FORT MILL, S.C. - Springfield Golf Club head professional Mike Bartholomew said he wasn't warmed up. He also said he hadn't played in weeks and only plays a full 18-hole round four or five times a year.
Still, he managed to chip about 50 balls to within 10 feet of a flag stick on a practice green 50 yards away. After he was done with the short game clinic, he ascended the golf club food chain and proceeded to pound about 20 tee shots 280 yards out into the emerald green practice range.
Is Bartholomew just a natural? No, but he does subscribe to the teaching philosophy of Natural Golf - a swing methodology that has gained considerable popularity in the past two years, and, according to some, is poised to become the teaching system of the future.
"Very respected teachers and publications now recognize that this is not a fad," Bartholomew says in between prodigious blasts. "Natural Golf school has been recognized as top 25 by Golf Magazine and there are now more than 200,000 golfers who have been exposed to it. We have the support of Sandy Lyle on (the PGA) Tour and more 40 instructors nationwide."
What most golfers know about Natural Golf comes by way of the frequently reoccurring infomercial on the Golf Channel.
You know the one. First there's a spiel about the conventional golf swing being too complicated for Joe-six pack weekend golfer to fully grasp. Then it cuts to Mike Ditka, Pat Summerall or some other celebrity endorsement about how Natural Golf is the answer to all that ails you. They mix in a couple of shots of legendary Canadian ball striker Moe Norman, a couple testimonials from students, and then flash the toll free number up on the screen.
Here's the kicker: according to almost everyone who has ever tried Natural Golf, it works.
Bartholomew says Natural Golf simplifies the game down to its essence - ball striking. To do so, it espouses four basic components: the Natural Palm Grip (how you might grip a hammer), the Single-plane Straight-line Setup, the Wider Natural Golf Stance and the Natural Golf Swing.
The long and short of it, according to Bartholomew, is the Natural Golf system puts golfers in the best position to make consistently solid contact. It does so by reducing the amount of movement in the swing and distilling the swing down to a single plane.
"The timing it takes to have the components of the conventional golf swing come together to produce a good shot is mind-boggling," he says. "That is why you see some of the world's greatest athletes struggle with the game."
Contrary to popular belief, Natural Golf was not invented by the enigmatic Norman, widely considered the best ball striker in the history of the game. Not entirely, that is. Jack Kuykendall, a retired physicist, developed the modern version of Natural Golf in 1986 after his conventional game peaked, hit a plateau, and spiraled downwards. He originally dubbed the system "Right Way Golf."
Shockingly, not only did Kuykendall not base his system on Norman's swing, he literally had no clue who Norman was.
"Jack was giving a demonstration in California and (teaching professional) Mark Evershed, who knew Moe well, walked up and couldn't believe his eyes," Bartholomew says. "He tells Jack that the swing he's teaching is almost identical to Moe Norman's and Jack looks at him and says 'who the heck is Moe Norman?'"
Kuykendall and Norman met in 1991 and (like two ball strikers extraordinaire should) hit it off in an instant. Norman had finally found the man who could articulate the system he pioneered some forty years before. Kuykendall finally found the connection to the real golf world he so desperately needed to lend credibility to his creed.
"The two went out and did clinics together and just really meshed," Bartholomew says. "Jack had found a practical application for his science in teaching others Natural Golf. Jack eventually sold the company but he was one of Natural Golf's most important pillars."
Bartholomew picked up Natural Golf out of curiosity five years ago. He's been teaching it now for four years and says it takes him a third less time to teach a student how to play the game at a respectable level as it does with the conventional swing. As for his game, he says he can go out and shoot in the 70s without having to spend hours on the practice tee.
"If I took six months off when I was playing the conventional game I would shoot in the 90s when I came back and played," he says. "If I did play more, I would get better but eventually I would get worse because of all the thoughts swimming around in my head."
Most recreational golfers feel Bartholomew's pain. If they don't, they just aren't paying attention to historical trends. The United States Golf Association recently conducted a study that yielded some startling results. The average handicap of USGA registered golfers has not improved over the past 30 years. Only two in 1,000 male golfers have ever shot par and only 25 percent of female golfers have ever broken 100.
"All the new balls, new clubs and state-of-the art practice facilities and the average golfer is not getting any better," Bartholomew says. "Natural Golf's fundamental belief is that golfers haven't gotten better because of the technique the conventional golf swing requires."
Bartholomew and the Natural Golf set are not opponents of the conventional golf swing, however. He says about half of Natural Golf's instructors are members of the PGA of America and some teach the conventional swing as well.
"We (Natural Golf instructors) believe there is room for more than just one system out there," he says. "I have a high level of respect for teachers who can communicate the conventional golf swing to students. But there should be more than just one option for people."
Based on Natural Golf's meteoric climb in popularity, it may just become the preferred option.
TG: I hear that Natural Golf is designed for high handicappers. Is it a viable alternative for better players?
MB: Natural Golf can help low handicappers shave those last few strokes off their game. It can get them out of their rut. It might be 10-15 years before you see it prominently on the PGA Tour, though. It has to catch on with a young generation first and we haven't been successful in doing that yet.
TG: Moe Norman, whom most professional golfers will agree was the best ball striker of all time, had a notoriously bad short game that many feel kept him from being one of the greatest all around players of his time. Does the Natural Golf system neglect the short game?
MB: Not at all. The emphasis on the short game is still there. And you apply the same fundamentals to it you apply to the full swing, just at a micro level. So it is much easier to be consistent around the greens. As for putting, Natural Golf is not concerned with the ground game and the putting stroke is the same as it is in conventional golf.
TG: Natural Golf sounds great. We are ready to try it. Can we use our same golf clubs?
MB: No. Not unless you get a new, non-tapered grip, a different shaft flex and a more upright lie. Natural Golf is played with Natural Golf clubs. They have fat, uniform grips and the shafts have less torque. So there is a monetary commitment to switching. We recommend that you buy the video first, take a lesson from a Natural Golf instructor and then decide if it is right for you.
What is the average handicap improvement with Natural Golf and how long does it take to make the "switch?"
MB: The average handicap reduction is 23 percent and with the right amount of practice and weekly instruction, golfers can be playing Natural Golf in two-three months.
April 22, 2003