Legendary golf instructor Jim Flick needs no introduction. Interviewing him at TaylorMade’s custom-fitting center — “The Kingdom” in Carlsbad, CA — was entertaining as well as educational. Mr. Flick’s “arm swing” theory is one that has always made the most sense to me. It was a privilege to hear him expound upon his theory with a passion and excitement that was inspirational. But perhaps the most important revelation of the interview was that Mr. Flick is “nuts” for his dog, Charlie. And when I inquired as to the state of Charlie’s short game, Mr. Flick replied that “it’s no good.” A classic example of “the cobbler’s children have no shoes”! (Charlie’s photograph is included in this interview, courtesy of Mr. & Mrs. Flick.) Enter TaylorMade’s “The Kingdom”
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Jim Flick: Tell me what I can do for you.
Golf Conversations: There is so much conflicting golf instruction information; in one given issue of a golf magazine, one guy’s telling you…
JF: Oh, yeah. It’s very true.
GC: To someone like me who’s tried to learn the game by reading magazines, I just scratch my head when I read all this conflicting information.
JF: Well, let me ask you this: do you think all doctors approach medicine with the same philosophy for operating and handling patients?
GC: Well, that’s an interesting point. It never occurred to me to look at it that way.
JF: I understand where you’re coming from, it’s a very valid point. I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about your very question. I think I’m kind of considered a rebel in the industry because what I teach is radically different than what most people would agree with.
GC: You’re referring to the “arm swing?”
JF: Yes. And the reason I do is because of the people that I have been influenced by believe that everything is based on what the clubface tells the ball. And what directly touches the clubface are your hands … and what moves your hands are your arms. Therefore, you need a feel and an understanding of how to use what touches an instrument to be able to get it to do what you want it to do … to get the right message to the golf ball. The golf swing is not body driven, it’s club driven. How you use the club is the important thing. Now that doesn’t come from me, because I learned the game the exact opposite way: that the turning of the shoulders was what you should do to create the movement, not the swinging of the arms to turn the shoulders.
GC: So you didn’t start out as an “arm swinger”?
JF: That’s right. And I got to be a decent player. I was a +2 and I played in college. But I couldn’t play under pressure because the shoulder-turning concept created so much tension in my body that I could not perform at the level of my athleticism. Not that I would have been a Jack Nicklaus or an Arnold Palmer, but I would have been a helluva lot better player. So when Bob Toski gave me the opportunity to be a part of his Golf Digest schools, I began to hear a message from guys who played at the highest level that their ideas are golf club driven: how to use the club head, how to use the golf club to make the ball do what they wanted it to do.
They trained their hands, wrists, and arms before they started worrying about how to train their bodies. And the body, if you listen to Jack, he talks about how the body reacts. And Mr. Grout taught Jack to use the golf club. And Bob Toski was a very close friend of Mr. Snead’s. When Snead would come into the Golf Digest schools, he and Bob, their concepts were so identical, it was incredible. They would swing the club and let their body react. Now what I’m not going to do is to throw aside information that many of the great players agree upon, to listen to a guy who played at a much lesser level, how he thinks the game should be played.
Everybody, Robert, takes what works for them and they feel that’s the way to play the game based on their experience. Ok, that’s fine. But if it has its limitations, then why in the hell would I listen to somebody who didn’t play at the highest level? If we go back and we look at our great players who dominated, there are certain athletic principles to me that are very evident.
One is, they try to minimize any tension in their mind and body. They’re trying to feel how to use the instrument with pictures. They’re not going through a process of turning or moving their body … their body is reacting to how they’re using the club. So I teach the game based on what I learned from Mr. Toski first, then Mr. Snead; then when I coached Jack for fifteen years and he explained to me exactly how Mr. Grout taught him … I was hearing the same thing.
GC: I’m getting goose bumps just listening to you.
JF: They used the instrument to create a relationship with the golf ball. And yet, all the kids that come to see me today … that are going to other golf academies … they’re taught to turn their shoulders, clear their hips, and make body movements, assuming the club head will show up at the right place and hit the right shot. And it doesn’t work that way. In my opinion, the priority is learning to use the club first. Then you train the body to be supportive of what you want the club to do … to give the right message to the ball. That’s why I teach what I do, not because I was a great player but because I learned from two of the best players that have ever played the game – the two with the most victories, to date. And so, they’ve got to understand something that other people didn’t understand or they wouldn’t have achieved that level of success.
