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Use launch monitors to rediscover the lost art of shot making

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I’m always amazed at what I learn about my own game every time I hit a few shots on my Trackman.

As a full-time golf teacher, I don’t get to practice like I used to in college, but I still enjoy hitting the ball and the feel of a solid golf shot. It’s fun to think back to what I did before in order to hit certain golf shots. These days, however, I can actually audit my feels and these shots using Trackman. What I’ve learned is what actually changes when I hit certain golf shots, as well as what changes occurred within the data that determine what the ball does when it hits the ground.

Armed with this information, I am now better able to predict what will happen when I hit the four different shots I was experimenting with below.

My Stock Shot

IMAGE 01

This is my “stock” 6-iron shot. I want you to note several things:

  • I normally fade the ball, so you will see my swing direction and my club path are moving left of the target line.
  • The face angle will be left of the target line, which will help my ball to start to the left of the target and fade back to the target.
  • The face is right of the path by 1.5 degrees, which will give it a slight left-to-right bias. This shot is maybe a touch of a heel hit since the spin axis is a little high at 7.1 degrees to the right.
  • The spin rate is close to the Tour average of 6,231 and the height is spot on the Tour average at 95.7 feet.
  • I carried the ball 168.9 yards with a landing angle of 47.8 degrees.
  • My 6-iron has a loft of 29 degrees, which is not quite as strong as some of the others on the market. I do this so I can have the proper gaps between my iron carry distances that suit my game.

Now that we have the stock shot, it’s now time to examine what happens when I practice my shot making with Trackman. I am a firm believer that you must understand how to move the ball up, down, left and right if you want to become a more complete player. I didn’t say you had to curve the ball differently than your normal shot pattern more often, but you need to understand how to do so when necessary.

A Big Fade

IMAGE 02

In this example, I tried to hit a big left-to-right cut shot and as you can tell by the curvature graph above that I did just that. Let’s examine the data.

  • The swing direction and club path shifted dramatically to the left, and this would account for the extreme leftward aim I had while hitting this shot.
  • My club face is still left of the target line, but right of the path by 6.8 degrees. That gave me a spin axis of 14.9 degrees, which caused the ball’s curvature. The wind was blowing about 12-to-15 mph from the left, and that also contributed to the rightward curve.
  • Ball speed was the same as my stock shot at 122 mph, but the spin rate went up by 1,016 rpm due to the bigger face-to-path discrepancy shown above.
  • Dynamic loft went up a few degrees, increasing this ball’s height to 105.6 feet from 95.7 feet.

So what did we learn? Basically, when I aim more left I tend to hit the ball higher. Also, with left-to-right wind patterns that aid the curvature of my golf ball, I tend to hit the ball a touch farther and higher than normal. This might be all I need to do to attack a close pin or hold the ball when landing on the back shelf of a green.

A Big Draw

IMAGE 03

In this example I tried to hit a hard-hooking shot into the pin. Understand that the wind was blowing about 12-to-15 mph from the left, and thus I hit a softer curve from right to left than you’d expect with the numbers above. So what do we see?

  • My swing direction and club path were right-biased, while my face was pointing 8.6 degrees left of the club’s path. With centered impact, whenever the face is pointing left of the path the ball will curve from right to left.
  • The ball’s spin axis was 9.2 degrees to the left, which usually indicates a big curve. Remember, however, that the wind was holding the ball and not allowing it to move as much.
  • Spin loft was down from 25.1 degrees to 19.4 degrees, adding to the compressed feeling I have when hitting the ball right to left. This is due to the dynamic loft dropping from 19.8 degrees in my stock shot to 13.4 degrees in the hooking example.
  • Whenever the dynamic loft lowers, the height of the ball usually follows suit and you can see that this ball is well below the stock shot I hit at 54.8 feet.
  • Whenever I hit hard hooks, I always tend to swing faster, increasing my ball speed. That, coupled with lower spin loft and a decrease my overall height, allowed this ball to “cut through the wind” and go even farther than before.

Normally, I would not advocate fighting the wind with your ball’s curvature unless you were a more accomplished player, but in this case the numbers support this as being a better way to “avoid” the wind’s effects. If I didn’t have the numbers to back it up, I’d never know what works best for my game or my students’ games.

The Low Shot

IMAGE 04

Next comes the low shot, which is one of the best shots any player can learn. We all play in windy conditions from time to time, and have played on days where we don’t have a clue where the ball is going to land. Low shots will help you to control your golf ball on these type of days.

