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The Enlightenment of Golf Instruction

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There is an ancient adage that says, “May you live in interesting times.” In golf instruction, these are the most interesting times, “The Enlightenment” as I like to call it. The reference is of course to that great age of scientific discovery that followed the Dark Ages. Our golf enlightenment is here, right now, and those of us in this field are the benefactors of all the science that is available to us.

The scientific breakthroughs are the result of the myriad of new technologies at our disposal. No longer are we in the dark ages of conjecture, estimation and “seems like.” We have the ability to know precisely what happened on every swing and every shot. And the real truth is available to anyone curious enough to seek it.

Having been at my craft for some time, it is truly exciting to be a part of this enlightenment. For the first 400 years or so of golf instruction, teachers used nothing but their eyes and experience to estimate how the golf ball behaved and what caused it to do what it did. The “Ball Flight Laws,” as we called them, were our one and only guide. It worked fairly well, but I think down deep we all knew something was missing.

Then came the advent of video, the ability to observe motion with high-speed, stop-action cameras that provided far more detail than we had with the naked eye. We could better observe the swing by slowing it down and stopping it, and even comparing it to the greats of the game.

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Above: A Golf Digest swing sequence of Rory McIlroy (left) and Tiger Woods. 

With video, we could actually show the student what they were doing; they no longer simply heard us instructors, they could see in vivid detail what the video captured. Again, it worked well, but real truth seekers still knew something was missing.

What was missing, we now know, was this: The real golf swing is a 3D motion (the backswing is up, in and back; the downswing is down, out and forward). It has forces, torques and a planar quality that cannot be captured completely by 2D video. The flat screen depiction lacks the depth dimension that is so critical to understanding actual motion.

How could we get better? Along came the latest in our quest to gather, store and analyze data: 3D motion analysis systems and Doppler radar launch monitors that can track the golf club and golf ball along their entire journey. Eureka! The holy grail! At least for now.

I am not here to demean video teaching. I use it, my students love it and it has merit; particularly observing the body motion of the player. But to capture and quantify the extent and true range of motion, forces and torques, a 3D system is needed.  I have a very trained eye for a golf swing, but I cannot see what the radar sees no matter how closely or carefully I look. And even if I could, it is nice to know how much of what I’m seeing is germane to a student’s problems.

I use Flightscope, which measures and/or calculates 24 variables of golf club and golf ball in swing or flight. Do you know how far you hit every club in your bag? Do you know your optimal launch conditions for every drive you hit? How about the TRUE path on which you’re swinging?  These things are vital to understanding and improving your swing and are discovered by radar only.

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I love learning as much as anything I do in life. It is exhilarating staying up past the point of fatigue just to gather a little more insight into a subject. I’ve been this way my whole life, and I feel that any committed teacher should be a dedicated, lifetime learner. Could I “get by” on things I knew years ago? Sure. Could I make a living teaching golf without the investment I’ve made in technology? Probably. But those who cease to learn should cease to teach.

It might be comfortable to stick my head in the sand and regurgitate popular adages about the golf swing, but that would never satisfy my insatiable appetite for learning the truth about what is going on right before my eyes. This quest is challenging and, at times, frustrating. It is never easy to abandon long-held beliefs when confronted with new insights. We see this dynamic in all walks of life. But when science proves something beyond all doubt, it is incumbent upon the teacher to pass these truths on to their students.  If there is an art to this craft, it involves the humility of saying I don’t know it all, I have much to learn, but I do know where to find it. Once the truth has been discovered, the teacher continually works on new ways of presenting these findings to the student. There are an infinite variety of learning styles, and instructors are constantly working on ways of several ways to present the same information.

Here’s an example: 80 percent of the initial direction of a golf shot (the horizontal launch) is the result of the clubface at impact. I believed otherwise for many years. Radar proved my theory wrong, so I now teach what science knows to be true. If there is an art to golf instruction, it has to do with this humility.

This knowledge quest also keeps my work from getting stale and recharges my teaching battery every day. It is my job to know the subject in all of its complexity and teach it in all simplicity. Staying aware of the science of golf instruction allows me to do just that. Last week, I helped a guy conquer a serious case of the shanks. There is nothing quite so rewarding as the smile in a student’s eyes when they hit better shots. It keeps me grounded and reminds me how uncommonly lucky I am to do what I do.