GC: Some people would argue that some of these great golfers – maybe not Mr. Nicklaus, or Mr. Toski, or Mr. Snead – but a lot of them can’t put into words…
JF: Yes, they may not have been able to express themselves totally, but they would all agree upon certain principles of playing the game with pictures, with feel. They wouldn’t play it with a conscious effort of how to move their body. That’s what I’m saying. And yes, they do express things differently, and a lot of times players will say one thing that they’re interpreting but it doesn’t … Bob Rotella, who I’m sure you’re familiar with, had a chance to spend one whole day with Mr. Hogan.
Later in the afternoon, after he felt that Mr. Hogan was comfortable with him — that he wasn’t there to challenge him or be controversial — he had the courage to ask him this very important question, Robert. He asked him: “Mr. Hogan, there are those who feel like what you wrote in your book is not exactly what you did in hitting your golf ball. How do you react to that?” (nervous laughter) And he said, “Well, in my day, we didn’t have a lot of television to work with and movies to work with, so I’m not sure what I did … but I watched my shadow and I did a lot of slow motion movements so I wrote what I felt I was doing. It may not have been what I did, but what I felt like I did.”
So what happens, Robert, one person would take his experience and describe it one way… another would take it and it might feel radically different. So that’s why we get so much conflicting information.
GC: This is fascinating.
JF: What sets one person apart from somebody else is what they felt. In my studies with all the good players that I’ve spent time with, every good putter has top spin on his ball. Or minimal backspin. And there’s lots of ways to do it. For instance, a Dave Stockton way is to tilt the shaft forward at impact and get the top spin by virtue of the face being, if you will, less lofted and hitting the ball with an angle that is slightly level to downward. His weight goes on his left side, his head is over the ball and that worked marvelously for Dave Stockton; he was a very fine putter under pressure. In coaching Jack, I would hear nearly the opposite. His weight was back on his right leg, his ball was forward, and he got top spin by trying to top his ball and hit up on the ball like a driver. Yes?
GC: Yes, don’t stop!
JF: When I talked to Tiger, I heard a radically different approach. He wants to hit the ball like his golf swing: slightly inside stroke, hitting the ball and releasing the toe of the club past the heel and getting top spin by rotating the club face like a golf swing. Now are you gonna tell me that those are wrong? They were correct for the person applying them.
The challenge of teaching the game is to help the student find out how he can do it best. Not to say to him, “Well, Jack did it this way, you gotta do it this way.” He doesn’t have Jack’s mind or Jack’s body, but maybe some of the things Jack did would help him. And as a coach, as I’ve gotten older — I’m now 80, Robert — I’m convinced that nobody has all the answers. You have to work and find out what will help you execute under pressure with the body you have, the talent you have, and so on.
The golf magazines are nothing more than a tool with which to let guys express how they’ve accomplished playing to their understanding of the game. And to your very correct point, it becomes very confusing because you hear conflicting stories. But the great players have worked at it and found out what worked for them. So often, people want a short cut so they don’t have to spend the same amount of time working; they want to cut short that trial-and-error and building process that the great athletes have spent to develop themselves. So the truth is, we owe each of those guys an expression of gratitude for expressing how they accomplish it, hoping maybe some of that would help you through your own efforts to guide yourself.
One of the great teachers in the history of the game, Harvey Penick, taught by the guided-discovery method. He wouldn’t tell you what to do. He would give you some guidelines to help you move along and see if you didn’t find it for yourself. To build trust, you have to feel like you understand it and you can execute it. Now somebody can’t give you that, you have to earn that. And yet, the magazines are doing us a favor in many ways by showing us there are many ways to do it. But you have to be patient enough to guide through it.
Now let’s go back to the beginning: What guides you is watching the ball flight because that tells you the truth. The golf ball will always do what the club face tells it. If you go back to how great players learned to play the game, Robert, they learned by watching the golf ball. And understanding the message that the club gave it. Then they found out how they could best use the club to make the ball behave. Now, do guys play better drawing the ball or fading the ball? Well, Mr. Nicklaus won 18 majors fading his ball. Arnold has done very well drawing his ball.
I really began to understand this when I used to go to the US Open with Tom Lehman in the mid-90s. Tom was the best ball striker in the world. He hit a right-to-left draw. Then I’d walk 20 feet over and work with Mr. Nicklaus and he’d hit a left-to-right fade. I had to give them the information that would allow them to use the club to make the ball do what they envisioned. That’s when I began to understand that there’s no one right way to play golf. You’ve got to find the way that fits you and to control your golf ball.
GC: Yes, my only point about the magazines is that if we could take what you said … let me start over: you know how when you go to the Masters and they give you the pairing sheets, there’s that message from Bobby Jones printed on one side on how to comport yourself at the tournament?
