Ed. note: There will be posts about three times per week. Lessons are about general topics and are organized around ‘parts’ that discuss different aspects of the topic. The goal is to learn how golf works and why with respect to a specific aspect of the game, using Newtonian mechanics and mathematics. From time-to-time, we will throw in a post that takes a broader look at the game or game strategy from 30,000 feet. Please enjoy, and always enjoy your golf. It is, after all, a game.
Golf is simple. No one ever tells us why. They hide it from us. They give us shorthands that are supposed to make it simple but make it harder. Play the ball forward in your stance. (Why?) Hit down on the ball. (Why?) A hybrid is easier to hit than a 3 iron. (Why?) Worse yet, the gurus of golf seem to disagree. The putting stroke should be straight back and through; the putting stroke is an arc. Keep your head down; keeping your head down restricts your follow through. Play a 44 inch driver shaft; Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia play 42 inch driver shafts. Oy! It’s enough to drive anyone out-of-bounds. And we’re always being told that just this one swing fix will make our game wonderful — and we believe.
What did Abraham Lincoln say? You can’t fool all of the people all of the time … unless they are golfers. (Abe was an avid golfer; he just edited out those final four words from his speech.) And by God it sure seems like golfers are a gullible bunch. I sometimes think that gullible is not in the golfers’ dictionary.
Well, it’s time to stop it. Golfers deserve better. Do not be afraid. Ask, why, why, why?
How do we make sense of golf? Why hasn’t anyone made sense of it before? Books and ideas about golf are presented in cookbook fashion, a little of this a little of that, and just do it — the recipe will come out good. Why? Good question. That’s why we are here.
The site presents articles about the mechanics and mathematics of golf. It is intended for teaching professionals, touring professionals, serious amateur golfers, and especially everyone else. The idea underlying the site is that it just attempts to explain how the laws of nature are part of golf. They are golf. Once we know how simple it is, we can understand golf. Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; give a man a fishing pole, he eats for life.
There are two important ideas conveyed by the title of this ‘About’ page – Golf as God Gave it to Us – and the title of the blog – Golf is A Simple Game. Nothing in this blog that does not ultimately make simple, common-sense is really not of any value. It can’t be incorporated into someone’s play of the game. On the other hand, a professor of mine in college was fond of saying, “God is a Great Simplifier.” And so we will see here. In contrast to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, one can easily imagine how Newton started piecing together the laws of physics and gravity, by observing what was around him. The story is that an apple fell on his head. True or no, it is a very powerful metaphor for how such an idea would come to someone’s mind, appropriate curious and interested in the world around him. (Einstein also says that simple thought experiments led him to piece together relativity.  I just find relativity a lot harder to understand than an apple falling to the ground. Perhaps you are different.)
Mathematics and Newtonian Mechanics: Nature’s Laws
The idea for the site came from a noted mathematician at the University of Michigan, who does not play golf. My initial reaction was that it was gimmicky, but his suggestion was prompted by my discussion with him of some topics in golf that are closely related, on a basic level, to mathematics.
Those familiar with the history of science know that Newton invented the calculus for the problems he solved about the motion of the planets, gravity, and the like. I think of Newtonian physics, or Newtonian mechanics, as math story problems. The relationship between the two is intimate. What does this have to do with golf? Everything in golf – from ball flight to clubhead acceleration to choosing the right club into a breeze – is an application of Newtonian mechanics for which mathematics is necessary.
A Better Understanding of Golf’s Foundations
There is another sense in which this site is being published apart from its purely educational benefits. I am familiar with a number of “controversies” about the way golf works. What type of putting motion is best. Where does the power in the swing originate? And so on and so forth. Most of these questions have answers, if one knows enough about mathematics and Newtonian mechanics. Some of the answers are, if understood in their full complexity, answers of the nature – a little bit of this is true, a little bit of that. Mathematics can then help sort out when this is better for a golfer, or that is better. The nature of golf at the top levels is that, well, you don’t have a lot of people whose day jobs are at the Fermi Lab outside Chicago, Los Alamos, or the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton (where Einstein was from 1933 on). Why not? Is golf that simple?
In short, and with no offense toward anyone, there isn’t much of an intersection between the two worlds – which means that there isn’t much well-developed golf theory. The best pros tend to know what works – as Nicklaus recently said about putting “whatever works” – but not why. And this is a shame, for there are truly important insights to be gained.
A More General Approach Than Before
Dave Pelz, an engineer by training, made an effort to systemize some of these questions. We are a fan of Pelz because he brought an analytic eye to golf and many of his observations have helped change the game for the better. His book, Dave Pelz’s Short Game Bible is a must buy and its treatment of wedge play is wonderful. It also seems that, in putting some of his views into the public domain, he has endured some unfair criticism — professionals feeling the need to say some of his statements are “wrong.” We are not, as we say below, a fan of doctrinaire views. There tends to be some truth in most observations people make about a subject like golf, especially those who’ve spent some time thinking and studying it. At the same time, for reasons I may discuss some day, his approach – fundamentally that of an engineer – has limitations.
Other books that attempt to approach golf in this way are so filled with equations that it is difficult for even an experienced mathematician to understand, and certainly for one used to playing golf. Indeed, often an experienced mathematician will conclude that important variables are left out.
