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Should you really keep your left arm straight?

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“Keep your left arm straight” is a phrase heard a lot on the golf course. Some golfers swear by it, while some are skeptical of its importance and others simply cannot complete a swing with a straight left arm.

The truth is, while keeping the left arm straight is not absolute imperative, it does help most players hit the ball farther and more solid. That’s because a straight left arm creates width at the top of the swing, which helps golfers create more speed and consistency. 

Below, I’ll teach you how to fix the bent left arm and properly keep your left arm straight.

What I usually see in golfers’ backswings

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 12.41.09 PM

  • The left arm is bent. 
  • The right arm is bent very acutely. 
  • The hands are very close to the head. 
  • There is very little width.

What I’d like to see

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 12.41.26 PM

  • The left arm is straight.
  • The right arm angle is 90 degrees. 
  • The hands are “away” from the head. 
  • The wrists are fully hinged. 
  • The shoulders are fully turned over the top of a controlled lower body.
  • The backswing is parallel, with maximum width at this point.

The things I like to see in a backswing are very difficult to achieve for multiple reasons, the biggest being flexibility. That’s why having a perfectly straight left arm at the top of your backswing is great, but sometimes is unrealistic, and not always necessary.

Heck, Curtis Strange won back-to-back U.S. Open’s with a bent left arm!

Just because you can’t make a full turn with a straight left arm doesn’t mean you cannot create width in your swing, which is why we wanted a straight left arm in the first place. So forget about the left arm!

It’s all about your right arm’s position at the top

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 12.41.37 PM

Whenever the angle formed between the upper and lower arm becomes very acute (as shown on the left), you will lose width and your left arm will bend. This results in a loose feeling at the top of the backswing, and leads to a sloppy transition.

By keeping this angle wide (as shown by the photo on the right), you’ll find that the left arm will react and you will have more width. To achieve this feeling, think about pushing your hands — especially your right hand — out away from your head during the backswing.

If you want a straighter left arm, focus on your right arm at the top and you’ll create the width you desire!

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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

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Beth

    Jul 4, 2016 at 9:07 am

    I am a fairly low handicapper trying to improve technique. I do have a slight bend in my left arm. in an effort to straighten it i lost the cock in my wrist and my swing felt much less fluid.

  2. Pingback: Handstand - How to do a Straight Arm Press to handstand tutorial - Must Have Yoga Gear

  3. Dennis Clark

    May 28, 2015 at 10:27 pm

    agreed Tom. Too many golfers worried about “keeping right elbow in” ruin their width.

  4. Mike

    May 28, 2015 at 12:05 am

    Interesting that in the top two sets of pictures, after getting more width with a straight left arm, the golfer’s head (and shoulders) have slid well back off the ball in comparison to the top set with the bent left arm. Are you advocating sliding back as part of a correct swing?

    I use to slid a lot, which I’ve fixed, but I’m also not hitting it as far. Should I go back to my “twister’ move?

    • MHendon

      May 29, 2015 at 12:35 am

      Just my two cents. It doesn’t look to me like he has slid off the ball, his head position is basically the same in both swings. However the straight left arm swing has a much bigger shoulder turn and hip turn. That’s probably what has given you the impression he has slid off the ball. If you want to be a consistent ball striker it’s best not to slide off the ball. The closer your eyes stay to the set up position the easier it is to return the club to the ball square and towards the center of the club. Best tip I ever got was to imagine a poll fixed to the ground is going up through the center of your body all the way to your neck. Because its cylindrical you can turn but you can’t slide. It helps keep you centered over the ball.

  5. Regis

    May 27, 2015 at 10:46 am

    Ok now a question that has been plaguing me for years. In an effort to keep the “left arm straight” I sometimes rotate my left elbow clockwise at address. So the elbow points more down the target line as opposed to my left hip. Also strengthens my left hand grip a bit. When it works it works well. Any thoughts?

  6. Bob

    May 27, 2015 at 10:10 am

    I think if your left arm throughout the backswing is the same shape as it was at address, that’s straight enough.

