The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth

A Review of Jim Hardy’s The Plane Truth for Golfers

January 13, 2010

One of the many funny things about golfers is that we tend to bring religious conviction to our swing techniques. “Thou shalt not let thine elbow fly!” and a million other commandments come down from the mountaintops of golf wisdom. We talk about swinging the club “the right way” or “correctly”, we seek the “secret move” like the Holy Grail itself, and I have found that it is a rare golf conversation that does not include the word “perfect” somewhere along the way.

True to form for us messianic mashers of golf balls, the titles of the three golf books I have recently read each include one of the following words: perfect, truth, and laws. These are great words when we are dealing with commandments and our eternal souls, but are they really appropriate when working on a reverse spine angle in this silly game we play?

Even for a teaching professional who spends the bulk of his life spouting golf prophecy, talking about the “right” swing is almost as absurd as saying, “I drove my car correctly to work today.” Sure, there are some unavoidable physics and some laws (both natural and man-made) involved in driving a car; but there are all kinds of people driving a bewildering array of cars, with a wide range of driving styles.

Does it really matter if my hands are in the 10 and 2 positions on the wheel, or if I drive a rusty F-150 that says “Farm Use” rather than a sassy little S Series? Is there really a “right” or “wrong” way to drive my car if I can safely make my tee time? And why, when it comes to driving a golf ball, as opposed to driving a car or any other daily activity, do we suddenly become so many monks on a pilgrimage to the driving range where we whip ourselves with expectations of perfection?

Golf students sometimes fall into a trap of “absolutism” — meaning they want to know the “one” way, the secret method that will call down the blessings of the golf gods. When they absorb all the different and often contradictory information from golf articles, videos and lessons, the reaction is something like this: “Don’t give me all that stuff, just tell me how to do it the right way.” Either that or they end up going from tip to tip, and system to system searching for the narrow path to golf glory.

Instructors are not immune either. For almost every school or method of golf instruction, there is a teacher claiming his is the “best”, “only”, or even “perfect” way to hit a golf ball. But I think it is a mistake to think, just because there are a few cold, hard laws of physics working at impact to produce a great golf shot, that the rest of the swing can, or should be, boiled down to some sort of scientifically ideal motion, or that golf nirvana can be achieved by unearthing “the way” to hit a golf ball. At best this is a kind of vanity or fallacy that we fall into; at worst this is a way of ruining a lot of golfers’ swings and minds.

This is an untidy world full of people with various body-types, differences in neurology, levels of strength and flexibility, height, athleticism, and overall health; it is a world overflowing with golf equipment of various styles, lengths, and other physical properties; and it is a world with different value systems — meaning some people prefer to hit it long, even at the expense of accuracy, or vice versa; some prefer to draw the ball, others like a cut. With all of the variables we bring to golf, the physics must, in a sense, conform to us rather than the opposite.

As a teaching professional, rather than getting hung up on the pursuit of some mythological perfect mechanics, I tend to see the golf swing from a practical standpoint. Unless a golfer tells me he has a different goal, I figure the point of instruction and practice is to produce effective golf shots, and to do so fairly consistently. The goal is to be “effectively repeatable” when it comes to creating shots, and the technique we use is not as important as achieving the goal.

Jim Hardy, one of the elite teachers in the game, seems to agree, at least in the introduction to his 2005 book The Plane Truth for Golfers (for now we will ignore the reference to “truth”). Hardy quoted John Jacobs in the introduction as saying, “The sole purpose of the golf swing is to produce a correct, repetitive impact, and the method employed is of no significance as long as it is repetitive.” In other words, we have to obey the laws of physics at the moment of truth when club meets ball, and be able to do it fairly often, but what we do with the rest of the swing is not as important.

Later in the book, Hardy defines a “functional swing” as one that “allows you to hit the ball with accuracy and for good distance so that you can reliably hit a high percentage of fairways from the tee and greens in regulation.” Again, the goal is not to achieve a particular swing per se—the swing is simply the means to achieve a certain ball flight, or to reach a specific target. Going back to my earlier analogy, the golf swing is simply the vehicle we choose to reach our destination. Some people have sleek, smooth, fast swings while others have bulky, rattling swings that might as well belch smoke; but any swing is “good” if it gets us where we want to go.

Through fourteen years of instruction, I have found two things that generally help golfers to develop their “effectively repeatable” or “functional” swing. Usually golfers will achieve repeatability to a higher degree if there are fewer parts to the swing. Making the swing simpler usually makes it more consistent. Secondly, I think it is important that the various parts of a golfers’ swing fit together. If a golfer’s shoulder turn does not match his posture, there will be extra movement in body and swing, and it seems unlikely that the golfer will see the results he wants, at least on a consistent basis.

This is where Jim Hardy has made his big contribution to the conversation. Hardy realized that a lot of the confusion in golf is based on the fact that we talk about the golf swing, singular, when we should be talking about the golf swings, plural. He came to believe that there are two basic types of swings—the one-plane swing and the two-plane swing.

