THE TOP TEACHERS TALK
Q & A
“I don’t know how you can mess up if you’ve got a beautiful backswing.”
Jack Grout’s main claim to fame as a golf teacher is the fact that he was Jack Nicklaus’ ‘first and only’ instructor. Was Grout merely lucky the Nicklaus family belonged to Scioto Country Club, where Grout was the professional, so he just fell upon a natural talent? Not likely, because someone as smart for golf as Jack Nicklaus would not stay very long with a tutor who didn’t impress him. Proof of that is the fact that Nicklaus still goes to Grout for help with his game. It has been a lifelong relationship, good for both men.
Grout is more or less retired now, after 60 years as a golf professional, but he still gives instruction; golfers from all over the country come to him, during the summer at Muirfield Village, in Dublin, Ohio. During winter months, they seek him out in south Florida. They include the likes of Raymond Floyd and other tour players. What they all get from Jack Grout is a clear understanding of golf swing fundamentals, delivered in a wisely unpretentious manner.
GI: What got you involved in the game of golf?
Grout: One day, I found out where my older brothers were making their money. It was at the golf course, caddying. This was in Oklahoma City. I followed them one afternoon, and when I got there I saw a beautiful lake and kids carrying little white bags and men and women playing. I never saw anything as pretty in my life.
The first money I made was 35 cents for shagging balls. When I caddied I would bring home $1.50 and give it to my mother. She’d buy us clothes and books and things like that. I’d run home to give it to her, because I was so happy that I could bring home some money.
GI: What did your father do?
Grout: He was an insurance adjuster. There were eight children. So money was hard to come by. But otherwise I was lured into it from what I saw the first day, how beautiful that golf course was.
Also, there was the professional, whose name was Sandy Baxter. I’d watch him teach and say to myself I also wanted to do that. Whatever he did, I wanted to do, because he was the number one man.
GI: Were you a good player from the start?
Grout: Well, I thought so. I learned how to swing pretty good. Then I went to caddie at another club, Old Edgemere. The man who owned the club, Paul Blakeney, knew our family, and he put me in a job in the pro shop making hot dogs and taking green fees and selling balls and things.
The next year I asked him if I could teach. He thought I was pretty young for that, but I said I thought I could, and he said he’d try me out. I was 15. I got a dollar an hour. I was so happy to think anybody would pay me anything.
GI: It sounds like the need to make money had a lot to do with your becoming a golf teacher.
Grout: Oh, I wanted to play terribly, but you couldn’t make any money in those days playing. You could by teaching.
GI: How did you know what to teach? Did you ask Baxter about the swing?
Grout: No, I was too young. Then he left and Bobby Cruickshank became head professional. I’m going back to 1923, ’24, a million years ago.
GI: Did you ask Cruickshank about the swing?
Grout: No, I’d caddie for him, and just watch him. He was a magnificent player with a beautiful style. But everyone, in those days, experimented with their own games and taught what they picked up themselves.
As I got into it, I had the good fortune that older pros liked me, and I could bother them with questions about the swing and they would try to help me. I mean Tommy Armour, Gene Sarazen, Henry Picard, Johnny Revolta, Paul Runyan, Leo Diegel. The short-game players, the long-game players. Every one of them told me something different. For instance, there were different grips. Interlocking, overlapping, ten-finger, which all have a certain advantage for certain individuals. What I mean by that is, you have a lady who is not strong in her hands. Or a man. They can’t muster any power. You can almost catch the club in your hands as it passes, because there is no speed. So you try to utilize their hands more to give them more snap in there, so they can whip it in there. I’ve found that I’ve helped a lot of people subject to not much strength in their hands by telling them to use a 10-finger grip.
I don’t like to alter a grip too much to change the flight of the ball. But sometimes you have to. If a fellow who is not too strong has been slicing, I will turn his left hand over to the right a little more than normal, and the right hand under a little bit. If he gets to hooking too much, then you turn it all back a little. It takes constant supervision so players won’t get in trouble.
GI: Have you discovered golf to be a game of constant adjustments?
Grout: I wouldn’t say constant, but a lot of players skip from one professional to another and that’s bad for the pupil. If you have confidence in one teacher and he has proven that he is a good teacher, you shouldn’t change him.
GI: You grew up in an era when people were told to keep their head still during the swing, something younger teachers today are speaking against. Do you belong to the ‘keep your head still’ school?
Grout: Well, you’ve got to have balance. If your head’s not steady, you won’t have it. Of course, the head is going to move a little bit because your body moves, but it should be between your feet at all times during the swing. Do that and your body won’t move too much and upset your swing.