GC: I think each magazine should have a little preamble: “The golf instruction articles that appear within are not set in stone and you may even see conflicting articles in the same issue. Golf is a difficult game to learn and no one theory works for everyone.” Something like that to warn beginners who are taking up the game. In fact, this is why we are losing golfers because it is such a difficult game to learn …
JF: You’re right. We’re losing golfers because people don’t want to spend the time. Our society has become…
GC: We want it right now…
JF: They want it now and everybody is so special that they shouldn’t have to go through the disappointments or failures…
GC: Agreed. But they need to be told – if I’m a beginner, and I see a magazine cover that has Tiger on the cover with a headline that says “How To Break 80 In Two Weeks”…
JF: (laughter) Sure.
GC: … and the editors have to sell magazines.
JF: I yield to that. The magazines give us false guidance and false hope and false identification. Like “Never hit a bad shot” or “Always hit it good.” Nobody does, so why in the hell would you think reading that magazine article is going to do it for you? But a lot of our society, Robert, has gotten to the point that they don’t want to go through what the great players – or the great minds in business have to do to develop themselves to achieve excellence in their field. Our society has gotten so spoiled that they don’t want to make the effort to get to be good, they want it given to them.
GC: Golf is the wrong game for that!
JF: All of us have challenges in our lives, disappointments, if you will. But golf requires that you learn from your disappointments and you develop an attitude … What about this kid that just won the British Open? He played in 7 or 8 majors …
GC: And made the cut once.
JF: Yeah. My point is, that’s the charm of golf.
GC: I agree.
JF: You have to be honest with yourself. That’s why I feel like Bob Toski is the best teacher in the history of golf. He understood how to play the game with a very challenged body of 5’7”, 122 pounds. He won five times in 13 months. He took those experiences with a very articulate and precise mind to help people understand how a person with that body could approach playing the game. Yet I find it was the same basic approach as Sam Snead; the same basic approach as Jack Nicklaus.
GC: By the way, I’ve read all of your books, including the one you wrote with Mr. Toski — How to Become a Complete Golfer — as well as On Golf. I thought On Golf was one of the best golf instruction books I’ve ever read … and I’ve read ‘em all. I particularly liked the passage where you compared holding a golf club to holding a musical instrument.
JF: I’ll tell you where I got that, Robert. I’ve got a library of some 500 books or so and I’ve studied most of them. There was an author years ago by the name of Horace Hutchinson, back in the 1880s. His vocabulary was so penetrating. He and teachers such as Percy Boomer got into your head by virtue of the language they chose. I’m very disappointed with the language that we use in golf today. Because the word “power” is the word that drives everybody. Yet if power were such an attainable goal, we would all be able to get there.
Power, the way that term is used, encourages the creation of tension … and you lock yourself up to create a lot of body effort. The truth is, power becomes an accumulation of club head speed, center-faced hits, correct angle of approach, and square clubface. The efficiency of those ingredients gives us the power that we can accumulate with what we’re bringing to the game. Power, to me, is a very disturbing term because it makes us approach the game with the wrong philosophy about how to play.
I’m really excited about what I’ve seen this year between Graeme [McDowell] and Louis [Oosthuizen]. We’ve got very small people, so to speak, who are competing and playing very well when it looked like for a while, if you weren’t Vijay Singh’s size or Phil Mickeleson’s size or Ernie Els’s or Tiger’s size and strength, you couldn’t play golf. Now, these guys are very strong, there’s no question, but they have created power…
GC: They have the technique.
JF: …with the technique that fits their body type. And that’s really encouraging to me because most golfers aren’t the size of Ernie Els. We’ve seen in football and so many other sports that you can’t compete unless you have a certain body type. Golf was in that area for a little bit. Years ago, Arnold was very strong, Jack was very strong, but they weren’t tall. Mr. Hogan was 5’8” and yet he was one of the great players in the history of the game. So it’s nice to see that power is not only given to a few people. If you use your technique correctly, power is an accumulation of ingredients that makes you efficient.
GC: You know what I enjoyed about On Golf? It was your description of how to hold the club. You said, “Firm fingers…
JF: “… relaxed arms.” Uh, huh. Fingers secure the feel so the club doesn’t slip, but light enough to identify its weight. There are so many things that we haven’t explained about grip pressure … properly. Grip pressure today is not taught by very many teachers.
GC: No, it’s not.
JF: There’s a swing technique of a lot of body rotation that you hear about on tour. The problem with building your swing that way is, as you get older, your body can’t rotate fast enough anymore. So your swing suffers as you get older using this technique. And if you’re not careful, you’re reading so much that’s written about the tour players that you forget that the average guy cannot spend the time … or has the body to be able to make that swing work for him.
