I ran into Dr. Jim Suttie at the PGA Show’s Demo Day at Orange County National Golf Center in January, 2012. Although we’d never met before, Jim had been a GolfConversations.com subscriber for several months, so I felt comfortable in introducing myself to him. Jim was sandwiched between two large Adams staff bags, which prevented him from fleeing when he saw me advancing towards him. Realizing that escape was impossible, Dr. Suttie agreed to answer my bold and penetrating questions. Faster than you can say “Barney Adams,” we were soon having an informative golf conversation … which carried over to the following day when we met at the Orange County Convention Center.
In this interview, the Good Doctor makes a compelling argument for analyzing a student’s physiology to determine the type of golf instruction he/she should receive. If you’re confused about all the conflicting theories of the golf swing, I think you’ll be quite enlightened with what Jim has to say. Plus, he weighs in on last summer’s Rees Jones/Phil Mickelson controversy regarding Jones’s re-design of Cog Hill.
Dr. Suttie is currently dispensing golf instruction prescriptions in Naples, Florida at The Club at Twin Eagles. He’ll be returning to Cog Hill in Lemont, Illinois on May 15th. For more Rx information, please visit his web site.
Golf Conversations: Tell me about the doctorate, doc.
Jim Suttie: I got a doctorate in kinesiology; it was a burgeoning field at the time. I did all my research at the University of Kentucky. The actual course work was done at Middle Tennessee State University, which is now the largest school in Tennessee. Kentucky had a biomechanics lab, so I had to drive up there every weekend to do the research.
GC: Were you a golf professional at the time?
JS: Oh, yeah. I was a pro. I kind of wanted to make a contribution to golf, I guess. I did a biomechanical comparison between two groups of golf students and compared it to a model performance. We did a composite of many golfers. We did the average of their swing in 10 positions and looked at 4,500 measurements of each golfer.
This was a time when you had to digitize by hand. Every 3 frames, we had to digitize the motion and find out how much the joint moved from point to point.
GC: That must have been rather laborious.
JS: Oh, it took forever! It took us one day to digitize one person. Sometimes, two days to do 4,500 measurements. Now they’ve got automatic digitizing.
GC: Is that what they do with that MAT system?
JS: Yes. But the MAT system now is different. Biomechanics is altogether different for golf now. It’s 3-D. Back in ’81, ’82, ’83, it was two dimensional; they didn’t have 3-D.
But golfers don’t interpret things in 3-D motion. They interpret things on a video screen, unfortunately. They’re so used to looking at a video screen — which is two dimensional — and it flattens the picture.
GC: Can the 3-D be helpful?
JS: Oh, yeah. I think three-dimensional film and video is the wave of the future. In fact, we’re going to start seeing more and more stuff in 3-D.
A golf teacher, when he teaches you, he’s looking at three dimensions. He’s not looking at two dimensions. What looks like a long swing at the top on video sometimes is not a long swing because the picture is flattened.
But this modeling technique we used … we compared it to the average golfer. We put the stick-figure composite model on top of the high-speed video. If the model moved a certain way and you didn’t move like that, we would call it an error. But it doesn’t work that way in the real world because people move at different rates of speed and have different rhythms.
GC: The foursome that’s in front of me always moves at the same rate of speed: slow!
So you did this work in ’81?
GC: Biomechanics for golf: you were a real pioneer, Doc.
JS: The composite modeling technique was the first study of its kind, yes. And video followed shortly thereafter. Yes, it was kind of pioneer work and I learned enough about it to know that you can’t put one composite model average swing on top of a body and say, “This is the way to swing.”
There isn’t one way to swing. There are many ways to swing.
GC: And I’ve tried them all!
JS: The most important thing in a golf swing probably isn’t even mechanical. It’s more sequential; timing is very important. I call that sequential. Rhythm is how you accelerate and decelerate the club through the swinging process. Tempo: overall speed of the process. And balance. Those are four things that are very non-mechanical that are probably the four most important items that I see in a golf swing.
GC: When people talk about swinging the golf club, the first thought that comes to my mind is using your hands and arms to swing the implement.
GC: Maybe you can explain to me this “big muscle” theory that says, “Oh, don’t get handsy … hands are bad.”
JS: It depends on the power source. You have to look at swings in terms of power sources. A guy’s power source might be his hands. Like Julius Boros; I think his power source was probably his hands.
