The answer to the title is hardly sexy or exciting, but it is the basis for the success that Jack Nicklaus derived at golf. It is often seriously overlooked in our race to succeed. What is it? In order to excel at golf (or most anything for that matter), you must master the fundamentals. So often in our modern world, we want things so quickly that we overlook some of the most important issues. You can only build a skyscraper as tall as you have a base to support it. Building a golf game that will endure and prosper is no different. In golf, there are a mere handful of basic fundamentals that even many professional golfers gloss over – to their detriment.
They include: Proper Grip – helps deliver the clubface square to the target at impact: Correct Set Up – aim, alignment + 3 “P’s,” i.e., positioning & placement of the feet and posture: Steady Head – the hub of the swing, the axis of the club’s rotation around the body: Proper Footwork – playing from the “insides” of the feet promotes balance: Full Extension – developing a wide arc generates clubhead speed: “Quiet” Hands – are not active “hitters,” instead they are passive “reactors.”
Most golfers and even some professionals quickly rush past the fundamentals in a hurry to get into something more exciting, like actually hitting the golf ball. Jack Nicklaus realized it and shared this with me. He felt that his attention to the fundamental details was the key differentiation point that few of his contemporaries paid adequate attention to. Whether or not this is accurate hardly matters, but in Nicklaus’ mind, those he had to play against were ill prepared.
He and his coach Jack Grout would annually start every year with an entire day reviewing the fundamentals of the game. The discussion sounded like “Jack, this is a golf club and here is how you hold it.” Over the course of each year, subtle changes might take place and ever the attention to detail, Nicklaus wanted Mr. Grout to review everything in detail. He knew that virtually no one else playing professional golf would do this, but this was part of his process that he felt was critical and made him so tough to beat. Knowing he had this infallible process with every detail attended made him feel entitled to win. How many of his fellow players felt entitled?
Jack Nicklaus was building a basis that was so strong in theory and practice that it would not and could not be shaken under any circumstances. This is not my belief, it was his. Some may call this “mental toughness,” but this was simply the result of paying attention to mastering one tiny detail at a time – something virtually anyone can do, but don’t. With patience, Nicklaus knew he was going to be better prepared than anyone else. It was his “knowing” more than anything else that provided him with his edge. He knew that too.
Vince Lombardi would begin every football season with the Green Bay Packers holding a football and teaching his players, “Gentleman, this is a football.” The discussions proceeded with every fundamental detail relevant to the game, but ones his players felt they knew in their sleep. They soon realized that they were better prepared than anyone else to win.
Boston Celtics great Sam Jones shared with me that Red Auerbach only employed five plays during his entire tenure coaching professional sport’s great dynasty. He went on to reveal that the team never scouted their opponents nor did they care how their opponents would play them. All they were concerned about was executing five fundamental plays to perfection, and not dozens. Auerbach treated everyone on those great Celtic teams as apprentices no matter their experience or World Championships.
There is a saying in the martial arts: Do not fear the man who knows 10,000 punches, but do fear the man who has practiced one punch a thousand times for he is far more dangerous. Jack Nicklaus, the Green Bay Packers, and the Boston Celtics did likewise. Can you name anyone better? Their focus upon the fundamentals seemed mundane and boring, but it worked better than any other’s strategies or sophistication. The late Bruce Lee took down many accomplished martial artists in seconds who knew thousands of techniques simply because he mastered the fundamentals of just two or three.
In golf, your swing, hit, and result can only be the product or result of the way you hold the club, the aim and position of your setup, and the manner in which you begin your swing. When you realize that everything after that can only be a result, you simplify what can otherwise be a very complicated move. And when you master these or other very small fundamentals, you can prevail under any competitive circumstances.
The following is a true story. There was an American martial artist who had long studied his craft and brought over a world Master to live with him and to instruct him. He fancied himself on his victories, knowledge, and prowess. He was anxious to impress the Master and wanted the Master to teach him all the intricacies of the art. The Master showed no interest and this frustrated the expert. Finally the Master agreed to observe the expert, but the master only wanted to see him throw a punch. Throwing a punch was easy, child’s play. The Master asked the expert to deliver a punch to within an inch of a burning candle. The expert thought that not too difficult, but he prepares and then delivered a powerful blow perfectly as instructed. He was quite proud of himself. Then the Master offered to show the expert how he (the master) could throw a punch. With hardly a windup, the little old Master threw a punch that stopped a full 18″ from the candle, but had such force that it snuffed out the candle’s flame. In other words, the short punch from this slight little man would blast any man across a room with incredible force. The expert all of a sudden realized that he knew nothing of his craft and would then shift his attention back to the fundamentals of learning to master just one punch and give up anything else from that day on.
Jack Nicklaus was golf’s version of the apprentice learning from the Master (Jack Grout) and then mastering the fundamentals. In the viewpoint of Nicklaus, many of today’s players have taken short cuts and their fundamentals are neither sound nor engrained. He laments that these professionals don’t have the skills or preparation, or the knowing from mastering the fundamentals to win on a consistent basis – to close out a golf tournament. Might you be one who could benefit from mastering or revisiting a very few basic fundamentals?
And can you begin to appreciate how this lesson might impact everything in your life?
Note: The bulk of this fine article was written by Bob Fagan: Author, Coach and Consultant. I made a few spelling corrections and several additional changes that I knew to be correct and helpful to the overall message.