If you like science as well as golf, please enjoy these enlightening and entertaining facts.

  • The golf ball is in contact with the club face 0.0004 seconds. That is 800 times faster than one can blink an eye.
  • The average touring professional has the golf ball on the face of the club about 3 seconds for a full season on tour.
  • The toe of the golf club travels some 14-to-15 mph faster than the heel, and 7 mph faster than the sweet spot.
  • The highest ball speed ever recorded is 226 mph. The average ball speed on the PGA Tour is a mere 168 mph.
  • The fastest club head speed ever recorded is 151 mph . The PGA Tour average is 113 mph.
  • Bubba Watson led the PGA Tour last year with an average ball speed of 185 mph.
  • Every mile per hour you can increase your swing speed will net you about 2-to-3 yards of extra distance
  • Elite level ball strikers hit every club (driver to wedge) the same height. For PGA Tour players, the average is 30 yards (90 feet).
  • At impact, the force of the golf club on the ball is more than 1600 pounds.
  • A golf ball struck 1 inch toward the toe OPENS the face some 5 degrees.
  • A golf ball struck 1 inch toward the heel CLOSES the face some 5 degrees.
  • The average drive by a PGA Tour player is in the air 6.5 seconds. The average RE-MAX Long driver contestant hits a drive with a hang time of 8.5 seconds!
  • The average driver attack angle on PGA Tour is 1.3 degrees DOWN.  The average attack angle in Long Drive Competitions is 5 degrees UP! One 2010 contestant recorded an angle of attack that was 13 degree up (+13).
  • A ball struck as little as ONE DIMPLE toward the toe or heel of the club can open or close the face enough to affect the shot.
  • On a driver with 10 degrees of loft, the bottom of the face will have about 7 degrees of loft; the top of the face will have about 13 degrees of loft!

There are many of these “fun facts” on various sites on the web; people such Dave Tutleman, Sasho Mackenzie, Steven Nesbit and others conduct vital research on an ongoing basis. I am a teacher, not a scientist, and as such, have benefited from the “R&D” of the many golf engineers and scientists who take the time to study this area and provide us all with great research. As instructors, it is our job to take it to the golfer, and the golfer’s job to take it to the course.

As always, feel free to send a swing video to my Facebook page and I will do my best to give you my feedback.

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Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional. Clark has taught the game of golf for more than 30 years to golfers all across the country, and is recognized as one of the leading teachers in the country by all the major golf publications. He is also is a seven-time PGA award winner who has earned the following distinctions: -- Teacher of the Year, Philadelphia Section PGA -- Teacher of the Year, Golfers Journal -- Top Teacher in Pennsylvania, Golf Magazine -- Top Teacher in Mid Atlantic Region, Golf Digest -- Earned PGA Advanced Specialty certification in Teaching/Coaching Golf -- Achieved Master Professional Status (held by less than 2 percent of PGA members) -- PGA Merchandiser of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Golf Professional of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Presidents Plaque Award for Promotion and Growth of the Game of Golf -- Junior Golf Leader, Tri State section PGA -- Served on Tri State PGA Board of Directors. Clark is also former Director of Golf and Instruction at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. He now directs his own school, The Dennis Clark Golf Academy at the JW Marriott Marco Island in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com

18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. Jason Sutton

    Jan 10, 2014 at 11:38 pm

    Well written and thought out Dennis. This is the attitude that I feel like our profession is heading. Thanks for sharing
    Jason

  2. duckjr78

    Jan 2, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    A fantastic article. I agree with everything you have written. I especially believe that we should all be willing to admit that what we once held as dogma, is often incorrect. Kudos to you.

  3. Marty Strumpf

    Dec 31, 2013 at 8:53 am

    Great article. As a PGA Teaching Professional with almost 30 years of experience I have to agree with you that we should NEVER stop learning. The new technology provides us with valuable information that we can interpret for our students to help coach them to future success. The true art of teaching is having the ability to communicate effectively. It makes each lesson unique and to me it is part of the fun of our jobs! There is nothing like the look on someone’s face when they “get it”

  4. KC

    Dec 30, 2013 at 10:04 pm

    Solid writing, solid science.
    Best thought: “Those who cease to learn should cease to teach”.

  5. No one method

    Dec 30, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    I really like this artical! Just reading pure facts was so refreshing when golf media is so full of “i have a method that is best (and even backed by science)” instructors.

