Buried Treasure: Can Ernest Jones’ little book rekindle my love of golf?
Clearly, the Kingston Upon Hill City Library didn’t know what it had in its possession. Otherwise, it never would have withdrawn Ernest Jones’ unassuming little blue book, Swing the Clubhead, from its collection in 1983 and put it up for sale. And for a measly 25 pence, no less.
But, let me tell you, I’m sure as heck grateful they did. It’s as if I’ve found a buried treasure.
This book fell into my hands about 18 months ago, when I placed the winning bid on it and several other old golf titles gathered in a lot at an auction in Newcastle. To be honest, it was Harry Vardon’s How to Play Golf (first published in 1912) that caught my eye and led me to make a play for the box of dusty tomes. I did, however, have a vague memory of Jones and his swing theory from an article that turned up in Golf Magazine during the 1970s – my formative years as a golfer. Can’t recall the words. But I can still envision an illustration of a penknife tied to the end of a handkerchief that accompanied the piece.
So perhaps this is a matter of a seed being planted deep in my subconscious and requiring some 40 years to germinate.
All I know is, I truly believe old Ernie was on to something. And that something just might revive my golf game precisely when – to be perfectly honest – it was practically on life support.
And this renewal, if it comes to pass, couldn’t have come at a better time. Two weeks from now, I’ll begin meeting up with many of my oldest and dearest friends as we gather at Machrihanish for our annual golf reunion. I stumbled upon this week-long fest in 2002 and have had the very good fortune to immerse myself in it anew each year since. Further, the people I met along the way have played a very direct role in leading me, and my darling wife, to our current home in the Scottish Borders. So several threads seem to be connecting here.
Inspired by Tragedy
But, for the purposes of this post, I’d like to keep the focus on Jones and his slim but significant treatise. Born near Manchester, England around the turn of the 20thcentury, he picked up the game as a caddie and quickly made a name for himself as a player. He became the assistant professional at Chiselhurst Golf Club at the tender age of 18 and won the Kent Cup in 1914.
Then World War I happened. Jones enlisted and, in a battle in France, was badly wounded by a grenade – losing his right leg just below the knee. Very bad news for Jones’ professional playing career. But, as it turned out, great news for all those who came to know him as a teacher of the game. Jones learned that, even with just one leg, he could still play golf – at an impressively high level. That experience led directly to his breakthroughs as a teacher, most notably of Virginia Van Wie, who won three consecutive U.S. Women’s Amateurs from 1932-34.
In 1923, he became the head professional at the Women’s Golf and Tennis Club in Long Island, New York. His study of swing theory became the main work of his life. He died in 1965, then was inducted into the World Golf Teachers Hall of Fame in 1977.
By the Book
His first book on the topic – The Golf Swing, The Ernest Jones Method – was published in 1920. He followed that with Swinging into Golf in 1936. And the book that’s now my bible was produced in 1953, just five years before I was born.
Truth be told, Jones didn’t need three books to share his findings. His theory can be summed up in just three words: swing the clubhead. But we golfers are a stubborn lot. We need to be told something multiple times in a variety of ways before, at long last, it begins to sink in. At least that’s been my experience.
“Swing sounds so simple,” writes Jones. “It is – so simple that it is too difficult for hundreds of thousands of golfers to comprehend. It is so simple that it is difficult to induce my pupils to accept it. Thus, I have to be repetitious, both when I teach individual pupils and in my writing. There is no other way of assuring satisfactory results. This book will consist of constant repetition. I shall beg the indulgence of those who feel I am overdoing it.”
As such, though his book is just 115 pages long, it is rather circular and repetitive. But I’m OK with that.
The simplicity of his approach has brought a much-needed calm to my game, from the driver all the way through to the putter. Now, when I settle in over the ball, I’m not burdened with multiple swing thoughts. I merely trust that if I swing the clubhead and resist the temptation to consciously add or subtract from that motion, the laws of physics – centrifugal force – will square up the face as it strikes the ball. Obviously, dozens of minute motions must follow, one after the other in sequence, for that to happen. But it will happen, repeatedly, if I don’t think about trying to make it happen.
To quote Jones:
“The golf swing can be readily taught, and consistently performed, but only if it is conceived as one movement. That is the only way to become a good golfer. The body and all its parts should be treated as disastrous leaders but as wholly admirable followers in the action of the hands and fingers. Forget everything else. You cannot do more than one thing at a time. So don’t let your mind and actions flitter.”
What does this feel like? Consider the handkerchief-and-penknife illustration that I remembered from my youth. It resurfaces in this book to convey Jones’ core concept. From my experience, I’ve found that I simply need to establish a balanced and centered stance and start swinging the club into motion. Though it’s essential to feel the weight of the head in my hands, I strive to keep my hands “quiet.” By that I mean I don’t consciously tighten my grip or flex the fingers to generate motion. Instead, I maintain a light hold of the club (the old “grip the club like you would hold a live bird” metaphor) and allow the wrists to hinge and unhinge in response to the forces generated by the swinging motion – rather than being the cause of the motion.
Simply put: The swing happens, of its own accord. I don’t make it happen.
The challenge here is that, since I’m not using my muscles to – as Jones puts it – create leverage and power, it doesn't feel like anything is happening. It’s unnervingly effortless. Yet, at the bottom of the swing through impact, the clubhead moves faster than I could ever move it by forcing it. And, as Albert Einstein taught us, energy is a function of speed and mass. This natural swinging motion will propel the ball, a whole lot farther than you’d ever think, based solely on how it feels.
For me, that’s been (and continues to be) the primary hurdle. Decades of “hitting the ball” aren’t going to readily surrender to a few rounds of “swinging the clubhead.” Old habits die hard. But if I stay with this long enough, I’m convinced my old ways – which had made the game a downright struggle – will eventually surrender. Even if my scoring doesn’t improve, the time I spend on the course playing golf this way is so much more pleasurable, I can’t imagine ever going back.
And, should I be tempted to regress, I have the voice of Ernest Jones in my ears to help me stay the course.
“Good golf is easy,” he writes. “And easy golf is enjoyable golf. It is tragic that so many make of it such labour. If I can help a few of golf’s great army of labourers to become players, I shall feel highly repaid for my efforts.”
Well, the Kingston Upon Hull Library only got 25p for your wisdom. But rest assured, Ernest, that it’s worth far more than that.
Perhaps even this labourer’s very golfing soul.