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Understanding ball position and how it can help your swing

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In my experience, the most underrated part of setting up to the golf ball is without a doubt ball position. If a golfer moves the golf ball so much as ONE BALL (that’s 1.68 inches) up or back in the stance, the flight of the ball can change drastically.

A Neutral Ball Position

neutral_ball_position

A Forward Ball Position

forward_ball_position

A Rearward Ball Position

rearward_ball_position

Golfers tend to position the golf ball in their stance where they most often find it, that is, bottom out with their swing. So as soon as I see a player hitting balls, I know what his/her swing path is simply by where they place the ball in their stance.

Those who swing in-to-out generally have rearward ball positions, and they’re usually golfers who hook the ball. Those who swing out-to-in often have more forward ball positions, and they’re usually players who slice the ball. It’s no coincidence, because ball position can determine the hook or slice spin that occurs during the shot, as well as dynamic loft.

The easiest way to picture this is by understanding that the golf club swings in an ARC. Golf is a side-on game, and in any side-on game one cannot hit a ball that is across from them with a straight-line swing. If we played golf with the ball between our feet, then and only then could we have a straight-line swing; but because the golf club swings on an arc, where we position the ball in the stance matters. A lot. It determines whether we are going to meet the ball early in the arc, in the middle of the arc, or forward in the arc.

Now let’s look at those three conditions.

Meeting the golf ball early in the swing arc

inside_out_path

  • For a right-handed player, this means the club is traveling to the right of the target. Here we can get pushed shots, hooks (from the club face being too closed to the path) and a low ball flight, which occurs from the de-lofting of the club face.

Meeting the golf ball in the middle of the swing arc

sqaure_path

  • In the middle of the arc, golfers have the best chance of starting the golf ball where they are aimed with little-to-no curvature. That’s because the club face has a good chance of being square to the path, and creating a decent trajectory.

Meeting the golf ball late in the swing arc

outside_in_path

  • And when golfers contact the golf ball late in the arc, they can get some pulls, slices (from a club that path that is moving left of the club face) and higher shots due to increased loft on the club face.

Here’s What Else You Need to Know About Ball Position

Spin: Place three balls on the ground; one across from your rear foot, one in the center, and one across from your left foot. All things being equal, you will push-hook the first one, hit the second one straight and pull/slice the third one. Pretty much every time. Remember, the face-to-path relationship can change dramatically with a ball position change of only a few inches.

Face contact: Here’s another underrated ball position dynamic: On the arc we are discussing, the in-to-out path is traveling AWAY from the player and on the out-to-in path the club is traveling IN to the player. This is why a good number of shanks are hit from an in-to-out path and toe hits often happen as a result of an out-to-in path. Think about it: If golfers are swinging out to in with a reverse pivot and the ball forward, they can actually miss the golf ball INSIDE!

Attack angle: Any golf club that is moving to the right is also moving down (again for a right-handed player) and one moving left is beginning to ascend. So if you’re fighting too steep an attack angle, a slight move forward can help and vice versa.

Dynamic loft: The sooner you catch the ball in the arc, the less loft you have on the golf club; the later, the more lofted the club face is. This is critical to understand because of the body’s reaction to trajectory. If the golf ball is too far back, you’ll hit it low and you’ll attempt to hit it higher by “backing up,” or reversing the torso away from the target, in an effort to hit it higher. It might just be easier to move the ball forward a bit and maintain your spine angle.

Takeaways

So you see how many things are affected by ball position. Ask any of the very capable players I work with and they’ll tell you the same thing. That’s why before I even look at the path, plane, release, etc., I always check the ball position. You may want to do the same.

Simple fixes: Hooking the ball? Move it forward. Slicing the ball? Move it back! One more thing: try a drastic change at first, and then modify it to be less drastic if you must.

One drill I use to change swing path is a dramatic ball position alteration simply to get the student to react differently in the downswing. I had a fella today WAY over the top. We moved the ball to his rear foot in the stance, and immediately he started to get his arms and club down more from the inside. It works, try it!

If you’re interested in my online swing analysis program, click here for more info, or click here to contact me on Facebook.

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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

21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. Tom

    Aug 3, 2016 at 11:19 pm

    Let me just say that this is the single greatest piece of advice I’ve ever received. Thank you. I saw it this morning first on one of your articles from a number of years ago. I was fooling how to fix an inside-out swing path.

    I am a 7 handicap and had been looking for a solution to fix my ever-present hook. My iron divots were always about 15 degrees to the right of my target line. If I consciously “swung left” I could get them to be almost straight, but it took a lot of effort.

