Golf Things Considered column by John Rogers
Golfers often wonder how and why professional golfers’ swings look so effortless. They wonder why their own swings feel and look so different. Instead of the fluid, quiet power of Ernie Els or Fred Couples, most amateurs get that little white ball moving with a swing that amounts to a patchwork of moving parts, compensations and tension. So what makes the tour players’ swings so different?
Perhaps the biggest difference between the beautiful swing of somebody like Steve Elkington and other swings is the level of efficiency. A player has an efficient swing when nothing in the body moves that doesn’t help the swing. A golfer who has a reverse pivot in the spine, comes out of posture, dramatically bends the lead arm in the backswing, flips the hands side-to-side, and moves his feet like he’s barefooted on blacktop will not only have a difficult time getting the ball to behave, but won’t exactly look good while trying.
The quieter a swing, the more efficient it is; and the more efficient it is, the less it needs to be fixed. Most golfers, because of setup problems or extra moving parts, end up having to use the hands and arms to compensate. It is very difficult to consistently control the direction and distance of golf shots when the hand-eye coordination is working overtime to make up for poor alignment at address, or for flying elbows in the backswing. And it’s difficult to look and feel good when the hands and arms are straining to make corrections.
One of the main factors in a quiet swing is spine stability. The spine provides a foundation for the swing. Every time the spine moves, the arms and the club react, and the angle of the clubface changes. The trick, which golfers like Annika Sorenstam pull off, is to rotate on the spine, with minimal movement of the spine itself. When the spine is stable, the club tends to be stable, and a golfer can simply rotate through the shot without having to reroute or manipulate the club. The lack of tension in the effort makes the swing look smooth.
The better the plane of the swing, the less hard the player works to get a good ball flight. If a golfer pulls the club too far to the inside during the backswing, wrapping the arms around the body, he will have two main options coming through the ball: to stay relaxed in the arms, in which case the club will come to the ball from the inside with an open face and hit the ball to right field (for a right-handed golfer); or to throw a punch with the right hand and arm to try to get the club back on path and square before impact. Of course, given enough time, golfers will do almost anything that gets the ball going to the target. Now the golfer has an out-of-plane backswing and a strained downswing. The ball will go to target as often as the hand-eye coordination manages to overcome the odds, but the end result won’t be as effective or attractive as the swing of Retief Goosen.
Tempo is another factor that separates good golfers. Tempo is especially important during the transition from backswing to downswing. A fast, jerky swing will again make the club unstable. It will tend to get out of plane, or the face will rotate, which means it’s time once again for those overworked paramedics of the golf swing, the arms and hands, to do their thing.
The swings of good players tend to be something like three parts backswing to one part downswing, with a slow start to the downswing. Imagine counting to three in the backswing and then to one on the way back to the ball. On the way down, too much acceleration tends to cause the face to open. Deceleration tends to make the face close. Good tempo not only makes a swing look smooth, but it allows the club to do its job without the golfer having to strain every muscle in the body.
Better players tend to look good even before they swing. A solid setup, with proper spine angles, shaft angles, grip, alignment and ball position makes the process more efficient. A good setup is like a roadmap for the ball. The swing ideally just provides the energy for the ball to take the trip. When the setup has flaws, the swing now has to control the direction of the shot, and the golfer will be working too hard. A body in good posture, balance and positions at address has a beauty of its own, even before the swing.
When form and function come together in golf, there is an undeniable beauty to the swing as well. In golf, pretty is as pretty does – and in golf, pretty does less. Fewer moving parts and fewer things to fix.
What we need to look like those tour players is a great setup, a quiet spine, a good swing plane, smooth tempo and fairly passive hands and arms. Most of us could spend a lifetime trying to achieve these things, which is exactly what the most elite golfers in the world do.
The trick in golf is not always to learn what to do, but learning what not to do. Take out the extra moving parts, swing more efficiently, and enjoy better results. And it helps to have the guidance of a teaching professional.