Essentially, a one-plane swing is one in which the arms swing with the shoulders and body in a somewhat more circular motion, like a bent-over baseball swing. In a two-plane swing, the shoulders turn in a circular almost horizontal fashion while the arms swing in a more vertical, or upward direction. Problems and confusion arise, according to Hardy, when the components of each swing get crossed-up, just as it would if we tried to put a Buick headlight in a Honda.

For example, a golfer might have read that he is supposed to let the arms drop towards the body at the start of the downswing. But when he gets to the range and excitedly tries out his new miracle fix, he gets “stuck” going through the ball and starts hitting a combination of blocked and hooked shots. His buddy hits the ball much better making this move, though. How does this make sense? It makes sense because the arm-dropping move will tend to work pretty well in a two-plane swing, but not in a one-plane swing.

Some people say the head should stay still throughout the swing, while others say the head should be allowed to move side-to-side several inches. This is a confusing set of opinions unless we realize that the lateral movement of the head fits a two-plane scenario, but does not mesh well with a one-plane swing.

By seeing the world of the golf swing divided into two broad categories, Hardy is able to make sense of a lot of the seemingly contradictory opinions about the swing. Should there be a lot of weight shift during the swing? Is it good to have a pause in the transition at the top of the swing? Should the club-head go back in more of a straight line, or quickly start moving in an arc? The answers to these questions, and many more, are dependent on which technique we are talking about, a one-plane or two-plane swing.

As for which swing we use, Hardy prefers the one-plane swing because of its relatively few moving parts (I share this bias), but he acknowledges that it usually requires more strength and flexibility from the golfer. The two-plane swing is thought to require better timing because of its extra moving parts. Other than that, it is just a matter of each golfer’s preference, and the real question is whether we use the setup and swing pieces that match the swing we choose.

This is Hardy’s big contribution, that things generally go better if we do not mix oil and water when building a golf swing. By clarifying the issue of swing planes he has helped many golfers, including several tour players, to perform better when they develop one cohesive swing instead of a mishmash version of two swings.

From my perspective as a teaching professional, Hardy has accurately described two main types of swings, maybe even the two types of swings. And I agree that a golfer’s swing will generally be more repeatable and effective if he can get all the instruments in the orchestra to play the same song. But Hardy, like the rest of us, might have to beware of the trap of “absolutism”, which brings us back to the “truth” part of The Plane Truth for Golfers.

After quoting John Jacobs (Hardy’s mentor and a highly respected teacher) as basically saying that a golfer’s method does not matter if it gets the job done, it only took Hardy twelve pages to come down the mountain with his own clay tablets by saying, “…what is more important is that you become a purist and adopt all the fundamentals for the one-plane swing or two-plane swing that I will now map out, starting with the proper way to grip the club when addressing the ball.”

With words like “purist”, “all”, and “proper”, Hardy shoves off on a crusade to perfect not just one swing, but two. While I agree that there are (at least) two main types of swings, Hardy becomes legalistic about what each swing must look like, not allowing for possible variations of the one and two-plane swings.

One example is that Hardy does not like a secondary spine angle, or a rightward tilt of the spine at address, for a one-plane swing. There are reasons (which would take too much space to describe here) why this tilt is helpful to a lot of people, even golfers who swing in one plane. But Hardy’s way, his preference, comes off as a “law” of the one-plane swing.

Here is another example: most one-planers swing the arms deep into the backswing, across the chest and “behind” the body in the style of the archetypal one-planer, Ben Hogan. Hardy claims that swinging the arms in a more one-piece and body-centered fashion is “disastrous” in a one-plane model. But I know, and have taught, some very talented golfers who swing this way (including a young protégé who just finished his freshman high school season with a 70.2 scoring average).

A golfer who creates a certain set of spine and shaft angles at address can actually create an exceptionally accurate, albeit compact swing, with a more unified action of the arms and body. It might not be the way Hogan, or other one-plane swingers, go about business, but it can be done, and it can be done very well. And if it can be done very well, and repeatedly, then there is nothing wrong or “disastrous” about it.

Hardy’s preference in this case might stem from the fact that many of Hardy’s clients are elite golfers who routinely play golf course of 7,000 yards or more. These golfers need a lot of width and length in their swings to generate sufficient power. But for the 99.9% of golfers who do not play tour-length courses, there just might be a simpler, more repeatable version of the one-plane swing that also generates enough power for the courses they play.

This exposes the problem when we as golfers and teachers try to bring religious zeal to something as sloppy and evolutionary as the game of golf—our own biases, tendencies, and tunnel vision tend to come out in the shape of commandments about the way things absolutely should be done.

This amounts to a philosophical complaint, my saying that Hardy has fallen into the all-to-common trap of absolutism by saying that things must go the way he describes. Right down to foot alignment at address, and hip-tilt in the backswing, Hardy spreads as gospel what really should be seen as guidelines or suggestions. Even if we buy the idea that there are two main categories covering golf swings, what do we do with the amazingly diverse golfing population–different body types, levels of athleticism, and so forth; do we really think that millions of people must religiously adopt from just two swing types, each with its own set of mandatory rites to observe?

