Interview with Jimmy Ballard

Jimmy Ballard

Last week, I had the opportunity to interview the legendary, but often overlooked, golf instructor Jimmy Ballard. If you are not familiar with Jimmy Ballard, his impressive resume is outlined here and here. In short, Ballard’s methods are often summed up in one word, “Connection.” While everyone knows who Haney, Harmon and Foley are, the lesser known Jimmy Ballard’s list of students is a virtual who’s who of winners including Curtis Strange, Hal Sutton, Jim Colbert, Rocco Mediate as well as Jesper Parnevik and Annika Sorenstam (via his work with the Swedish golf program). Moreover, Jimmy worked with these players at the height of their careers, so while Jimmy may not have the name cache as other famous coaches, he has a winning resume that would stack up against the best of them.

My introduction to Jimmy’s teachings came via my work with Jim Colbert, who impressed upon me the simplicity of Ballard’s method. Years later, I am still a huge fan of the Ballard swing and have written a number of posts in regard to his theories. Unlike many instructors, Jimmy Ballard has never wavered from his teaching methods (in fact they have essentially stayed the same for over 40 years). Having been a student and fan of Jimmy for so long it was a true pleasure to get to speak with him. Below is our conversation.

Jimmy Ballard

Jimmy Ballard with Rocco Mediate

TGGB: I have long been encouraged by your methods and trying to let more folks know about you and your teaching. Particularly since I herniated a disc in my lower back, I’ve been working on your swing, because the way it is more upright and easier on my joints, I’ve recommitted myself, and it’s been very helpful.

J. Ballard: Well, if you’re injured, you have to take care of that, but we do think that this swing is more athletically correct, and works the way that your joints are intended to work, and that’s a good thing to avoid hurting yourself any further.

TGGB: When did you start putting your teaching method into it’s current form, was it during your time working with Sam Byrd or after, and what inspired you to do it?

J. Ballard: Everything I learned about the golf swing, I learned from Sam Byrd. Sam’s thoughts and method of teaching made sense to me.  I knew he was right, even if he wasn’t always the greatest communicator—although I still learned from him… you know he really helped Byron Nelson.  Nelson said that he didn’t really understand his swing, but that Sam could help him if he got a little stuck… most people, even the great players don’t understand their own golf swing, and will tell you that they are doing things that they simply are not doing.  I can just see it in people, and I always have been able to. I got my first video camera in 1980 or so from John Brodie, (SF 49ers football quarterback who played on senior tour), and finally, I could show people what they were actually doing, that they said they didn’t do. And I have worked with professionals who I told were doing something in their swing, and they would say, Jimmy, I don’t do that.  And I would show them film or a video and show them that they were wrong about what they actually did.

TGGB: Many believe that your teaching about the swing is the most logical, and the most fundamentally sound.  But many teachers teach a swing that seems to have a lot more timing and moving parts than your swing, particularly in the area of forearm rotation, where your swing basically removes this from the equation.  Is it partially related to this current pursuit of distance on tour? Why do most teachers seem to ignore the amount of timing that comes from forearm rotation, when you so clearly demonstrate that this adds ‘angles’ and extra timing to any swing?

J. Ballard: People are teaching that the spine stays in the center of your swing, and you rotate around it.  That’s simply impossible with two hip joints, and I’ve been to MIT, and they told me that I was correct. All of this forearm rotation, and conversation about plane is not the way that your body works correctly in an athletic motion. You have to get into the middle of  your right leg on the way back—or on the inside of the right hip joint—Hogan wrote in a letter that on the backswing he tried to touch his left knee to the inside of his right knee, or he wrote in a letter I have, ‘my left knee moves right until the inside of my left thigh pinches my right nut against right thigh’— so pressure building on the inside of the right thigh with the knee flexed, and then you have to get back on your left side on the way through; it’s the only way the swing can work. (EDITORS NOTE: only at Three Guys Golf do find out that Hogan used his left nut as a swing reference).

Tiger was really lost with Hank Haney, but this business of not moving back, and rotating in one spot that this new guy is talking about isn’t helping things much at all either, and it’s why Tiger’s bent over and he’s got so much forearm rotation. They are teaching something that doesn’t work. I told Leonard Thompson on the day that David Duval shot 59 that he was done… and he said, ‘what are you saying, the guy just shot 59’ and it was very soon after that that his swing fell apart and he’s never played well since then. And that happened to Curtis, and Seve and Sandy Lyle… they played their best and won majors when they were working with me, and they haven’t really played well since they left.

People teach the plane of the golf swing in all kinds of ways, but the plane of the golf swing simply means swinging it on the plane that goes from the club head through the shaft to the center of your body. Hogan and Colbert were shorter, so their swing plane was where the shaft would point more at the line the ball was on, and Rocco and Hal Sutton are taller, so their shaft points more to the line that their feet were on. Annika’s swing was just like Hogans, but they finally saw it in Annika’s swing and called it the upright swing, but it really is the same as Hogan’s.

In terms of distance, I taught De Witt Weaver and Jim Dent, and although they weren’t the best golfers ever, they both were very good ball-strikers, and nobody, and I mean nobody hit it further. These guys hit it as long as you want. People who say that a ‘shorter’ left arm is restrictive and won’t allow you to hit distance just don’t understand what they are talking about.

TGGB:  The optical illusion in golf with the ‘railroad tracks’ used to align your feet left of the target, if you’re a right-handed player, seems to be the toughest thing to get most people to do on the golf course, maybe even tougher than left-arm connection. In other words, most people line up with their feet and shoulders pointed at the target, if they really line up at all.  Also, I’ve noticed that getting my back to the target is much tougher under pressure.  Besides pre-setting your head to the right, any other help for me on this idea?

J. Ballard: If you tell most people to hit it down the line, they won’t have their left arm against their body with their elbow down and they will not be able to get into the correct position to throw their right arm down the target line, because of the incorrect left arm. But if you understand that, then you have to understand that the feet have to be set up correctly, and Hogan said it well, that you have to have your right foot square, or even turned in a bit, to keep the tension in your coil, so that you can push off properly, and then release the club down the line. And this goes back to the proper posture, where you have to have your fanny underneath you, not poking out. You have to be tall and have the correct posture, so your legs can work in the swing, so that you can coil correctly and get the club on the proper plane, and then you can throw the club down the target line. If you don’t get setup correctly with your butt underneath you, then your legs can’t coordinate, and you can’t make a proper coil, and you can’t throw the club down the target line.

The business of golf is designed around this idea that you need something new all the time. That’s how they sell their magazines and their equipment. But the fundamentals of golf haven’t changed, and you can see the pieces in all of the great ball-strikers throughout time.

TGGB: Thank you for your time today, and we hope you know that one of my goals is to keep people informed of the work that you are doing, and your ideas that we have found so helpful.

Written by Wade Baynham
Single-digit handicap, who learned golf in his early 20′s from my former father-in-law, a long time PGA tour and Champions tour player. I enjoy studying the golf swing and occasionally give golf lessons.