The Jacobs method remains in full swing

'Jack Nicklaus may not have perfect technique, but he was the calmest on the 72nd hole. I never had that, but I had confidence in my teaching ability'
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ON THE practice ground at this year's Open Championship, and again at the Ryder Cup, two men - one just about old enough to be the grandfather of the other - were seen in earnest conversation. John Jacobs, the doyen of golf teachers, was trying to help his longtime pupil Jose Maria Olazabal, "Chema" to his friends, to cure his inaccuracy off the tee.

ON THE practice ground at this year's Open Championship, and again at the Ryder Cup, two men - one just about old enough to be the grandfather of the other - were seen in earnest conversation. John Jacobs, the doyen of golf teachers, was trying to help his longtime pupil Jose Maria Olazabal, "Chema" to his friends, to cure his inaccuracy off the tee.

"At Brookline I spent every morning on the practice ground with Chema," Jacobs says. "And he was hitting the ball marvellously. But he was in an awful mental state. He'd hit 50 decent shots and say that only six of them were any good. When he missed the cut at the USPGA I phoned up his manager, Sergio, and said they knew where I was if they needed me. And Sergio said 'it's a psychiatrist he needs, John.' " Actually, Jacobs thinks it's a slightly more lofted driver that Olazabal needs. He is reluctant to tamper with the swing that in April won the Masters for a second time.

"In any case, Chema has been the best iron player in the world for about 10 years now. It's not so much that he hits it straight, but such a precise distance. And, of course, he has a wonderful short game. He has the touch of a midwife."

It is an irresistible analogy, and if I may borrow it for a second, Olazabal brought off a hell of a delivery on the 18th hole of his singles match against Justin Leonard. Leonard, you might possibly recall, had just holed a 40-foot putt to ensure that America could not lose the Ryder Cup, to which he and the US team responded with their own version of the haka. Against all the odds, Olazabal then holed a remarkably brave putt on the last to square the match. Jacobs - a former Ryder Cup player himself, and captain in 1979 and 1981 - was proud of his boy. But he fears for the game that he was born into 74 years ago, to Bob and Vivien Jacobs, pro and stewardess at Lindrick Golf Club near Sheffield.

"I do hope golf doesn't now deteriorate," he says. "That lovely boy Jarmo Sandelin missed a short putt on the second in Boston, and I heard someone shout 'keep missing them!' And poor Colin Montgomerie, the things he had to put up with. Each time he came in off the course he just raged, you know, because there was no attempt by the marshals or the American players to control it. And Sam [Torrance] went berserk afterwards. I would have to say, though, that Mark James was a marvellous captain. He behaved wonderfully well at the presentation."

This is praise indeed, because it was James, with his team-mate Ken Brown, who made Jacobs' own captaincy a nightmare in 1979. Their dreadful behaviour has been well-documented and Jacobs bears no grudges. All the same, if someone had said to him 20 years ago that James would be captain and Brown vice-captain of the 1999 European Ryder Cup team ...? Jacobs, now the president of the PGA, gives a huge throaty chuckle. Enough said. Or enough unsaid. In a way, he has worse memories of 1981, when others, including Bernhard Langer and Tony Jacklin, closed ranks to keep Seve Ballesteros out of the team following a spat over appearance money. Jacobs, again the captain, argued unsuccessfully for Seve's inclusion. "Yet Seve hated my guts for years afterwards. It was Bernard Gallacher, God bless him, who persuaded Seve that it was me who had fought for him."

Enough of the Ryder Cup. We are nattering at Jacobs' house just outside the New Forest. For anyone with an interest in the history of golf, this kindly, hugely engaging man is an anecdotal treasure trove. Consider his lineage.

Around the turn of the century his father was apprenticed to Tom King at Royal West Norfolk, who had in turn been apprenticed to Old Tom Morris at St Andrews. And Jacobs himself became assistant at another South Yorkshire club, Hallamshire, to Willie Wallace, who was once apprenticed to the legendary J H Taylor, the four-times Open champion.

Bob Jacobs died when John was just nine, eventually succumbing to the gassing he sustained in the First World War trenches. "But I still remember standing next to him in his shop passing him tools," Jacobs recalls. "We lived in a tiny flat behind the pro's shop at Lindrick, and on a Monday morning there was nearly always a fire burning because some hickory shafts had broken over the weekend. They got tossed into the fire, we burnt the shafts out of the hosels and fitted new ones. I had a very good apprenticeship. Willie Wallace at Hallamshire was a wonderful clubmaker, too.

