There are talented athletes and there are winners. Across all sports, the will of winners to overcome adversity – whether it’s personal pain or professional injury – is constant. Jeev Milkha Singh, after a bright start to his golf career, faced a string of injury set-backs and subsequent poor performances between 2001-2004. It cost him his Japanese Tour card. Yet here is he now, winning events on European Tour.
“In the last 8-9 years, almost 20 Indians have won in Asia. We are now used to the grass, the greens and the conditions” says Joy Chakravarty, a senior golf journalist and close friend to Jeev, “Winning at links golf in Europe is a totally different animal. On Monday you can have wind speeds of 40mph and the next day will see a 20mph breeze from the opposite direction. You have to take into account the cold, wet conditions to truly understand how tough it is to win in Europe.”
So what changed? Well, his swing.
Singh says the 2012 Scottish Open win was a high point for him because he overcame the recurring ligament injuries that had held him back for most of his career. At the last hole, he wasn’t in great shape on his approach shot so he adapted. He pushed the ball further back in his stance, cocked back his usual unusual swing and punched a rasping low shot beneath the swirling wind that landed softly on the damp green.
What any golf fans who have watched Jeev Milkha Singh play will instantly tell you is how radically unconventional his swing is. When you see him tee-off on a big drive, he stands upright, swings with minimal hip rotation and brings his hands down from the inside. It doesn’t look like a ‘normal’ golf swing – especially when you compare it with someone like Ernie Els.
Look at how tall he stands and how little he bends his knees. When he takes his swing back, rather than pointing towards the target, the club head tilts away to the left. To put it bluntly, the club sits more \ than |. Even on the down swing, most players’ hips will have turned 45˚ towards the target from the square starting position, but Jeev’s hips haven’t turned much at all. You can see for yourself about 10 seconds into this video.
And now compare this to Rory McIlroy’s swing in slow motion (about 49 seconds into this video) – said to be the simplest, cleanest in the game today.
There’s a reason this 4 second video has 500,000 videos. Rory McIlroy hitting a driver is ear-candy just as much as it is eye-candy.
Fellow golfer Amritinder Singh has been Jeev’s friend since the age of 5 and is now an advisor who helps him with his swing for 16 weeks a year. “His swing before 1999 was totally different. The club positions were on line, parallel on top and pointing towards the target like you’re generally taught,” says Amritinder, “After his injury he got into bad habits with his swing to protect his wrist. For him to change totally and return to original swing was impossible. I helped him tailor a swing within the framework of what he was comfortable with.”
As Jeev’s game started improving, he began to trust more and more in his former room-mate’s advice. “You can take the club back whichever way you want but the club head should be square to the target and square at impact,” said the great Johnny Miller, who told Jeev that he had the squarest club head at impact he’d ever seen. As a youngster, his friends would drop golf balls anywhere near his planted feet and with the talent he had, he could clip them without readjusting his position. But a champion is more than talent.
Jeev Mikha Singh is not the only pro-golfer with an unconventional swing borne through injury. Jim Furyk was the 2010 PGA Tour Player of the year and has a swing plane even crazier than Jeev’s.
Look at how Furyk’s hands drop as he begins his down swing and just how far his hips have turned. Strange? Yes. Successful? Oh yes. Jim Furyk won the 2003 US Open.
After the injuries and the lows of the early 2000s, people had written off Jeev Milkha Singh but he responded as his father, Mikha Singh (perhaps India’s greatest runner) had taught him: simplify and persevere. While other pro’s have all manner of shots in their bag, Singh uses only his trusted fade shot, that curves gently from left to right. He took to yoga and stretching to preserve his body and cut down on hard weight training at the gym. He modeled his new style after his golfing hero Fred Couples: relaxed and laid back, come bogey or birdie. At the top level of golf, everyone has the talent; it’s a mental game.