You would assume that height would be an advantage in golf. After all, taller golfers have the potential to hit the ball farther based simply on their limb length, mass, and overall body strength. Doesn’t a taller golfer’s ability to drive the ball as much as 30 yards or 50 yards past his shorter opponent give him a head start that can’t be overcome?
Well, there’s that well-known fable concerning the tortoise and the hare, and we all know how that turned out. A fast start is no guarantee of a fast finish. Maybe that’s the point that Harvey Penick was attempting to make in his own way when he said, “The woods are full of big hitters.” I think you would agree that there’s is no point in hitting the ball a long way off the tee if doesn’t end up in the fairway consistently.
After working with a number of tall players over the years, I had come to the conclusion that height was a not an advantage. In fact, with only a few exceptions, it seemed to be a distinct disadvantage.
In considering this subject, I thought of my former student Charlie Danielson, who was 6-feet 5-inches tall. I‘d worked with Charlie through his high school years up until the week that he left to play for Coach Mike Small at the University of Illinois, where he helped his team capture the NCAA Championship. In working with Charlie, I found that the plane of his swing could vary as much as a foot over the course of a single week. In this regard, he was not the exception to the rule, but more the norm when it came to be working with tall players.
The advantage that Charlie had was that he was fully capable of hitting good shots even when the plane of swing was less than ideal. He was like a great hitter in baseball; he would just adjust to the height of the pitch and make it work.
The Taller Player
The logical assumption, as mentioned earlier, would be that a taller player would naturally hit the ball farther than a shorter player. And that distance would then allow the taller player to outperform the smaller player every time. That contention would certainly seem to be evidenced by looking at today’s modern wonder boys, Dustin Johnson at 6-feet 4-inches and Jordan Spieth at 6-feet 1-inch. Between them, they’ve have won a total of nine events and a total of $17 million on the PGA Tour in an eight-month period.
That said, I’ve found over the years that there are six areas where tall players typically struggle. These six areas constitute what I refer to as “The Taller Player Syndrome,” and these problems ultimately affect a player’s ability to score.
The Taller Player Syndrome
No. 1: The Setup
The first disadvantage is related to setting up to the ball. How does it make sense that a player who is 6-feet 5-inches tall would use the same length irons as another player who is 5-feet 7-inches tall? And yet, realistically, the most an iron can extended is about an inch before it becomes unmanageable. In this case, there is a difference of 10 inches in height between these two players.
The taller player must then account for this difference in the setup, which becomes exceedingly awkward — especially with the shorter irons. This is in contrast to the shorter player, who only needs to bend slightly forward from the hips, place the sole of his club on the ground, and then make a swing.
No. 2: Lower Body Instability
The distance from the taller player’s feet to his knees, and the distance from his knees to his hips, is considerably greater than the shorter player. This lends itself to general instability in the lower body, especially where the length of the legs is disproportionate to the torso, ensuring poor balance throughout the swing.
No. 3: Excessive Knee-Drive
There is a universal tendency for taller players to develop excessive knee-drive on their downswing, causing them to finish with their backs in an arched position as if they were doing the side-ways limbo. This places excessive pressure on the lumbar region of the back.
No. 4: Lower Back Issues
In many cases, I’ve found that taller golfers have legs that are not equal in length, which creates setup and balance issues. There are three possible causes for the apparent disparity in leg length:
- The first possible cause can be genetic, meaning that the length of the leg bones on either side of the body are unequal, which is actually quite rare.
- The second possible cause, which is more common, occurs when the pelvis has been torqued in one direction or another. In a case where the pelvis has been twisted to the left, the right leg becomes functionally longer while the left becomes shorter. The reverse is true when the pelvis is twisted in the opposite direction.
- A third possible cause is when the stronger and less flexible muscles on one side of the body take over. This has the effect of pulling the lower spine out of alignment and in the process, pinching delicate nerves. which is the basis of pain. Those players with this condition will universally complain of periodic or chronic back pain, which often grows worse with age.
No. 5: Fluctuating Spine Angle
The arc of the swing revolves around the spine, which is inclined forward at address. This angle must be retained throughout the swing until the ball is struck, which makes for consistent shot-making. The required angle at address is considerably more acute for a taller player than a shorter player, making it more difficult to retain the angle through impact.
No. 6: Variable Backswing Plane
The most significant problem for the taller player, as mentioned earlier, is the variety of planes in which the club can be swung. The plane can vary from horizontal to vertical and everywhere else in between.
In contrast, a shorter player has, for the most part, only one swing plane. And invariably it’s the correct one, because it comes more naturally to them than the taller player. The inability to swing the club on the same plane on a consistent basis ultimately leads to variations in performance.
PGA Tour Money List
I decided to look at the top-15 players on this year’s PGA Tour Money List to determine if there was a connection between the height of the players and how well they performed in terms of dollars earned between January 1 and August 31, 2017, as outlined above.
The study would hardly meet scientific guidelines, based on (1) limited sampling, (2) short time period, (3) lack of a control group.
The study was not designed to prove or disprove any one theory. I simply wanted to determine in rather short order if there was a plausible correlation between a player’s height and the number of dollars they earned on the PGA Tour.
The study would seem to suggest that in terms of dollars earned, height is neither an advantage or a disadvantage. That said, a broader study conducted in a purely scientific manner “might” reveal additional insight on the subject.
- The numbers indicate that taller players on the PGA Tour do not hold an advantage over shorter players.
- In the reverse, shorter players on the PGA Tour may hold a slight advantage over taller players based on their durability, making them less prone to injury.
- The amount of money earned on an average by those players under 6-feet tall is virtually same as the amount of money earned by those players over 6-feet tall.
- The numbers suggest that the composite height of “the perfect golfer” has increased from previous years to between 5-feet 11-inches and 6-feet tall.
- The numbers are skewed in favor of taller players by Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar, who are both 6-feet 4-inches tall. Were these two players NOT among the top-15 money winners, the average height of the entire group would dip toward the shorter side.
Some additional findings included:
- The shortest player in the group is Brian Harman at 5-feet 7-inches.
- There are a six players who are below 6-feet, while there are nine players who are 6-feet or taller.
- The average amount of money won by the six players under 6-feet was $5,714,844, while the average amount of money won by the nine players over 6-feet was $5,323,572.
In many other sports, height is an advantage and in some cases a requirement. In this regard, golf is unique. The height of the player is for the most part irrelevant when it comes to earning, and by extension, playing the game well.
Would these same findings apply to amateur golfers across the board, including those with handicaps from scratch to 30? That grouping would have to be studied on an independent basis to reach a valid conclusion, though a plausible assumption is that it would be similar.
In addition, this limited study indicates that height of “the perfect golfer” would seem to be increasing. This may well be due to the fact that the sport is attracting bigger and better athletes, who might have chosen to play another sport in prior generations, but were attracted by the fame and fortune that golf now offers its stars.