  7. Paul

    May 26, 2015 at 10:52 am

    no stills of Bubba Watson at the top with a bent arm? J.B. Homes? They seem to hit it far.

  8. Jeez Utz

    May 25, 2015 at 3:11 pm

    I don’t care about the arms during the swing as long as the butt of the grip is on the correct line

  9. Tom Stickney

    May 25, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    Thank you Stephen.

  10. Minh Nguyen

    May 25, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    Good article. Same exact thing my instructor preaches to me. He mentioned the “Swing Extender” Training Aid. Not the easiest training device, but it definitely keeps the “right” arm from from bending past 90 degrees.

    http://www.swingextender.com/

  11. Cons

    May 25, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    Tom- Could you not make an argument that slight bend (and I mean slight) in the left elbow can lead to added distance in that you have created another ‘lever’ in the swing?

    Personally I stay away from this, but I have heard the argument before.

  12. Stephen Lee

    May 25, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    i went out to local course with my dad yesterday and i saw the picture on the top all day long.

    because his swing width is narrow, his tempo on the backswing was hasty and resulting downswing was well out of tempo. moreover, his bent left arm never fully extended, he didnt have any space to accelerate and extend on downswing resulting weak and very thin shots. I hope what you suggested in this article helps my dad and become a better golfer.

    I have utmost respect for your effort and time put in the work and always appreciate your quality articles Mr. Stickney. Thank you very much.

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Davies: The Trail Elbow In The Downswing

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In this video, I discuss the role of the trail elbow in the downswing. I also share some great drills to help golfers deliver the trail elbow correctly, which will help improve distance and contact.

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The 3 different levels of golf practice

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“I would have practiced as hard, but I would have made my practice more meaningful. I would have worked more on my short game and putting. I would’ve done a lot more drills to make the practice more meaningful, and I would’ve added pressure to the practice as much as possible.” — Lee Westwood

Now here’s the rub. Practice is not monolithic! I approach practice as having three different, distinctive and separate curriculum and criteria.

  • Level 1: Basic
  • Level 2: Advanced
  • Level 3: Extreme

Basic Practice (Level 1) by definition is “repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.” Basically, it’s doing the same thing over and over again to get better at it. My favorite skill that requires practice is the 76-yard “flighted wedge.” I do it, and I recommend it be done at every range practice session. Additionally, I identify and then practice as many different “skills” that are required to hit different golf shots. I have found that a non-pressurized environment is the best way to practice in a basic model.

It goes without saying that golf is not played in a pressure-free environment, so basic practice doesn’t help us play golf. The prime objective of Level 2 Practice (Advanced Training) is to take what you do in Basic Practice to the golf course.

First, create on-course situations that require you to hit the shots you have practiced. There should be rewards for demonstrations of competence, and there should be consequences for demonstrations of incompetence

“When you practice, try to find a situation to fit the shot you’re trying to practice.” — Ben Hogan

For example, a major problem is the unevenness of the lies you will encounter during play as opposed to the lies you used for your drills. From marginal to extreme, lies are difficult to replicate on the practice tee. So, play a round of golf and move the ball into the most undesirable lie that is very close to where you are.

Another example would be duplicating the creativity that is sometimes required during actual play. The prime example of that would be the sensation of “being in-between clubs.” I would suggest that you play an occasional round of golf using only half of your clubs. Take two wedges instead of four. Take only the “odd” or “even” numbered irons. Look at not taking the driver, or not taking all of your fairway clubs. I have not taken my putter, which forced me putt with my sand wedge!

A third example would be to play a round of golf and deliberately miss every green in regulation. Should your ball accidentally finish on the green in regulation just move it off into the rough, a bunker or whatever else could use the extra attention. You can create games where your opponent moves your ball off the green into something that would be advantageous to him.

Level 2 Practice is conducted on the practice ground as well as on the course. What I do and recommend is to take each of the shots, skills and drills used in Level 1 and add some accountability to the range experience. I have my students and clients use a “Practice Book” to schedule activities and to keep track of improvement.

