The Ballad of Jimmy Ballard
Ostracized by the PGA establishment, golf's most controversial teacher has lived to see his unorthodox theories vindicated.
A decade ago, after just a 20-minute phone conversation with Jimmy Ballard, the so-called Pioneer of Connection, I began playing the golf game of my life—hitting the ball straighter than ever, getting up and down when it really counted. My confidence soared, and my USGA handicap plunged from seven to two and a half.
Yet it was strange. Of all the swing gurus I'd met, Ballard gave me the least advice. All he told me was that the large muscles of the body, specifically the shoulders and legs, control the fate of a golf shot. In particular he stressed the importance of maintaining the "triangle" created by the arms at address throughout the swing. By that he meant keeping the left arm "connected" to the body and using the right side of the body to "fire" (or initiate) the downswing.
Ballard has always believed that the golf swing is far simpler than it's made out to be, and that it's easily repeatable once a handful of unvarying principles of physics are understood. Or as he put it, in his Billy Sunday-like Alabama drawl: "It isn't like trying to reinvent the wheel. There's only a few principles that govern how you take back a golf club and return it to a square position at impact. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you a load of snake oil."
Ballard's résumé speaks the volumes that he doesn't. During the '70s he worked on the swing of Tour players Mac McClendon, J.C. Snead, Dewitt Weaver, Jim Colbert, and Leonard Thompson. All enjoyed their first professional wins and saw their playing careers subsequently explode. Gary Player and Johnny Miller became ardent believers in the Ballard gospel of connection, as did Jerry Pate, Frank Beard, and Hubert Green. In the early eighties, when Ballard set up shop at Doral Golf and Country Club in Miami, a promising Louisiana golfer named Hal Sutton came to him; Sutton soon after captured the PGA Championship. He enjoyed his greatest year on tour in 1999 and has vowed never to work with anyone else again. "If I do, I hope somebody shoots me," he said. Sutton was followed by Sandy Lyle, who promptly went and captured the '87 Players Championship and the '88 Masters. Most notably, in 1980 Curtis Strange began working with Ballard, who told him it would probably take five years to produce the results Strange was after. As predicted, in 1985 Strange won his first money title; he went on to win two consecutive U.S. Opens in '88 and '89, all under Ballard's tutelage. Peter Jacobsen, who also transformed his career under Ballard, sums it up: "The best teacher in golf. Period."
Despite being named Golf Magazine Teacher of the Decade in the eighties, Ballard was overshadowed by David Leadbetter, the glamorous swing coach of Nick Faldo. Leadbetter's theories, especially his notion of "setting the angle" of the club on the takeaway, were almost diametrically opposed to Ballard's simpler principles of connection. So were their personalities: Leadbetter is a smooth talker, adept at wooing the press, while Ballard is folksy and rambunctious—and always seemed to be involved in a dustup with his pupils. For much of the '90s Ballard disappeared from the radar screen.
With a new decade dawning, and an old golf swing ailing, I recently went in search of Jimmy Ballard to see what a day rather than a 20-minute phone conversation with the Pioneer of Connection could do for my handicap (which is back up to seven, by the way). I came across him on the practice tee near his residence at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, taking a three-day break from one of his highly acclaimed players' schools.
The first question I asked him was why David Leadbetter, Dave Pelz, Rick Smith, Butch Harmon, and other swing gurus have become celebrities while Ballard, who arguably has groomed more champions than the others combined, remains so elusive.
"I suppose," he said with a husky laugh, "it has something to do with my personality. Admittedly, I'm intense. I let my feelings be known. I'm old-school that way, for better or worse, not as smooth and refined as some of these modern guys are. I have said things in print that bothered people, and my ideas have contradicted a lot of the modern thinking these guys are perpetuating, much of which will absolutely ruin your golf swing. In some ways I've always been my own worst enemy.
"From the beginning of my career I've been an outsider in the teaching business. I'm still not a member of the PGA of America [the organization of club and teaching professionals]. In many ways I'm the heretic of golf. But my ideas come from the same principles that gave Ben Hogan his ideas. They aren't new, but they work."
The foundation of Ballard's thinking goes back to 1960, when he went to work for a former Tour player and retired major-league baseball star by the name of Sam Byrd. Not only did Byrd win over 25 events in his PGA playing career, he nearly won the Masters twice and was runner-up to Byron Nelson at the PGA Championship in 1945.
Byrd owned and operated a par-three course and driving range in Birmingham, Alabama, and hired Ballard, then seventeen and a state amateur junior champ, as his teaching assistant. "Sam Byrd was one of the purest strikers of a ball that ever played the game," Ballard says emphatically, "but he was a controversial figure. He maintained that baseball and golf swings were identical, just on separate planes, and that the principles that governed hitting a baseball were exactly the same in golf."
