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The Nicklaus Head Swivel: A Study in Left-Eye Dominance

Jack Nicklaus RBS Banknote

Jack Nicklaus is a legend with 18 Major Championships, maybe the greatest of all time. What makes Nicklaus so fascinating even now, beyond his record, is how he played the game. But did you know that his secret sauce might be…his left eye? Yep, you read that right. Today, we’ll unpack how Nicklaus’ left-eye dominance influenced the unique head swivel that initiated his backswing. For more on Jack, check out our study of his alignment process.

The Golden Bear

There is much to study and learn from all phases of Nicklaus’ game, and most of it’s already been written. In our last post, “Decluttering Your Mind,” we “went to the movies” and learned about Nickalus’ take on pre-shot visualization. Today, we’re zeroing in on a signature nuance in his golf swing: his head swivel. To understand that, we have to first discuss the concept of eye dominance, something we have tackled twice before on this site – first in the context of alignment, and second with a deep dive into the topic.

Nicklaus is a left-eye-dominant player. So what? Well, this tiny fact had a colossal impact on his playing style. It influenced how he positioned himself and, you guessed it, how he swiveled his head at address. This technique involves slightly turning his head to the right before taking his swing. This action has been attributed to his left-eye dominance.

The idea is that by swiveling his head, he could better align his dominant eye with the ball and the target, thereby improving his eyeline and the consistency of his shots. It has also been theorized that this enabled him to make a larger, more powerful shoulder turn. However, it’s important to note that while this technique worked for Nicklaus, it might not be universally applicable as most people are same-eye dominant. If you’d like to test yourself, refer to our alignment or eye dominance post.

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The Basics of Eye Dominance in Golf

Before we delve into the Nicklaus lore, let’s get one thing straight: eye dominance matters in golf.

  • What is it?: Your dominant eye is the one that provides a slightly greater degree of input to the visual part of your brain.
  • Why should I care?: In golf, your dominant eye can affect everything from your stance to your swing, the way you see the line, perceive distance, and even spatial relation.
finding dominant eye

Eye dominance refers to the tendency to prefer visual input from one eye. In academic terms, it’s the phenomenon where one eye sends more significant neural signals to the visual cortex, essentially becoming the primary source for spatial acuity and depth perception.

In our post, “Eye Dominance and Its Effect on the Golf Swing,” we learned that 98% of us have a dominant eye, with 65% being same-eye dominant (right-handed, right-eye dominant, or vice versa). Of particular note – 85% of PGA Tour Players are cross-dominant (right-handed, left-eye dominant, or vice versa). In our post, we explored two studies (one in book form) that set out to explain this anomaly concerning elite golfers.

This prevalence can be attributed to the biomechanical advantages of cross-eye dominance, such as enhanced depth perception and alignment accuracy. The alignment between the non-dominant hand (controlling the club’s grip) and the dominant eye allows for more precise targeting and execution of shots, contributing to higher performance levels.

eye cortex

The Signature Head Swivel

  • Initial Stance: Nicklaus starts with a textbook stance, his head aligned with his spine and eyes fixed on the ball.
  • Rightward Turn: Nicklaus subtly turns his head to the right as he prepares to swing.
  • Slight Tilt: Along with the turn, he also tilts his face downward just a tad.
  • Dominant Eye Focus: These movements allow his left dominant eye to squarely line up with the ball, optimizing his view.
  • Locked and Loaded: His head remains in this unique position as he initiates his backswing.
  • Genius Behind It: This head swivel is more than a quirk. It lets him see the ball better and execute a consistent, powerful swing.

Why It Matters for Recreational Golfers

Nicklaus’ left-eye dominance and head swivel aren’t just quirks; they’re calculated techniques that have stood the test of time. “But I’m not Jack Nicklaus,” you say. True. This is not a post promising that you’ll start piping shots down the middle if you swivel your head. However, we need every advantage to be the best we can be. The goal is to remove as many variables as possible. Understanding how you process information and your dominant eye’s role can be a game-changer.

For recreational golfers, understanding the intricacies of our own playing style is crucial. Like Nicklaus, each of us has unique physical traits and mental approaches that define our game. It’s not about mimicking the legends, but learning from them. We might not have Nicklaus’ precision or his years of experience, but we can certainly adopt his mindset of self-awareness and continuous improvement.

Think about your grip, stance, and swing. Are they tailored to your body’s mechanics and your dominant eye? Even small adjustments in these areas can lead to significant improvements. It’s about being mindful of the little things that add up to make a big difference. Remember, golf is as much a mental game as it is a physical one. Paying attention to how you mentally prepare for each shot, how you manage stress and expectations, can also influence your performance.

