Impact and flight – the enduring legacy of John Jacobs

In the last issue of GOLF RETAILING we reported the passing of John Jacobs in January. Here Glyn Pritchard takes a more considered look at his legacy as a coach.

Hogan tried to teach people to swing like he did; Jacobs taught them to swing so they could produce consistent results

Hogan tried to teach people to swing like he did; Jacobs taught them to swing so they could produce consistent results

Watching the ATT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am it was disconcerting to compare the silky swings of the tour pros with the frankly hatchet swings of some of their amateur partners. While the amateur golfers from other sports had good looking swings, some of the CEOs of major corporations had swings to make your eyes water. But the point was that they could connect with the ball and move it along with a swing that, if ugly, was repeatable.

And this was the essential insight that John Jacobs brought to golf tuition. Until Jacobs wrote his two instruction books, ‘Practical Golf’ and ‘Golf Doctor’, in the early seventies, golf tuition focused on the perfect idealised swing. Hogan’s ‘Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf’ written in 1957 aimed to make the reader swing like Ben Hogan. But Hogan’s whole technique was based around overcoming a hook. His ‘secret’ was a weak grip and cupped left wrist at the top.

As Jacobs observed in ‘Golf Doctor’: “Most club golfers…need to develop techniques that will help them avoid hitting shots too far to the right. Obviously a golfer whose trouble is slicing shots to the right might well aggravate the problem by applying the anti-hook techniques developed by the better players.”

Hogan said, “You hear stories about me beating my brains out practicing, but… I was enjoying myself. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning, so I could hit balls.” However, the weekend amateur golfer has neither the time nor inclination to beat balls for hours on end on the range. In fact, until Jacobs brought the concept of driving ranges to Britain in the early seventies, there were few places to practice.

Jacobs realised that there is really no such thing as a perfect swing and that getting a weekend amateur to attempt such a transition was demanding the impossible. In ‘Five Lessons’ Hogan had stated, “The average golfer is entirely capable of building a repeating swing and breaking 80.” But the reality is no one in their fifties, below average height and with a high BMI is ever going to swing the club like Ernie Els, no matter how hard they practice. As a teacher you have to work with what’s there.

As Jim Hardy, co-founder of John Jacobs Golf Schools and author of ‘The Plane Truth for Golfers’ observed, “The focus was to make the swing conform to a certain preconceived fundamental shape. John’s approach started from an entirely different perspective. He started his diagnosis from the flight of the ball rather than swing shape.” This led to Jacobs to his famous and oft quoted maxim: “The sole purpose of the golf swing is to produce a correct impact – the method employed is of no significance as long as it is repetitive.”

His second great insight was that the ball flight tells you all you need to know about incorrect impact, as he stated in ‘Golf Doctor’: “The ball is extremely truthful and candid, often brutally so. It never lies or misleads…It tells you straightaway on every shot exactly what your clubhead was doing at impact.”

To demonstrate this point, Jacobs would start a group teaching session by stepping forward on the tee and then asking one of the students behind him to hit half a dozen balls. Based on the ball flight he would ask a teaching assistant to make adjustments to the student’s swing, correcting the errant ball flight, without having seen the swing himself. It was a masterly demonstration of his maxim.

Elaborating in ‘Golf Doctor’ Jacobs stated: “The ball [flight]…is a far more personal guide than some rigid gospel that is meant to fit all players in the same mould. I would suggest that you never accept a piece of instruction, no matter how enticing, without first asking just how this advice will improve your clubhead’s impact with the ball.”

John Jacobs left a lasting legacy to golf, notably his golf academies and his creation of the European Tour. But it is surely as a coach that he made the most important contribution. Jim Hardy said of his old mentor, “John was so far in front of everything and everyone else it was unbelievable… He was the first to really understand ball flight, how it related to impact conditions…He also understood why the club was being swung in the wrong fashion and, most importantly how to fix it.”

A new generation of golf coaches were inspired by his methods as Butch Harmon acknowledged: “John Jacobs wrote the book on coaching. There is not a teacher out here who does not owe him something.” While Hogan preached perfection, Jacobs taught what works.