  • Notice my angle of attack goes more downward due to the fact that the ball is farther back in my stance and I am working hard to “lean into” the shot to keep it down.
  • My stock AoA is around -5.3 degrees, which is a touch more down than the Tour average of -4.1 degrees. Whenever right-handed golfers swing more left (or left-handed golfers swing more right), they also tend to hit more down on the ball. That led to my steeper than normal AoA.
  • One thing to be careful of: Whenever the AoA goes more downward, the path will shift more to the right (for a right-handed golfer) and you must aim more to the left.
  • I hit this ball on the heel because I had a negative face-to-path relationship, which mandates a right-to-left bias; however, the ball fell to the right because of the heel hit and the touch of the left-to-right that affected the ball flight.
  • The heel hit came from an overly upright swing plane through the ball. Anytime my hands lift through impact (in this case from 65.9 degrees to 72.6 degrees), I tend to hit the ball on the heel.
  • Dynamic loft went way down to 11.2 degrees and the overall height fell to 40.4 feet.
  • Due to the heel hit, the smash factor was down slightly and the ball didn’t carry as far — 163.3 yards — but it was not far off from my stock distance of 168.9 yards.

As players, we all have tendencies that follow us when we hit certain shots and these are nuances that will always tend to arise under pressure. Mine is always standing the club shaft up whenever I try and hit the ball lower, thus causing heel hits. Any guess what my low shot miss is? If you said right of the target, you’re right! I always need to keep that in mind when hitting lower shots. When I forget, I miss the green every single time.

The High Shot

IMAGE 05

Finally, I hit a higher shot than normal. This is the last shot you’ll need of the four when playing and learning golf. There are some greens that will not hold a shot or shots from elevated tee boxes where you can gain extra distance from a higher-than-normal shot when it’s windy. High shots can be a savior when used at the right time.

  • When placing the ball more forward in the stance and staying “behind” it longer, I will tend to move my low point backward and this decreases the angle of attack I have normally. This more shallow AoA helps me to “throw” the club head a touch earlier, increasing the dynamic loft and launch angle in efforts to hit the ball higher.
  • Dynamic loft goes from 11.2 degrees on the low shot to 19.8 degrees on my stock shot to 26.7 degrees on my high shot.
  • The height on my low shot was 40.4 feet, my stock shot was 95.7 and my high shot was 121.2 feet high! That’s still lower than Jason Day’s stock height of 131 feet!
  • Whenever I hit the ball higher, I also tend to lay the club face back and open the face a touch more at impact than usual. This leads to a higher-than-normal spin axis at 12.7 degrees, so I need to aim more left to accommodate this. That’s why I had more leftward swing and path numbers.
  • The high shot produced the second highest ball speed at 124.4 mph. This is due to the fact that when the ball is more forward I have more “time” to create speed.

So what’s the takeaway from this article? If you have access to a Trackman or FlightScope Doppler launch monitor, you need to hit a ton of shots so you can understand what your stock numbers tend to be. From there, I would suggest doing what I did and practice your shot making to see what trends develop as you hit the four different shots I did. This will help you discover your tendencies, as well learn things that you need to look out for when hitting these different shot patterns.

We all can get bound up in the numbers if we are not careful, but remember that if you know your tendencies you will know how to control your golf ball. From there, you can get around the golf course in any conditions on any day!

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Tom F. Stickney II is the Director of Instruction and Business Development at Punta Mita, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (www.puntamita.com) He is a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher, and has been honored as a Golf Digest Best Teacher and a Golf Tips Top-25 Instructor. Tom is also a Trackman University Master/Partner, a distinction held by less than 15 people in the world. Punta Mita is a 1500 acre Golf and Beach Resort located just 45 minuted from Puerto Vallarta on a beautiful peninsula surrounded by the Bay of Banderas on three sides. Amenities include two Nicklaus Signature Golf Courses- with 14 holes directly on the water, a Golf Academy, four private Beach Clubs, a Four Seasons Hotel, a St. Regis Hotel, as well as, multiple private Villas and Homesites available. For more information regarding Punta Mita, golf outings, golf schools and private lessons, please email: tom.stickney@puntamita.com

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Manny Martinez

    Apr 9, 2014 at 8:49 am

    Great article Tom. For your big fade shot you said the spin rate increased because of the larger face to path discrepancy. Face to path is horizontal which tends to sound like side spin. We know that side spin doesn’t happen. AOA to Dynamic Loft is vertical, which sounds more like backspin. Therefore your spin loft increased, which created a higher spin rate. Terminology can be tricky so please advise if I am overlooking something.