GC: Julius Boros wrote “Swing Easy, Hit Hard.” One of my favorite books. Julius is one of my all-time favorite golf club swingers. I mean, if an accountant can win the US Open, there’s hope for the rest of us!
JS: You don’t ever take a person’s power source out of their game. You always work with their power source. Somebody’s power source might be their ability to rotate their body. But then again, there’s a lot of people that can’t rotate their body, so they have to use more hands and arms and less body.
If you come right down to it, the grip – how you hold the golf club – has a lot to do with the swing type. If you have a weak grip and you try to become a body player, you’re probably fighting Mother Nature. But if you have a strong grip and you become a body player, it’ll probably fit you. Unless your body is so inflexible where you can’t do it.
GC: Doc, when I’m playing golf, I’m fighting Mother Nature and Old Man Par.
When you get a new student, do you try to get him or her to take the so-called standard grip?
JS: No. Everything that I do in a golf swing – including the grip – is individualized and customized. You do that through some tests that I do. Just look at a person’s shoulders; if their shoulders are rounded, their hands are going to turn in and they’ll have a stronger grip.
For example, Corey Pavin has really straight shoulders and his grip is going to be a weaker grip. So you have to kind of watch and observe and that just comes from years of experience watching golfers.
GC: That’s interesting because whenever you read about the grip, 99% of the time they’re telling you to have your two Vs pointing between your right shoulder and your chin. No offense to you lefties out there.
JS: There’s no one grip, even though I would like to say there was … I wish there was. I can tell you that you can get more power from a stronger grip with the thumb behind the shaft. But it doesn’t mean it’s going fit everybody. I don’t think anything in the golf swing fits everybody.
Even ball position. I teach what they call “matching swing elements.” For example, if a guy has a strong grip, I’d probably put him into a stronger turning motion. If he has a weak grip, I won’t worry about him turning so hard through the ball because he’s going to square it with his hands and arms.
But “matching swing elements” is what most good teachers are teaching nowadays. They’re trying to coordinate with the natural motion of what the body is doing with the stuff that really works for that individual player.
GC: You were talking about ball position. Move it up and down in your stance or always off the left heel like Nicklaus?
JS: I don’t teach one thing to everybody. If a guy’s got a really strong leg drive and a strong motion to the left, the ball’s going to be more forward because that’s going to be the bottom of his arc.
If a guy’s got a really low swing – like a player I work, Mark Wilson – I put him into a low swing and he’s kind of a pure rotator. I’ll have his ball back a little bit more. So it just makes sense: the bottom of the arc is going to change according to the grip type and how the body moves.
We all do things differently; that’s what biomechanics is all about. What you as a teacher have to discover is the way this person moves most naturally. Because he’s going to put that natural motion back in his swing under the gun.
JS: So you have to find things that work for this guy that’s going to allow the club to get square at impact with a sufficient amount of acceleration. For example, there’s such a thing as a one-piece takeaway. And there’s such a thing as a sequential takeaway. So not everybody should have a one-piece takeaway.
GC: What is your definition of a one-piece takeaway?
JS: I would say more of a body/shoulder/arm motion like a Davis Love. Sequential takeaway would be somebody that gets the clubhead moving first; the hands and the arms, then the turn … in that order. Sequential is an order of movement. One-piece is an all-together motion.
GC: Let’s say a new student comes to see you…
GC: Let’s say … he happens to be fairly attractive, a credit to the game of golf, and a wonderful person. Someone, for example, like me.
Let’s say he’s a 15-handicap. How would you go about evaluating him – or me – and determine, “Gee what can I do to help this poor schnook?”
JS: First of all, a lot depends on his level of commitment.
GC: I’m committed, I’m committed! I’ve tried to “dig it out of the dirt” for so many years that I’ve been to China and back ten times.
JS: Ok. So that will determine the kind of lesson you’re gonna give him. Then you have to find out what kind of ball flight he wants. Questions like: “What kind of physical problems do you have?” Because if he has a physical problem such as an inflexible trunk, you’d better not try to teach him a big turn because it just won’t work.
GC: So you’ll do some flexibility testing?
JS: I do some flexibility testing…
GC: What would that entail? You’re not hooking him up to a machine?
JS: No, no. These are things you can do eyeballing a person. Give him some simple tests without a club. You can find out what his best position is at the top just by a simple drill. We all have a best position at the top where we create a direct route to the ball.
As much as I’ve done in the technical aspect of golf, I think I’ve worked even harder at being simple. And I think simplicity works for players because they get lost in all the technical jargon.
