Golf Things Considered column by John Rogers
It seems to be the instinct of most of us non-tour players to grip a club like we’ve gotten a hold of the neck of an IRS agent. It’s like we’re arm wrestling with the club – fingers, wrists and forearms straining with our effort to hit that little ball higher, and straighter and farther. But the tension in our swings is a big part of the reason we don’t hit the ball more like tour players.
Many of the golfers I see on a daily basis have an instinct to control their golf shots by manipulating the club with their hands and arms. Almost every beginner squeezes the club until their hands turn patriotic: red, white and blue. I encourage them to hold little birds and tubes of toothpaste, but their mind tells them that they’ve got to use the club to direct the ball to a target, so they bear down and try to force the clubface to steer the ball outward and upward.
The truth, though, is that a good setup (proper posture, alignment, grip and ball position) already tells the ball where to go. The effort to control a shot with hand-eye coordination leads to tension that is destructive to the swing, and actually makes it more difficult to hit a target. The trick is to develop a solid setup and swing in order to let the ball go to the target rather than make it go there.
The average golfer also tries to increase the power of his stroke with all the muscular effort in the arms. But having tension in the hands and arms during the swing is like driving a car with one foot on the brake. The club actually slows down as a result of all the extra effort. It’s better to imagine the lead arm (the left arm, for right-handed golfers) and club as a kind of whip. A fair amount of relaxation in the hands, wrists and arms allows the whip to work, and the clubhead accelerates. Johnny Miller said swinging a club feels like swinging a rock on the end of a string – which brings up another important reason to decrease tension.
Golfers generally develop better feel when they relax. This is especially true in the short game. Controlling the distance of pitches, chips and putts generally gets easier when golfers get the tension out. Imagine anything that requires accuracy and touch – shooting darts, pitching horseshoes, bowling, shooting a basketball; like these, golf is done better when it’s done somewhat loosely.
This is where I agree with the “swing the clubhead” school of golf. When a golfer has relaxed hands and arms, he can maintain awareness of the clubhead, which feels like a deadweight. Even though the club feels like we’re not controlling it when we’re relaxed, that’s when we can swing it with accuracy and touch. In fact, that’s when it’s truly a swing. Tension makes it a hit.
Relaxation can also be used as a test of the swing. The better the setup, positions and planes of a swing, the better the ball will fly when the hands and arms are relaxed. When the setup or swing gets out of position, it will take corrective tension from the hands and arms to hit the ball to the target. For example, most right-eye dominant people tend to aim to the right of their target. Then they use their right hand and arm to flip or roll the clubface shut so the ball has a chance to go to the target.
If a golfer wants to learn how solid his swing is, he should go to the range and hit balls with floppy arms. Relax as much as possible and let the ball go wherever the swing tells it to go. Most right-handed golfers will hit the ball to the right when they try this test, because they tend to aim right, or because they tend to pull the club too far to the inside (too circular, or too much around the body) in the backswing. Without tension, there is nothing to correct the positions of the club on the downswing.
The trick in developing a really efficient swing is to get the setup and swing into positions where no corrections are needed. Then a golfer can let the tension out and let the club swing freely. And a club that swings freely, swings with better control, more speed and increased feel.