How did a golfer with admittedly mediocre chipping, pitching and bunker skills become one of history's most dominant players? By being better than everyone else from tee to green, of course (and making the occasional pressure putt).
Off the tee, Jack Nicklaus was arguably the straightest long hitter of all time. His irons flew high, landed soft, and seldom missed their target. While the left-to-right fade was his go-to shot, Nicklaus could draw the ball when needed.
To say you can learn a lot from Nicklaus' methods is an understatement. Where better to start than how he set up to the ball?
Nicklaus' signature: The Golden Bear's address position featured several distinctive elements that enhanced the power and efficiency of his swing.
Who else does it: Nicklaus' positions have been widely emulated since he began winning major titles as a rookie in 1962. Many pros' setups resemble his in one way or another.
Three things stand out when studying Nicklaus' address position:
- His left arm and club shaft form a straight line to the ball.
- The clubhead is hovered slightly off the ground.
- He turns his head to the right just before takeaway.
Why it works: With many players, including pros, there's a small hinge at the left wrist when setting up. For Nicklaus, eliminating this hinge helped get the club on plane, and created an address position that would be perfectly mirrored at impact.
Nicklaus was a major advocate of hovering the club behind the ball. He believed this helped reduce tension in the arms while preventing the clubhead from snagging or getting bumped off track by grass or other impediments on the takeaway.
By cocking his head to the right, Nicklaus released tension in the neck and created more freedom for his massive shoulder turn. This also assured that his head remained behind the ball through impact, keeping his shoulders from rotating up and out too early.
How it can work for you: Maintaining a solid line between the left (lead) arm and shaft can help determine if your hands are correctly positioned. With the driver, the shaft should be at or near perpendicular to the ground to maximize the club's loft and promote a level or slightly upward path at impact. On iron shots and chips, the left arm and shaft should tilt toward the target to produce a downward blow. This arm-shaft formation also helps achieve a sound, one-piece takeaway.
If you tend to press the club against the ground when setting up, try holding the clubhead above the ground – a quarter-inch is plenty – just before starting your swing. This goes for both woods and irons, and it's especially effective if you play cavity-back clubs that are prone to getting grabbed by the turf.
Finally, a mild head cock is a great way to improve your turn. Your shoulders will be less restricted and better able to rotate to a full, 90° angle in relation to the target line.
Jack Nicklaus Unique Address Positions
Jack Nicklaus is arguably the greatest golfer of all time. While Tiger Woods can also make a very valid claim to that title, Nicklaus still leads the way in terms of total major championships won – which is often the measuring stick used for determining the greatest players. Nicklaus had an extended run of championship-caliber play, remaining highly competitive late into his career. Whenever the topic of conversation around the golf course turns to the greatest players to ever stroll the fairways, the name Jack Nicklaus is sure to be right at the top of the list.
In his day, Nicklaus was considered a powerful player, capable of outdriving most of his competition. The yardage of his drives back then wouldn't stack up with the players of today, however Nicklaus didn't have the advantage of 460cc driver heads, titanium metals, and high-tech shafts. If Nicklaus has been in his prime during the current era of equipment and technology, it is likely that he still would have been among the leaders in driving distance thanks to his consistent and repeatable mechanics.
One of the best ways to learn about another player's swing is to simply watch them stand over the ball at address. Even without seeing them put the club in motion, you can learn a lot about what they are trying to do with the golf club. The address position determines much of what is going to happen in the rest of the swing, and most amateur golfers would be well-served to pay attention to this aspect of their game. If you can improve on your address position, your actual swing should quickly improve right along with it. Since the golf swing happens so fast once the club goes in motion, it is crucial that you have your body and the club in the perfect positions prior to getting started.
The address position that Jack Nicklaus used in his golf swing can teach us a lot about the kind of swings he was trying to make, and the kind of shots he was trying to hit. While you shouldn't necessarily copy the swinging motion of Nicklaus (or anyone else) in your own game, you can still learn from how he stood over the ball. After all, if the address position fundamentals used by Jack Nicklaus could lead him to become the best player of all time, they should be able to help you in some way.
Golf technique has changed in the years since Jack Nicklaus was dominating on the world stage, largely due to the advances that have been made in technology. However, the basic fundamentals of the game have not changed for hundreds of years, and they are unlikely to change anytime soon. Those fundamentals can be found in the address position used by Mr. Nicklaus, so you would be wise to pay attention to even the small details of his pre-swing technique.
All of the instruction contained below is based on a right handed golfer. If you happen to play left handed, please reverse the directions as necessary.
Head Positioning is Key
One of the first things you will notice about the address position of Jack Nicklaus is the positioning of his head as he stands over the ball. When viewed from the 'face on' camera angle, you can see how his head is cocked to the right, almost as if he is looking behind the golf ball. This is definitely a unique position, not only among professional golfers, but all golfers in general. Most players keep their head square at address, looking straight down at the ball with both eyes. So why does Nicklaus have his headed cocked to the right? Most likely, it is to enable him to stay behind the ball better at impact.