An example, which I also heartily recommend to the avid reader, is the book, Search for the Perfect Swing. It is an effort by a group of British scientists around 1969 to determine the ‘science’ behind the golf swing. It has a wealth of wonderful pictures, both photographs and diagrams. It discusses the principles in great detail, and some of the ideas for modern day clubs come directly from the book. For example, both the heel-toe weighted putter and the cavity-back iron are “invented’ in the book. Some parts are a bit hard to understand — like the discussion of how the left wrist properly breaks or hinges on the backswing — but it is a classic. I know of no single book on golf that is better. Here, we will try to take the work of our British brethern of yesteryear a bit farther, with the help of a somewhat more ‘theoretical’ perspective, for it is our belief that the clearest understandings are developed when one abstracts out the details that are really distracting and leaves ones-self with only those details that describe accurately the pheonomenon on which we are focused. (That is, by the way, mathematics at its heart.)
Still, we believe these attempts fall far short. More and better explanations of how and why golf works the way it does are in short supply and sorely needed. Not only for the teaching and touring pro, but for the average golfer. The game shouldn’t be a mystery. Einstein once said, “you should be able to explain physics to a barmaid.” And if a barmaid can understand Relativity, surely the rest of us can understand a hook, a slice, and a misread putt.
Never Doctrinaire — Well Almost Never
One thing is worth emphasizing over and over again. This site, and golf, are not about doing thing one way. There is no “best” way for all situations and all golfers. As Gary Player has put it, all golfers are different – different shapes, sizes, strengths, weaknesses, temperaments, and so on. Moreover, general principles have exceptions and themselves have limiting principles. Moreover, one has to know how to apply general principles. It may be, and often will be the case, that some approach will work for one person but not another; one approach will work in one situation but not in another very similar one. Which is not to say that each golfer can’t improve or that any golfer is perfect. Golf is not a game of perfect and none of us are. Not Hogan, nor Nicklaus, nor Jones, nor Woods.
The goal, rather, is to undergird golf with foundational principles or truths, based upon nature’s laws in effect, or to strive to understand those laws better.
And there is an important point to be understood here. Newtonian mechanics are enough to predict almost every physical aspect of the universe. Almost! Which is where Newton ends and Einstein begins. At what are called ‘relativistic speeds’ Newtonian concepts of space and time break down. Does it matter? No, not unless you are in the business of building atom bombs, or are about to have one dropped on you. If it sounds too complex, the person explaining it probably doesn’t understand it well enough. 
The point about Newton and Einstein, however, is not meant to be merely humorous. Rather, it is made to show that there are no “absolute truths…” and nothing said here is meant to suggest otherwise. One has to understand the principles, a nd perhaps re-understand them, before one can make any meaningful statements about what might and might not work.
A good example is older golfers. As golfers get older, they lose strength and especially strength in their legs. Professionals have ways of teaching them to compensate, but these ways are often off the mark. The same swing can’t work; but the teaching pro likely doesn’t know enough about why the swing does work to know how to change it when a key variable is missing. A one-armed golfer would cause one to think of similar issues. However, one might think of trying to teach the one-armed golfer as the equivalent, logically, of trying to build an atom bomb – it’s not a problem that arises much. True. On the other hand, understanding Einstein’s photo-electric effect comes up almost every day – if not more often in today’s electronic society.
The search for knowledge is very important, as is understanding a framework in a broader context and understanding that it is a “framework,” and not “truth itself.”
As I learned many years ago:
God is a great simplifier.
Jan Kmenta, Professor Emeritus of Economics, University of Michigan
And whatever your conception of the, or a, or any, Almighty, I have learned that there is much to what Professor Kmenta would tell us.
Reading the Lessons
In the entries that follow, entries authored by “I. Newton” should be understandable by all. Any mathematics or physics should be explained conceptually, in commonsense terms, without the need to understand the underlying mathematics or physcis. The point is for the discussions to be ones that help golfers have insights into their own games; not just learning golf in cookbook fashion. Entries authored by “A. Einstein” will be ones in which a deeper review of mathematics or physics will take place. The discussions will not be purely academic, so it should be possible to skim them for relevant content. At the same time a good understanding of the mathematics or physics at work may be important to a complete understanding, and even for those experienced in the fields some thought beyond reading the article may, indeed usually will, be required. Posts authored by M. Huckster should be read for humor and background.
Golf may not be a game of perfect; it definitely is not a game of simple. Anyone who supposes otherwise is doomed to fail. Work, thought, effort, patience, and knowledge all, as in any difficult human endeavor, make a difference. Let us be frank.
D. B. R. “Backspin” Newly
Jimmy C. “Never Waver” Hackswell
Lenny “Slick” Oiler
Ernie “Hit” Fermli
M. Sven “Another World” Land
Note bene: I am not making a religious, but a metaphorical, statement with the title of this ‘about’ page. I make no comment, for any public purpose or even privately, regarding anyone’s religion or religious beliefs, let alone my own. I merely hope to convey that there are certain things in the universe that dictate how we play golf, that those things are “given to us” – that is unchangeable, and they determine everything that happens in golf in a very real sense.
“I was sitting in a chair in the patent office at Bern when all of sudden a thought occurred to me: If a person falls freely he will not feel his own weight. I was startled. This simple thought made a deep impression on me. It impelled me toward a theory of gravitation.”
- A. Einstein in his Kyoto address (14 December 1922), talking about the events of “probably the 2nd or 3rd weeks” of October 1907, quoted in Why Did Einstein Put So Much Emphasis on the Equivalence Principle? by Dr. Robert J. Heaston inEquivalence Principle – April 2008 (15th NPA Conference) who cites A. Einstein. “How I Constructed the Theory of Relativity,” Translated by Masahiro Morikawa from the text recorded in Japanese by Jun Ishiwara, Association of Asia Pacific Physical Societies (AAPPS) Bulletin, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 17-19 (April 2005).