The son of a U.S. serviceman stationed in England and a woman from Wales, Arnie Frankel was born in Oxford during an air raid as 1943 bumped into 1944 and was hailed in newspapers as Great Britain's New Year's baby. To a war-weary nation, Frankel's birth was a symbol of hope. "I was put on this planet to make a difference," he says. "I know that." Sixty-one years and one month later, on a breezy Saturday morning in Palm City, Fla., Frankel, neatly set out in a green striped shirt and black pants, is holding forth for two new pupils at Hammock Creek Golf Club, home to the semi-itinerant, semisolvent Frankel Golf Academy, which Arnie runs with his younger brother, Ron. "Golf instruction is in the Dark Ages," he tells the students. "What I teach can revolutionize the game."
Frankel, a lifetime member of the PGA of America, burns with the righteousness of a true believer, his allegiance pledged to a single fundamental: Swing the clubhead. Learn to do this, he promises, and you're on your way to the promised land.
"A swing is a vibration," he explains to the students, demonstrating the proper motion by rhythmically swinging his only training device--a simple medallion tied to one end of three feet of string--back and forth like a pendulum. "A vibration is the first sign of life."
Frankel asks his pupils to take a club and show him their swings. Both are stiff and tense. One player at a time, he lays his hands on the golfer's and together they move the club back and forth at waist level. Before long, arms and wrists have loosened, and Frankel's string and medallion is moving on plane with the student's club. "I can feel this," says Raymond Orrie, 68, a retired pilot with Delta from Roswell, Ga. ¬†Frankel is beaming. "That's freedom," he says. "Freedom is a wonderful thing."
May 8, 2005
When you come to Frankel for advice, he won't tell you what you're doing wrong and offer a correction. He won't videotape and analyze your swing. Nor will he load you down with positions, mechanics, swing paths or body parts.
Frankel won't do any of that because the master didn't, and Frankel sees himself not only as the lamp sent to light the way, but also as the resurrection of golf's greatest prophet. "I am Ernest Jones," he says.
O.K., not Ernest Jones in the flesh, but Frankel truly believes that he is the last person to have had Jones's instructional philosophy passed down to him directly from one of Jones's first disciples. Frankel parses Jones like others do the Talmud, and he often quotes chapter and verse from Swing the Clubhead, Jones's best-selling golf book, which was first published in 1952. Frankel is working on his own book about Jones, as well as an instructional video that he believes will once again popularize the master. "I'm the only one who can do this," he says. "I'm the only one who carries Ernest's truth. So many golfers are struggling needlessly. Ernest thought so, too."
A top English amateur, Jones developed his swing theory before World War I, but he honed it after losing his right leg below the knee in combat. Only four months after losing the leg, Jones shot an 83 without a prosthesis. Within weeks he was breaking par.
Playing on one leg led Jones to conclude that the swing was a single, unified motion controlled and led by the hands. The tremendous centrifugal force that motion created not only provided power but also naturally balanced the golfer. The motion could not be broken into parts (a.k.a. positions) and had to be felt with the hands--the only body part connected to the club--through the outward pull of the clubhead. (Jones designed his famous penknife-tied-to-a-handkerchief teaching tool to demonstrate the motion; Frankel is seldom without his string and medallion.) Everything else followed from that. All a golfer had to do was concentrate on feel. Swing the clubhead became Jones's mantra, and he'd sometimes say nothing else over the course of a lesson.
By the time Jones arrived in the U.S. in the 1920s, when he took a job as head pro at the Women's National Golf and Tennis Club in Glen Head, N.Y., on Long Island, he was already a sensation, but his reputation was enhanced through his work with champions such as Marion Hollins, Lawson Little, Glenna Collett Vare and Virginia Van Wie. When the National was sold in the early '40s, pilgrims flocked to Jones's small studio on the seventh floor of the old A.G. Spalding building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, where he gave thousands of lessons annually. In 1998, Jones, along with Tommy Armour, Percy Boomer and Harvey Penick, were the first four men inducted into the World Golf Teachers Hall of Fame.
Despite the popularity of the swing the clubhead method--Bobby Jones was among its many endorsers--Jones had detractors. Rival teachers insisted that the swing was not as simple as Jones made it out to be. At a contentious seminar sponsored by the PGA of America in 1950, two-time Masters champion Horton Smith said that if pros taught Jones's method, "We wouldn't sell enough lessons." Jones countered by saying that the more golfers improved, the more guidance they would seek.
Frankel says there was a conspiracy within the golf industry against Jones, who died in 1965, and that a bias against simplicity in instruction still exits. The PGA of America's director of instruction, Rick Martino, dismisses such a notion, saying the PGA doesn't endorse any method over another. "Believe me," Martino says, "if anybody has a simple method that made everybody better, there would be a line out the door and around the block. There are no monks up on a mountain somewhere with the secret."
Nevertheless, Frankel maintains that most of today's teachers are at best "well-intentioned" and generally "misguided." He says that a reliance on mechanics over feel has made learning more complicated than it has to be.
"I absolutely agree," says Hall of Fame instructor Jim Flick. "We've taught so much about mechanics that the average golfer has forgotten that golf is a game to be played." Flick and another Hall of Famer, Manuel de la Torre, whose father, Angel, worked with Jones in the 1930s, subscribe to parts of the Jones method. But parts are not the whole, and like the swing itself, Frankel believes that Jones can't be broken into bits and still be Jones: "It's like painting over Michelangelo," he says.