Author Note: I will send you a sample practice book page that many of my players actually use. Request it at edmyersgolf@gmail.com.

Please be advised that Level 2 Practice can feature games, wagering or other forms of friendly competitions because they should only activate the lesser emotions of irritation, annoyance, anticipation, anxiousness, joy, pleasure and disappointment. Dealing with these feelings in practice will help you recognize and deal with the minor stresses experienced by most recreational golfers.

Stress is the major cause of “CHOKING.”

Stress, by definition “is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” Stress can ruin our ability to perform when we experience the major emotions such as fear, anger, shame, humiliation, euphoria, ridicule, betrayal, doubt and/or disbelief.

Level 3 Practice (Extreme Preparation) is on-course training sessions best suited for very serious competitive golfers. The more a player is able to compete in a simulated or controlled environment that accurately replicates the actual “pressures” that produce the kind of stresses that can effect performance, the better the player will perform when stressed in actual tournaments or events. Please be advised that Extreme Practice DOES NOT feature games, gambling or “friendly” competitions. They don’t control the conditions of play sufficiently to replicate the type of pressure that would induce “stress.”

“Simulation, which  is a technique (not a technology) to replace and amplify real experiences with guided ones, often “immersive” in nature, that evoke or replicate substantial aspects of the real world in a fully interactive fashion.” For many years now, the medical profession has used simulations to train doctors, the military has used simulations to prepare troops for the realities of the battlefield and aviation has used simulators to train pilots. Simulating has the added benefits of being cost and time effective while producing verifiable results.

If it’s possible for airlines to replicate every possible scenario that a pilot could experience in the cockpit by using simulations, then why isn’t it possible to replicate situations, and subsequent emotional responses, that a competitive golfer could experience on the golf course? Let me give you an example of what I mean.

“I got nervous all the time, as nervous as the next guy. It’s just that I caught myself before it became destructive.” Jack Nicklaus

Recent events at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play gives us some evidence of the destructiveness of uncontrolled emotions. Justin Thomas said that he couldn’t get the thought out of his mind of becoming the No. 1-ranked player in the world should he defeat Bubba Watson in the semi-finals, which he failed to do.

“I haven’t had such a hard time not thinking about something so much,” Thomas said. “And that really sucked. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, to be perfectly honest.”

Then there was Ian Poulter being told that with his win over Louis Oosthuizen he had earned a spot in this years’ Masters tournament only to be told 10 minutes before his next match that he had not actually secured the coveted invitation. With elation, joy and satisfaction jerked away and replaced with disappointment, and possibly anger, the Englishman went out and got whipped by Kevin Kisner 8 & 6!

I concede that Justin Thomas’ and Ian Poulter’s situations were so unique that simulation-based practice and preparation techniques may not have been available to them, but now they both must know that their performance was effected negatively by mental stresses. And with that knowledge they may want to get tougher mentally. Level 3 Practice does that!

Not all that long ago, I was approached by a PGA Tour veteran for some on-course, one-on-one training. He was experiencing severe “choking” in pressurized short-game situations. So I took him out on the course and we replicated the exact shots he had problems with in the past. He demonstrated that he could perform each and every shot in a stress-free environment. We went into a “low-stress” training environment and his performance began to suffer. Then, at his urging to get “real,” we went into a “high-stress” practice mode and he melted down. Without going into details, he became so angry that not only couldn’t he hit golf shots, he tried to run me down with the golf cart as he retreated to the safety of his car.

Now, that’s not the end of the story. A few hours later, after some soul searching, he apologized for his lack of self-control and acknowledged that he had recognized the early signs of stress growing internally as we worked. We went back out onto the course and got back to work.

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Winning Ways: Here’s what it takes to become a winner in Junior Girls golf

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Every competitive golfer strives to win, and I want to help them achieve their goals. Recently, I wrote a story highlighting the statistics behind winning in junior boys golf, and how they can do it more often. Now, we set out to examine the data on winning in junior girls golf, and provide ways they can improve. The data is based on an analysis of tournament results from all events during the 2017 year from the Junior Tour of Northern California. We then asked stats guru, Peter Sanders, Founder of ShotByShot.com, to provide the stats related to the winning scoring numbers that we found. Finally, we discuss ways that juniors can practice building skills and work towards becoming tournament winners.

