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Ben Hogan was right, golf is a sidearm game

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“What is the secret of the golf swing?” That’s one of the eternal debates in our game, and as with anything as dynamic as the golf swing, I don’t think there is ONE secret. There are similarities to be noticed among the greats of the game however, despite their variety.

That sounds like a contradiction in terms, but if you think about it, we can notice certain motions that most elite level players have in their swing. Not all, but most. GolfWRX readers know me as a teacher who places more emphasis on impact and not how to, but today I want to discuss something that most amateurs get wrong and almost all pros get right. In a very general sense, I’ll state it like this: the golf swing has two components, a vertical one and a horizontal one. Better players get both, but most amateurs get only the vertical part.

The vertical is necessary because the ball is on the ground. The horizontal is required because the ball is aside the player. The VAST majority of mistakes I see club golfers make is that they get too vertical, and not sufficiently horizontal. Golf is very clearly a sidearm game, and the great Ben Hogan may have illustrated it the best.

Most boys growing up, at least in my era, learned to play baseball pretty much before anything else. If they were fortune enough to play infield, I think they had a head start in the game of golf. In the cover image, Hogan is clearly demonstrating how an infielder might throw to first base. This almost completely mimics the motion of a golf swing. Notice I say almost. It is not entirely the same, because remember, the golf ball is on the ground. There is still some up-and-down motion required, but we deal with most of that simply by bending correctly at the hips when we address the golf ball. So to complete the analogy, I think it’s safe to say that golf is baseball with the torso tilted forward.

“It has always seemed to me that, in its general character, this motion is quite similar to the one an infielder makes when he throws to first base after scooping up a ground ball,” Ben Hogan said.

Of course, there is nothing new in this information. Many instructors have written about it, and Ben Hogan’s 5 Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf was published some 60 years ago. But I will say this: If you have a junior learning to play golf, you would be wise to START with this horizontal orientation FIRST!

I have had many of my juniors begin learning golf on side-hill lies with the golf ball well above their feet before we ever hit a ball on the ground, because once your motion gets too vertical is VERY difficult to change. So assuming you’re in the too-vertical camp, as probably 80 percent of golfers are, let’s discuss what you might do about it.

First, you have to address the motion of your rear elbow (which is the right elbow for right-handed golfers). If it gets too high or stays too far behind your rib cage, the golf club almost always transitions too steeply. Watch Hogan’s motion closely; his right elbow moves well forward in his transition, which “lays the club down,” that is, drops it into a hit position. But — and here’s the key to this motion — notice also that as Hogan pushed the elbow in front of him, he also rotates the LEAD ARM (left for him) counter-clockwise. If he had a secret, I think that was a big part of it. If you pull the elbow in and forward, you can drastically open the face, but by forearm rotation Hogan offset that problem.

The other key to this move when trying to incorporate it is to be sure your hand path stays in! It is easy to send the hand path out when you’re trying it, and that can lead to a severe case of the shanks if you’re not careful.

If you’re one who is and has been too steep, I suggest you try two things:

  1. Hit a LOT of balls with the ball well above your feet on a sidehill lie.
  2. Hit shots off a very tall tee and be sure you don’t ground the club; keep it up as high as the ball itself even with irons. This simulates the hill drill I was just describing.

Once you get the feeling of more around and less up-and-down, you’re on your way. Your attack angle will shallow, and you’ll experience much greater club face consistency from the new arc you are developing.

Final note: My own personal swing flaw for too many years has been this steep transition, and I have always been in search of “the feeling.” Like anyone else, once in a while I get the feeling and it is GREAT!

If you’re interested in my online swing analysis program, click here for more info, or 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

46 Comments

46 Comments

  1. Jim

    Aug 15, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    Best biomechanics of all time. NORMAN. A spine tilt and left side turn into a right leg that ‘accepted’ his slight lateral head & tailbone moving to truly shift his weight and ‘load’ the right leg. He made the left side turn & let the ‘weight in motion’ (club head) go where it wanted. Left shoulder hit his chin & that was it. – ‘his plane’ – based on a good set up and a good left sided turn for his physique.
    He was in the middle of the ‘keep your head still, one piece take away’ BS that created more bad backs & slices than any other two tips in golf history.