Byrd, Ballard says, was Babe Ruth's roommate on the road, "and it was Ruth who taught Sam the trick of holding a handkerchief beneath his left arm in order to keep his left arm 'connected' to his body throughout the swing." Byrd also became convinced that a good golfer, like a slugger, "braced" with his right leg on the backswing, moved the head slightly to the right as the body naturally "coiled," and obtained power by "firing" the right side of the body at the target. "One swing was on a level plane, the other on a tilted plane," says Ballard, relating Byrd's gospel. "Other than that, they were totally identical. When Grantland Rice, the great sports writer, suggested to Sam that they write a book comparing the two swings, Sam just laughed, explained all of this, and said to him, 'That will be a damn short book.' "
It was Byrd, according to Ballard, who first told Ben Hogan about the handkerchief and a proper coil, ideas that clearly had a major impact on Hogan's thinking about the swing. Before Byrd, Hogan had suffered from a chronic duck hook, which nearly caused him to abandon the professional game and resign himself to being a club pro in Fort Worth, Texas. Instead, armed with Byrd's ideas about connection and his own dogged persistence, Hogan went on to become the finest shotmaker in the game and author (with Herbert Warren Wind) of maybe the best swing-instruction book ever: Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf. That book is the spiritual antecedent of Jimmy Ballard's bestselling How to Perfect Your Golf Swing, published in 1981 by Golf Digest and now just out of print.
"Ben Hogan never gave proper credit to Sam Byrd, just like some of the great players I taught never gave me the credit I and others felt I was due in helping them understand the principles of the swing that elevated their games. I told them I didn't want credit for winning golf tournaments because I didn't hit a shot. All I wanted was for them to say that I'd given them information that helped their swings. A teacher's lifeblood is obviously his ideas."
During their 21 years together at the driving range, Byrd and Ballard turned out a stream of national, state, and local women's and juniors' champions. "That really opened some eyes and I think made us some enemies in the teaching ranks." Byrd held a Class A PGA America credential, and following his five-year apprenticeship under Byrd, so did Jimmy Ballard. "But a short while later I showed up at a pro-am event and was informed that I was no longer considered a member of the PGA of America. I had powerful lawyers who urged me to challenge the decision in the courts, but in the end I simply let it go. I planned to teach the game, and I would find my own damn way to do it."
Early in the 1970s Ballard set up shop at his own golf club, Pine Harbor Golf and Country Club, close to Pell City, Alabama. Soon a who's who of the professional world was finding its way to this rural corner of Alabama, even though the Alabama section of the PGA didn't even list Ballard on its teaching roster. "Basically, nobody knew how to find me except by word of mouth." The irony, he says, is that the PGA of America eventually sought him out and invited him to become a member again, but asked that he go through their teaching school in order to earn proper accreditation. "I was pleased that we might mend our fences after all this time," Ballard explains, "but there was no way on God's green earth I could go through their school and accept their ideas about the golf swing. I guess I'm hardheaded, but I told them they were dead wrong about the hands and the arms controlling a golf shot. They were wrong in saying the head should never move in the swing. They were wrong about so much, I'd have been a liar if I went through their school and accepted their ideas just to have that PGA designation."
Ballard moved to Doral in 1983, where his success with Sutton, Strange, and other pros, as well as his book, led to an invitation to join the teaching staff of Golf Digest. "I eventually got sideways with them too, I regret to say. In retrospect, I probably could have bent more. But they had Jim Flick and Bob Toski, two famous teachers who not only taught almost entirely different principles than I did but ridiculed many of my ideas, such as the concept of bracing against the right leg and a natural coil. They asserted that the arms and hands control a golf shot which, as promoted by many PGA of America teachers, was a belief I couldn't support. I couldn't endorse their philosophies, so I just stayed out here on my own, letting people find their way to me."
Several years ago an olive branch of sorts was extended when Ballard was invited to share the podium with several other prominent teachers at the PGA's 1996 World Teaching Summit at the Superdome in New Orleans. According to Ballard, his talks received the longest ovations, not to mention accolades from Craig and Dick Harmon. Two years later, during the same summit, Ballard says, he debated Jim Flick over the subject "body versus arms." Flick spent most of his time attacking Ballard's ideas, arguing, among other things, that they were great for "top players" but would not work for "the average Joe."