There are also some technical things I wish he had covered in his book, or explained more fully. Hardy is largely silent in this book about the length of clubs, and about shaft angles, which is crucial when talking about swing planes. Does he want the shaft to move in a constant plane in a one-plane swing? What is the difference, if any, in swinging a wedge versus an over-length driver? How does forearm rotation affect the shaft plane throughout the swing? Is it possible that Hogan, as the model of a one-plane swing, is based on a short golfer with long clubs—and how would the model change for a tall golfer with relatively short clubs? There are a lot of things we could discuss that might not fit into the tidy world of two swing types.

I also think that some of Hardy’s version of the “release” and “cross-over” of the arms through impact and into the follow-through is not as clean as the one and two-plane categories he has laid out for us, but I will save these technical issues for another time.

All things considered, though, The Plane Truth for Golfers is a wise and valuable contribution to the evolution of golf knowledge, and it helps to clean up some of the confusion about different pieces of technique, and how they fit into the broader swing (or swings, as Hardy pointed out). And who knows, if golf is still being played in a few thousand years, maybe the golfers of that time will be sneaking up on the “truth” or even “perfection” when it comes to whacking a ball with a stick.

Comments


  1. Kevin Sullivan says:

    Hey John,

    Timely that I read this after what I sent you yesterday. Dunnigan I think describes a two plane swing although he compares his swing (and shows it in pictures) to Ben Hogan (who you describe as a one planer) describing how strikingly similar they are.

    If one drops the arms and hands on the start of the downswing to the original plane that was established at address, is he at the top of the backswing where he starts that downward movement on a different (2nd) plane or simply above the orignal but still on the same plane? Seems to me that that is the case.

    I look forward to talking about it on Friday. Interesting stuff. I don’t mind the bookwork and I find that the comparing and contrasting exercise is enlightening.

    Regards,

    Kevin

    • John Rogers says:

      Kevin, thanks for taking the time to read this article.

      I was not familiar with Dunigan (John Dunigan, Master Professional, PGA), but you are right that we have some similar preferences when it comes to the golf swing.

      As for the discussion of Hogan and planes, he might call Hogan a one-planer even though he sees a drop of the arms and club in the transition because Hogan’s right elbow stayed in a fairly constant plane. Jim Hardy would generally see anyone who made such a dropping motion as either a two-planer, or a one-planer with a “bad” move. Some of this is just semantics, and all of it is potentially unnecessarily technical.

      I like most of what I read from Dunigan–but disagreed with one assertion that he made: that the hip rotation at the start of the downswing could not lower the hands and club (that a golfer must learn to drop them purposefully). If the arms and club are on a plane above a plane that is perpendicular to the spine, then the rotation will give momentum to the arms and club to drop by themselves, toward the plane that is perpendicular to the spine; not to mention there’s always gravity at work. A “purely” one-plane swing (or single-plane swing) would have no dropping in the transition, or it would not be one-plane. As you alluded to, though, some “one-planers” allow for the arms and club to rise and fall during the swing as long as the planes are parallel to each other a address and at the top of the swing.

      I look forward to working through this stuff with you this week, and hopefully we can get past some of the technical issues to develop a simple and repeatable move!

      Thanks again.

      John

  2. Hema says:

    “Thou shalt not let thine elbow fly!”
    This quote is one of the best words in the article
    Thanks John

  3. Luke Daniel Borel says:

    This is how I view golf. Golf is basically a journey into and out of insanity.
    So to me, what I tell myself, is that mentally engaging one’s self in the intellectual activity of the mechanics of golf, is a wonderful pastime. Besides listening to music, I enjoy thinking about golf.

    Because golf is a journey, into and out of reality and relativity, I use this standard to compare golf techniques.
    I believe the best way to learn golf is to try a drill, and if the drill does not lower your handicap in one week, or one month, then that drill is not useful. I tell myself and others that there are more drills than one could do in a lifetime. Try to do drills that address some issue you are having, try it out, and if you do not improve your handicap, drop it like a hot potato.

    It is probably a good idea for any golfer to learn various swings, various tempos, and some trick shots.

    I have my favorite drills that are current to my place in my journey. The hope is that they will improve my handicap, and that I can keep doing the drills for the rest of my golf journey.

    I have to be realistic thought, and be open to drills that I have never even thought of , or heard of, maybe even drills that I think of.

    Even if I have found some really good drills that are lowering my handicap, I need to be open to new ones also.

    Good Regards To You And Yours And May Your Home Course Be Healthy.

    Luke Daniel Borel

    • John Rogers says:

      Luke, hope you keep enjoying the journey! The trick for most people is to get enough of their swing elements to work together in an efficient enough way to produce good shots, and to do it fairly repeatably. Whether a drill works for a person will have a lot to do with how well it blends with the other parts of the swing (a change in swing plane, might require a change in posture or body stability, and so forth). I agree that a person aspiring to a low handicap would do well to learn various swings, various shots, and even have some “trick shots” in the bag. Hope you find some good new drills!

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