All winter long I made clubs, shaping the heads, staining them, putting faces in. I gave lessons, too, of course. I got five shillings an hour, of which I got two and Willie three. And I worked every single day, Christmas Day included."

In 1949 Jacobs left Hallamshire to become pro at the Gezira Sporting Club in Egypt, but anti-British sentiment eventually drove him home to the UK, where he took up a job at Sandy Lodge in Hertfordshire. It was there that he began to acquire a reputation as a teacher, and started to build up the chain of golf schools that still bear his name. However, he could play a bit, too, and was good enough not only to make the 1955 Ryder Cup team, but to win his singles match against Cary Middlecoff, who had romped home in that year's Masters by seven shots from the great Ben Hogan. That year's Ryder Cup was held at Thunderbird in California and Jacobs holed a winning six-footer on the last green. "And Cary said 'I want you to know, John, that you beat me on one of my best days.' In all my career, that was the nicest thing anybody ever said to me."

For most of the 1950s, Jacobs clung on to his dream to become "the best player who ever lived, but by the time I was 38 I realised it wasn't going to happen. So I set out my stall to be a teacher." I have always wondered, I tell him, why he, David Leadbetter and their ilk, knowing as much about the golf swing as they do, did not enjoy more success as competitors? "I was too enquiring, too interested in hitting good shots instead of getting it round. Jack Nicklaus may not have perfect technique, but he was always the calmest guy on the 72nd hole. Peter Thomson was the same. I never had that, but I always had huge confidence in my teaching ability."

Who, I ask, possessed the finest golf swing he ever saw? "Byron Nelson had the swing I admired most. He and Ben Hogan were the greatest hitters I ever saw. At Carnoustie this year, Alex Hay said he'd had a phone call saying that all the stuff about Hogan's Alley (i.e. that in 1953 Hogan deliberately steered his drives down an outrageously tight line on Carnoustie's formidable sixth hole) was poppycock. It wasn't. There was a draw made in those days - the leaders didn't go out last - and I was drawn three matches behind Hogan. When I reached the third tee, he was on the sixth, and I was looking straight down his line. He aimed at the out-of-bounds and brought it round the bunker. Nobody else in the field would have taken that route. The thing you noticed with Hogan was the speed of his swing. Whoosh. And the ball went off like a bullet out of a gun. Sam Snead was the opposite. The ball took off slowly and went on and on."

As for Jack Nicklaus, Jacobs blames him - tongue in ruddy Yorkshire cheek - for setting a bad example. "When I started playing, the most common problem was what I call a figure-of-eight golf swing. Everything went over the top. Since Nicklaus, it's been too much underneath, leading to the push-fade. I remember being at Lytham in 1969. Jack was playing a practice round with Gary Player and Gardner Dickinson, and on the second tee he hit a push-fade straight over the railway line. With the next one he came over the top and pulled it. The same happened on the third. So on the big par five, the sixth, he turned to me and said 'you're supposed to know a bit about it, whaddya think?' He's a bit of a bully, Jack, you know. I said, 'doesn't anyone ever talk posture to you? The back of your neck is parallel to the ground.' He said that his old teacher, Jack Grout, had said the same, always getting him to keep his chin up."

The advice was obviously absorbed because Nicklaus finished joint sixth, lumping him with Jose Maria Olazabal, Tony Jacklin, Mark O'Meara, Sandy Lyle, Gallacher, Peter Alliss, Trish Johnson, King Leopold of the Belgians, Sean Connery and Douglas Bader in the long list of people who have successfully received instruction from John Jacobs.

It can't have been easy teaching Douglas Bader, I muse. "Well, he couldn't turn because he fell down, so we just concentrated on impact. Golf is all about impact. You have got to be able to control the clubface. That's why I think video is over-used in teaching. It has its uses but it doesn't show the clubface, which only has to be four or five degrees off square and you miss the fairway."

Speaking of missing the fairway, it is now time for Jacobs to extend that long list of pupils. We move outside, to the practice net in his garden, where he takes a long, hard look at my 12-handicap golf swing. "You're a bit like Chema," he says, "in that you don't get your left side out of the way quickly enough." Talk about being praised with faint damnation. Having the same swing flaw as Jose Maria Olazabal, as far as I'm concerned, is like having the same problem with perspective as Michelangelo, the same weakish uppercut as the young Cassius Clay. I can now tell people, hand on heart or at least relatively close to it, that my hip action puts John Jacobs in mind of Jose Maria Olazabal. And even more significantly, in the one round I have had since my session in the Jacobs practice net, I had back-to-back birdies. The man is quite clearly a genius.