The Fact-Based Future of Golf

October 8, 2019- by Steven E. Greer, MD

When I started The Golf Project in the summer of 2016, I created this website to serve as a personal journal and venue for videos to show to my golf teachers scattered across the country. I did not exactly know what I was after, but I had a sense that golf could be studied and taught under a new paradigm more akin to the scientific method.

I now have a more precise way of explaining it. Golf should be studied and taught using real evidence, not personal experiences. In medicine, this is called the evidence-based or fact-based method.

I have been watching the Golf Channel’s Swing Expedition by Chris Como. He is a good host and seems to have the right approach to golf.

As he visited different top golf instructors around the country, I saw how many of them were relying on personal opinions and experience rather than using fact or evidence. That is never an effective way to make progress. The human brain is too flawed and easily biased.

There is nothing wrong with a golf instructor relying on what has worked for them. But it should be the basis for a hypothesis to be tested. One should always add the caveat, “This works for me, at least. It might not be correct.” Obviously, results matter. If the instructor or tour player gets good outcomes, then the golfing world should pay attention and study them.

Grant Waite was featured on Como’s show. He seems to have a great swing and explains well his “feel” as he makes the swing. But there were several other top instructors featured who had totally different methods and philosophies. Who is correct?

Therein lies the problem with golf. It is not standardized and rational. Even the best players and teachers are just going by personal experiences. Each method works for the various instructor, but are they achieving success with their students despite their methods or because of their methods?

For example, is the straight back that Butch Harmon created with Adam Scott and Tiger Woods the reason why they are great, or is it because of the dip in the transition and push off of the ground that generates reliable club path to the ball and power? Maybe the straight back impedes their swing.

Spotting the void in modern teaching, a movement of “golf science” has started. But from what I have seen, the people behind these scientific schools are neither credible scientists nor using the scientific method. Instead of creating an experiment to test a hypothesis, then gathering data, they take data from fancy equipment and retroactively massage it to make their self-fulfilling prophecies come true (I will not address various programs by name here.).

If I had a fancy golf studio, I would approach the study of the swing in this way:

From my own experiences at trying to learn how to swing, I would start with the hypothesis that the human body generates various circular or elliptical arcs that lever upon one another to create clubhead acceleration, and more importantly, accurate consistent clubhead path. Then, I would identify those swing planes and try to determine the temporal and structural relationships.

For examples, do the shoulders and hips pivot around a stable spine or does the spine axis move? Should the plane be 90-degrees perpendicular to the spine or at a different angle? Where should the hands be at the top of the swing? Should the plane of the hands be flat or steep?

These are just some of the critical elements of the swing that I do not think have been scientifically tested. There has been plenty of analysis by video and 3D tools but there has not been a simple experiment performed. Every instructor I have seen has an opinion on the subjects that they learned somewhere. However, the original source of the theory is just dogma passed down from generation to generation.

It is currently en vogue to state that there is no single swing to fit all players. I disagree. I have the hypothesis that the various swing planes, or gears of the body, have a single most-efficient way of working.

True: every person has a different body with different proportions. Some of the gears will have to be arranged differently for taller or shorter players. But what I refer to is like  grand unified theory in quantum physics, or basic tenets in medicine.

Every medical doctor agrees on the important points because they have been tested and are true. The language of medicine is standardized. In contrast, the golf doctors of the world have widely varying opinions on even the fundamentals.

Why do I think that that there are certain fundamentals that apply to all golfers? Look at the downswing, for example. The backswing is highly variable even among top players. However, they all look pretty much the same at impact. This tells me that there must be some ideal sequence of events in the gears that allow for a reliable clubhead path and consistent ball striking.

The modern players are not flippers. They do not release the club until their shoulders have made a maximum turn and have posted onto the left leg. In contrast, most amateur golfers are flippers and have worse results. Even the all-time greats, such as Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Seve Ballesteros, and Jack Nicklaus had a tendency to flip. When they were able to have perfect timing, their swings were great. But those old swing had much more variability than we see in the modern swings.

All of this leads me to the hypothesis that there is one ideal way to transition and lead the clubhead past the point of the ball. Let’s test it.

Are modern limber players with extreme body turns at impact, such as Joaquín Niemann, doing something even better than the rest or are they impairing their swing? Jack Nicklaus described Niemann’s swing as a “caddy’s swing” that had to be tightened up. That is a great example of bias in the empirical method, as opposed to the scientific method. Nicklaus achieved success with his flipping swing. Therefore, he views other methods as being flawed.

That is not how progress is made. The scientific method is what has led humans to dramatically evolve over the short span of the last 2,000-years. Societies that rely on irrational methods are still in the Dark Ages to this day. Golf needs to get out of the Dark Ages.

The way to approach this new science of golf is to create centralized databases of swing measurements and ball outcomes. Then, meta-analyses can be performed by computers to find correlations in movement to outcome. This all could be done tomorrow if some golf gadget company hired the right researchers. Thousands of golf instructors have fancy hitting bays measuring 3D and 4D parameters, posting it all to the cloud.

Also, simple prospective studies could be performed where just one variable was changed on the golfer and then ball flight data were measured. Actually, good club fitters are currently performing scientific experiments and they do not realize it. Every time they change a shaft flex, for example, then determine whether it helps or hurts, they are approaching golf in a fact-based way.

Chris Como asks at the end of each segment where golf instruction is going next. Jorge Parada said that it would be more “fact based” I agree.

I predict that in 10-years, most players on tour will have Cam Champ speed because someone will properly study it and deduce new principles that everyone will follow. Long drives will become boring. Then, golf matches will be determined mostly by putting and the mental game, just as they were prior to the Tiger Woods era.

I don’t want to give too much away. I have a book in the works. Stay tuned.

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