March 17, 2000
Forty years ago C. P. Snow wrote an influential book called The Two Cultures. It remains in print today, a sure sign of its continuing impact.
Snow discussed the cultural, social, and language divisions between those trained in the sciences and those trained in the arts. He argued for better communication between the two groups.
What does this have to do with golf, one might ask?
It’s simple. Physics Professor Theodore P. Jorgensen’s The Physics of Golf (Springer paperback; $29.95 SRP), is now in its second edition.
Professor Jorgensen apparently took Snow’s arguments to heart. The Physics of Golf introduces basic physics to readers who may have very little scientific training. He then applies these principles to golf.
I can’t say this was the easiest golf book I ever read. In fact, at times it made my hair hurt. Nonetheless, it is worth the intellectual effort.
For those who did not or will not major in physics in college, I strongly recommend first reading Section 9 of the book’s Technical Appendix. Jorgensen noted that after the book’s first edition came out, readers’ comments made him realize the need to include a short primer on the laws of physics.
He’s not kidding.
I started the book without going through Section 9. Then I came upon this passage:
The system rotates about a center at O, which has a horizontal acceleration a. At the beginning of the downswing, rod A is at an angle gamma with the downward direction, and the wrist-cock angle beta (ß) has the value ß(0). At any time in the downswing, rod A is at angle theta from the downward direction having moved through the downswing angle alpha (a) from its initial value a = 0, and the wrist cock angle has the value ß.
I knew that every word in this segment was in English, except for the Greek symbols. I still had no clue what Jorgensen was saying. I then read through Section 9, twice. It was a great help.
In the main text, Jorgensen devotes most chapters to the elements of the golf swing. Experimental work with stroboscopic photography enabled him to calculate the benefits of the crucial elements of a good swing, and the detriments of common swing faults.
For example, Jorgensen demolishes the argument that a good swing involves a stationary pivot on the spine’s axis. A fully effective swing also includes a noticeable horizontal shift of the entire axis.
He also shows why casting the club from the top of the backswing leads to inefficient results. He also proves that a short backswing is far better than a long backswing for most golfers.
The best mental image he produced for me was to think of the golf swing as akin to the action of a bullwhip. That image, combined with the description of the physics involved in using a whip, made the rest of his suggestions easier to understand and accept.
Jorgensen also shows with the laws of physics what Dave Pelz proved by extended experimentation: for the best results, short putt attempts should be made with sufficient force to go beyond the hole by 17 inches to 2 feet if they miss. Babying a short putt will produce bad results.
While no one will confuse the professor’s writing style with John Updike, there is much to recommend this short study.
Golfing physicists will love this book. It should also appeal to the liberal arts graduate open to an intellectual challenge or two from the other culture.