Homer Kelley’s Golfing Machine: the Curious Quest That Solved Golf - Book Review

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Homer Kelley’s Golfing Machine: The Curious Quest That Solved Golf

by Scott Gummer

Grade: C
Teacher’s Comments: A strange, but interesting little story

Homer Kelley’s Golfing Machine is not as much about golf, as it is the story of an American Original. It’s the tale of one man’s lifetime obsession and the extraordinary effort that he applied to it. As the title implies, Kelley spent a lifetime analyzing the game of golf, but much of the story would have been the same if his obsession had been automobiles, or fly fishing, or any of a million other pursuits.

Kelley’s quest initially was brought about by two rounds of golf: his first, in which he shot a 116; and his second, a short time later, where he scored a 77. An engineer and physicist by inclination, if not by training, Kelley quickly became obsessed with trying to recreate and define the difference between the two scores. In all, Kelley spent more than 40 years experimenting, eventually developing what he called the Star System—the Golfing Machine.

From how it’s described in the book, The Golfing Machine Star System is not a prescription, but a description. It’s a taxonomy for the golf swing. According to Kelley, each swing is composed of one of 24 components, three zones, 12 sections and three functions. Mathematically, that leaves you with billions of different combinations.

But the book really isn’t about the Golfing Machine Star System itself. Instead, it’s an account of Kelley’s process. Gummer describes Kelley’s youth, his strange first marriage, his various jobs, his moves, his second marriage, the processes he followed to develop this theories, letters he wrote, people he met, efforts to start a chain of Golfing Machine franchises, and so on. Following Kelley’s weird death, the book follows through efforts by his widow to cash in on the system, and of Kelley’s disciples to keep it alive.

Frankly, it’s more than a little dull. I might have found it more interesting if I already were a Golfing Machine Star System disciple, or if the book told more about Kelley’s conclusions. Sadly, however, readers aren’t going to learn much from Gummer’s book. After finishing it, I actually have no idea exactly what Kelley was getting at, or how it could be useful. The best I can figure is that he intended authorized instructors to use the book as a sort of lingua franca for golf instruction. I also have the sense that it acts as a sort of flow chart of all the possible and complementary components of the golf swing—if you start with Component X and Zone Y, then you need to follow through with Section Z.

In spite of the lack of information on the work, much of the book is dedicated to proclaiming Kelley a genius. As proof, author Gummer offers three professionals who have been taught by teaching pro descendants of Homer Kelley. Bobby Clampett is Exhibit A, as the student of one of Kelley’s original disciples. But Clampett is not exactly a conclusive example; he rose quickly and then just as quickly faded, leaving no lasting impression on the game. Steve Elkington, Exhibit B, has fared better over the long haul, and apparently swears by Kelley’s teachings. Morgan Pressel, Exhibit C, also is taught by a Kelley follower, but apparently has no idea who Kelley is and what her coach is asking here to do. (I find that hard to believe, but that’s what Gummer claims).

Any way you look at it, three successful pros who may or may not have followed Kelley’s teachings don’t constitute proof of much of anything (if that’s all the proof needed, then Rick Smith David Ledbetter or any of the Harmons are also geniuses). Gummer’s attempts to offer proof also left me confused. If the Golfing Machine is a description of the swing, and not a swing method, then why would the success of any golfer be necessary to validate it?

In doing some research about the Golfing Machine after reading the book, I have discovered that Kelley’s theories are a lightening rod for controversy. Critics dismiss Kelley’s work as pseudo scientific nonsense. Kelley’s followers are quick to jump on critics as unelightened.

And, it seems that—as is the case with any “gospel”, the faithful have various interpretations as to the meaning of Kelley’s words. From all reports, The Golfing Machine textbook is practically unreadable, and early instructors had to resort to long conversations with Kelley to figure out what he meant. But even before the Master’s demise, the various teaching pro disciples had begun to offer different interpretations of the gospel—much to Kelley’s chagrin.

An interesting angle to Kelley’s obsession is that he was a devoted Christian Scientist. His devotion to a group that many consider a cult is largely glossed over, but I have a sense that the sect’s notions informed much of Kelley’s work. Just as Mary Baker Eddy made her “Great Discovery” about healing through prayer, Kelley seems to have worked on his own “Great Discovery” with religious fervor. The author doesn’t say so directly, but it’s apparent that Kelley’s obsession was driven by his Christian Scientist beliefs. It can be no coincidence that Kelley’s first teaching pro disciple, Ben Doyle, also was a dedicated Christian Scientist.

In the end, the most glaring omission in the book is a critical analysis—or even a coherent explanation—of Homer Kelley’s Golfing Machine. I often thought that I was reading an advertisement, telling me just enough to get me to go out and buy the manual, or get a lesson with a “certified” Golfing Machine professional.

Almost as significant is that it lacked a thoughtful examination of Kelley’s motivations. The Christian Scientist angle offered great possibilities, but was just not pursued with any vigor. However, from the tone, I would not be at all surprised to learn that author Scott Gummer is himself a Christian Scientist, and that this book is a sort of back door method of promoting the philosophy.

The topic of this book as so much potential. And it’s actually a good read. But in the end, for me, it was just a puzzle wrapped up in an enigma.

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