But the most important thing in the way I teach golf is the grip. Then I go to the head and stance. Get those three simple things out of the way, then go for the turn of the body and the speed of the swing. You’ve got to have speed in the swing. Power is leverage and speed. That’s why golf is better today than it ever has been. The old pros would say, ‘hit it easy.’ Well, you don’t hit a ball easy when you want it to go far. You hit it hard, and to do that you need speed.
GI: How do you learn to hit it hard, and still control the ball?
Grout: You can start out when you’re young, hitting the ball hard, because you’re agile and can learn to utilize your body to make a full turn.
When you get older your body is inclined to shorten up in the turn. But if a fellow first learns to hit a ball far, he’ll never lose that.
GI: But for you, the grip comes first. What is the ideal, perfect grip?
Grout: The back of the left hand faces the hole, the palm of the right hand faces the hole.
GI: You would think all golfers, pros or amateurs, good athletes or poor ones, could form a good grip, and yet we see so many poor ones.
Grout: Well, people start without lessons. They go out in a cornfield and start hitting balls and somehow or other learn to hit it pretty good. Pretty far, too. So the grip they use, which is usually bad, and the feel of it, becomes so ingrained they don’t want to change it.
GI: What’s more important, the backswing or the downswing?
Grout: The backswing, because the downswing is part of the backswing. I don’t know how you can mess up if you’ve got a beautiful backswing.
GI: When video came in, did you use it in your teaching?
Grout: No, it’s a waste of time.
Grout: I don’t teach from pictures. I teach from fundamentals. You don’t need pictures for that. They don’t prove anything to me.
GI: You seem to be saying that golf is largely a game of feel.
Grout: The sense of feel is tremendous. You couldn’t tell me, and I couldn’t tell you, how hard to hit a ball to make it go 30 yards.
GI: But what about the feel of the swing itself, about where or how you are swinging the club?
Grout: It’s practice. Play and practice. There’s no specific place in the downswing where you release the club and hit the ball. You find the place from a sense of feel. If you hit too quickly with your right arm you hook the ball, if you don’t hit it quickly enough you slice it. That’s the hand you hit the ball with, the right hand. Your left arm is your directional arm, it keeps the club on path. Your right arm is your power arm.
GI: So, golf is a right-handed game, for right-handers?
Grout: It’s a two-handed game, but each has a different function.
GI: The average golfer doesn’t have the time, or perhaps the inclination, for constant play and practice. So how can he play decent golf?
Grout: If you learn the fundamentals, you will always be a pretty good player.
GI: Talk about the turn of the body in the swing.
Grout: The left knee bends toward the other, the left ankle rolls in toward the other. And the hips and shoulders turn.
GI: Then what?
Grout: Just go at it, go get the ball.
GI: You don’t think about anything in the downswing?
Grout: Oh, everything will happen in and of itself. Because you aren’t going to swing your arms down and not turn your hips and shift your body weight and so on. It’s a natural instinct, just like throwing a baseball. That’s how I explain weight distribution if your weight is not moving to the right side. I say, ‘did you ever pitch a baseball?’ If you see a pitcher with his left foot in the air, his weight is on his right foot. Which is how you get power. What happens if a pitcher keeps his weight on his left foot – a right-handed pitcher? It would be no good. No force or power. Everyone can understand that.
GI: There seems to be a lot of reference in current golf instruction to baseball. Bill Mehlhorn talked about it always, and still does.
Grout: Bill had a lot of technique. But I couldn’t learn anything from him because he didn’t hold on to the club any more than a little child would. The club was flying around in his hands.
GI: You don’t believe in a light, feathery grip?
Grout: You don’t want to grip the club like it was your last dollar. But you don’t let it flop around.
GI: It’s inevitable that you are asked about Jack Nicklaus, your star pupil. How old was he when you first took him on? What was your first impression of him?
Grout: He was just one of the kids, a chunky little kid, a redhead with a crew haircut about 10 years old, one of about 70 kids in a junior class I was running at Scioto. The first thing I taught him was the grip. The first thing I told him was to hit the dickens out of it. But I didn’t have to. He wanted it that way. He was a little kid and wanted to fire that sucker. He had the instinct.
GI: Was he a standout from the very start?
Grout: Not really, but after five years he was. He would come out there all day long and hit and play. He’d beat me in. I’d get to the club about 8 a.m. and he was already out there putting.
GI: What do you feel was your main contribution to Jack’s game?
Grout: Just drumming him on the fundamentals – grip, turn of the body, head in position.
GI: Did he always fly the right elbow?
Grout: Oh yes, and I didn’t try to change it. That’s the way I think you should play.
GI: What is golf for you?
Grout: A learning experience, not something you just pick up.
With Bill Fields/Golf Illustrated/February 1988