    • Tom Stickney

      Apr 9, 2014 at 11:10 am

      Correct. Was trying to point out that when I cut across the ball it causes a higher face to path number due to the face being well rt of the path and the ball will curve more to the right. What I neglected to point out was the increase in spinloft you discussed. Trying to make things easier to understand for most can also lead to confusion for others. Sorry for the issue. Thx for the note. 🙂

  2. Zra

    Apr 7, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    Nice article as usual, Tom!

    IMO, the numbers can only explain the shot shape, and a player should learn how to hit each type of shots before he/she starts paying attention to the numbers.

    • tom stickney

      Apr 7, 2014 at 2:30 pm

      Couldn’t agree more….shot-making is a lost art due to the ball not spinning as much for the professionals.

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Instruction

WATCH: Two drills to help you stop hitting it fat

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Here’s a response to a question on my Instagram page from Neil Riley. He asked if he should steepen the angle of attack in the downswing in order to stop hitting fat shots. In this video, I share two of the reasons why golfers might be hitting fat shots, as well as two drills to practice that will help them stop hitting it fat.

 

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Changing your golf swing? Consider this before you do

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Golfers I have taught over the years have an almost uncanny ability to put the golf club on the ball (to varying degrees, of course). I have seen well-hit shots from an incredibly wide variety of positions. I’ve seen closed faces, open faces, steep swings, flat swings, outside-in paths, inside-out paths, slow and fast swings, strong grips and weak grips ALL hit the golf ball solidly at times. How? Well, thinking about this may very well help your swing, especially before you decide to change something in it. Let’s take a look at a few examples to explain.

Strong Grips/Closed Clubfaces

We’ll start with the example of a strong grip that tends to get the clubface quite closed to the arc in the swing and at the top of the swing. If that is left alone in the downswing, the shots are very predictable: low and left (for a right-hander), sometimes barely getting off the ground. But many golfers hit the ball in the air and straight with a strong grip; in fact, many hit high blocks to the right. How? Well, they open the face on the way down and usually “hold on” through impact. They adapt to the closed clubface to make it work, and that’s the point here.

Now, if they reach good impact consistently like a Dustin Johnson, Graham McDowell and several others do with a closed clubface, we have no problem. But often club golfers do not; in fact, many slice and top the ball from a shut face at the top.  They do so because opening a closed face is a very shallowing move and prevents one from releasing the club properly (it’s a power outage as well).  Functionally, however, opening a shut is far better than releasing it from there, for obvious reasons. If the trail hand pronates, the face goes from closed to really closed. So golfers simply learn to open it.

So along comes some well-meaning friend who says your clubface is really closed at the top. You look at many great players, and sure enough, your face is clearly shut. So you correct it. What happens next is also very predictable: high and very right, and very thin with many topped shots. Why? Because you only corrected part of the problem. You fixed the shut face, but now you’ve taken a square clubface and massively opened it as a force of habit. You have ingrained that move into your swing because you had to open your old, shut clubface in the downswing. Correcting only ONE thing made your swing worse. Your swing is now dysfunctional.

That’s why if you commit to one change for the sake of improvement or consistency, you have to commit to both changes. If you don’t, you’ll get worse… not better.

Steep Swings

Here’s another: many amateur players start the downswing with the golf club far too steep. Maybe it’s over the top, maybe not (you can be just as steep from inside the ball). But when the golf club is too vertical in transition, it can result in any one of a number of impact mistakes: namely fat, slices and toe hits. So the idea of “flattening the transition” (good idea) becomes your priority, but there’s always a catch. Most experienced golfers correct steep through one of a few different ways listed below:

  • Raising the hands (standing the club up) to avoid fat shots
  • Tilting the torso back or away from the target to avoid opening the face
  • Sending the hands away from the body to avoid toes hits
  • Raising the swing center

You get the picture here. You learn to get the club on a better plane (flatter with the butt of the grip pointed more at the golf ball), but you’ll likely still have one of the “fit-in” moves left into impact. So a flatter club, which is by far a better way to square the face, might result in a shank if you’re used to sending your hands away from your body to avoid a toe hit. Raising the hands might top. Tilting the torso back away might hit shallow fats or tops. So you fixed the steep transition, but your impact is worse! Again, you’re dysfunctional.

