Out of the Box
A new teacher, and concept, in town
By Lee Pace
Jim Nelford grew up in Vancouver in the 1960s and, as the youngest of four kids, developed a keen competitive spirit and an abiding love for all sports. He played baseball, hockey and basketball among them. He learned golf on summer visits to an uncle’s cabin, where the family had access to a rudimentary course with sand greens. “I loved to cross-train,” he says. “I loved to play basketball, I loved to play hockey, skiing, anything that was fun. One of my goals growing up was certainly to be a professional athlete, but if that ended, I wanted to own a sporting goods store. I could be around games and the coolest equipment all day, every day.”
Which is why this former PGA Tour golfer and golf instructor, today ensconced at Mid Pines Inn and Golf Club in Southern Pines, brings a different approach to playing and teaching the game. A lesson with Nelford will be built around references to key motions in other sports — throwing a football, shooting a basketball, hitting and pitching a baseball, executing a slap shot in hockey. The bedrock fundamental will not be making a full turn or releasing the club through impact or keeping a still head.
It will be about using the lower body.
“Golf Digest once said, ‘Jim Nelford, pound-for-pound, is the longest hitter on the PGA Tour,’” says Nelford, who turns 65 in June. “They first started testing how fast you could swing a golf club in the early ’80s. We were at the Buick Open and just hitting balls into a net. My average speed was 116, 117, which is what Justin Thomas is today. They said, ‘Can you swing faster?’ I said, ‘Of course I can, that was just my Tour swing, get it in the fairway.’ So I hit 123. They said, ‘The fastest we have is Jim Dent. He’s 123 also.’
“I was 5-9 and 155 pounds. As a smaller guy, I had to use my body better. I had to be more athletically inclined and use my whole body to be able to get it up with the big guys. And I was able to do that.”
Nelford played golf at Brigham Young University and in his senior year made All-American, won two Canadian Amateurs in 1975-76 and the Western Amateur in 1977. He earned his Tour card and began hitting the Monday qualifying circuit in 1978. By 1982, he was making cuts consistently and in 1984 was tagged by Golf Digest as a “guy to look out for.” His best money-winning year was 1983, when he won $110,000 and had three top-10 finishes.
Nelford was on the cusp of his first Tour win at the Bing Crosby Pro-Am at Pebble Beach in 1984 and in the clubhouse with a one-shot lead over Hale Irwin. Irwin came to the tee of the par-5 18th and yanked his drive to the left, over the Carmel Bay coastline, rocks and sand. He flailed his arms in horror.
But the ball miraculously hit a rock and bounced into the fairway. Irwin birdied the hole to tie Nelford and won a playoff on the second hole.
“That shaped Jim Nelford’s whole life,” said Ben Wright, a CBS golf commentator of that era. “If he had gone on to win a tournament he flatly deserved to win, his whole career might have taken off.”
A more critical juncture in Nelford’s life followed one afternoon in September 1985 when a freak boating accident while water-skiing on a lake outside Scottsdale ripped his right arm to shreds. Doctors considered amputating the arm. They told him he’d never play golf again. But Nelford and his parents implored the doctors to put his arm back together and give him the chance at a full recovery.
Nelford told his friend Lorne Rubinstein, the Toronto-based sportswriter, “There hasn’t been a Ben Hogan story recently.”
Nelford made his way back to the Tour, essentially playing “with half a right arm,” and by 1988 had made 16 more cuts to reach the Tour-mandated 150 to secure his pension. But his days competing at the highest level were essentially over.
In the ensuing three decades, Nelford has worked in broadcasting — even getting a brief gig with CBS on Masters telecasts — but his niche and passion today is teaching the golf swing. And his approach to teaching is built around the tenets he learned playing all sports as a kid.
“What do you do in other sports and what is similar — is there a similar move in every sport?” Nelford says. “I didn’t swing it the way everyone else did, and I knew that. But there was no teaching on that side of it, of the athletic side of the game. It was basically square lines golf, which I call ‘golf in a box.’”
Nelford and his fiancée, Paula Allen, had been living in Florida when he reconnected with former BYU teammate and tour traveling companion Pat McGowan, the son-in-law of the late Peggy Kirk Bell and a longtime instructor at Pine Needles. Nelford worked with McGowan’s son Michael and helped him shore up his ball-striking enough to finish 13th in the Latin America Tour Q-School and shoot 64-65 en route to a tie for second in an early 2020 Golden State Tour event. Nelford has relocated to the Sandhills and is working to establish a teaching practice at Mid Pines.
“It’s stunning how well Michael’s hitting it,” Pat said in late February. “What Jim has brought to his game is so refreshing. I thought Michael needed a fresh set of eyes. He is now bombing it with effortless power and a controlled trajectory.
“I think Jim’s on to something with his approach. He’s seen about 25 people and helped all 25.”
Nelford has a sharp intellect and a deep reservoir of stories and comparisons to great golfers and athletes across all sports. He might talk of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson learning to connect on the deep ball by perfecting his footwork. He’ll cite Rod Carew as a great singles hitter but a lousy power hitter because he didn’t use his lower body well. He’ll draw on an adult golfer’s memories of playing American Legion baseball and how the lower body and instinctive rocking motion are paramount to making solid contact at the plate.
“Shoot a basketball? You’d better use your legs,” Nelford says. “Does a pitcher sway? Of course he does. Does a hockey player move? Of course he does. Nobody’s trying to keep their head steady. Your engine is always your lower body, and it’s dynamic. We do move it because we need momentum. It’s why a pitcher goes back and forth, they have momentum.”
Exhibit A in golf is Jack Nicklaus, who in his prime would gird up over a shot with his lower body while letting his arms hang loose.
“Jack comes in with soft hands and arms, which obviously means he’s not fighting where the club is going,” Nelford says. “He’s letting it go. Where is he operating from? That big ass and legs, and he loads them up. That left heel comes off the ground, and he fires his legs hard. We do that in every sport.”
Nelford rails against standard teaching protocol built on perfect alignment and bromides like “turning in a barrel.” He’ll cite elite golfers who tell him they’ve gone an entire career with no one teaching them to use their legs. He’s evangelical talking about the need for innovation in golf instruction, and how the “glacial pace of learning the game” restricts its growth. Don’t bother with parallel alignment sticks on the tee with Nelford; his ideal stance is slightly closed to the target line to allow more room to turn off the ball. He emphasizes rotation of the hips, not of the shoulders.
“Focus on the lower body, and the upper body will go where it needs to,” he says.
It adds up to being an athlete, not just being a golfer. Nelford knows of what he speaks from six-plus decades of doing both: “I am giving you permission to get out of the box, permission to act like an athlete.” PS
Lee Pace hit a two-run, last-inning double in Little League but it was downhill from there. He hopes to reclaim his limited athleticism on the golf course soon. Meanwhile, contact Jim Nelford at email@example.com to learn more of his approach.