In Touch hands Jordan Spieth

In Touch

Celebrating the game's most important tools with Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Max Homa and more

Van Gogh and Michelangelo and da Vinci revered their complexity. Aristotle called them the tool of tools, an instrument above all others. They transform the immaterial into the actual: Idea finds form; inspiration meets action; ball takes flight. Michel de Montaigne marveled at their utility: “Behold the hands, how they promise, conjure, appeal, menace, pray, supplicate, refuse, beckon, interrogate, admire, confess, cringe, instruct, command, mock, and what not besides, with a variation and multiplication of variation which makes the tongue envious.”

One imagines that Montaigne, the French philosopher who died in 1592, did not play much golf. “Deliver a square clubface” did not make his list, and it doesn’t make many others because when it comes to the golf swing, hands are often cast as villains instead of heroes. We tend to blame them for our shortcomings and seek help to exorcise them from our swings. We might be right to do so, but let’s remember that it’s through our fingers that we learn everything we need to know about moving a golf ball, and it’s in our hands where we experience that hollow click of iron pressing plastic, the thin slice of torn soil, the bull’s-eye connection that tells us a ball is rolling toward a bottom without any help from our eyes. Vision will mislead us—that pin looked closer; doesn’t that green tilt the other way?—but feel is ruthlessly honest. We can spin our post-round recollections into any story we choose, but our hands tell only truth, and they speak it expeditiously.

Max Homa’s overlap grip has been a vital part of his dizzying journey from struggling Korn Ferry player to multiple-time PGA Tour winner and Ryder Cup stalwart.

Considering their generosity and usefulness, it’s strange how we fight them. We devise vulgar contortions to remove them from our putting, and we spend hours taming their off-plane proclivities. We might do well to stop arguing with our hands and listen more closely to what they suggest. When we let them do as they want, they can reward us with those quiet miracles, those effortless passes where a ball seems tied to its target and our hands, feet, shoulders and legs feel like they’ve surrendered to a moment of golf harmony.

But that state is elusive, so we study smash factors and spin rates. We chase speed and carry and angles. We seek to learn how our arms and hips should behave. But none of the above touch a golf club. The two things that do are rarely celebrated, and when they are, it’s because they’ve helped manage an escape from some irredeemable circumstance. Nobody says “good hands” when you send a salvo down the fairway or carve a 7-iron to a back pin; “good hands” are for wild flops or wee bumps. “Good hands” means we got lucky. “Soft hands” seem worth pursuing, but there’s nothing supple about a pro player’s palms, cracked and calloused beyond their years. How such rough-hewn clamps produce such silky results—Montaigne was right to marvel at their potential.

It takes a careful eye to see it, but the next time we gawk at a golf swing, let’s remember to appreciate the grace of golf’s primary movers. They hold 27 bones and more than 30 muscles, and the lines and ridges that map them are lifetimes in the making. If every golf swing is distinct, that ownership begins with the singularity of our grips, and therein lies the stardust of it all. We say golf is more than a game, and our hands prove it. Games offer repeatable patterns toward predictable outcomes. Thanks to those tiny muscles moved by imperceptible impulses, we’ll never hit the same shot twice. We might abhor that as unfair, or we might embrace it as feel. And it’s feel, carried through our fingers, that makes every round seem new and every swing feel like our first—whether we want it to or not.

Coaches talk about ways to find it—putt to a string, practice to music, move like you’re swinging a pail of water—but feel seems less like something we can augment and more like something we should simply strive to notice. Players with feel don’t have gentler joints or more nerves in their fingers. Perhaps they are just paying closer attention to them. Maybe they understand that the only real conduits between body and ball shouldn’t be the last things we think about over a shot, if we consider them at all. When our ball ignores our target, we seek answers in our stance and spine and rotation, but wouldn’t it be simpler to look closer to the source? When we begin listening for our hands and start hearing something back, that’s when we’ve got them—the feels.

We can spin our post-round recollections into any story we choose, but our hands tell only truth, and they speak it expeditiously.

Perhaps training via screens and monitors has muted their potential. We eschew hands for the steadiness of larger muscles, and maybe that makes sense for the science of the swing. But if we are honest with ourselves, truly honest, we don’t keep queuing up to scratch down numbers or sequence our swings. We return for a feel, and the possibility that today will be the day when we feel it again. It’s a sensation unique to each of us, but it’s one where all our efforts at becoming effortless pay off. It’s a feeling of no feeling, really, and it’s why we’ll stare at a dime-size wear pattern longer than any course record, imagining what it must be like to find the center again and again, to be able to readily summon that best of all feels, the one where the contact seeps into our every atom, where we are not our hands or our arms or our legs and we aren’t posing or swinging or turning. We’re just watching a ball do something we desperately hoped it would, receiving the joy one feels when something inscrutable finally makes sense.

Justin Thomas trusts his tools. One of the game’s great feel players laughed off a cold shank early on Sunday of the 2022 PGA Championship at Southern Hills, then turned in a long-iron clinic on his way to victory.

The lines on Jordan Spieth’s hands (above, and at top) tell the story of gripping one of professional golf’s wildest rides—from disaster at Augusta in 2016 to redemption at Birkdale in 2017 to his continued pursuit of the Grand Slam.

Who is next? Tom Kim (above) and Cameron Young (below) both have preternatural gifts, have shown they can play in the game’s most elite tiers and believe greater glories are within their grasp.