GC: Yes, they do. There’s so much of it … and so much of it is conflicting. We were talking about this yesterday at Demo Day: you can read two conflicting pieces of golf instruction in the same magazine.
So during that initial consultation, you determine the player’s flexibility and degree of commitment …
JS: And natural motion.
GC: … are you like a good horse trainer? A good trainer can look at a horse and see that the feet are turned out a little bit; the knees are a little knocked…
JS: You know, that’s a good point. I would say that it’s a gift that I have … where I can look at somebody and tell him, “This is the most natural swing that you can get into where you don’t have to re-do your whole swing.” But yeah, I have a good eye for what’s natural.
To give you an example, Mark Wilson has had a great deal of success…
GC: He sure has.
JS: …He’s one of my students. I don’t take credit at all for Mark but I will say this: Mark came to me and he was working on things that totally didn’t fit him. He was working on a more upright swing. If you watch Mark, he’s got a very low, roundish type of swing with fast rotation. I strengthened his grip. I did several things that made him click. So that’s kind of what I think I’m good at.
Not only eyeballing, but I do some tests when I’m not sure of what they do best. I do a lot of feedback as well.
GC: Well this wouldn’t be a golf conversation if I didn’t re-direct the subject to me, because, really, that’s all I’m interested in.
JS: Most golfers are!
GC: I’m not that interested in you.
GC: Just kidding, Doc. I’ve got an anatomy that I’m curious to see if you’ve ever encountered.
GC: I’ve got flat feet and I’m bow-legged. You know how they say when you make your backswing, your weight should be on the inside of your right foot?
GC: Well if your foot is completely flat – and your legs are bowed – that weight is on the outside of your foot to begin with.
GC: So when I make that turn back, should I be toeing the right leg in to counteract…
JS: No, that would be totally unnatural for you.
JS: By you telling me that, you’d have to toe both feet out to accommodate the way your body wants to move. Also, I’d look at the length of your lever…
GC: Keep it clean, Doc. This is a family web site.
JS: Where’s your power source? Try to identify your power source and then find out the way you get the most direct route to the ball. All those things are going to go into the scenario when I look at a student.
GC: That’s fascinating. You often hear teachers say, “There is no one swing, I don’t teach a swing, I teach the student.” But you’ve demonstrated how the student’s physical makeup determines the type of swing you’ll recommend for him.
JS: Yes, my background has helped me because I’ve studied the human body. The problems people have, the way they move because of their anatomy, physiology, flexibility, and neuro-muscular control. All those things have to go into it. You just can’t say, “Well, you’re built like this, therefore, swing like this.” There’s more to it than that.
GC: But, Jim: getting back to flat feet and bowed legs. This is the mother lode! This could be a post-doctoral study for you.
This could be in all the medical journals. I don’t know if this has ever been researched before.
JS: Just by you telling me you’re bow-legged, you’re never going to be a leg driver.
GC: Another fantasy dashed. Thanks, Doc.
JS: But with your feet out like that, you’re gonna be a hip turner for sure.
GC: A hip turner, eh? Wait ‘till the “restrict-your-hip-turn” boys hear about that! Their “X-Factor” heads will explode!
JS: You’re gonna turn your hips probably more than a lot of people. Flat feet … you’re not gonna be driving off your legs, so you’re probably going to be more of an arm swinger and less of a body rotator. Therefore, you’ll have more hand and arm motion.
GC: You know, that is what I do.
JS: Is it?
GC: Yes. I’ve experimented for 19 years with different types of golf swings and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m an arms & hands guy.
JS: There’s nothing wrong with that. You just have to know how to time it.
GC: But Doc, I live under the ominous specter of some guy on the driving range telling me, “You’re very handsy.” Like I had leprosy or something. When I interviewed Bob Toski and Jim Flick – two proponents of “Arms & Hands” – I felt like Moses reaching the top of Mt. Sinai.
JS: The size of your chest, the width of your shoulders – you look at those things, too. If you have a big chest, you’re gonna have a more forward bend at address. If you have a big chest, you don’t want to tie your arms in; you’ve got to have some freedom so you can move.
GC: So someone like me, who doesn’t have a big chest or wear a manssiere, I might be more upright in my stance?
JS: Could be. There’s a test that I would give you to find out where your natural place is.
GC: So when you’re doing all these measurements…
JS: They’re not technical measurements. They’re practical measurements that involve moving the body into different positions and seeing how the student can move.