    No more Edel sales please. More facts like this write up please.

    • Dennis Clark

      Dec 30, 2013 at 8:59 pm

      That’s the beauty of teaching with technology. We craft a swing around the numbers we see, not around a “theory”. Thx glad you enjoyed it

  6. paul

    Dec 30, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    I love golf number facts. I am not an instructor at all but have learned enough to help people that have the same problems as me. So i know what you mean about helping someone and feeling rewarded. Most of what i picked up came from your great articles. Thanks for brining me from a 36 to a 15ish in two years. And my friends thank you as well.

    • Dennis Clark

      Dec 30, 2013 at 8:34 pm

      You’re welcome, glad I could help! Stay tuned, more good stuff to come

  7. Sean

    Dec 30, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    Dennis, I believe the adage, “may you live in interesting times” is actually a Chinese curse.

    • Dennis Clark

      Dec 30, 2013 at 6:53 pm

      OH noooo 🙂 I cursed all my readers!

    • Dennis Clark

      Dec 30, 2013 at 6:56 pm

      I don’t believe any Chinese source was ever found for that BTW. Blame it on Confucius!

  8. mifty

    Dec 30, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    Nice article. Although, newer Wishon drivers use roll/bulge to keep the loft the same on any part of the face (except the very bottom).

  9. Dennis Clark

    Dec 30, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    Really! can you even imagine anyone calling it work! Here’s another little nugget: In a round of golf we are in the act of swinging the club maybe 3 minutes (about 2 seconds per shot). So comparatively top touring pros don’t work a lot!! Just their whole life getting there!

    • John Iaciofano

      Dec 30, 2013 at 4:11 pm

      I always enjoy your articles, Dennis. Fascinating, helpful stuff.

  10. Ian

    Dec 30, 2013 at 11:35 am

    “The average touring professional has the golf ball on the face of the club about 3 seconds for a full season on tour.”
    Those pros! Get a bloody real job!!!

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Instruction

Learn to play like the pros by mastering course management basics

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The line that is drawn between amateurs and professionals certainly covers more than one aspect. However, there are some things that anyone can do in order play like the pros and shoot better scores. Knowing how to plot your way around the course from tee to green is something that not many amateurs take into consideration, though it is something that professionals do so well. Learning how to play to your strengths and learning to take what the course gives you will ultimately lower your scores, no matter what your handicap.

From the tee

-Use sound judgment when setting up on the tee box by knowing what your miss is and playing for it. For example, for those that fade that ball, teeing the ball on the right side of the box allows you to play for your shot shape with more room for the ball to work. This is also the case for playing away from trouble, in being that lining up on the side of trouble allows you to play away from it.

-In some cases on short holes, make a note to hit your tee ball to where you leave yourself with a comfortable yardage for your approach. You don’t gain anything from hitting a driver if it leaves you with a feel shot from 30 yards when you could hit a wood or hybrid and leave yourself with a full club in. (This is also the case when hitting your second shot on a par 5)

Hitting into the green

-Know which pins you should attack and which ones you shouldn’t. The biggest mistake that many amateurs make is trying to hit the ball at a tucked pin. Even the professionals choose which flags to go at and which holes to play safe, making sure they leave themselves a putt rather than short siding themselves.

Chipping/Putting

-The biggest thing that gets us in trouble around the greens or on them is trying to make the ball go in the hole. It’s easy to get greedy with your shot and create the mindset that you have to make it when, in reality, it’s much more feasible to play for a three-foot circle around the hole. Leaving you an easy tap in. There is nothing more infuriating than a 3-putt.

I hope these tips will benefit your golf game by allowing you to manage your way around the golf course. The pros use these same approaches when they step on each hole, and it is imperative that you do also. We all may not have the ability that professionals do, but we can certainly learn things from them that will lower our scores.

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Instruction

Lesson of the Day: Improve right arm connection for a more consistent golf swing

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In our “Lesson of the Day” video series with V1 Sports, we match a different GolfWRX member with a different V1 Sports instructor. It’s extremely important to both V1 Sports and GolfWRX to help golfers improve their games and shoot lower scores, and there’s no better way to do that than getting lessons. While we not only want to provide free lessons to select GolfWRX members, we want to encourage and inspire golfers to seek professional instruction. For instructions on how to submit your own video for a chance at getting a free lesson from a V1 Sports instructor as part of our Lesson of the Day series, CLICK HERE.