    I hit probably 100 balls at the range today with every one a few inches in front of my left foot. Tonight, I played 9 holes from the back tees in +3. The biggest difference was on my driver. Almost every one went straight. It was really unbelievable. My long irons were much improved with less of a hook although I did hit some quite thin. The wedges were hard to hit that far forward so I pulled them back to inside my left heel. B

    I can’t tell you what a difference this made. How long should I hit like this before gradually pulling things back to inside the left heel on the longer clubs? A week? Never? Is it necessary to play the shorter clubs that much forward?

    Thanks again!

  2. Jeremy

    Jul 27, 2016 at 8:44 pm

    Does this apply to the driver too?

  3. Troy Vayanos

    Jul 18, 2016 at 12:01 am

    Most golfers I see have the golf ball too far back in their stance. Because they hit the ball fat it’s a knee jerk reaction to try make solid contact with the golf ball. The thinking is they will get the ball closer to where the club is bottoming out.

    However, like all golf fixes this doesn’t solve the problem and usually makes it worse.

    For me, putting the ball just forward of centre works well for all your irons and even further forward for the driver. If you’re shifting your weight correctly to the back and then to the front leg your club should naturally bottom out in the same forward position every time.

  4. Dennis Clark

    Jul 14, 2016 at 6:32 pm

    This is also why I have a lot of my students who fight an in-to-out hook hit drivers off the ground with the ball positioned well forward. You’ll drop kick a few but your path will change considerably

  5. Tim

    Jul 14, 2016 at 5:26 pm

    This 100% works. I’ve always gone through stretches where I hook every shot. And I’ve always hit it low. I tried countless tips and drills. Eventually I discovered that by far the most effective and easy one was moving the ball up in my stance. Now if I could just remember to keep it forward..

  6. Charles

    Jul 14, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    Interesting. I’m an old school guy. I was taught a long time ago, back in 1974, to hit a draw tee it higher and place the ball farther forward and close the club, to fade tee it lower and place the ball back and open the face. It worked well with my persimmon wood driver and balata balls. It also worked well with modern drivers and balls. What has changed in golf instruction?

    • Dennis Clark

      Jul 14, 2016 at 6:27 pm

      What has changes Charles is science. I too am an old school guy, and was taught under the OLD ball flight laws. Read my article on D Plane, or any article on it; it explains it quite nicely. BTW I also suffered under this illusion as a teacher for some years. But I always knew “something” was “missing”. Thx for reading

  7. Mikky Tee

    Jul 14, 2016 at 5:43 am

    Dennis, good read. I usually move the ball a little back towards my right foot, to prevent me hitting it fat, i seem to have a rearward low point, is that weight transfer perhaps?

    • Dennis Clark

      Jul 14, 2016 at 7:30 am

      Shallow fats are usually too early of a release or too inside. Try turning through would help yes, staying more centered over the golf ball might help as well.

  8. ButchT

    Jul 13, 2016 at 9:59 pm

    Very good insight, Dennis. Thank you!

  9. cgasucks

    Jul 13, 2016 at 9:53 pm

    When I started this game long ago, I was taught that if have your hands in the same position relative to your legs, your ball will be in the optimal ball position no matter which club is used and what shot (including pitches and chips).

  10. Dennis Clark

    Jul 13, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    Authors note: For those of you hooking the ball, move it forward-and keep moving it forward until you’ve actually got the club swinging more LEFT (for right-handers). You’ll begin to see a fade soon. Guaranteed.

  11. Dennis Clark

    Jul 13, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    Yes lead foot as in way out front…it’ll help you turn through better

  12. Steven

    Jul 13, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    Good article. It is interesting that ball position can make such a huge impact on flight. That assumes the swing is the same and the player doesn’t make compensations when the ball is in a different place. As I am sure everyone would suggest, most people should go to a pro or video their swing to send to someone to look at ball position in relation to the swing. Many amateurs probably have more things off in the swing than just ball position. This could be a good short term fix.

    Keep up the good work helping out all of us.

  13. Robert

    Jul 13, 2016 at 11:42 am

    @Tom I was thinking the same thing.

    @Dennis, I have an high positive club path (+6 to +9). Any idea how to fix that Dennis?

    • Dennis Clark

      Jul 13, 2016 at 1:47 pm

      First of all decide if the path NEEDS to be fixed…Bubba, Rory and some others have an unusually high + path; it works well for them. But if you’re hitting blocks and hooks, try hitting some drivers off the ground with the ball across from your lead foot.

