The Golfer’s Grip

PURDYSWINGWhen my high school friend and teammate, Jason Schechterle, recently considered giving up golf, I tried to console him on the range.

Schechterle made national headlines in March 2001 when the Phoenix detective, responding to a homicide call, was rear-ended by a taxicab careening down the highway. The 115 mph impact crumpled his squad car and the explosion and fire charred 70-percent of his body, head neck and hands.

This guy doesn’t give up easy. It’s a miracle that he’s alive, not to mention the willpower that it takes to become a scratch golfer again after 53 surgeries and countless skin grafts afforded him he ability to grip the club again with hands that resemble lobster claws.

Now playing poorly, he had quit the game, but gave it one last shot.

When I put him on my grip analyzer, a homemade device that gauges centrifugal force’s effect on the clubface, it clearly pointed to Jason’s grip as the problem. A quick adjustment to his grip and he loves the game again.

How we hold the club is so important in golf. I dare say it’s the most important aspect of golf.

The grip controls the clubface, and a poor grip can lead to catastrophic ball flight. When we put the club into motion, centrifugal force pulls the club head away from our center, turning it into a 100-pound weight at 100 mph swing speed. The clubface opens, shuts or remains square relative to the swing’s force because of your grip.

Golf is individualistic. “Golf My Way,” “How I Play Golf,” “How I Played the Game,” “My Game and Yours,” say Jack, Tiger, Lord Byron, and Arnie in the titles of their respective books. We all have our own ways of doing things and, like fingerprints, all golfers have unique swings.

The one constant with great players is the grip. Their hands harmonize with the forces of nature. They may hold the club differently but the effect to the clubface is the same.

At a recent fund-raiser for my alma mater, the University of Arizona, I tested the grips of stalwart pros Jim Furyk, Don Pooley, Lanny Wadkins and Dan Pohl. The device showed that, while all have noticeably different swings, they all gripped the club perfectly. All of their grips produce a square clubface at the moment of impact.

I’ve had a nice professional golfing career and some of my contemporaries have even complimented me on my ball-striking, which was nurtured by my childhood teacher, Pam Barnett.

One day on Tour, far away from Pam, I woke up snap-hooking the ball. I sought corrective help from several teaching pros. According to their assessments, plus scads of video evidence, my swing was perfectly on plane. The trouble was, I was still hooking it.

In my further quest for the answer, I talked with pros, bought and read most of the modern publications, joined online teaching sites and watched countless Youtube videos. I found that most modern U.S. golf teachers don’t ever talk about the grip.

Why aren’t there more great young American players? There’s a remarkably different teaching philosophy overseas.

After shooting an opening round 78 at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, I went to the driving range struggling with a curving ball flight. I was not hitting it solid whatsoever, an almost impossible affliction to recover from at the U.S. Open.

Victor Garcia, Sergio’s dad, took a quick look at my swing. I knew I could trust his advice because he is an accomplished player, and he coaches one of the best ball-strikers in the world: El Nino.

Victor noticed that my balance was off and he adjusted the positioning of my right hand on the club. With my grip corrected my balance returned. Before the grip change I had to get out of balance to get the clubface to square at impact. I made the cut Friday and finished 26th by week’s end.

Why do all the South Africans have such beautiful swings? Ernie Els, Louie Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel, Gary Player, Trevor Immelman, Bobby Locke, Retief Goosen, Tim Clark, David Frost, Rory Sabbatini, Darren Fichartm… all have great grips. The South African teachers really focus on grip fundamentals.

Canada, too, boasts some great swingers: Graham DeLaet, Mike Weir, David Hearn, Stephen Ames, Moe Norman, Jim Rutledge, etc. I wondered if it has anything to do with Canada’s national pastime, so I asked a professional hockey player how you grip the hockey stick.

“There is only one way,” he said, puzzled. There is no “strong” or “weak” hockey grip. The hockey stick is flat so that your palms are always balanced relative to the hockey stick’s face. Golf would be easier if the USGA allowed grips to have flat surfaces.

So if you are hitting the golf ball askew, the answer may lie within your grip.

At a memorable teaching convention featuring several hundred golf instructors, a panel of Golf Digest’s top teaches was asked the question: “Where do you start when teaching a highly skilled golfer?”

The panel members talked about the use of video, swing planes, postures, fitness, etc. Each response lasted 10 minutes or more.

When the microphone was passed to Butch Harmon, he simply said, “I start with the grip.”

He got a standing ovation.