Yet when you watch Louis swing, he didn’t have a lot of that in his golf swing. He had a lot of arm freedom, a lot of flow; there was rotation, of course, but the rotation source was not the most important thing. He plays golf the way Ernie Els does: swinging the head of the golf club.
GC: Mr. Flick, let me ask you another question about grip pressure and Sam Snead. He had that famous saying: “Hold the club as if you’re holding a live bird … light enough so as to not hurt the bird, but firm enough so that the bird can’t fly away.”
GC: Now I took that image in 1992 when I started learning the game and went in the opposite direction of most beginners. I held the club like a wet noodle; the shaft was moving around in my hands; at impact, the club was turning over. I couldn’t get that image out of my head for years.
GC: Now Mr. Snead was a fabulous athlete, he was a very strong man.
JF: That’s right.
GC: Now maybe to him, holding the club was like he was holding a live bird. He was using a grip pressure of say, “2,” because he was so strong. Obviously, he was holding the club firmly enough so it didn’t move in his hands. MY “2” had the club flapping around in my hands. And that reinforces my point of how language can be interpreted differently by different people.
JF: That is the challenge we face as teachers. That’s why I like and use the term “golf instrument” and not “golf club” and that came from Horace Hutchinson. He didn’t say it that way, but he got me thinking of how when you’re teaching, you have to make sure the message you want to put in your student’s head gets there with the right vocabulary in the right way.
GC: Which is why I’d love for the editors of these golf magazines to include a small disclaimer…
JF: What I asked them to do at Golf Digest was to include with a particular instruction article that it will mostly likely fit one type of ball flight. And another article will most likely fit another ball flight. So they would be able to guide people: if you’re trying to draw your ball, this may not be the way you want to approach it. If you’re trying to fade the ball, this may not work for you. It didn’t have much success because it’s never been done that way. But that was my suggestion.
GC: Good try, though. Getting back to Hogan’s book, The Five Fundamentals, he’s got that illustration of his arms together with his elbows pointing down, and you’re supposed to make believe that you’ve got a rope tied around your arms…
JF: Right, right.
GC: I think Jim McLean did a video analysis of Hogan’s swing a few years ago. It revealed that Hogan didn’t keep his arms together the way he said he did in his book. I always found it interesting that all of the people who read that book – millions perhaps – went out and tried to hold the club as if their arms were wrapped in rope.
JF: It happens a lot, there’s no question. And that image has been very misleading. But that’s the way it was imparted in the book.
GC: When I interviewed Jack Lumpkin a few months ago at Sea Island – and this reinforces your point – he said that perhaps the day that Mr. Hogan wrote that particular passage, that’s what it felt like to him on that day. Maybe a week later it didn’t feel that way.
JF: Well, most good players do have that particular situation, Robert. What they work on for a period of time … the golf swing is made up of an equation of a number of ingredients and all it takes is one ingredient to slip and it affects that whole chain reaction. So the solution for that might be one thing one week, and the next week might be something else. And that’s why good players are always making adjustments to make their swing work. So when you talk to them one week, this is a high priority … two weeks later, hell, they’ve forgotten about that and gone on to something else! (laughter) And that’s why the game has to be worked out for each person individually. Robert, I’m sorry but I do have another appointment.
GC: Mr. Flick, this has been a real honor and privilege. Thank you. By the way, did you ever read Gardner Dickinson’s book, Let ‘er Rip?
JF: Uh, no. I used to take a lot of lessons from Gardner.
GC: I’m going to send you that book. Fabulous stories about Hogan and Snead…
JF: Well, he was Hogan’s best friend.
GC: It’s been a pleasure, sir. Thank you.
JF: Good luck to you.
GC: Thank you. Do you ever get on the Internet?
JF: My wife uses the Internet but I don’t. And I’ll tell you why: I’m on the lesson tee from 8:30 to 5:00 every day. I have probably between 25 and 50 emails a day that I have to answer when I get home. And Charlie needs my attention and my wife needs my attention when I get home.
GC: You need to send me a picture of Charlie and we can put that up with this interview. Does your wife have a photo of him? (Mr. Flick shows me a photo of his dog Charlie on his PDA)
JF: Here’s Charlie!
GC: CHARLIE!!! (laughter) What a good boy!
JF: Yeah, he is a special guy. Believe me, I am nuts for my dog.
GC: Me, too.
JF: With Wolfie? Oh, I could tell!
GC: So let’s get a picture of Charlie and post it with your interview.
JF: I’ve got one on my desk. Believe me.
GC: Just one? (laughter)
JF: Actually, I have two! Come on, I’ll show you Charlie real quick. (we walk through The Kingdom to Mr. Flick’s office)
GC: He’s a beautiful dog. Thanks for showing him to me, Mr. Flick.