      • Robert

        Jul 13, 2016 at 2:07 pm

        My miss is a hook and when I hook it with the driver, I usually fall back on my rear foot which to me, says I’m not shifting my weight properly. With regards to that drill, do you mean parallel across from my lead front.

  14. Tom

    Jul 13, 2016 at 10:30 am

    interesting article. Time for me to do some experimenting.

    • Dennis Clark

      Jul 13, 2016 at 11:40 am

      experiment is the right way! The only way really.

      • Tom

        Jul 14, 2016 at 11:17 am

        I did last night. Your right the ball forward gave me a gentle left to right ball flight.

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Instruction

Champ or choker? 5 ways to keep from being the latter

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Golf can be a lonely game. Rarely in sports are you more on an island while battling fears, doubts, and inner demons in the effort not to choke — especially on the biggest stages. But even if we’ve never been a champ, or played in a major championship, we’ve all been there, battling those same demons, and that’s why most of us can relate so well with some of golf’s most infamous chokes.

The pinnacle of these ignoble events was likely on the final hole at Carnoustie, in the ‘99 British Open, when Jean Van de Velde gave up a three-shot lead in a tragic comedy of bad shots (and even worse judgment), a scene that saw him take off his shoes and socks and wade deep into the Barry Burn before finally coming to his senses. Van de Velde ultimately lost in a playoff to Paul Lawrie, earning his place in golfing infamy, but when it comes to choking away victory on the biggest stage, he certainly wasn’t alone.

In the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, Arnold Palmer lost a seven-shot lead to Billy Casper on the final nine holes. Ed Sneed blew a five-shot lead on the final day of the ’79 Masters that was a three-shot lead with three to play by missing very short putts on each of the last three holes. Greg Norman’s infamous collapse at the 1996 Masters should be counted as well, when he threw away a six-shot lead with an atrocious 78 on the final day, allowing Nick Faldo to win.

And the champions of this generation haven’t proven immune either. Rory McIlroy coughed up a four-shot lead on the final day at Augusta in the 2011 Masters, ultimately carding an 80. And Dustin Johnson has a hat trick of tight-collar escapades in majors, losing the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by shooting a final-round 78 after starting with a three-shot lead, and the 2010 PGA by committing a rules violation when he had the lead on the final hole, and the 2015 U.S. Open to Jordan Spieth when he three-putted the final hole from just 15 feet. And speaking of Spieth, his final round collapse at Amen Corner on the back nine at the 2016 Masters, when he gave up a five-shot lead by going bogey-bogey-quadruple-bogey after putting two balls in the water at the dreaded 12th, is how that year’s event will forever be remembered.

Now golfers aren’t alone when it comes to choking. Athletes in nearly every sport fear it, suffer from it, and work their entire careers to avoid being associated with it. It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that a large percentage of athletes would rather be known as a cheat, a thief, and a liar before being known as a choker. Our sports culture reveres the clutch athlete, the player who can handle the biggest moments on the biggest stage and rise to the occasion time and again. And possibly because most of us can’t, we look up to those who can handle those pressure-packed situations like almost no other. And we cast aspersions upon those who can’t, labeling some who’ve done it even once as chokers, and those who have a habit of self-sabotage as choke artists. We are fascinated by those who can succeed in the spotlight, and, as sports fans, frustrated by those who wither when the lights are brightest. And the awareness of this is so pervasive that avoiding having to wear the choker label can arguably be in and of itself the greatest pressure.

As a result of this preoccupation with choking, scientists have studied it quite a bit. And some are finally beginning to identify its causes and how to avoid it. And while it sounds like a gross oversimplification, much of this study seems to conclude that choking ultimately comes down to simply this… Thinking too much. When athletes get nervous about their performance they stop doing whatever it is they do instinctively and essentially fall into the trap of trying not to make mistakes. They begin to desperately try and control whatever the necessary motions they need to make to a higher degree than normal and, in the process, the fluidity of those motions is lost along with their grace and talent.

Now that’s a layman’s description of what happens, but let’s use putting to explain what’s going on a little more scientifically. When people first learn to putt, they have numerous things to consider. They need to assess the break of the green, what line they will use, and at what speed they will need to roll the ball in order for it follow their intended path. They must also ensure their stroke is not only straight enough to send the ball upon the intended line, but the right size so that it rolls it at the intended speed. For a new golfer, this is more than challenging enough to require the majority of their focus and attention, and at first this necessary. By focusing on their stroke mechanics, as well as the other necessary elements they are trying accomplish, they can avoid mistakes and make better putts.

