A Good Golf Swing is Counter-Intuitive
What Beginners Do
Every beginner at golf seems to hit the ball the same way. I'm not a beginner. I'm not a great player, but people have told me consistently for over 25 years that I have a great swing. This article will be about what beginners do, the trap they get into that can last forever and ruin the enjoyment of the game. This article will also be aimed at those novices looking for a good start to the game. If you want a lesson that could save you years of learning the hard way, you may have come to the right place.
Everything a self-taught golfer learns is counter-intuitively wrong. It's why beginners almost invariably develop a slice and spend a lifetime correcting it. This includes me, by the way, so don't feel bad if you've spent years hacking away at it and haven't got any better. In fact, I actually got worse at the game as I got older. Once age took over, I lost distance, and spent most of my games being distance obsessed. What frustration I went through! But I never gave up. And after a lifetime of bad golf I'm here to tell you, Eureka, I've found it. Sound the trumpets.
The Counter-Intuitive Approach
So what is this secret to a good golf swing? Well, it isn't one thing per se, it's hundreds of things, but it can be summed up in what I call the Counter-Intuitive approach. I will list everything you, the beginner, or frustrated veteran, do and I'll help you correct it. I'll have you rolling down the center of the fairway or greens in no time, and a little longer than usual, with less effort. Sounds too good to be true? We shall see.
Go to a room with tile floors or floors with lines on them. Take up your address position without a club,(or use a wooden spoon from the kitchen to substitute a grip). Line up your shoulders with the lines on the floor. You'll use these lines to check your swing path. Put your leading foot near the intersection of two tiles so that it represents where the ball would be. Swing the following way without a club in your hands in a very slow controlled manner. Put both palms up toward the sky, one hand beside the other. Go into your back-swing, palms still facing the sky. Turn your head to the rear and check that the palms are facing skyward. Transition to the downswing, turning your hips, bring your arms straight down toward the ground and swing down on the imaginary ball.
The following happened if you're a beginner: your palms inverted and are no longer facing skyward, they are separated and the trailing palm (or both) is facing the ground. There's a gap between the palms and the grip. Usually this happens from trying to heave out a shot. The hands must at all times be parallel to each other with not a millimeter of separation of the palms from the grip. Beginners are what I call 'ball lifters'. They believe that a ball must be lifted into the air in order for it to fly. WRONG! This belief causes hand separations, usually with only the front two fingers on the club. When the hands are gripping with the front two fingers of each hand it's not possible for the club face to return to the position at address, which was square. The club face will be in what's known as an 'open' position. The toe of the club will be at an angle pointing to the rear. If this is the case, you'll be slapping the ball instead of punching it. And you'll be giving it that evil, aerodynamic spin from hell.
Swing again without a club, hands not in the palm skyward position but together like a clap, and allow them to flip over in the duffer manner, with the palms facing the ground as you swing through the ball. Now here's why I put you on the tile floor in the kitchen. Check as you swing slowly, to see if your hands crossed over the line of the tiles and then arced inward from outside to in before they reached the point where the ball would be. If they do (and they will) you just hit a nasty slice. If your hips were quick to turn, or you pivoted on the wrong hip, you just hit a wicked pulled shot, which goes straight to the left. But anything is possible here - slice, pull, push, pull-slice, push-slice (yuk), everything except a straight shot.
Repeat this exercise but do the counter-intuitive thing that I'm trying to illustrate - keep your palms facing skyward during the swing from start to finish. To the dismay of your family, it will look like you're doing Tai Chi, but keep doing it. After you have this swing down solid, now observe again where your hands come from before they hit the spot where the ball would be. Did your hands cross over the line on the tiles where the ball is? Probably not, but It's still possible that they did, and we'll get to that in just a second. If your hip rotation from back-swing to through-swing was perfectly balanced between left and right, you just hit a straight shot.
Balanced Weight Shift and Hip Pivot
So you say that your hands, even though they were palms up throughout the swing, still managed to cross over the line of flight before the ball. Let's do a little exercise to see if you're making another counter-intuitive error. Do this new palms-up back-swing and bring your hands slowly to the ground, like you're doing Tai Chi, and take notice of whether you're pivoting on your right hip or your left. By hip pivot, I mean the turn that your hips must make toward the target. That pivot must be centered equally between hips. Keeping the pivot centered between hips will produce a straight shot, but beginners always pivot on the left, or leading hip. With this palms-up grip, if you pivot on the trailing hip you'll produce a hook or draw. With palms down, especially the trailing hand, separated and facing down, you'll still produce a slice. Pivoting on the leading hip causes the club head to slap the ball from outside the line of flight to inside. Pivoting on the trailing hip causes the reverse, you'll approach from the inside. If the club head doesn't square and it isn't traveling downward, you still get a slice, because it must be on a downward trajectory for the face to close. Ball pushers or ball lifters never get to close the face. If they consciously attempt to close the face, the mind can't time it consistently every time you swing. Good golf isn't about hitting straight and long, it's about doing the same thing, or close to it, every time you swing. Nearly straight shots every time will produce a better average score than one great hit and twelve penalty strokes. While swinging the club near top speed it isn't possible to time hand action consistently, therefore, the only way to repeat an action consistently is to let nature and physics do the job. For example, the club head must begin to close because it has reached the bottom of its arc, the shear force of swinging a 12 ounce club three feet from the pivot point will do the squaring, not because my brain decided 'NOW' and enervated my forearms.