GC: You teach at Cog Hill during the warmer months. What did you think of last summer’s Cog Hill controversy with Rees Jones and Phil Mickelson?
JS: They tried to prepare the course as best they could. I would say the guys weren’t used to the targets. Guys had played the course differently for a number of years in the Western Open. Then, all of a sudden, they get to a brand-new golf course. So I think some of them were a little shocked because they couldn’t shoot the numbers that they used to. And the pros, they really like to go low, of course.
They like courses they feel comfortable on … well, Cog Hill lost its comfort zone for these guys. So I can’t say there’s anything wrong with the golf course, because I do think it’s a pretty good golf course. I think that the players … their comfort zone was totally lost and they didn’t know what to think.
GC: So that’s a nice way of saying, “They’re a bunch of crybabies.”
Now if someone couldn’t come to see you – what can you tell someone who can’t make the trip to Chicago or Naples?
JS: I’ve taught a lot of young teaching pros throughout the country. We do a lot of Internet lessons. Or they can take a picture with their iPhone, send it to my email, and I turn it around and send it back to them. There’s a very small charge, not a big one.
Of course, that’s not really a lesson; it’s more of an analysis, but I can give him a few things that will get him on the right track.
GC: Well, this has been very enlightening. It makes a lot of sense to work with the body you have.
JS: Work with the body you have.
GC: Don’t fight it.
JS: You don’t fight it. I believe the German philosopher, Nietzsche, said: “There’s my way, there’s your way, there’s no the way.” And I think that applies in golf as well. I don’t think there’s one way. You’ve got to find the way that helps that person.
GC: And I believe it was the Green Bay Packer middle linebacker, Ray Nitschke, who said, “Third and long, watch for the draw!”
You know how they say the cobbler’s children have no shoes and the baker’s wife has no cookies … or whatever that expression is? Do you ever play golf?
JS: I do. But the problem is I’ve had a number of surgeries. Back surgeries: three. Two hip surgeries. And it looks like I’m going to have a knee surgery. I don’t make excuses but it does stop you…
GC: Oh, of course.
JS: …if you’re in pain. So that’s why I can identify with the human body a little bit. Because I’ve had most of these ailments myself.
GC: Do you think that your back injuries were caused by incorrect swinging in your earlier years?
JS: Most definitely. I played what they call “shut-face” golf. I really drove my legs hard and went way under with my right side and really injured my spine.
GC: Was that the Reverse-C?
GC: That’s how it was taught.
JS: It was done that way. That’s how I hurt my back. They put a rod in it years ago. The operation wasn’t very successful, so I lost a great deal of function in my legs. So I do what I can do. And that’s what you have to do with a lesson: you do what you can do.
GC: You sound as if you’re still passionate about teaching golf.
JS: I am. Somebody asked me a few weeks ago, “Would you rather teach a tour player or the average guy?” I don’t really discriminate there, but I’ve found that the average guy is a lot happier with that ball flight when it’s drawing. The tour player is sometimes trying too hard at his craft and sometimes you can’t make him happy.
GC: I think the average player is thrilled just to get the ball in the air. Never mind that it’s drawing 5 yards. Plus, when you give a lesson to the average guy, he’s excited at the prospect of improving.
The tour guy: he’s there with his agent, his sports psychologist, his swing coach, his short-game coach, his putting coach, his Pilates teacher, his Twitter writer, his high school guidance counselor … it must be hard to give a lesson to a guy with an entourage of 20 people.
JS: You just wonder how the old guys could ever play the game.
GC: You know what’s amazing? Guys like Hogan and Snead and the pre-Nicklaus guys: there were no yardage markers, no sprinkler heads. They just looked and swung.
JS: I know. They didn’t have GPS or anything else. They were about feeling and reacting. There was more feel in the game way back when, a lot better visualization, and a lot better targeting. Now we’re so far into mechanics, and the “how-to,” that the feel is coming out of the game. The guys that can retain their feel are the guys that are winning PGA Tour events.
GC: Is there a particular swing on the PGA Tour that you like?
JS: I really like Charley Hoffman’s swing. He’s got a good swing. He seems to do things the right way; I wish he could putt better. I don’t know Charley that well but his swing is quite good.
GC: Well, this was a lot of fun. Thank you, Jim. Now about that post-doctoral work we discussed. I think I’m going to have to meet you at the lab this summer at Cog Hill.