Going Au Natural

Thoughts on Natural Golf and Bad Backs

September 8, 2004

I received an email recently that brings up a couple of interesting issues having to do with learning and playing golf. Stephen, from Waynesboro, Virginia wrote:

I would like you to share your opinion of “Natural Golf”. It is touted for people who have back injuries that cause them difficulty in playing golf. Could you write a column regarding your professional opinion on natural golf, or any approach to golf that lessens the torque the body is put through?

I cannot claim to be an authority on the Natural Golf system, but I have studied the techniques, and I have taught a few golfers who were trying to use this method. I will start with a little background.

Natural Golf is a system developed in the 1980s by physicist Jack Kuykendall, who claims that science has shown him a better way to skin this cat. His method requires several departures from “traditional” techniques, starting with a palm grip that he favors over the commonly used finger grip. There are several other differences in the setup, and his swing features a prominent role for the dominant hand and arm. One of the claims Kuykendall makes is that a person who can drive a nail can become a great ball-striker.

The poster-child for Natural Golf is the almost mythical Canadian pro, Moe Norman, who has the nickname “Pipeline Moe” because of his legendary accuracy. There are many great stories about Norman-like the claim that he once hit the flagstick six times in a single round of golf. He has hit the ball more than 5 million times. Kuykendall signed Norman to do clinics for Natural Golf after the physicist realized that Pipeline Moe’s swing was basically the same as the Natural Golf method.

quote-natural-aSo what is my opinion of Natural Golf? I have to give some credit to the system. Almost every day I see people who struggle to learn a traditional swing because they rely so heavily on the dominant arm and hand, which is usually the trailing arm in the golf swing. Natural Golf essentially says, “Ah, just go ahead and smash that ball with your right hand”, which makes some golfers feel right at home.

I have also noticed over the years that kids and other beginners instinctively take a very wide stance, and tend to hold the club away from the body as a straight extension of the arms. I think Natural Golf earned its name by making these things part of the setup, and the “single axis” they try to create has potential to simplify the swing. Along with lining up the club and arms, the Natural method also seeks to make a smaller turn of the body, and a shorter arm-swing (which not only enhances the repeatability in the swing, but might be easier on the spine). I am always telling students that the way to achieve consistency is to remove the extra moving parts, and Natural Golf has boiled the swing down to a few essential parts.

Now for the downside. I have known several golfers who have converted to Natural Golf, which requires the purchase of specially designed clubs. These players had to travel a few hours to take lessons, because professionals are supposed to be certified to teach this method, and Natural Golf schools are not found on every corner.

quote-natural-bThen there are the claims made by Natural Golf. Kuykendall says that the science behind his technique makes this the way to play golf, the one and only best way. I have a problem with this kind of vanity, which seems very unscientific. I recently read a news article that told me that there is accumulating evidence that the speed of light is actually changing. Science often rejects things that were once considered true. Didn’t the world used to be flat? For Kuykendall and other supporters of Natural Golf to claim that the evolution of golf ends with their method is a huge and potentially unhelpful leap of faith.

Kuykendall said that his system would revolutionize the game. It has not, at least yet. He said it was just a matter of time before Natural Golfers started popping up on the professional tours. Where are they? And he claimed that the average golfer would be able to play better golf.

Granted that I have only seen a few golfers who tried this method, but at least two of them eventually quit and went back to the traditional swing. Natural Golf seems to appeal most to golfers who really struggle to learn the game, but in my experience, they continue to struggle even after buying all the clubs and traveling great distances to get Natural Golf instruction.

Another potential problem: in the era of longer golf courses (and in a game dominated by the male ego with its desire for monstrous power), the Natural method seems to somewhat simplify the learning process by limiting the number of moving parts–it very likely will also limit the power the golfer can generate. Pipeline Moe apparently played 7-iron from 150 yards throughout his career (granted, it was a different era on tour) and that would be helplessly short against professionals and tour-length courses these days. Average golfers, as much as they seek accuracy, are only so willing to sacrifice distance as well.

So, to answer the first part of Stephen’s question-I would say that Natural Golf brings some good things to the table; I would say it is a system that could help some people; but I would also say that it might be a nuisance to learn, and in my opinion it is stronger in its claims than in its results.

The second part of Stephen’s question had to do with golf for people with bad backs.

First I want to say this-the better a person sets up and swings, the less the impact on the back. Good posture and a “quiet” swing with minimal spine changes give the golfer a chance to play golf with little or no pain. The classic “reverse-C” finishing position of the swing (which they used to teach), is really hard on the back and explains the problems experienced by golfers like Jack Nicklaus and Freddie Couples. The modern swing recognizes that bending and rotating the spine at the same time is a recipe for disaster.

I also think it makes a difference whether the golfer has skeletal problems, like crushed discs in the back, or just muscular tightness. I used to have chronic lower back pain, but once I started working with physical therapists and trainers I was able to stretch key areas like the lower back and hamstrings. Between the stretching and some changes I made to my own posture at address, I don’t have pain anymore.

If a golfer has skeletal problems, he should follow the advice of doctors. The good news is that I have actually heard of doctors prescribing golf as therapy for bad backs.

As for Natural Golf, it does lessen the torque in the “core” of the body. This system rejects the “big muscle, big turn” approach of traditional golf. My guess is that it is tougher on the shoulders, arms, and hands, but somewhat easier on the back.

In traditional golf there are some things that can be done to minimize the impact swinging has on the back. Again, learning the proper positions for the spine is crucial. Changing the positioning of the feet, and allowing more rotation in the hips are some other potential back-friendly adjustments.

So, to answer the second part of Stephen’s question-consider some physical therapy (which is good for life as well as golf), get some help with your posture and swing basics, and if you are willing to make the commitment-think about Natural Golf.

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