Allow me to switch sporting venues so I can tell a quick story. It was the first track meet of my sophomore year in high school. Out of nowhere, the coach told me I would be competing “as a filler” in a field event I had never trained for. In scholastic dual meets, this was actually quite common, especially in the less popular events. With just two teams competing, each might have brought only one javelin thrower, for example–so there would be nothing to lose in letting a quarter-miler try to fling the jav the minimum opening distance. He might get lucky and grab a third-place point that would otherwise go unawarded.
Only this was the pole vault coach was talking about.
As in: big heavy pole, asphalt runway, mean-looking steel standards waiting for you on either side. I pictured leaving the premises in an ambulance. One of the senior vaulters offered me a couple of tips, and the officials set the opening height mercifully low at 9’6.” I sprinted hard toward the pit and successfully planted my pole. But instead of rocking backward in the classic style, so as to pour my body feet-first over the bar, I simply curled up in a ball and clung to my end of the unbent pole. I must have resembled a maiden carved into the bowsprit of a Spanish galleon. Stiffly, the pole drifted toward the bar. When it got near, I dove head first and cleared the height. My pole did brush the bar, but it was so sapped of energy from having lifted me to perpendicular that it fell harmlessly away. Well then, I thought as I lay on the landing mats, one hard-earned point for the team.
In the next instant I thought of Dick Fosbury, Olympic gold medalist and genius innovator of the high jump. At that moment, Fosbury and I were united in track-and-field history. I felt sure that we were the only two trackmen ever to approach a horizontal bar and devise a new way to physically fly over it–I for survival, he in his quest for greatness. Just a few years earlier, in preparation for the 1972 Olympics, Fosbury had changed high jumping forever by abondoning the classic scissor-kick method in favor of a backwards layout still known as the Fosbury Flop. A true revolution in technique.
Golf–and surely most other sporting endeavors–has no Fosbury Flop, and little hope of inventing one. Sam Snead broke new ground in golf when he switched to croquet-style putting, but the rulesmakers soon forced Snead to modify it to “side-saddle,” a variation no other player has ever embraced. Trick-shot artists hit enormously long drives by teeing the ball up three feet off the ground. Although that’s within the rules–and not all that difficult to learn, either–mainstream golf is not picking up on the idea.
Moe Norman, the eccentric Canadian champion, did devise an unusually upright, spread-legged variation on the standard golf swing. Moe perfected it on his way to becoming one of the three or four most consistent ball-strikers in golf history. Norman’s technique was given major exposure in golf publications in the mid 1990s, after an Illinois entrepreneur named Jack Kuykendall used it to lower his own handicap dramatically, then licensed Norman’s name and his method in order to market golf instruction nationwide under the banner Natural Golf. That company, under different management, continues in business, operating golf schools and selling clubs, putters and training aids. But there have been no indications that Moe Norman’s swing style is gaining popularity.
So where do we turn for the last word in golf-swing technique? Yet another track man, as it turns out. In recent years, Dr. Ralph Mann and his Compusport computer-modeling technology have led the way in swing research. Mann, you may recall, won an Olympic silver medal in the 400-meter hurdles at Munich in 1972. Though not a gifted sprinter, Mann had become, through research and practice, virtually flawless in his hurdling technique. Reliance on technical excellence as a competitor led Mann to earn a doctorate in biomechanics and become an authority on the minute technical details of athletic performance.
Next: Model-Swing Technology Gives Mann Some Ideas