Staying behind the golf ball is an important element in good ball striking, but it is something that most amateur players get wrong. If you allow your body (including your head) to drift past the golf ball at impact, you will be giving away most of your power and it will be difficult to achieve a solid strike. Therefore, staying back while you rotate the club through the hitting area is ideal. Not surprisingly, this is a part of the golf swing that Jack Nicklaus had mastered. If you watch a video of his swing online, pause the video at impact and take note of his body position. His head is still behind the golf ball, just as it was at address, and his lower body is leading the way. There is no sign of any 'drifting' toward the target in the downswing – it is a pure rotational swing, which is why Nicklaus was able to generate such impressive power.
So, does this mean that you need to cock your head to the right at address? No, not necessarily. The important lesson here is that you remember to work on keeping your head back as you swing down toward the ball. Nicklaus used this unique address position to help him accomplish that goal, but you don't have to follow his lead unless that position also feels comfortable to you. Feel free to set up in a more-traditional position with your face pointing right down at the ball if that feels most comfortable to you. However, no matter how you choose to position your head at address, remember that you need to stay back in the downswing and let the rotation of your body pull the club through the hitting area.
This part of Nicklaus' address position is a great example of how you can learn from others in order to improve your own game. The key is to not copy exactly what they do – but learn from why they do it. Is it important to keep your head behind the golf ball as you swing down toward impact? Absolutely. It is required that you cock your head to the right like Nicklaus in order to accomplish that goal? Not at all. You can improve your own game by thinking about the method behind Nicklaus' technique, and then apply that same line of thinking to your swing. It won't look exactly the same, nor should it, but you will have made yourself a better player in the process.
Sitting into His Stance
For this part of Nicklaus' address position, you should view his swing from the 'down the line' angle instead of face on. When you look at his stance from a down the line perspective, you will see that he really made an effort to 'sit' into his stance at address. That means that he was well-balanced over the middle of his feet, and he wasn't leaning out over the ball onto his toes. His arms had plenty of room to swing in front of him, and his legs were engaged right from the start – setting him up for that famous leg action that created such a powerful golf swing.
Every amateur golfer should learn from this part of Jack Nicklaus' address position. Balance is incredibly important in the golf swing, and a great lower body stance sets the stage for nice balance throughout the swinging motion. If you have ever had trouble with your balance during the swing, the first place to look for improvement is at address. By sitting down farther into your stance before you start the swing, you will give your legs a chance to 'take over' the swing. With a strong base established, you can then rotate your upper body aggressively without worrying too much about falling off balance. Players who stand with their legs locked out straight at address often have trouble being aggressive because they don't feel stable in the downswing. One of the reasons Jack Nicklaus was able to drive the ball such impressive distances was because he could turn the club loose on the way down without any fear of losing his balance.
To add this part of the address position into your own game, try practicing your stance in front of a mirror so you can see the changes that you are making as they happen. Work on finding a position that keeps your weight over the center of your feet while also allowing you to feel strong and athletic. Remember, while there is no running or jumping required, golf is a still a sport and it still requires an athletic motion in order to hit the golf ball properly. You should feel powerful as you stand over the ball prior to starting your swing – if you don't, go back and review your stance until you are able to put your body in a better position. Most likely, those adjustments will have something to do with sitting down a little further into your stance.
The importance of a dynamic stance extends throughout the entire bag. In other words, it isn't only important to build a powerful stance when you are hitting a driver. You want your swing to remain as consistent as possible throughout the bag, meaning your stance should look very similar from the driver all the way down to the pitching wedge. Of course, the shape of your swing will change as the clubs get shorter, but you should be able to use the same basic stance regardless of which club is in your hands. If you watch swing videos of Nicklaus in his prime, there is great consistency in his address position whether he is trying to blast a long drive or simply hit a controlled wedge shot.
Even without paying attention to the stance of Jack Nicklaus you should already be working on improving your lower body position at address. It is crucial that your legs play an active roll in the golf swing, at that starts from the moment you walk up to the ball. If your legs are stiff and 'frozen' in place at address, there is very little chance that they will spring into action in time to hit a great shot. However, if you start out with your legs engaged and ready to go, they should be able to support your swing rotation right from the start. It is tempting to only focus on the swinging of your arms when trying to improve your swing, but taking an overall view of your technique is a more effective way to improve. Get your legs involved like Jack Nicklaus did and you will be on your way to better performance.
Hunched at the Shoulders
One of the typical elements in a modern golf swing that you would see on the Tour today is a perfectly flat spine angle at address. Most Tour pros today work on keeping their back flat so they can rotate around that plane as fast as possible. That was not necessarily the case a few decades ago, as demonstrated by the address position that Jack Nicklaus used. Again looking from down the line, you can see that Nicklaus is slightly hunched over, specifically at the top of his spine (near his shoulders). Rather than a straight line, Nicklaus back is curved slightly downward. This is not the ideal address position for most golfers, but it suited Nicklaus perfectly because of what he was trying to do with the golf ball.
