So, the PGA Championship has come and gone. I have to admit, I’m never really all that jazzed about the PGA. I like seeing great golfers play great golf, don’t get me wrong. And those who say it lacks identity, well, that’s not really accurate. Great players playing great golf and shooting low scores - on a course that’s supposed to be really hard but doesn’t really play that way - is its identity. Or at least it has been since the PGA of America managed to virtually eliminate the “Who?” champions.
On Sunday, Jason Day outdueled Jordan Spieth, Brendan Grace, Justin Rose, and others to win this year’s version of the PGA, at KohlerLand’s Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, with a score of 20-under par. Yes, -20. And yes, the golf world at large can now breathe a sigh of relief that another Nice Guy managed to eclipse something Tiger Woods did during what the media may someday refer to as his Reign of Terror. There was high-def coverage of Day’s wonderful emotional reaction, and gorgeous repeated aerial shots of Whistling Strait’s 8 million sand pits - sorry, traps - but to me, the dominant visual image of the weekend was one involving Jordan Spieth’s left elbow.
—-Warning! The following assumes technical knowledge of the golf swing and may bore non-swing-junkies to tears! Proceed at your own risk! Or spend an hour or two reading this first!—-
Jordan’s “chicken-wing left elbow” is a huge topic of discussion after Sunday’s presentation on the CBSKonica/MinoltaSwingVision-brought-to-you-by-oh-I-forget, which showed Spieth and Day swinging wedges side-by-side on a split screen.
Jordan’s unusual elbow position is documented throughout the sequence, as compared to the more traditional position and rotation shown in Day's swing. Why does it matter? Jordan’s elbow rotation, or lack thereof, during and just after impact allows him an extra fraction of a fraction of a second during which the clubface is facing his target while he allows the clubhead to accelerate through the ball...
...before he rips his hands across to his left side and releases his right forearm over his left.
Basically, it allows him to rotate his body harder and faster, but still have a margin of error to control the ball and hit an accurate shot. Sounds like an excellent plan right? Plenty of people are now lining up to teach it to all of us amateurs out here, or explain it on TV or in magazine articles so we can go try it ourselves. (I’m not gonna lie, I’ve already had the wedge out on the bedroom carpet.)
Here’s the thing. Don't do it. Jordan Spieth can do it because he’s a professional golfer, and he is capable of at least partially controlling the path and speed of a piece of metal whipping through the air at an uncontrollable speed attached to a flexing, torquing tube of steel or graphite. You and me? We’ll just screw it up.
Know what’s going to happen if we try to deliberately bend our elbow at address and hold it off forward of the ball (chicken-wing it) before we release the club? We’re going to start hitting the ball thin, short, and right. That’s Jordan’s occasional “regular” miss. It will be our regular shot, if we ever strike the ball cleanly at all!
Look, if your left elbow is normally bent a little at address, fine. If it’s bent a little at the top of the backswing, also fine. Don’t try and straighten it until it’s so stiff you can’t do anything. If it chicken-wings during impact normally, and you hit the ball consistently already, ok then. But don’t try and do it on purpose just because it works for Jordan Spieth. Then you’ll have tension in your elbow from trying to bend it instead of trying to keeping it straight!
The point is, we have to rotate our body around our spine angle, allow the clubhead to accelerate through the impact zone, and then get our hands around our front leg and body so the clubhead moves back “inside” the target line after impact, along the arc of the swing. We have to trust that this will, in fact, deliver the clubface square to the target line through the ball position. If we try to exert microcontrol over the direction of the clubface and the path of the clubhead instead of just letting the physics of the swing happen by themselves, then we’re going to be hooking, pushing or slicing almost every shot that we don’t hit fat or thin.
Jordan Spieth’s left elbow position is a specific, repeatable swing idiosyncrasy that he and his coach developed from a characteristic of his own natural golf swing, one that clearly gives Jordan an edge over the vast majority of his competition. There are plenty of these in the annals of golf history - Miller’s Reverse C, Nicklaus’ flying right elbow, Palmer’s whirlybird finish. Personally, I like to think of it as Ben Hogan’s left wrist position at impact, moved up to the elbow instead. I’d also issue a warning before encouraging anyone to try it. Like Hogan’s wrist, Jordan’s elbow is not the secret. It’s just his secret.