Even instructors agree, the best players are often self-taught
‘Swing your swing,” Arnold Palmer famously said. “Not some idea of a swing, not a swing you saw on TV, or swing you wish you had. No, swing your swing.” Sound counsel, given the source; Palmer’s was far from aesthetically pleasing, but with seven majors and 95 professional wins worldwide, it seemed to do the trick.
The King is not alone. Golf’s history glitters with distinctive, self-made motions. Lee Trevino is the poster boy, constructing his function-over-fashion fade from scratch. Moe Norman, arguably the greatest and straightest ball-striker the sport has seen, never took a lesson. Calvin Peete had to be unconventional because of a childhood arm injury; his downswing and follow-through are often cited as influences on David Leadbetter’s book, The A Swing. At the moment, Bubba Watson, J.B. Holmes and Jim Herman wave the self-taught flag on tour.
“Self-discovery can be more powerful than someone telling you what to do,” says Jason Guss, a Golf Digest Best Young Teacher.
A philosophy not only compelling, but proven. The American Psychological Association examined more than 125 studies focused on success from autonomous learning versus external goal-setting. The tasks varied, from shooting a basketball to computer skills and beyond, but the conclusion was clear: The rewards from self-directed exploration outweigh those from outside forces.
Watson, who learned to curve shots swatting wiffle balls around his childhood home, thinks self-taught players can be more resilient. “You’ll know what works, and you’ll know the simple fixes to get back on track,” he says. His only advice: “All you need to worry about is three feet of the swing, from 5 o’clock to 7 o’clock, right before impact and at impact [or 7 o’clock to 5 o’clock, for lefties]. You want to try to get the club square at impact. Don’t worry about a full swing.” When Watson watches video of his swing, he focuses on this moment of truth.
Doing it yourself also gives the freedom to mold something that feels natural, rather than striving for—and at times, fighting against—the cues of an instructed swing. “Sometimes homegrown swings are the kind that hold up the best down the road,” says Erika Larkin, who initially taught herself to play before getting lessons and eventually becoming a Golf Digest Best Young Teacher. “A swing that is comfortable and works naturally for your body can be better than trying to fit into a mold of what an instructor is trying to get you to do.”
Herman, who learned the game with daily reps at Shawnee Lookout Golf Course in North Bend, Ohio, thanks to an all-day junior rate, thinks formal teaching often starts in the wrong place. “Things like course management and strategy get ignored in the beginning stages of instruction,” he says.
Which isn’t to say you should just pick up a club and start hacking. Pick any swing across the professional spectrum—from the effortless sway of Louis Oosthuizen to Jim Furyk’s caught-in-a-spider-web motion— and certain principles are universal. Guss recognizes the four major tenets:
Parallel alignment among the shoulders, hips, knees and feet. Turning the body during the backswing. Moving laterally and rotationally on the downswing (which helps maintain proper wrist angles).
Extending the arms during the backswing and through-swing.
Another focal point should be on tension—specifically, a lack thereof. With an instructed swing, making the directed movements can feel foreign, causing agitation and stress on the takeaway, which are swing-killers. Though you want to keep the above fundamentals in mind, they shouldn’t come at the cost of natural agility. “Remaining athletic and using your feel and touch is more important than being technically perfect,” Larkin says.
Keep it about outcome, even in the beginning. “Everyone should be thinking about where they want the ball to go while they’re standing over a shot, not how or what technique to use to get it there,” Herman says.
That said, thanks to a recent proliferation of fairly unobtrusive digital diagnostic devices, self-taught golfers can choose to dive further into the weeds than ever. Arccos, Zepp and Swingbyte are three examples of modern hardware that pair with a phone app to deliver instant data about your swings and strokes, and they highlight the areas of your game in need of improvement.
As with any undertaking, you can’t be naive to the possible pitfalls. The biggest is time. It’s going to take longer to sort out what does and doesn’t work, and the range between the ups and downs could be extreme.
“Not having someone to guide you can take you down the wrong road, leading to patches of struggle,” Guss says. “It could also create damaging flaws that can be hard to eliminate.” In essence, your sovereignty comes with a price.
When contemplating a fix or alteration of any kind, do it because of results, not what others think of your swing. “Make any changes based on where the ball is going,” Herman says, “versus trying to make your swing look perfect on an iPad.”
And just because you’ve decided to be self-taught, don’t let that stop you from seeking help if you’re in a rut. They are professionals for a reason. But with a little bit of fortitude, testing and discernment, you can achieve an optimal swing on your own.
“Always remember it’s a process,” Watson says. Know that, as with all quests, it’s not the grail you seek, but the ride to it.
“Relax, enjoy the journey and swing freely!” Larkin says.
Or, as Mr. Palmer would say, “Swing your swing.”