Jack Nicklaus was well-known for hitting a fade on the majority of his shots. Obviously, as a player of the highest caliber, Nicklaus was capable of working the ball both ways when it was required. However, if given his choice, he would usually hit a fade as his 'stock' shot. This preference is reflected in many of his course designs, which often have holes that are perfect for a little cut. With that in mind, Nicklaus used that slightly hunched over position to create a high backswing – the kind of backswing that would lead naturally to a left-to-right shot shape. At the top of his swing, Nicklaus' right elbow was up and away from this body, putting the club in a high position which would allow him to attack slightly from the outside. Unlike the average amateur who hits the ball left-to-right in the form of a weak slice, Nicklaus was in complete control of his trajectory. The cut ball flight allowed him to stop the ball quickly on the greens, and he still had plenty of power to make his way around even the longest courses of his day.
The lesson that can be learned from this portion of Nicklaus' stance is that, again, he used an address technique that suited the rest of his golf swing. Since he wanted to have his hands high in the air at the top of the backswing, he used a hunched shoulder position to facilitate that move. By setting up with his back slightly bent over the ball, he created a steeper plane that his arms could follow up to the top. Time after time, Nicklaus could take the club to the top of the swing in the same position, and then deliver it back down to the ball at just the right angle to hit a controlled fade into the target.
It should go without saying that you don't necessarily want to copy this position. For example, if you are a player who prefers to hit a draw, you certainly don't want to hunch over from the shoulders at address. That adjustment would put your club too high into the air, and you would likely start to hit a hook instead of a draw. Just like Nicklaus, you need to take a stance that is going to help you make the swing you are trying to make – not a stance that is going to get in your way.
Of everything that Jack Nicklaus did right in his golf career, and there was plenty, his greatest strength was probably that he always knew his strengths – and he played to them. Everything in his address position make sense because it is all working toward the same goal. There isn't anything that seems out of place, or contradictory to his swing mechanics. Does that mean that his address position is 'perfect', or that it would work for everyone? No. Most golfers would struggle to hit good shots if they tried to copy the address position of Jack Nicklaus. It worked for him, because it matched his swing. In the same way, the best address position for you is the one that matches everything you want to do in your swing.
Address Position with the Putter
Of course, you can't become the best golfer in history only by hitting good full shots – you have to be excellent with the putter as well. Not only was Nicklaus excellent with the putter throughout his career, he was also clutch on the greens. In order to win major championships and other big events you have to make crucial putts coming down the stretch, and no one did it more than Jack Nicklaus.
In making all of those putts, Nicklaus use a stance that wasn't exactly conventional. There were a number of things about his stance that stood out as unusual or unique, but they all added up to success. Again, just as in his full swing, Nicklaus was able to create an address position for his putting that enabled him to execute his stroke time after time. It isn't a position that you should rush out to copy, but it certainly led him right to the top of the golfing world.
Included in the various unique aspects of Nicklaus' putting address position are the following points –
- Hunched over stance. As mentioned above, Nicklaus slightly bent out over the ball in his full swing, but that was nothing compared to the hunched stance he used while putting. Nicklaus essentially crouched over the ball, with his back arched and his head right out over top of the golf ball. There is nothing unusual about positioning the eyes over the ball at address, but most players don't hunch over from the back in order to find that position.
- Close to the ball. If you find a photo of Nicklaus getting ready to putt, you will notice that his hands are in rather close to his left leg at address. In fact, they are so close that it almost looks as though they could hit his leg on the way through the stroke.
- Open stance. The vast majority of golfers strive to find a square stance at address when putting, but Nicklaus preferred to roll the ball from an open stance. This technique has something of a give and take quality. On the one hand, standing with his feet open to the target line likely made it easier for Nicklaus to see the hole, and the line he was trying to hit. However, making a square stroke while his feet are open to the target line requires great skill and plenty of practice (of course, Nicklaus was lacking neither of those things).
- Forward press. This final address position point is actually rather common among golfers of all skill levels. Before starting the stroke, Nicklaus pressed his hands forward in front of the ball. Many golfers use this technique, as they feel it helps them to both build rhythm in the stroke and roll the ball better off the putter face. If you have never tried a forward press before, it is a method that is at least worth a little experimentation on the practice green.
Jack Nicklaus played the game his own way, and that method took him to the top of the pile in the history of the game. As a testament to his superior quality and longevity, consider the fact that he first made a cut in a major championship in 1958 – and made his last major cut in 2000. That is a stunning stat, spanning a period of 42 years in which Mr. Nicklaus played well enough to make the cut in one of the world's biggest events. While you shouldn't necessarily copy the exact address positions that Nicklaus used in his career, there are plenty of lessons that you can take from them in order to improve your own game.