Once they’ve played for a while, though, and possess the requisite skill to putt, everything changes. Analyzing the stroke at this point is wasted mental energy as the brain almost automatically computes the necessary break and speed needed for a successful putt. Complex learned motor skills like putting are controlled by the cerebellum, and trying to consciously control these skills shifts control to the slower, more deliberate prefrontal cortex, causing a performance drop. If you look at the brain waves of athletes during performance, those of beginners tend to have erratic dips and spikes as well as wildly inconsistent rhythm, the neural signature of a mind engaging in conscious thought. By contrast, expert athletes’ minds look almost eerily serene, showcasing a mental tranquility that ignores disruption or interruption from the outside world, highlighting the fact that in optimal performance those who succeed essentially don’t think, they just do.

This is why studies show that experienced golfers who are forced to think about technique hit significantly worse shots. Once our technique is embedded we instead want to rely on the automatic brain. Conscious thought essentially erases years of practice, and this is what often happens when athletes start to choke. They begin to second-guess their skill, and the part of the brain that monitors their behavior begins to interfere with the types of actions that are normally made without thinking. Before long, performance spirals, as failures mount and increasing doubt about the ability to perform begin to rise.

So why are golfers so much more apt to choke than other athletes? Well, unlike most reactionary sports, we’ve unfortunately got a lot of available time to engage in all that unnecessary thinking. This means we have a proverbial minefield of potential mind-traps out there waiting for us to step on. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we take cues from the available research, we can devise habits, routines, and strategies to help short-circuit the choking phenomenon, and potentially avoid becoming another Van de Velde the next time the chips are down.

  1. Practice Desired Outcome Focus – It’s essentially impossible (and a bad habit) to try and not do something. Telling yourself not to hit it left in the hazard, or to stay away from the bunker right is a really bad idea, and there are studies backing that up. Shift your focus instead to what your desired outcome is.
  2. Practice Positive Visualization – Positive visualization is a great tactic to use to avoid choking. Get in the habit of mentally rehearsing a positive image of the skill you want to perform, or better yet, a successful image of the shot you want to make like a high fade towards the tallest pine at the corner of the dogleg.
  3. Practice Implicit Learning – This is learning through observation, rather than the step-by-step instruction manual approach, and its practitioners have been observed in studies to be much less susceptible to choking than their overly analytical counterparts.
  4. Practice a Pre-Shot Routine – Players who have a disciplined performance routine that allows them to become engrossed in the process, shifting their mind away from too much outcome thinking, have also proven to be much less susceptible to choking.
  5. Embrace Distraction – Athletes asked to listen to sounds or words unrelated to the actions they are performing rarely show the type of drop-off in performance in high pressure situations than those who are actually focused on what they are doing. So, next time listen close to all those birds chirping, partners yakking, or clubs jangling with a welcoming ear, instead of an instinctive complaint.

While these practices can really help you start understanding what to do if you want to become an actual champ, learning a few lessons from the foibles of some of those would-be champs can be helpful as well. When Palmer melted down in ’66, it was because he got over-confident and began firing at pins in an attempt to break Ben Hogan’s Open scoring record. As things started to unravel, though, he got tight, surly, and uncharacteristically dour in the effort to get things under control.

When Norman’s bid for his first green jacket began to fall apart like the proverbial cheap suit, he too got tight, making one uncharacteristically poor decision (and swing) after another in attempt to get things under control. When Rory McIlroy collapsed, he approached the entire day of the final round differently then he did typically, thinking he needed to be more serious and stoic in his quest to nail down his first ever major and it backfired.

And for Van de Velde, the succession of agonizingly poor decisions, beginning essentially on the 18th tee of the final hole, was actually his attempt to not do anything different when common sense dictated he should have. When asked about it in an interview fifteen years later he said,

“What do you want me to say? I should have played it differently? I believe that…with what I do and the way that I do it, day in, day out… that I played it correctly. I hope that people learned that it’s a game and there’s bigger things in life. Winning with grace is pretty easy. Losing with it is a lot harder.”

Quite a profound statement form someone nearly unequally qualified in the game to make it. Bravo Jean. You may not have ended up a champ, but you certainly won’t find me calling you a choker.

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WATCH: How slow-motion training can lead to more power and consistency

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Eddie Fernandes has made big changes to his swing (and his power and consistency have gone up) by mastering the key moves in slow motion before he speeds them up. Everyone should use this kind of slow motion training to make real changes to their swing!

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WATCH: What you really need to know to control the direction of your shots

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In this video, Top-100 Teacher Tom Stickney shows you how to better control the direction of your shots by understanding how both the club face and swing path determine where your ball goes.

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