Remember, if you commit to one change, you MUST commit to both.

Weak Grips/Over-The-Top

One more: Golfers who start out with a weak grip (as most do) slice. So as a reaction, they come over the top and swing outside-in. So they fix the grip, and of course, the result is predictable. They pull the ball, generally low and left (for right-handers). You get the pattern here. They need to learn a new swing direction, and on and on.

The lesson is clear; a single correction of a swing issue can be sufficient, but in my experience, two corrections must be tackled for long-term improvement. What to correct first? Well, you’d have to consult with your teacher or coach. As a rule, I try to get better impact first if I can get someone there from where their swing is now. Some other teachers may prefer a different sequence, but I think they’d all agree that a two-part correction is ultimately in the works.

I’ve always believed that teachers can disagree widely on the prescription, but they should be pretty much in unison regarding the diagnosis. Learn the swing flaw AND your reaction to it before you decide to make a swing change.

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How to use your handicap to lower your scores

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The fastest way to improve the game of an amateur, or a handicap golfer, is to use the established handicap as a guide to direct and then to measure that improvement. The measurement component is simple; as the game improves, the handicap goes down. Using the handicap as a guide is a bit more complex because the player must be dedicated, determined and disciplined enough to stay within the improvement process. And before I share with you the process, I want to share the foundation, or the rationale, that makes it work.

“Placing the ball in the right position for the next shot is 80 percent of winning golf.”

— Ben Hogan

Not all that long ago, I was present when a friend of a client of mine was complaining that no matter what he did with practice or lessons he just wasn’t getting better. He said that if he could just break 90 once he could “die a happy man.” It sounded like an opportunity to be of service to me, so I agreed to a playing lesson. The short version of that lesson was I told him what to hit and where to hit it — and he shot 87.

Was he happy? Not on your life! Angry, not quite… but really upset. Why? The poor guy said he didn’t have any fun!

The day of the playing lesson, I met the player on the range while he was warming up. I observed that he should never hit a driver, so I didn’t let him. I observed he couldn’t hit a long iron, so I didn’t let him. I had him tee off with a six iron on the par 4’s and 5’s, which he hated. And if he could have controlled his putting distance a bit better he wouldn’t have three-putted three times. No penalty shots, no water balls and no OB’s. All we did for 18 holes was try to put the ball in play and to keep it in play. He hated it. So much for dying a happy man.

During this playing lesson, I used the player’s handicap as a guide to maximize his playing ability, and I used his ability to help him make the best score he could at that time. So how did I use his handicap? I could see this player was no better than an 18, so I added one stroke to the posted par for each hole. Par 3’s became Par 4’s. Par 4’s became Par 5’s, and Par 5’s became Par 6’s. Once his par was established, he played each hole to get on the green according to that par adjustment. For example, the 210-yard par-3 became a 210-yard par-4. So instead of trying to get on the green from the tee, we used a strategy to get on the green in two and then two-putt for a 4, or “his par.”

I advocate every player use this handicap game-improvement system. A 15-handicap adjusts 15 holes so his par changes from 72 to 87; an 8-handicap adjusts eight holes so that his par changes from 72 to 80. I use this process for plus handicaps and professionals as well. A plus-4 adjusts four holes so his/her par changes from 72 to 68. Using this mindset, my playing lesson shot 3-under his par of 90.

I’ve had clients cut their handicaps in half in just a few months by adherence to this process. It works in lowering scores because it eliminates most “unforced errors,” and about half of all dropped shots at all levels are a direct result of unforced errors. Unforced errors occur when something is attempted that the player can’t do or shouldn’t do. The fewer unforced errors per round, the lower the score. It’s as simple as that.

I strongly urge golfers to chart each round of golf in order to identify every unforced error. Just email me at edmyersgolf@gmail.com and I will send the game-improvement scorecard that I have my clients use to evaluate their performance.

Posting lower scores is how handicaps go down, and all handicaps plateau when the player is faced with the realities of what he/she can and can’t do. For example, an improving handicap golfer may require the need to use clubs or hit shots not previously necessary. The playing experience reveals what needs practice, and practice is where the player should learn what can and can’t be done. Rule of Thumb: if you can do it 7/10 times in practice, you can consider doing it in play.

In the opening paragraph, I stated that dedication, determination, and discipline are required to stay within this improvement process should the player decide to implement it. But I should have said it takes a whole lot of all three. Experience tells me that players say what they feel, but do what they want. Neither is a plan for progress.

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