About the pro

Clinton Whitelaw is the Head Teaching Professional at University Park Country Club in Sarasota, Florida. Clinton was a prolific junior player in South Africa before he attended UCLA on a full scholarship. He turned pro at age 21 and has recorded more than 55 top-10 finishes around the world, including winning the 1993 South African Open and the 1997 Moroccan Open on the European Tour.

Lesson synopsis

There are two main swing flaws identified in this GolfWRX member’s swing that can be improved. The first is a disconnected right arm in the body that causes the arms to be out of sync with the body. The second is a bent left arm in the follow through, which causes a loss in power. Two easy drills can be practiced to create a simple, repeatable, and consistent golf swing.

Student’s action plan

  1. Practice with a glove under the right right armpit to improve connection with the body
  2. Practice the “9 o’clock to 3 o’clock” drill demonstrated at the end of the video lesson

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Instruction

Should you strive for a flatter transition in your golf swing?

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A lot has been said recently regarding flattening the transition in the downswing. As a teacher for many years, I totally agree that this is clearly what highly skilled players do. Sasho Mackenzie, the great biomechanist from Canada, explains that when the center of mass of the golf club gets UNDER the hand path coming down, we get a much easier squaring of the club face.

There is, however, a difference in the players we see making this move and average amateur golfers. Nothing in the golf swing happens in a vacuum, so to speak. That is, every move has to complement the other moves and balance the equation. So when we see Sergio “laying the club down” (flatten) in transition, it complements or is in sync with the “delivery” he has into impact.

Sergio has Hogan-esque “lag” in his downswing. That is, his wrists stay cocked very late as he approaches impact. with a great deal of forward shaft lean. While this may be characteristic of all great ball strikers, his “flat” action is more pronounced than most. He lays the club down, downcocks his wrists and voila, strikes it solid.

The point here is when the shaft is laid off and flattened in transition, it cannot then be released early. Those who cast, or release early from a laid off transition are staring shanks right in the face, and feeling heel hits with the driver. The reason is the club is being cast out, not down when it is coming in on a more horizontal plane. When a professional flattens it, they then tighten the delivery with hands in and a narrowed arc into impact. This is a huge distinction, and one I feel is little understood. If you are working on laying it down, but are used to an early release, you may accomplish the former, but are asking for trouble on the latter. It has to be released later and tighter after the transition to work.

Another common error I see quite often is the hand path issue. Here I’m referring to to how far from the body the hands move on the down swing. If you are a player who transition steep (too vertical), your miss is very likely the toe of the club. As a result you develop a habit of sending your hands out and away from your center (the distal and proximal, in biomechanist terminology) to compensate for the toe hit and in an attempt to find the center of the face. That swing habit is common and will, at times, compensate for the steep transition.  So you can see why the club will be more likely to hit the heel if it is delivered on a more horizontal plane.

The point here is this: it’s the same theme that I have seen and written about for many years:  Golf swing corrections, if that be your goal, are rarely singular; the come in pairs.  And the reason it can be frustrating is because we have develop two new feelings, not one. Many golfers abandon the effort because the accomplish one without the other.

If, for example, you decide your transition is far too steep, and you flatten it but then cast the club (remember now OUT not DOWN) and hit the heel of the club or shank a wedge, you may say: “Hey, that’s just not for me; or that was WORSE, not better”. And you’d be right, the RESULT is likely to be worse- but maybe not the effort.  If you are committed to a swing change, it rarely comes with a singular correction.

Be sure you know what you’re in for when working on laying the club down ala Sergio, or Furyk, or Ryan Moore, when you are told you’re too steep starting down.  My advice would be to try and work on one thing at at time.  For this particular correction, I have my students ht balls on a sidehill, above the feet lie. This can orient you to a more horizontal swing feeling and then an only then can start to work on keeping the hands, arms and body connected (the “inside moving the outside”) for the completion of the swing change.

One final note on this: I want to repeat that any change is optional based on your current ball striking, not what your video looks like. Phil Mickelson is one of the best players EVER, and his swing starts down as steeply as any club golfer, and he swings his hand path out away from him as a result every time. Let me me ask this question: who among us would change the swing of a 44-time champion and five-major winner on the PGA Tour? Whatever works…

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