The Winning Scores

In 2017 the Junior Tour of Northern California held 26 tournaments with 850+ members. According to our data collection based on information available on the website, the average girl’s tournament course measured 6145 yards. The average winning score for girls was 146 (36 holes), or 73 per round. Ten of the 22 tournaments where won with scores of 144 or better and the low 36 holes total was a whopping 133! In the data collection we also collected the average 10th place scores girls. The average 10th place score for girls was 159 or 79.5.

The Winning Stats

We provided the numbers to statistics expert Peter Sanders. Peter’s company has been providing Strokes Gained analysis for golfers for the last 29 years. Peter is the founder of ShotByShot.com, a website that provides golfers at all levels with Strokes Gained analysis, pinpoints specific strengths and weaknesses and highlights improvement priorities. Since the launch of ShotByShot.com in 2005, Peter has collected over 317,000 rounds. Accordingly, Peter has agreed to share the numbers, below, for a typical female player who averages 73. There are two important points to consider when reviewing these statistics:

  1. In order to have a complete picture of the puzzle that is golf, one must consider the ERRORS, or lack thereof, that play such an important role in scoring at every level. Even the 650+ PGA Tour stats ignore these important miscues. Shot By Shot has included them in their analysis from the beginning and they are highlighted in the infographics below.
  2. The data provided represents only tournament rounds. As such it will primarily represent the high school and college programs that use ShotbyShot.com

Infographics Created by Alexis Bennett

The Winning Preparation

Junior girls are encouraged to use these stats as a benchmark against their own performance to determine where they might need to improve against the “typical 73 player.” After identifying gaps in their game, they can then create practice plans to help improve. For example, a junior might notice they have more 3-putts than the model. To improve, they could work put more time into practice, as well as playing games on the golf course like draw-back and 2-putt.

  • Drawback is a game where after your first putt, you draw the second putt one putter length away from the hole. This often changes a shorter putt (> 2 feet) to a putt of between 3.5 – 5 feet. This putts significantly more pressure on your putting.
  • You may also play Two-Putt, a game where when you reach the green, you (or your playing competitor) tosses the ball away from the hole. You must 2-putt from that spot to move to the next hole (even if it takes a couple attempts!).

Others reading this article might find that they don’t hit enough greens. Improving this area will require more consistent strikes, which may require further technical development and block practice, as well as working on the golf course. To start, I would recommend that every junior implement the yardage rule. The yardage rule works like this; figure out the distance to the very back of the green. For example, this number may be 157. Then figure out what club ALWAYS flies 157, which might be 6-iron. Then choose 7-iron for the shot. This way your best shot will not fly the green, your average shot will likely be in the middle of the green and your less-than-perfect shot will hopefully end up on the front of the green.

During practice rounds, play competitive games with yourself to sharpen your ability to hit greens. For example, if you normally hit 7 greens per round, in practice your goal might be 9. You would track your results over a month and then see your progress.

Beyond building individual skills, like hitting greens or working on putting, junior golfers need times to play competitive rounds on their home golf courses. Ideally, these rounds are played against other people with similar skills and done under tournament like conditions with consequences (loser buys winner a coke or cleans their golf clubs). Playing hundreds of rounds at your home golf course under these conditions gives you a unique opportunity to sharpen your game, learn your tendencies and build skills such as endurance and mental toughness. Most importantly, it teaches you to win and shoot under par!

Please also keep in mind building these skills may take months (or even years). In my own personal experience, when I set out to improve my birdies per round, it took nearly 4 months and 75+ rounds and significant practice to begin to see a change. Depending on your schedule and access to resources like a golf course and instructor, some changes might take a year or more. Regardless, don’t ever worry; building a solid foundation in golf will always lead to rewards!

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