The Magic of the Hands–Henry Cotton’s Genius

The driving principle of this golf blog (Golf Tips for Beginners), is to inculcate an INTUITIVE approach to golf. 

Henry Cotton, a famous British golfer (three times British Open Champion), popularized a radical approach to the game of golf.

Everything I am about to describe in this post can be found on youtube videos (just search for Henry Cotton or see the links at the end of this post).  This post summarizes Cotton’s teaching method –  points out a few intricacies – and also compares it to another similar approach (called The Gate Swing).

The Cause of EVERY bad shot


One of Cotton’s most famous discoveries was:

Every bad shot in golf can be traced to one hand doing THIS and the other hand doing THAT.

Unless the hands work in unison, there isn’t much of a chance of making solid contact – much less, hitting is straight. What does it mean for the hands to work in unison?  That question is answered by the second discovery that Cotton made – our hands INSTINCTIVELY know how to work together.  Working in unison is not something we should need to teach our hands.

The INSTINCT of the game

Another famous saying attributed to Cotton is that We have drifted away from the INSTINCT of the game into a METHOD – we’ve taught people that unless they do a certain series of movements, they cant make impact with the ball.

Cotton firmly believed (and illustrated very easily) that we all possess the INSTINCT of hitting a straight, powerful golf shot. It is no different from the instinct that powers our tennis shot or out table-tennis stroke.

The straightening out of the hands at impact happens INSTINCTIVELY – we do not have to go through convoluted movements to ‘make’ it happen.

The Clubhead should feel like an EXTENSION of the Hand

Just like a ping-pong paddle or a tennis racket can become an extension of your hand, so should a golf club. The trouble, of course, is

  1. The longer shaft of the golf club (in comparison to a tennis or ping pong racket).
  2. The clubhead is HEAVY – it is about half a kg in weight – which is TWICE as heavy as a tennis racket and 5 times heavier than a ping pong paddle.

This makes it challenging for the hands to treat the clubhead as an extension of themselves – the weight is just too much for most people.

How does one deal with the WEIGHT of the clubhead?

The source of the problem is the weight of the clubhead-  and the inability of the hands to simply ‘pick it up and smash it’ – like you would a ping-pong paddle. 

This is what led Cotton to his revolutionary discovery – Strengthening of the hands.

Cotton’s insistence of STRENGTHENING the hands – using a variety of clever techniques – is now legendary.  His most famous technique involved punching a car tire with the club – first singlehandedly (with the left and right) – and then, with both hands.

He also provided a set of other exercises – including holding the club UP with one hand and rotating it around. Anything that helped strengthen the hand muscles was going to help your golf swing.

The Impact Bag

Today, you do not have to run and buy an old tire – you can use an impact bag stuffed with towels to accomplish this. It is best to place it against a wall – so it doesn’t move with the impact. And Yes-  it can be loud – it may drive your Significant Other crazy.

However, it is a MUCH simpler thing to try – compared to the traditional approach to golf – which requires practicing perfect posture, perfect grip, perfect backswing position and perfect transition from the top.

Cotton explains that most of that is already programmed into us (otherwise, we would never be able to square a tennis racket or any other racket), all we need to do is strengthen our hands to square our hands holding a ‘golf club’.

The Impact Bag (Stuffed with towels) Left Hand Only Right Hand Only
golf_impact_bag left_hand_only_impact Right_Hand_Only_Impact

The Connection with the GATE Swing

The driving principle of this golf blog (Golf Tips for Beginners), is to inculcate an INTUITIVE approach to golf.  An approach that leans heavily on other sports – and other athletic abilities. While it is true that golf is a unique sport in some ways, it does share several fundamentals with sports where you use an implement to hit a ball.

One such INTUITIVE approach that I wrote about earlier – is called the Gate Swing.  This was popularized by another famous golfer named J. Douglas Edgar – who was also the first to highlight the INSIDE-OUT nature of the golf swing. 

I have close to a 100 % success rate in taking complete newbies – out on the range – and making them ‘swing through the gate’. In a matter of weeks (some as short as ONE week), they are ready to play passable golf on the golf course (true, they may not be able to hit their woods well – and may struggle with their short game, but they still make decent contact with the ball).

So what does this Gate Swing have to do with Cotton’s ‘Punch The Tire’ approach?

In fact, they are very, very similar. Both the approaches rely heavily on an intuitive grasp of IMPACTING the golf ball.

They both ignore all setup fundamentals – grip, posture etc. are all left out of the instruction. The sole focus is on feeling the punch. J. Douglas Edgar famously said the following about this ‘punching action’ (in his own words),

It has the exhilarating effect of Champagne, without the after-effects

Henry Cotton is saying the exact same thing – all you need to do is PUNCH the rubber tire.  Cotton also provides some ‘strengthening’ tips for accomplishing this type of ‘punching’.

Summary (and a word of warning)

  It is true that modern golf instruction has strayed from the INSTINCT of the game.  It has become an unending melodrama involving your posture, your grip, your position at the start – and at the end. Do you ever worry about the position of your tennis racket at the top of the backswing? Or of your baseball bat? You just swing back – and swing through – relying on the hands to square up and make square contact. Why should golf be any different?

In case this seems like an oversimplification of the golf swing, remember that Henry Cotton was far  from a hack. He was a three time major winner  – winning even into his late 40s.  His fame is not just related to his professional wins – but also attributed to his contributions as a golf instructor.  

Try his strengthening exercises for a couple of weeks –  first with one hand each – then with both hands.  Obviously (here comes the warning), the impact can be a little rough on the hands and the elbows. So – if you have any kind of issues with your hands, arms, elbows (e.g. Tennis Elbow, Frozen shoulder, Carpal tunnel etc…), avoid these strength building exercises till you are healed. 

For those of you who have no such issues,  once you try these one handed ‘punches’, you should start feeling the clubhead as an extension of your hands.  As you address the ball, your only thought will be to strike it with the back of your hand (much like a tennis backhand).

Questions? Comments?

Video Links on Cotton’s Teaching Method

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