Learning from Ball Flight

I was quite satisfied after leafing through my copy of Golf Digest this month. The March 2011 issue contained an article by famed teacher John Jacobs, with Jaime Diaz, featuring a number of nuggets of teaching wisdom he has amassed over a career in golf that has spanned many decades.

Now 85, Jacobs was an accomplished tournament player in his younger days, having won a couple of times in the 1950′s. But, he points out that his talent turned out to be teaching.

Admittedly, I only know of Jacobs by name, but reading those few pages of random thoughts gave me the sense that Jacobs is my kind of teacher. He’s a different kind of teacher, much like Harvey Penick was. He focuses on keeping things simple. In this era of video analysis and launch monitors and swing planes and angles, that kind of philosophy is like a beacon in the dense fog of golf instruction for me.

One thing he said really gave me pause and led me to write this post. He wrote:

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?”

If you stop and think about it for a second, that’s an extremely profound idea. It’s so simple that you’re probably tempted to not pay it much mind.

Many of you are like me in that you like to digest a lot of instructional material. These days, so much of it is about achieving positions in the swing with the idea that if you get all the positions right, then the ball will fly well.

The golf swing, however, is nothing but a means to an end. That’s not to say that you can just do whatever you want with your swing and that you’ll be a successful golfer. On the contrary, there are any number of things that can go wrong to destroy distance or consistency.

How many of us spend an inordinate amount of time achieving certain positions in our golf swing? We try to make sure we have enough lag. We make sure our weight shifts right then left, or not at all, depending on which swing we’re talking about. We try to stay on plane. We make certain not to swing past parallel. We try to maintain spine angle.

I could go on all day listing things like that.

Jacobs goes on to add:

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.

None of this is ground-breaking. Well, it might have been at the time, but by now, many of us have heard similar things. Especially the idea that the only position that matters is the club’s at impact. I’ve heard famous teachers before saying that one common trait that many, many great players share is similar positions at impact.

The real takeaway from this is that it’s kind of the opposite of how many of us try to improve our games. We work on swing positions with the assumption that once we get them all locked in, then the ball will start doing what we expect.

The problem with that philosophy is that we end up chasing a white whale. We could spend the rest of our lives trying to perfect dozens of swing positions and checkpoints and see little or no improvement in our games because the number of variables is just too great. Plus, as we’ve heard, impact is all that really matters. Jim Furyk is proof of that.

What Jacobs is saying, is, look at the flight of the ball and work backward from there. “Golf is what the ball does.” Can it get any more simple than that?

I really identify with that philosophy. Over the years, I’ve kind of naturally gravitated that way. Not completely, though. I certainly find myself looking at geometry in the swing and things like that.

I definitely make it a point to understand the flight of each and every shot I hit. I’ve gotten to the point where I can feel where on the club face I’ve mis-hit the shot and I can also tell, at times, how my swing went wrong by looking at the ball flight.

This is not to say that it’s easy to look at the flight of a shot and suddenly know that you swung past parallel or something like that. But understanding the flight of the ball can certainly help to narrow down the problems as well as the number of changes that need to be made to fix them.

The moral of the story is, maybe we all ought to stop trying to be golf swing mathematicians and just pay closer attention to the flight of the ball when we want to understand what’s going wrong in our golf games.

I recommend checking out the article at Golf Digest for more wisdom from John Jacobs. It mentions that Jacobs has written several books. I may add one or more of them to my pile and report back to you at a later date.

In case you’re wondering what other great teachers think of John Jacobs’ teaching style, there’s a quote from Butch Harmon about Jacobs on his World Golf Hall of Fame profile. Harmon said, “John Jacobs wrote the book on coaching. There is not a teacher out here who does not owe him something.”


  1. iquestgolfer says:

    Excellent article on Jacobs Mike. I hope that your summer is filled with “flight paths that satisfy.”

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