In essence, being a better golfer isn’t just about perfecting your swing; it’s about understanding yourself. By embracing your unique strengths and weaknesses, and by learning to work with them rather than against them, you set the stage for a more enjoyable and successful experience on the golf course. So, take that head swivel or that dominant eye into account – not because Nicklaus did it, but because it’s another step in mastering your own game.

Eye Positioning in Nicklaus’ Putting Technique

  • Left Eye Over the Ball: The dominant left eye is positioned directly over the ball.
  • Right Eye Behind: The non-dominant eye stays slightly behind the ball.
  • Steady Head: This setup helps align the putt perfectly with the intended line.

In simpler terms, Nicklaus gave his dominant left eye the “captain’s seat” for those crucial putts. This setup allowed him to align his shots with precision, making him one of the best putters in the game.

“At setup, make sure that your eyes are over the line of the putt. The real trick is to get your left eye over the ball with your right eye behind it. That way, when you swivel your head to give the target a final look, you’re looking right down the intended line.”

Jack Nicklaus
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Key Takeaways

  • Jack Nicklaus’ left-eye dominance influenced his signature head swivel at address. By turning his head right, he aligned his dominant eye with the ball and target.
  • Eye dominance matters in golf. It affects alignment, swing mechanics, distance perception, and more. Over 80% of off-line shots are due to poor alignment, not poor mechanics.
  • Around 85% of PGA Tour players are cross-dominant (e.g. right handed, left eye dominant). Cross-dominance provides biomechanical advantages like better depth perception.
  • Nicklaus positioned his dominant left eye directly over the ball when putting. This precise setup enabled superior alignment and made him one of the best putters.
  • Understanding your own eye dominance can help improve alignment, swing mechanics, and shot consistency. Assessing and accounting for eye dominance is an easy way to enhance your game.

Further Reading and Listening

The Secret of Golf
by Joe Posnanski

Summary: The Secret of Golf explores the complex relationship between golf legends Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, chronicling their journey from rivals to friends over decades of battling for supremacy in major championships; Posnanski provides an intimate look at the two icons through firsthand interviews and accounts of their most memorable showdowns like the “Duel in the Sun” at the 1977 British Open; The book reveals the secrets of their greatness, with lessons on strategy, mental approach, and insights into their personalities.

Duel in the Sun
by Michael Corcoran 

Summary: The 1977 British Open at Turnberry was an epic showdown between golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, with Watson prevailing by one stroke after they battled over the final 36 holes; Michael Corcoran brings this dramatic moment in golf history to life through interviews with participants and evocative details about the Open’s rich tradition and origins; Duel in the Sun recounts Watson rising to defeat Nicklaus and claim his spot at the pinnacle of golf.

Golf My Way
by Jack Nicklaus

Summary: Golf My Way provides a comprehensive overview of Jack Nicklaus’s approach to every aspect of the game, from swing fundamentals to course management to the mental side of golf. Nicklaus explains his unorthodox upright swing in detail, advising golfers to develop a technique matched to their natural abilities rather than copy a rigid model. He shares wisdom on shot selection, practice routines, concentration techniques, and strategically playing to one’s strengths on each golf course. While some advice is outdated, Nicklaus imparts timeless golf insights on work ethic, confidence, and optimizing performance under pressure. Golf My Way offers a fascinating look inside the mind and methods of one of history’s greatest golfers.

My Story
by Jack Nicklaus

Summary: In his candid autobiography, golf legend Jack Nicklaus takes listeners through his record-setting career, reflecting on his unmatched major championship victories, approach to competing at the highest level, and the physical and mental challenges he faced. Nicklaus provides an insider perspective on legendary triumphs like the 1986 Masters at age 46 and some painful defeats, portraying his relentless competitiveness and intense desire to practice and improve. Sharing warm recollections about family and fellow golfers, Nicklaus reveals the person behind the intense, focused golfer known for steely determination, showing his devotion as a husband, father, and mentor. From dominating the sport in his prime to remaining a contender into his 40s, Jack Nicklaus: My Story gives an intimate, first-hand account of the life and achievements of one of golf’s greatest champions. 

More Suggestions

  • The Nicklaus Way by John Andrisani is an analytical look at the techniques, strategies, and principles that made Jack Nicklaus a golf legend. It serves as a comprehensive guide, breaking down Nicklaus’s approach to the game to help golfers at all levels improve their play.
  • Best Seat in the House: an autobiography by Jack Nicklaus’s son, Jack Nicklaus II, offering an intimate look at life with the golf legend from the unique perspective of a son who also caddied for him.
  • Putting My Way by Jack Nicklaus serves as a masterclass in the art of putting, with Nicklaus sharing the techniques, strategies, and mental exercises that helped him become one of the game’s greatest putters. The book aims to help golfers of all skill levels improve their putting game by offering actionable advice, from grip and stance to reading greens and handling pressure.
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