    Tiger circa 2003 – before he bought all those new muscles compare down the line view to Norman and it’s identical.

    Tiger’s unnecessarily violent ‘squatting’ and late left knee
    snap into hyperextension tore his body up – just like Butch told him it would.

    Norman swung hard & in the book of all crazy stats kept (other than winning majors) he is second only to Woods -with no surgeries.

    • Jim

      Aug 15, 2016 at 10:11 pm

      I have an extensive video library in my teaching computer couple hundred pros over 4000 swings including Hogan.

      10,000 plus hrs of lessons taughtn hundreds of all types of students from PGA / LPGA, Hogan Tour, Nike Tour State Open winners to profoundly disabled & super senior beginners. There’s 16 swings I show everyone.

      Never a single one from Ben. Probably more BS, confusion & flat out misinterpretations about this dude, what he actually did vs what he thought he was doin vs how it was even illustrated with more pronounced angles to be sure the people reading and looking at drawings ‘got it’

  2. Barry S.

    Aug 14, 2016 at 5:23 pm

    A lot of instructors, so called swing experts don’t understand that Hogan had a huge over swing taking the club way past parallel in his younger days which created lots of big hooks. He knew he had to shorten his swing so he basically tied his upper arms to his body. Jack Nicklaus came out of tour and was criticized for his “flying right elbow”. Hogan wasn’t a long hitter but he learned to control the ball with his short arm swing.

    • Chris

      Aug 15, 2016 at 3:03 pm

      Ben Hogan was not a long hitter? Yeah ok, some experts estimate his swing speed in the 120 mph range ..

  3. stephenf

    Aug 12, 2016 at 8:19 am

    Never understood the logic in allowing every twit to comment, but they still do.

    In what way does this article have anything to do with “glorifying people in general” or “glorifying a person from long ago,” as opposed to “observing qualities that work well in anybody’s swing, and are exemplified to a large extent in Hogan’s swing”?

    And anyway, if you have a problem with somebody “glorifying” one of the guys on the list of the three or four greatest players in history, and widely acknowledged as the player who had the modern golf swing mostly figured out before other people did, that’s really your problem. The burden of proof is on you, and no, your opinion isn’t as valid as anybody else’s just because you breathe air and take up space. There is such a thing as an established principle, and if you want to defeat it or disprove it, you start from zero and make a case. The usual internet mode of “I declare my opinion” is worthless here, as it is in most matters, actually.

  4. AE

    Aug 11, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    Hope to see an article about people -the minority – who are more horizontal than vertical, which is my main issue.
    no divots, shallow angle of attack, main miss is either a pull dead left of the target line or pull hook.

    • Dennis clark

      Aug 14, 2016 at 12:07 pm

      I doubt it, It’s so rare…most people who are flat steepen it coming down. I’d like to see your video.

    • Matt

      Aug 28, 2016 at 2:21 pm

      You should read his newest post. It’s most likely that you are shallowing the club late in the downswing, which doesn’t mean at all that you are too horizontal. Most people that are too vertical do something later in the downswing to flatten it out. I have a very shallow angle of attack and still am too vertical coming down.

  5. Jim Losito

    Aug 11, 2016 at 8:26 am

    I played short stop for many years. I never threw sidearm, I came directly over the top to first base.

