The Anatomy of Greatness offers the subtitle, Lessons from the best golf swings in history. Off the start, one suspects that the author cannot possibly assess and corroborate every great swing that the game of golf has known over its history. The task of the reader-student is to consider the motives of the source, and to determine if these were self-serving, or directed in goodwill toward the benefit of the readership.
Whew, that’s a heck of an opener, but it’s necessary. Do you know why? This book has been promoted as having found the holy grail of golf instruction, and that’s just the beginning of the hyperbole surrounding its arrival on book shelves across the world. Brandel Chamblee was a top college golfer and a successful touring professional. He then turned his interests to commentary and criticism, and found a home on The Golf Channel. His profile is expansive; his belief in brutally-honest expression is great. What’s wrong with that? Who knows? It certainly makes for entertainment and controversy.
The problem with including certain swings and excluding others is the motivation. Did Chamblee have an idea of what constituted a great swing for himself and did he seek swing examples that supported those notions? Or, did he examine myriad swings and isolate elements common to all or a majority of them? This is the great and pertinent unknown.
Who does Chamblee include? Mickey Wright and Annika Sorenstam on the female side (an underwhelming sample) and Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, young Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Harry Vardon, Peter Thomson, Gary Player and a few others on the male side. Why no modern players beyond the young Woods? That’s the premise of the text.
The nuance of Chamblee’s thesis that has received the greatest attention is the lifting of the forward foot on the backswing. Embraced by golfers through the 1970s and scorned by contemporary instructors, the forward foot was first kept planted to any degree by Ben Hogan. The Hawk, patron saint of hard work and a perfect swing, initially lifted his left/forward foot in early iterations of his swing. By the time he had evolved into the machine that would capture major championships, the leading foot barely rolled backward.
To isolate this one element as the focal point of a researched text is to do it injustice. Chamblee had been a foot-lifter during his junior and college days, but eschewed the motion in favor of a tighter, more tour-worthy swing. In his middle ages, he has returned to lifting the lead foot, and suggests that he has recaptured lost distance as a result. There is no doubt that raising the lead foot allows for a longer backswing, What must be avoided is excessive lateral movement, in the form of a slide or a sway. Timing becomes an issue, too, but with practice and rehearsal, the negatives can be avoided.
What Brandel Chamblee does in The Anatomy of Greatness is roughly summarized in the statement All that was old, is new again. In this case, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it can be reversed. If history is heeded, its lessons can be applied to the modern game. Chamblee’s conjecture that modern professionals have abandoned the teachings of their predecessors is incorrectly applied. Evolution typically undergoes forward and reverse steps. The true impact of the great golfers of 1900-1975 will not be truly apparent until a century beyond that, after the reaction to their swings (the teachings of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s) has played out.
The problem with identifying elements from the greatest swings only is that one’s own determination of what makes a swing great narrows the field. Chamblee offers little contrast in the way of photos between these old, great swings, and the modern, inferior ones. This is where things get interesting, because…
I recommend this book to you. I don’t particularly agree with Chamblee’s supposition that the modern professional swing is inferior to the traditional professional swing. What I do believe, however, is this salient point: the traditional professional swing is better for the 99% of golfers who are incapable of swing like tour professionals. The tension-free, lengthened swing of the wooden-head, steel-shafted era allows an average golfer to maximize her and his potential length and consistency. Why further complicate things?