Losing half his right leg in World War I may have ended Ernest Jones’ playing career, but it gave him insight about the golf swing that would profoundly impact how the game is taught.
Jones, a native of Manchester, England, was beginning a promising pro career when the war broke out. While he was stationed in France in 1915, an exploding grenade sent a mass of shrapnel into Jones’ right leg, which had to be amputated below the knee.
Jones returned to the golf course after a four-month recuperation period. Walking on crutches but swinging on one leg, he fired an impressive 83 in his first round back, adding a 72 a short time later. Perhaps no one was more amazed than Jones, who wondered how he (or anyone) could play so well despite missing a critical body part.
His answer: When the brain consciously conceives a desired result, it will unconsciously work out how to achieve it and coordinate the muscle movements accordingly. It’s an accepted concept now – and the basis of visualization techniques -- but Jones’ idea was quite advanced for the time.
So, too, was his other revelation: That the golfer should focus on the simple act of swinging the clubhead, not the complex motions of the body involved in the process. “The more you practice trying to sense what you are doing with the clubhead itself and the less you know about what your muscles are doing,” Jones said, “the more pleasure you are going to get out of the game.”
Jones moved to the U.S. in 1924 as head golf professional at the Women’s National Golf and Tennis Club on Long Island. He also set up a teaching studio on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, where he would give some 3,000 lessons per year – about five times as many as the average pro.
Ironically, Jones’ philosophy caused some backlash among his peers, who feared its simplicity might hurt their business. Nonetheless, Jones gathered his share of acolytes, most notably Spanish pro Angel de la Torre. Manuel de la Torre, Angel’s son, would later teach Jones’ principles to legions of modern golfers.
One of the first teaching pros to promote his ideas through the media, Jones contributed to The American Golfer magazine and published two books, most famously Swing the Clubhead. Originally published in 1937, it’s still regarded among the best, most influential golf books ever written.
Jones was honored with World Golf Teacher Hall of Fame induction in 1977, 12 years after his passing.
Famous students: Glenna Collet Vare, Lawson Little, Virginia Van Wie (three-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion)
Core philosophy: “The most amazing thing about the game is the fact that the poorest players are the ones who try to do the most,” Jones marveled. “I am not speaking of the rank beginner, but rather of the golfer who has been struggling along for years trying remedies suggested by every person with whom he plays... I believe, rather, in simplifying the game by giving the pupil one definite and positive axiom to keep in mind every time he plays a golf shot. That is, ‘swing the clubhead.’”
In essence, Jones flipped the standard theory – that one must learn mechanics in order to swing properly – upside-down. His belief was that the golfer who concentrated on developing a feel for swinging the clubhead would naturally develop the correct mechanics.
Jones also insisted that because they’re the only part of the body to actually touch the club, the hands were the primary movers in the swing. Everything else – hips, shoulders etc. – merely played a reactive role as “admirable followers,” in his words.
Indeed, Jones diverged from conventional methods in many ways. For example, he preferred to teach indoors so that students would not get caught up watching their ball flight. He intently assessed the finish position to determine whether a golfer successfully achieved three keys: control, balance and timing.
To get his point across, Jones often compared hitting a golf ball to the act of hammering a nail. Carpenters, he explained, think only about driving the nail, not the technique of swinging the hammer. He felt golfers should do the same.
Classic Jones-style tip: Unlike the vast majority of today’s instructors, Jones didn’t advocate pulling the club downward from the top of the swing, believing the leverage this created worked against the centrifugal force he sought to enhance.
To feel the swing as Jones taught it, take a handkerchief and tie a small object – he used a pen knife – to one end. Then do this:
- Hold the free end of the handkerchief as though you’re gripping a club.
- Try to swing the handkerchief so that the heavy end passes through the impact zone in the same manner as the clubhead.
- If you pull the hands down abruptly, the heavy end will stay in place momentarily, instead of following the hands in an arc toward the bottom of the swing.
- Experiment with the drill to gain a feel of the proper swinging motion, then recreate the sensation with an actual club.