Are you uncomfortable swinging with the palms up? Worried that they won't close the club face before impact? Again, counter-intuitively wrong. The hands will snap through the ball perfectly parallel. It's not possible for them to remain in the palms up position while swinging at 100 mph, but by concentrating on the concept it will keep them parallel and glued to the grip. As a result of the palms being on the grip, so will all ten digits. When the hands separate, only six digits are on the grip.
Down, Not Forward.
Down, not forward. I can't stress this enough. Beginners swing the club forward like a baseball bat, not down. Swinging the club down with palms up from any height in your back-swing does several things. It delays the release of energy until the club is almost square. It puts the club on the correct trajectory to take a divot, which is extremely important to a good shot. It allows the hands to relax, which we'll see is important to club head speed. All beginners drive the club-head forward, costing distance and height. On a long drive they put more effort into driving the ball forward and very often over turn on the back swing, rush the transition and in general, duff the shot. It's certainly a shot that can't be consistently repeated. Down is the key. If you swing DIRECTLY down, palms up, relaxed hands and wrists, the club will convert that energy to speed, close the club-head at the right instant, and hit down on the ball producing height and compression. If you've taken a divot that is square and pointing to the target it's a good shot. No divot, you're a ball lifter. Ball lifters lose about 10 or 15 yards on the shot, and swing harder than a good swinger of the clubs. Geeze, you're saying, how many times is this guy gonna say down, not forward? And again with the italics. Enough already! Uh, well, next time you go to the driving range if you've remembered it, then it was worth it. Don't bring it to your next game just yet, you've got a few practice balls to hit yet.
My next swing tip is another counter-intuitive process. By now you might feel like George Costanza in an episode where he decides to tell the truth for a change and starts bagging those gorgeous ladies. Stick with it. Now you step up to that beastly par four. You're facing a stiff wind, or it's a monster carry over water, or a long way to the corner before you can see the green, so you really want to smack this one with everything you've got. Wrong!
By simply thinking this thought you've put pressure on yourself to hit a big shot and your instincts take over, which, as we have discovered, tell you to do the wrong thing, the complete opposite of what is required. Immediately on the tee box you're taking ten practice swings, and going back as far as you can, stretching your back. You square up to the ball, and without realizing it, you're gripping the club like it was a Titanic life-line. Your wrists and hands are locked in a death grip. Wrong! Grip lightly. On a scale of one to ten, one being the pressure required to hold your newborn baby's hand, and ten, the pressure to hold on to a life-line hanging from the 10th floor when the window-washing platform collapsed, you must choose four or five, the pressure to hold a bird and keep it from flying away.
Holding a Bird
A Light Grip
Why a light grip? It's about the physiology of the hands more than anything else. The fingers are actuated by tendons and ligaments that run down from the muscles. The muscles that move your fingers are in your forearms, and they transmit their power through the tendons. Grip hard with all your might and the wrist cannot pivot. Grip loosely and the wrists can pivot. A great shot happens when your hands have reached the bottom of the arc on the downswing, but the club head has not. The hands lead the shot. The club, now being propelled by centrifugal force, must be able to go from pointing away from the target, 180 degrees, to pointing at the target, and you'll only slow it down if you're over-gripping. You will also try to put power into the shot and your brain will decide when that happens instead of letting nature do it. The brain cannot control the timing of a 100+ mph swing - your hands will mess up the shot. Swing the club down with medium to light grip pressure and nature will do the rest, squaring the club face at the best time.
Frustration Level Poll
How do you handle frustration after a bad round?
Sonne La Cloche
That's French for 'ring the bell'. Now he's just showing off, you say. I'm not really. Okay maybe I am a little. But I've just employed a memory enhancement technique for you. It's visualization that you should use to picture the correct technique for swinging the club. I first saw it in a Nineties issue of Golf Digest and quickly dismissed it as one of those 'best pro swing tips' articles. Back then, Tiger Woods was skinnier than I was. Imagine yourself to be in a chapel with a small bell in the bell tower (praying for a better swing, perhaps?). You take the club back palms up, à la Tai Chi, developing an L shape with your arms and the club shaft. At the top of your back-swing, you will rotate the hips toward the target, and pivot in the center. Hands palms up, you then pull down the rope to ring the bell, down toward the ground (not toward the target) and maintain the L-shape angle in your wrists until the club shaft and your leading thumb are parallel to the ground, pointing 180 degrees from the target.
STOP! If you took a picture at that instant, your knees would be flexed and leading your body, your hips would be turned to 45 degrees.The grip would be pointing to the target. The back of your leading hand will be facing 90 degrees to the target line, the wrist flat with no cupping. The club-head should be the same height as your hands or even higher.
