Classic v Modern Golf Swing
If you watch any professional golf, you are likely to hear commentators mention how so and so has a “modern” swing. Sometimes they will say someone has a “classic” move. But what is the difference between a “classic” and “modern” golf swing? After all, there can’t be that many different ways to swing a golf club, right?
A common finish among more classic swingers is the “Reverse C”, where the golfer keeps their head behind the ball well into the follow-through. The finish gets its name from the shape the player’s back leg and spine create and can be seen implemented by such legendary golfers as Tom Weiskopf, Lanny Wadkins, Johnny Miller and Ben Crenshaw. The idea with the swing was to focus on accuracy rather than distance and get the ball in play as much as possible.
A more modern style of play is the “Bomb and Gouge”. While not quite representing a swing as such, it refers to a player who tries to hit the ball as far as they possibly can and not worrying about where it ends up. Then they gouge it out of the rough for their next shot. In the past, such players were frowned upon as being tactless, but it has been used to great effect in today’s game by players such as Bryson DeChambeau who won the 2020 U.S. Open by 6 shots, a tournament that is renowned for normally putting a premium on accuracy.
Characteristics of the Classic Golf Swing
The classic swing was built on accuracy rather than power with a lot of movement in the lower body to generate power. On the backswing it was common for the left knee to bow in and get as close to the right knee as possible, resulting in a full hip and reduced shoulder turn. The left foot would lift off the ground in some fashion, a feature now being adopted by modern golfers to maximize distance.
On the downswing, golfers tend to slide their body and their right wrist will rotate over their left wrist. Their heads stay behind the ball with their spine and back leg forming the aforementioned “Reverse C”.
Characteristics of the Modern Swing
While the classic swing may have derived power from the lower body, it’s the upper body that plays a key role in the modern swing. Golfers keep their legs and knees quiet with a restricted amount of hip turn, roughly half that of a classic swing. Usually, the front foot will remain planted throughout the swing unless players are trying to maximize distance. The lead leg has a lot less flex in it vs classic swing. The main bulk of the power comes from coiling the body with a full shoulder turn against the restricted hips.
When it comes to the follow-through, the hips continue to unwind through impact and the right-hand does not rotate over the left. Golfers finish more upright than a classic swing, eliminating the “Reverse C” popular from previous decades.
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Precision v Power
For most of its history, golf favored precision over power. Courses were designed in a strategic way that put a premium on golfers having to think their way through a round. The idea behind the game was to play for position, keep the ball in the fairway and away from rough and bunkers. But that all changed with the introduction of a little-known character called Tiger Woods.
While Woods never topped the PGA Tour driving distance average due to the presence of the big-hitting John Daly, his athletic swing and aggressive approach to the game changed the face of golf forever. This can best be seen in 2000 following Woods’ most successful season ever where he won nine times, three of which were major championships. That year, he averaged 298 yards off the tee with Daly topping the rankings at 301.4. Tied third longest were Davis Love III and Phil Mickelson, averaging only 288.7 yards off the tee.
In 2001, 13 golfers averaged over 290 yards on the PGA Tour.
Since then, golfers have just gotten longer and longer, following Woods’ example. This is in part due to advancements in swing mechanics, golfer nutrition and physical conditioning and in part due to major leaps being made by golf club manufacturers.
In recent times, golfers have sought to hit the ball as far as possible, not minding if it ends up in the rough or a bunker. The idea is that they will have so little distance left that they can use a high-lofted club to cope with any issues they might face. Bryson DeChambeau put this into practice when he won the 2020 U.S. Open, a tournament famed for its length of rough and the premium it places on accuracy.
Instead of following the standard game plan, DeChambeau hit the ball as far as he could and was then happy to muscle the ball out of whatever rough he faced. In 2021, he recorded the PGA Tour’s highest-ever average driving distance at a huge 323.7 yards.
The game has clearly moved on from precision and power is now the order of the day.
Was the golf ball the reason for this change?
Arguably the release of the Pro V1 meant that tour professionals finally had a ball that they could control around the greens while still getting tremendous distance from the tee. Combined with the switch to gigantic titanium drivers you could argue that this precipitated the move to a more aggressive style of swing.
Injuries Caused by the Golf Swing
But all this distance comes with a price. Excessive exercise and weightlifting as well as the strain golfers put on their bodies through the swing causes wear and tear. Knee and lower back injuries are not uncommon in the modern game.
Due to the biomechanics of the modern swing, it raises the torsional load on the spine, leading to a whole host of back problems. It is a worrying but all too frequent sight when a young professional golfer complains of a back problem. Such an injury can not only be long-lasting but also seriously affect the quality of life.
Again, using Woods as the example, the knees are also at risk of injury. Due to the constant loading onto – and subsequent driving off – his left leg, he ended up with two stress fractures and a torn ACL which came to a head at the 2008 PGA Championship. Another golfer who has suffered from knee injuries lately is Brooks Koepka.
Classic v Modern Golf Swing: Summary
It’s quite clear what direction the game is going in. The further you hit it the better, regardless of where it ends up (providing it’s in play, of course). The modern swing reflects this by generating power from the upper body. Unfortunately, it does not come without its risks.
Even though strength and conditioning have improved, the number of injuries suffered by golfers has increased. Back and knee problems are chief among these. While adjustments can be made to the swing to alleviate some of the pressure going to certain parts of the body, it may also result in a loss of distance and/or a loss of form. This is something, it seems, most golfers want to avoid, preferring to put their bodies on the line in the pursuit of glory.