  6. Regis

    Aug 10, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    Dennis. Thanks. I had to rebuild my swing after a protracted illness a few years ago. I took a lesson last week and my fundamentals were all in good shape. Still I thought something was missing and it rears its ugly head too often on the course. Coming down 17 yesterday I realized I wasn’t getting through the shot properly. I pictured the example of skipping a stone. Today your article is in my inbox . As to the detractors here , if they can take issue with the Modern Fundamentals you’re in good company

  7. ta

    Aug 10, 2016 at 11:26 am

    So, this article quotes Hogan before he had to change his swing from the hook to the cut, right? Otherwise this whole sidehill lies and swinging around thing is all completely wrong. The article should have talked about how to block everything out so as to never hook, which is what Hogan did to start winning, instead of his massive pull hooks with which he struggled for the first 10 years of his career.

  8. 4pillars

    Aug 10, 2016 at 8:19 am

    Without 3D data and kinematic sequence this is meaningless.

    In any event Golf was here first.

    Better to say that baseball is easy golf played on the horizontal.

  9. Hogan

    Aug 10, 2016 at 2:05 am

    Now, if you don’t mind….

  10. Bal oney

    Aug 10, 2016 at 1:20 am

    WhatEV! IF this were true, why did he work so hard to fade the ball and not just play the mega-hook that he got from doing exactly this sidearm move? He could easily have figured out a different way to hit the ball than build mega-heavy clubs with ultra-flat lies and open faces. He could have just aimed dead left, with a strong left hand grip and an open stance and come over the top and played a giant slice, but instead fought to hit it with the sidearm the whole time. If he couldn’t manipulate and bend and weigh his clubs his way, he would never have been able to have his swing that he built.
    So it’s not all about the sidearm move.
    Sometimes the short stop is able to scoop the ball up in this way but has to flip it sidearm AND fling it quick left with a hooking motion because his body is heading towards home plate, instead of leading with his shoulders open and throwing a cutter fade.
    Don’t pay any mind to this baloney article

    • Matt

      Aug 28, 2016 at 2:24 pm

      This has nothing to do with drawing or fading the ball. Look at guys like Dustin Johnson and Sergio that both have this shallowing move to start their downswing (along with damn near every player on tour) and hit fades. Just because someone is “shallowing” or “flattening” their downswing does not ever mean that they will draw it.

  11. Jamie Jones

    Aug 9, 2016 at 11:26 pm

    Two words…Shawn Clement. 24 million viewers can’t be wrong.

  12. Simplton

    Aug 9, 2016 at 10:26 pm

    Want to get the side arm thing down….just buy (Or build yourself one out of pc pipe) The Inside Approach, a training gimmick from about 15 years ago…hell even Jack Nicklaus endorsed it..also very good to help get rid of slice with the driver…..

  13. Anti-Smizzle

    Aug 9, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    If only the ‘hardcore’ flippers had a clue!!!

  14. Nolanski

    Aug 9, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    I’ve read Mr. Hogan’s book 3 times now and it’s seriously a must own book for any golfer. This video is the cherry on top though!

  15. anyone notice

    Aug 9, 2016 at 5:07 pm

    The Great Hogan didn’t really lift his front heel off the ground? Wonder if Chamblee would suggest a little heel lift to Hogan?

  16. Dennis clark

    Aug 9, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    Authors note: this is NOT an article about Hogans swing. It means to say that if you’re too steep the images and advice he offered can help you. No model swing is perfect for everyone!

  17. Roger

    Aug 9, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    Great article. I would LOVE some advice on the opposite problem: I’m much too horizontal (both in backswing and downswing), and not enough vertical. I know its off topic, but would greatly appreciate any suggestions!

  18. acemandrake

    Aug 9, 2016 at 3:20 pm

    Swing “through” NOT “at” or “down” (& get your body out of the way)
    Feel loose & athletic

  19. Sometimes a Smizzle

    Aug 9, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    I honestly prefer some of the modern swings like Bubba, young tiger woods, and jb holmes. I swing most like jb. Not a lot of hinge and lots of speed.
    I am sure you know that people worship at the altar of Hogans swing, so why kick the hornets nest Smizzle?