My brother's a nonconformist," says Ron Frankel, 58, the practical yin to Arnie's zealous yang. (The Frankel Academy's logo incorporates the Chinese symbols.) "Arnie's whole life is Ernest Jones. I love him, but there are times he's out in leftfield."
Arnie meditates daily, fasts twice a week, studies Kabbalah, believes in holistic medicine, does not step on bugs, is a volunteer with Al-Anon (his mother, Margaret, was an alcoholic) and embraces the radical early writings of John Perkins--author of the best seller Confessions of an Economic Hit Man--on shamans, shape-shifting and dreams. Frankel believes that joy, freedom, respect, open-mindedness and change are all encompassed in the vibration he calls the swing. "I'm unconventional," he admits.
After World War II, Margaret and her husband, Milton, moved to New York with their toddler, Arnie. When Arnie was 11, his father decided that if his son was going to learn how to be responsible, he would have to get a job. Arnie found one as a caddie at Bethpage Black, and the game grabbed him. By age 15 he had broken 70 at Bethpage, and at 18 he received a golf scholarship to Florida State. Eventually Frankel transferred to Miami, from which he graduated in 1968. Determined to play on Tour, Frankel visited, in order, Bob Toski, Jack Grout and Lew Worsham--three of the most-respected teachers of the day. Each instructor pointed out a different fault in Frankel's swing, and he scrupulously tried to implement their fixes. In short order, Frankel couldn't break 80. "I felt as if it couldn't have been the teachers' fault because they were the best in the world," he says. "It had to be me."
Back on Long Island, Margaret Frankel begged her son to try one more teacher: an unconventional pro at nearby Lake Success, Nick Martino (no relation to Rick Martino), who had been Jones's old assistant and was one of two instructors whom Jones fully trained in his method. (The other was Jones's son-in-law, longtime Merion pro Fred Austin.) "Better golfers than you have been ruined by instruction," was the first thing Martino told Frankel.
Martino had Frankel go to the range and hit balls for two hours without thinking about anything. Within an hour the knots unraveled. "I was hitting the ball great," Frankel says. But he didn't know why. In minutes Martino explained the Jones method, taught him how to feel the swing and how to get the feel back if he lost it. Frankel was incredulous. "I had the gift of desperation," he says.
Soon Frankel became Martino's assistant, and by the next season he was on his own teaching the swing the clubhead method at Engineers Country Club, another Long Island club. Although he qualified for a few Tour events, Frankel's playing career never amounted to much. He preferred partying over practice and the counterculture over life in the pro shop. But he made a living on the lesson tees on both coasts and in Michigan. By the early 1990s Austin and Martino were dead, leaving Frankel as Earnest Jones's last Mohican.
Frankel thought he had broken through in the early 1990s after he'd established his own school and worked briefly with Champions tour winner Rocky Thompson. "His enthusiasm can win you over," Thompson says. "What he teaches flies in the face of modern instruction, but I'm convinced it's the way to swing a club." Frankel had also made a video, The Golf Swing Motion, that sold briskly, but disagreements with his distributor over royalties ended up in litigation, and the video disappeared.
That's when Ron entered the picture. After trying various jobs in sales and marketing, Ron, who was also an accomplished junior golfer, returned to the game. Arnie taught him Jones's theories, and soon the brothers were partners in their eponymous academy. With little money to advertise, students came largely by referral. "We became the school of last resort," says Ron. "People who weren't improving with other teachers would come to us. We did very well for several years." In 1995 they produced the video Golf's One Motion, which they still sell, but the school, which operates out of Ron's apartment in Jupiter, Fla., and has moved from course to course over the years, lacks the allure of a name instructor or a famous resort. Business plummeted after 9/11, so much so that Ron recently obtained a Florida insurance license to help supplement his income. "My brother can live simpler than I can," he says. "I don't know how much longer I can hang on."
Arnie Frankel remains totally committed. "This is my mission," he says, turning back to his two pupils on the Hammock Creek range. "David Duval should come to me; I could fix him. He has the same gift of desperation that I had." Duval will not likely be booking a lesson anytime soon, but Frankel is content to bask in the progress made by Orrie and his fellow student, Ed Watts, a 74-year-old retiree from Birmingham. Each man has paid $695 for their private two-day school.
"I may not live long enough to change golf in my lifetime," Frankel says, "but I can plant the seed. Seeds are strong. They send out shoots that can grow through concrete." Arnie Frankel believes.
TOP 10 GURUS
Where would a nonconformist like Ernest Jones rank among the alltime great instructors? To find out, we asked a cross section of Golf Magazine's Top 100 Teachers to vote on the most influential swing coaches ever and came up with a consensus top 10. We then had a special three-man panel rank the finalists from 1 to 10. After the rankings were added up, the teacher with the lowest point total emerged as our No. 1. --Compiled by Rick Lipsey
SPECIAL PANEL: John Elliott, Golden Ocala (Fla.) Golf & Equestrian Club; Mike Hebron, Smithtown (N.Y.) Landing Golf Club; Jim Suttie, Cog Hill Golf & Country Club, Lemont, Ill.