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I am a slave to aesthetics.

It is no doubt a fundamental personal failing of mine, but the age-old lesson of “don’t judge a book by its cover” never held water for me. I spend entirely too much time worrying about how I look, how the things I buy make me appear, and whether or not my new man-bun haircut has crossed the line from “tastefully hipster” to “please tone it down, sir.”

This, of course, bleeds into my golf game.

Once upon a time when I played competitively, I would sweat out my outfit choices. Tactical polos, a tasteful sweater, obnoxious white belts (it was 2010, cut me some slack), were all laid out on my bedroom floor as I tried to weigh what exactly was going to make me look like I knew what I was doing on a golf course.

Try as I might to kill off this ugly habit, I can’t quite seem to kill it off for good. And while I’ve mostly relented on the need to Look Professional every time I step on a golf course (the white belts have died, the occasional penchant for red and black has not), some bits and pieces are harder still to remove.

A while ago I was talking with a friend of mine at the driving range before one of our weekend rounds (please do not ask how I played). As is wont to do during ball-beating sessions with crooked swings, the conversation quickly moved to swings on tour and which ones we gravitated to. I, again beholden to my desire for perfect aesthetics above all else, put forward names like Justin Rose and Luke Donald, swings that could be found in a diagram of golf swings going back a hundred years or so. Crisp, clean lines, posed finish positions, and the right amount of English bespoke panache.

My friend put forward Jon Rahm. I could squint and see why. It’s compact, and the transition move from the top of the swing is an incredibly powerful, direct motion that loads a ton of lag into the swing. It’s not for me, but I can understand it.

Then he put forward Matthew Wolff, and my brain broke.

I find it hard to believe that anyone with a cursory interest in golf can’t pick Wolff’s swing out of a lineup but to summarize, imagine you swung a golf club without a backswing. Wolff jerkily yanks the club almost directly upright before slamming his hands back down and ending up in a picture-perfect impact position. It’s a staggering feat of athleticism not only in that the downswing fixes the “backswing,” the “backswing” sets up the powerful transition that lets Matt Wolff be Matt Wolff.

But it is not a pretty swing. It is not a swing that I could teach and it is not a swing that could be painted in a watercolor and put on my wall. I of course told my friend this in no uncertain words. His defense was a smorgasbord of terms like smash factor, ball speed, and spin rate.

In a modern sense, Wolff’s swing is one of the best on tour. It does the job that the swing is supposed to do now, which is to pulverize the ball as far and as straight as possible. That swing even twenty years ago would have been coached out and replaced with a swing more similar to the Rose or Donald model I’ve grown to appreciate, and in doing so maybe Matt Wolff wouldn’t have grown into the wunderkind he is now. 

What allows for a swing like that to work is the teaching tools golfers can now use. When I was learning how to swing a club, it was the high point of the high-speed camera era. I would have an hour-long golf lesson where I may hit 30 shots. We would hit a few shots, get one on video, then pore over the idiosyncrasies with the aids of lines drawn every which way on the screen. We could see my too-shallow backswing, my out-of-synch transition, my ugly foot movement, and my early lag release. We’d talk about what the swing should look like, maybe even with a side-by-side of myself next to a tour pro, then go back to try and get it right.

That era produced those picture-perfect swings. Think of Hunter Mahan at his prime. His swing was a mirror image of the line my teacher and I would draw: a line from my club shaft at impact position bisecting my biceps. 

Now, we have Trackman. Fancy numbers and extremely advanced computers have gotten us back to an adage: it doesn’t matter how you get there, it just matters that you get there. We now know that what matters in a golf swing is impact. Every pro, no matter their backswing, their tempo, or their driving distance, finishes with identical postures. When the tools focus more on dispersion patterns, ball speed, and spin rates rather than how well it matches a model image, teachers can work within a student’s natural move. Like to pick up the club a little steep? That’s fine, we can work on a transition move that works from there so you’re still getting back to the ball the way you should.

Strangely, the more technological the teaching has gotten, the more diverse golf swings have gotten and will continue to get. Take the three hottest young guns on tour: Wolff, Viktor Hovland, and Collin Morikawa. Wolff is, well, Wolff. Hovland double-pumps in his swing when he’s trying to hit a draw. Morikawa has perfect lines.

Every era is defined as much by the technology of the teaching tools as it is by the technology of the clubs. The era of the aesthete is over. Function over form is the new name of the game. But when I have to teach a newcomer to the game how to swing a club, I’ll still just show them Justin Rose’s swing on a loop.

Some habits die hard.