    • ooffa

      Aug 9, 2016 at 4:57 pm

      Kolfpro must be Hogan’s mother. Very supportive of her little boy. Why couldn’t you buy a color camera for your boy so we would not have to look at black and white photos of that goofy swing.

    • stepehenf

      Aug 12, 2016 at 8:10 am

      “Prefer” them for what? Early retirement? Inconsistency? Underachievement?

    • Sometimes a Smizzle

      Aug 12, 2016 at 9:57 pm

      still working on that 58 ???? Got to crack par first. I have almost shot par a few times on 9 holes. If i ever do it, i will finally move back a set of tees. I average 305 off the tee and 1.9 putrs per hole. I hope to crack par this season at least once.

  20. kolfpro

    Aug 9, 2016 at 2:29 pm

    OK with that statement you are now officially and imbecile!

  21. Marty Mosse

    Aug 9, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    Hogan had one of the worst looking swings ever. It’s clear he had the work ethic of a dead Ethiopian

  22. forgedforever

    Aug 9, 2016 at 1:07 pm

    This makes a lot of sense to me, especially when I see Mr. Clark’s estimation that 80 percent of golfers are in the “too steep camp.” I learn visually, and it is easy to see golfers having problems because their swings are too steep. I have always felt that I need to have a shallower angle of attack myself. Another thing that caught my attention in the article was the recommendation that those of us who are too steep practice hitting from sidehill lies with the ball above our feet. I am always more comfortable hitting this shot that when the ball is below my feet. Now I know why! Thanks for the information!

  23. mr b

    Aug 9, 2016 at 11:38 am

    great article. this echos other instructors lessons to “lead with the right elbow.” The forearm rotation is definately key here so you don’t leave the clubface wide open. would like to see some more videos here to give more visual explanations…

  24. JW

    Aug 9, 2016 at 11:38 am

    Dennis, does rotating the lead arm counter-clockwise accomplish anything else besides offsetting the trail elbow action? For example, is proper rotation of the lead arm a prerequisite for proper rotation of the lead shoulder? And/or will it help someone who has a hand path that works too vertically?

    • dennis clark

      Aug 9, 2016 at 6:16 pm

      it counteracts the opening of the face if one “lags” by pulling on the handle. If you just do a horizontal tug the face will be open, so rotate the lead forearm to square the face.

  25. juststeve

    Aug 9, 2016 at 11:13 am

    Is Ben Hogan really a universal model applicable to everyone, particularly the recreational golfer who spend far more time earning a living than practicing golf, and whose main problem is slicing the ball, not hooking the ball?

    • Loz

      Aug 9, 2016 at 12:24 pm

      Especially as his body was a bit freakish, so I saw mentioned in a video recently. Very long reach for a fairly small man. For most of us it’s not physically possible to get into many of his swing positions due to not having the same body dimensions.

    • Justin

      Aug 9, 2016 at 2:44 pm

      Too vertical often equates to an over the top move, which translates into a pull or a slice every time. Until you can eliminate coming over the top, you should never watch an instructional video that tries to teach you something else. To me, coming over the top is the ONE THING you cannot do if you want to have fun playing golf. The vast majority of amateurs have an over the top move and it’s much harder to eliminate than it seems and this is because of the “vertical” focus. Baseball players often make fairly good golfers because a true golf swing is only slightly more vertical than a baseball swing.

      • Dennis clark

        Aug 9, 2016 at 4:59 pm

        You can get too steep from inside too. But working on more around from inside covers it all.

    • Dennis clark

      Aug 9, 2016 at 8:21 pm

      No he’s only a model for those too steep. Like the article says. There is no universal model.

  26. Loz

    Aug 9, 2016 at 10:22 am

    I’m 6′ 4″ and have always been a good long iron player and generally poor wedge player. I typically hit better shots from a side hill lie as you mention. Trackman Maestro (Joseph Mayo, I think) did a great video about throwing a frisbee which might be worth taking a look at.

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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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