Golf Things Considered column by John Rogers
“The turn is the swing.” That’s what I tell golfers who come to the driving range at Lakeview Golf Course to work on their technique. It’s a little bit of a simplification, but a good shoulder turn around a stable spine is the primary engine for the golf swing.
The arms can add power by adding width to the arc of the swing, like swinging a longer whip gets more snap, but the arms can add a lot of problems, too. Lifting the arms high into the air, as a lot of flexible junior golfers do, can supply extra clubhead speed, but it also changes the plane that arms and club are swinging through. Changing the plane makes it harder to consistently strike the ball solidly. It also requires more timing, more hand/eye coordination, to control the path of the club through the hitting area. In other words, lifting the arms high in the backswing might add power, but it makes the swing less consistent, and it might reduce power if the contact on the clubface suffers.
Wrapping the arms around the body in the backswing also creates a longer arc, but doing that can cause problems, too. The clubface tends to be square only when the clubhead is in front of the chest, where it starts. So a club wrapped around the body in the backswing will have to catch up to the center of the body in the forward swing so that the clubface can line up perfectly square at impact. In other words, a big lateral swing of the arms might help you hit the ball farther – farther away from the fairway, unless you have the hands of a magician.
How about using the arms to smash at the ball? A lot of golfers instinctively use their dominant arm to swing the club like a hatchet. The irony is that the club tends to swing slower when the arms get filled with tension. The arms accelerate when they have more of a whip-like feel, not to mention that the hatchet-style swing tends to be inaccurate.
So, what can the arms do? The arms primary job is to “ride” the shoulder turn. If the arms go through the swing in a similar plane to the shoulder turn and stay fairly well centered to the chest, then the arms will help provide solid contact, a square clubface, and very respectable power.
To demonstrate how little the arms are really needed, and to encourage golfers to unlock their shoulder turn, I sometimes use a bungee cord. I wrap the cord around their upper arms and torso, essentially strapping the arms to the body. Now the golfer can only really turn the shoulders and cock the wrists (which is a valuable power multiplier in a good swing). After a few practice swings where a golfer struggles against the bungee cord, he will be surprised to find that he can hit the ball solidly, straight, and 80 to 100 percent of his normal distance – basically without an arm-swing at all.
So, what about the hips and legs? They add a lot of power, right? Not really. Jim Flick, the master teacher, used to demonstrate hitting a driver while sitting down. He could hit the ball about 240 yards and straight without any hip or leg drive at all. There is a sort of snap-effect from building torque between the upper and lower body and then unleashing it in the forward swing by rotating the hips. But the power gain is only marginal, and there can be problems here, too.
The primary role of the lower body is to provide a stable foundation for the swing. Actively driving the legs and hips often makes the average player lose balance or tilt his spine, which makes solid contact and accuracy very difficult to achieve. For the most part, if the lower body helps brace a player, minimizing sideways movement, and the hips rotate enough on the way through to get out of the way of the shoulders (allowing the shoulders to stay tilted downward), then the legs and hips have done their job.
So the arms can add power, but can add problems. The legs can add power, but with a cost. So an efficient swing really has one main engine – the shoulder turn. But there are actually two important turns in a good swing.
As the shoulders turn, the forearms should rotate as well, more so for a flatter swing (longer club), and less so for an upright swing (shorter club). For a right-handed golfer, this means rotating the right hand under the shaft and the left hand over the shaft during the backswing; and the opposite in the forward swing. The action is like turning a doorknob with both hands, and how much we do it depends on the length of the club and the plane of the swing.
The rotation of the forearms adds a little juice to the shot, but more importantly, it allows us to cock the wrists in a direction that points the shaft toward the target line (which is a topic for another day).
Long and short, a simplified version of a golf swing boils down to a turn of the shoulders, a matching turn of the forearms, and an in-plane cocking of the wrists. Doing this while the arms “ride” the body and the feet stay on the ground makes for an efficient, repeatable, and surprisingly powerful swing.