Term Limits: The Language of Golf Instruction

"Strong grip," "coming over the top," "release" -- swing terms like these are bandied about by helpful-sounding pros, teachers, TV announcers, writers, and golfers so vaguely and indiscriminately that the edifice of golfspeak can seem like a Tower of Babel. Misnomers abound, and there don't seem to be any standards.

Add to this the fact that schools of teaching and playing may have radically different ideas not only of the ideal swing, but of instructional methods, and you've got the makings of a sort of massive holy war -- a battle royal among teaching professionals, touring professionals, novice golfers, low-handicappers, and golf writers. It's almost like they're all speaking a different language.

Are they? Is golf-esperanto the answer? If these old phrases and words are getting to be like odd little family heirlooms -- lots of sentimental value, but dubious worth -- what can they be exchanged for? 

Teaching professionals point out that the clumsy nature of golf's teaching lingo starts at the very place where instruction begins -- where the hands meet the club: at the grip. Craig Shankland makes a point which has no doubt occurred to everyone who's picked up a club: "'Grip' is one word which means two different things -- it means what you hold, and how you hold it." Shankland -- who refers to the club's "handle" -- proceeds to another notorious example: "Look at the terms 'strong grip' and 'weak grip,' which of course have nothing to do with the strength of the player, but with the position of the hands on the handle." ("Strong," of course, derives from the grip tending to close the clubface at impact and hook the ball -- which is a longer shot than a slice.)

To correct just this confusion, teaching professional Gary Wiren, author of the PGA Manual of Golf, has suggested replacing "weak grip" and "strong grip" with "closed-face grip" and "open-faced grip" as part of a proposal for a more universal language for golf. "What we're trying to do is relate the terms to what actually happens when you rotate your hands clockwise on the grip and put them on a position which has traditionally been called strong," says Wiren. "Since you are in essence closing the clubface when you make a natural release, why not call it a 'closed-face grip' instead of a 'strong grip'?"

This seems viable at first glance. But don't some golfers address the ball with an open-faced club and a strong grip? Fred Couples comes to mind -- and quite a few 12-handicap players use a strong grip to hit a fade, too -- in other words, set up with a strong grip, but with the clubface open. Does it really make sense to replace one term with another that requires a disclaimer?

Then there are those phrases which are simply worn out. Take for example that hallowed epithet, "over the top," used so frequently by announcers to describe a swing that has produced a hooked shot that a listener may be forgiven for being baffled. Over the top of what?

If you're confused by the expression, learning what "over the top" means might help your game. (see "Over the Top -- of Your Head?") If you DO understand the term, you probably prefer to think of it as unmentionable -- unless, of course, your playing partner has hooked it into the woods and deserves a little needling.

For the better player, "over the top" seems such a broad expression that it's not even particularly helpful. Shankland asks rhetorically, "So what is the best way to describe 'over the top'? It's a violent swing to the left of the target. And it's violently swung left because the player fears the ball is going to go to the right."

Golf's teaching language is further complicated by a ancient tradition of pedantic pros -- teaching professionals who were out to impress their pupils with arcane swing terminology, rather than clear, simple language which can communicate ideas. (It still lives on in the somewhat knowing and even condescending tone heard at some clubs -- and during some "swing analyses" during golf telecasts.) Which doesn't mean that technical talk doesn't have a purpose.

The easiest way to think of golf terms is to keep in mind that the more technical terms describe swings, while instructional language teaches a swing. Although better players use swing tips as well -- after all, even big dogs sometimes need to be told what to do -- the conversation on a PGA Tour practice range is different from the argot of your teaching pro, who is trying to coax you out of bad habits. 

The reason there isn't a golf-teaching canon is that so many pupils need to be approached differently. And while many features of all good golf swings may have something in common, the paradoxical and intruiging fact of golf is that while every good swing, like a snowflake, is virtually unique, the list of bad swing features and moves is actually rather finite.

On this tack, Jim Suttie, a highly regarded PGA teacher, sums up his approach to terminology: "We all interpret things differently. 'Over the top,' or, 'covering the ball with the face of the club,' -- what do these mean? These things have to come down to earth, basically, in a language that everyone understands.

"How we're going to do that presents a huge problem for golf teaching. But I don't know if there is a way, because I think golf is an artistic thing. I teach it artistically. And as long as it's an art form, I don't know if there's ever going to be a universal terminology for it."

Suttie's approach shows how using sensible ordinary language can replace a conventional old-fashioned term with a far more serviceable one: "The word 'takeaway' is one I don't like to use. Because, you know, we don't take the club away -- we swing it away. So I use the word 'swingaway' instead. People interpret your words, and when you say 'takeaway,' it sounds like right hand, and tension, and all kinds of other bad habits."

Suttie likes to give first-time students a questionnaire, asking for example, what he does for a living. "To get some idea if he's analytical or intuitive, you see.

"Once I figure out if he's a real rational thinker, or he's a feel thinker, then I can approach him with a communication style, that he can identify with." (Craig Shankland: "You have to delve and go deep into the person's mind, in other words be empathetic to the fact that they may learn words differently and see things differently and you have to find which words, which 'triggers' will work for that person.")

Shankland recalls his experience in school: "I hated my math teacher, and then when I changed schools I had the best math teacher in the world. So I was a dunce at one school, and great at another one. He just had a different way of explaining it to me -- saying the same thing but not in the same way.

"I think learning styles are compatible with teaching styles. You have to get a teacher who fits your learning style."

Sometimes it's important to know what not to listen to when taking a lesson -- or even when reading a magazine. Nearly every teacher's swing concepts makes sense -- but is his mode of expression one that you can understand?