Okay, ACTION!. Slam the club head down, not forward, into the ball. Take a divot. Think of driving the ball into the dirt. Maintain light grip pressure throughout. None of these things will actually happen as you visualize them because physics and your body's physiology will prevent it. But 'palms up' visualization will keep both palms and all ten digits on the grip which transfers more force from the swing into the club and keeps the club-head square throughout the entire swing. The light grip pressure will allow the wrists to hinge through 180 degrees quicker than a gorilla grip will, but the grip will instinctively tighten up as you go through to prevent the club from leaving your hands. Since all parts of your hands are still on the grip, the club can do no other than return to square, and it's all done without timing any part of your swing, so it's repeatable.
The delay created by maintaining an L shape is part of that effortless power. The club-head will travel from three feet behind the ball to three feet in front of it in a millisecond. It has no choice, centrifugal force is throwing it, and your hands, onto the back of the ball, square to the target. To the casual observer watching you swing, it will appear as though you didn't use any effort at all. That's the way a pro swings, effortlessly. When they've perfected it they ramp it up so they can get three hundred yards out of their drives and one ninety from the seven iron. I don't suggest you do this just yet. Work on translating the many weird things I've said into a repeatable swing. Ramping up is evil. Watch the pros for this game killing error. When they get near the finish line they start spraying balls all over the place. That's the old duffer swing creeping back in, and it comes from trying to get every ounce of juice into the shot. Every pro has done this, so I won't name names. They go into a playoff after leading by five strokes for three rounds. On Sunday, all they can feel is the pulse pounding in their head. The crowd is now the enemy and get stern stares after a duff, even the trees seem to hate you. They struggle to make pars with miracle chips and putts, or long shots through the trees, and then run to the Johnny-On-The-Spot for a quick vomit. They're taking off their shoes to play in the stream. They'd do better not trying to power the ball if they would only remember this simple fact: Hale Irwin won the 1990 US Open at Medinah, Illinois, at 45 years of age, the oldest ever, with the lowest average driving distance of the field at 242 yards. He was brilliant, especially with long fairway shots, the golfer's nemesis. Hitting badly all of a sudden? Well you're trying to power it again, and the hardest thing to do under pressure is counter-intuitive thinking, so back they go to the duffer techniques. There's nothing worse than watching a disaster take place for a seasoned pro, turning them into an amateur on the final round, except of course, when it's happening to you.
You've heard many instructors tell you where the club head has to be at the top of your back swing. When you use the 'palms up' method, you won't have to even think about where the club head is pointing at the top of your swing, it'll be in the right place, so you can forget it. You will have only three swing thoughts:
- palms up, light grip,
- pivot on the center,
- ring the bell.
Without using any extra force, you'll hit the ball straighter because the club properly aligned itself on the swing path, you'll hit 10 or 15 yards farther, (or more) because the speed of the club-head was higher going through the ball. Also, a straight flight travels farther. You'll land on more fairways and greens. You'll use less energy, so your swing can be more consistent, never losing your balance from over-swinging, or ruining the shot by trying to time elements of it. If you shoot your normal 102 pre Counter-Intuitive swinging, you'll drop into the eighties. About 10 of those strokes will be from penalties and bad lies, and a few more from not having to chip on. A few from not being angry at yourself. A few from one-putt greens.
You might start hitting fat shots, since you're aiming to hit down, and probably held the club too high, or had the ball too far forward. Make a few small adjustments. Take it to the practice range first five or six times, and work out the issues with the fat shots. Then introduce it to your game.
You must now focus on other aspects of the game to get better, but you'll be able to since practice time will have moved away from the driving range, onto the green-side bunker, and practice greens. You'll be less frustrated with the game and will develop good course management techniques, better self-management, better risk management. You'll concentrate on better putting, chipping, sand play, and long fairway shots, and 'working' the ball. You won't have a sore back, groin, callouses on the hands, damaged gloves, sore knees, ankles, shin splints, worn grips, and everything else that comes with over-swinging for twenty-five years (Sorry, Tiger). You'll look forward to playing with people again, instead of throwing the clubs in the trunk and laying a patch in the parking lot to get home.
You won't hit balls in anger, making the scorecard a throw-away. You'll be in the sand more. Previously you weren't getting up to the greens to get into sand, you were chipping over hazards. You'll be hitting long fairway shots that have a chance of getting there. And, you'll see balls hit the green and stop, and some even roll back if the green isn't too mushy or too hard. Those four hundred yard par fours with a monster water carry, or long way to the corner will be defeated since you now have the length to get there.
And all because you got your brain under control with Counter-Intuitive thinking. Golf is played between the ears, but your best rounds come from your subconscious mind, not from the conscious mind. That, like all creativity, can only happen when you're relaxed, and having fun.
Take this to the driving range. Three easy steps.
- palms up, light grip,
- pivot on the center,
- ring the bell.
Stay tuned for other hubs on Course Management, Self-management, Risk Management, Chipping, Putting, Sand Play, Long Fairway shots, Short Irons, and the toughest shot in golf: fairway bunkers. And share a few laughs along the way.