"I was really glad he did that," Ballard recalls with a Southern tent evangelist's sly smile. "Because we spent the whole time talking about my ideas rather than his. I was able to refute every one of his claims, most notably the one about my ideas being good for better players. And as I pointed out to the audience, I had developed my ideas by working with ordinary players and worked my way up to teaching the pros using them. The principles that make all good players excellent ballstrikers are exactly the same principles that make anyone a good ballstriker. That hasn't changed from the beginning with me."
Several years ago Ballard and his pal Jim Colbert set up a highly successful teaching partnership aimed at "the average guy," the Colbert-Ballard Golf Schools. It was eventually bought out by Family Golf Centers, which now uses the curriculum at its facilities nationwide. Ballard remains a consultant, training Family Golf instructors, but most of his energy these days goes into his players' schools, month-long sessions for developing better players that cost $15,000. Ballard's work in recent years includes shaping the games of PGA Tour star Jesper Parnevik ("He was about a six-handicapper when he first came to me in 1985") and Jason Allred, a recent national junior champion, and his methods continue to be the accepted basis of the Swedish Golf Federation's teaching philosophy. That may not sound like much, but Sweden has produced some of the most exciting and successful players of the 1990s.
One of Ballard's most controversial techniques, I found, is to explode conventional swing dogma. He systematically attacks such traditional notions as keeping the head down or still through the swing, keeping the left arm straight or "stiff" through impact, pulling down with the back of the left hand or the butt of the club, staying behind the ball at impact, and following through with the traditionally accepted bow or reverse-C finish. All, he says, are enemies of the connected golf swing.
He showed me a series of great players' swings (Ben Hogan, Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus) at their peaks and compared them to photos taken before and after they'd hit their prime. The evidence was undeniable: At their apogee, all were doing exactly what Jimmy Ballard insisted makes for a great golf swing. The seven common denominators were all visible. And it may be that the unsung prophet is finally getting through. In a recent cover story in Golf Magazine the editors named five hallmarks of the new Millennium golf swing. All were principles Ballard has been preaching for almost 40 years.
On the range he watched me hit for ten minutes, then corrected a few items, primarily my tendency to "flatten" the backswing (thus coming "over the top" on the downswing) and allow my left elbow to become "disconnected" from my body during the swing. In addition, we worked on keeping the triangle intact and firing the right side.
Later that day, to put his thinking to the test, I drove back up to Ballard's old home at Doral and played the course. Applying what I learned, I hit 15 greens in regulation, three or four more than usual. However, what I liked best about Ballard's ideas was their functional simplicity. In other words, once I had them down, I didn't have to spend much time thinking about them. Yes, it was going to take time to rid myself of some old ideas and new bad habits, but it felt good to be connected again with a swing I knew would only get better.
Teeing Off Tips
1. The golfer must create connection at the outset through a braced connected address. To do that, Ballard recommends a "weightlifter's stance," with feet spaced approximately as wide as the shoulders, left foot slightly open, back straight, and knees flexed. (This way shoulders, arms, and hands are "connected" and form a "triangle.") You are set up to properly "brace" against the right leg on the backswing.
2. Begin the swing by taking the triangle and center away together. All great strikers, according to Ballard, swing the club back at least to waist level and sometimes beyond with the arm-shoulder triangle intact. Avoid cocking or rolling wrists on the takeaway.
3. "Coil" the body at the top of the swing into the brace of the right leg. Keep the left elbow connected to the body (place a handkerchief under left arm, if necessary) and the thumbs beneath the shaft at the top of the backswing. The head "floats" with the spine and follows the weight transfer; it should move naturally a bit to the right during the coil.
4. Reversing the direction of the club in order to make it recoil squarely into the back of the ball is initiated with the large muscles of the lower body, specifically with a kick of the right foot and knee toward the ball, and not with the arms and hands.
5. After initiating the change of direction, immediately release the right side and center. This ensures that the triangle returns to the original position, squaring the club to the ball at impact. Ballard maintains that "right is might," meaning that by "firing the large muscles of the right side," you release optimum firepower. Properly done, the arms and hands naturally release and the triangle is reformed at the top of the follow-through. The right forearm must never move under the left at impact or you will produce a push or slice. Similarly, if the right forearm crosses over the left, you will produce a duck hook.
6. Every great golfer maintains the triangle on the follow-through—at least until the club reaches waist level. The butt of the club points to the center of the body, which has uncoiled toward the target.
7. Complete the swing with the knees, hips, and shoulders level and the weight entirely on the left side. The straight, balanced finish is proof that connection has been maintained throughout the swing. Attempting to "stay behind the ball" and finishing in the once-widely-taught "reverse C" is a grave mistake, says Ballard, indicating an unfinished transfer of the body's weight through the swing.
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James Dodson is Departures' Maine-based contributing editor for golf.