John Jacobs: Changing the Course of Golf Instruction

    To say John Jacobs is a towering figure in golf is putting it mildly. Few others have had such a wide-ranging impact.

    While the Englishman’s fame is greater in Europe than in the U.S., Jacobs’ influence reaches all corners of the golf globe. He’s considered a genius; he’s acknowledged as “the father of European golf”; and according to Hank Haney, he’s “the greatest teacher in the history of the game.” No doubt many others share that view.

    Jacobs, 87 years old as of this writing, enjoyed a brief and relatively successful playing career. The high point came with his selection to the Great Britain and Ireland Ryder Cup team in 1955. Jacobs aspired to greatness -- once saying he “ever so much wanted to be the best player that ever was” -- but eventually realized “that I taught it better than I played it.”

    On his way to golf’s pantheon of celebrated instructors, Jacobs served as the first Tournament Director General of the European Tour (1971-75). He’s credited with bringing the nations of the continent together with Great Britain and Ireland to forge the unit that now rivals America’s PGA Tour as the world’s most competitive.

    It’s an impressive legacy, for sure, but Jacobs has left an even bigger mark on the teaching profession. His methods are based on a premise that seems obvious today, but which he was the first to employ: the idea that any diagnosis of a flawed swing should start by studying the flight of the ball. By contrast, most teachers of his time – and many today – analyzed the student’s swing relative to a predetermined set of fundamentals, then altered the swing to match the “correct” positions.

    Jacobs’ insights were valued by everyone in the game, from the lowliest amateur to the top pros. (Jack Nicklaus half-jokingly pleaded for his help during the middle of a round at the 1969 Open Championship.) Jacobs worked with a galaxy of stars, including Gary Player, Tom Watson, Peter Thompson and Tony Jacklin, who appreciated Jacobs’ witty, down-to-earth charm as much as his swing wisdom.

    As an author, Jacobs turned out widely read books including Practical Golf and Golf Doctor (the latter a play on his nickname, “Doctor Golf”). In 1976 he founded John Jacobs’ Golf Schools & Academies, now with 13 locations across the U.S. In 2000 he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in the Lifetime Achievement category – fitting for a man whose legion of admirers include fellow teachers like Haney, Butch Harmon, David Leadbetter and Jim McLean.

    “John Jacobs wrote the book on coaching,” Harmon said. “There is not a teacher out there who does not owe him something.”

    And probably not a golfer, either.

    Famous students: Jacobs advised or worked with the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els, Greg Norman, Peter Thompson, Tony Jacklin, and Jose Maria Olazabal. Oh, and actor Sean Connery, too. 

    Core philosophy: In Jacobs’ own words, “The flight of the ball tells all.” Basic cause and effect, really – Jacobs simply starts with the cause and works backward.

    To wit: The ball’s flight – left-to-right, right-to-left, high and spinning, low and running – stems from the position of the clubface at impact. Clubface position is rooted in the elements of the swing. Of course, the swing itself is the product of the body’s movement. Working from that concept, Jacobs observes the player’s shot pattern to gain an understanding of his swing, then sets about repairing the flaws that cause mishits.

    How the club arrives at impact, be it through textbook technique or an unorthodox sequence, never mattered much to Jacobs.

    “The only purpose of the golf swing is to move the club through the ball square to the target at the fastest possible speed,” he once explained. “It doesn’t matter how this is done or what the swing looks like – this is of no consequence at all – as long as it can be repeated time and time again.”

    While some teachers espouse a hands-first method and others preach a swing controlled by the big muscles, Jacobs believes these units are inseparable – the swing is “two turns and a swish,” as he told Golf Digest. 

    Classic Jacobs-style tip: Let’s stick with the hands-and-body-must-work-together theme. Jacobs teaches students that a slice is often caused by the lower body outracing the arms and hands, leading to an open clubface at impact. On the flip side, a hook happens when the arms and hands get ahead of the lower body and the clubface closes too early.

    This drill will help you synchronize the two parts:

    • Using a gap, sand or lob wedge, hit a series of short pitch shots (20-60 yards).

    • On the downswing, focus on your right knee and hands reaching the ball simultaneously.

    • Proceed by hitting longer shots with the wedge, then repeat the series with longer clubs.