are the controller. So they cannot be discounted.

“You first have to learn to control your hands and arms to control the clubface. Once you do that, your big muscles become the guide.

“The big muscles always make the assumption that the hands and arms know how to sequence with the big muscles. Because most people don’t know how to control the face with their hands and arms, it makes no sense to start thinking about the big muscles.”

There is no doubt that modern golfers like to think big – big muscles, big shoulder turns, big drives.

However, there are vocal instructors such as Toski who believe the key to the golf swing can be found in something much smaller, namely the hands.

“Every good player has got good hands,” Toski says. “All this talk about big muscles – give me a break. You’re a dead duck if you start thinking about big muscles and forget about the hands.”

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