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In my last article I discussed “sidearm” golf, and I made a reference to Ben Hogan’s image in his book Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf. Some readers interpreted the article as some kind of homage to Hogan. It was not. I used the reference he made, and I displayed his image as one of several ways to illustrate my point, which was that the golf swing has a horizontal component. Only that and nothing more.

Any sport played where the object to be struck is placed to the side of the player cannot be facilitated an by an up-and-down motion exclusively. Once again, if the golf ball was played between our feet, there would be no side motion to the swing at all. Up and down would be all that is required. Croquet comes to mind. So I’ll use some space and time here to highlight the main point of the last article.

Of the 35,000+ people I have worked with over the years, probably 95 percent of them suffer from too vertical of a motion, or one that is too steep. Put a different way, the golf club becomes several degrees more upright in the downswing than it was at address. I’ll take this observation a step further: I have almost NEVER (that’s right, never) seen a player come into the golf ball flatter, or more horizontal than they were at address. The better one is at the game, as the video illustrates, the more likely they are to LOWER the golf club into a position from which they can strike the ball.

Sasho Mackenzie is one of my favorite golf scientist researchers, and one of the best minds studying our game. He makes the point quite clearly, and I’m paraphrasing him here: “When a player can get the center of mass of the golf club UNDER the hand path, they are able to achieve a more “passive” squaring of the face of the club.”

Stated another way, Sasho is saying that the more vertical the golf club gets, the more active the hands have to be to square the face. There is one simple reason for this dynamic in my opinion: one’s ability to pronate and supinate is enhanced when the motion is horizontal and diminished when the motion is vertical. That’s why hooks are hit from flat and slices are hit from steep, path be damned.

One has to realize this about my teaching and writing: I do not theorize, hypothesize or idolize. I am a pragmatic, realistic golf instructor. Just because Hogan or Nicklaus or anybody believes something means nothing to me until I have seen it work up close and personal time after time. Lowering the shaft onto a plane from which one can strike the golf ball more consistently works or else I would never suggest it. If you’re too steep, Find a side-hill lie, and you’ll probably improve your swing.

I have an online swing analysis program that many GolfWRXers have tried and enjoyed. If you’d like a diagnosis an explanation of exactly what you’re doing, 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



  1. Manuel Martinez

    Aug 28, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    There are other instructors who feel that when a better player gets too steep going back, they will always attempt to flatten it on the way down. And once the club is in motion, it will continue to stay in motion and at some point become too flat or under the plane. At this point, the player is stuck and has no choice but to back up away from the ball in order to make room for the club to get back out in front. This backing up motion also steepens the shaft above the original shaft plane. I have experienced this in my own swing and better players I know. This would be the opposite of coming down too steep and then backing up to shallow the club back out towards the ball, but the impact looks similar on video since the shaft is still above its original plane. I feel as though the key here might be that pros shallow the club immediately from the top. I noticed that in my swing, the club tracks down the parallel plane for a few frames and then starts to shallow. This late flattening of the club brings the club under the plane and results in my backing up to make room for the club. Had I shallowed the club immediately from the top I may get it on plane sooner and get the hand path moving in the right manner. Please advise.

  2. Dennis Clark

    Aug 28, 2016 at 10:29 am

    Don’t take an golf pro’s word for it: take it from one of the leading golf researchers in the world. How could anyone see it otherwise?

  3. Bruce

    Aug 28, 2016 at 9:30 am

    I interpret Sasho’s comment different from Mr Clark. The club center of mass is the balance point which is along the shaft near the club head. A more vertical swing places this center of mass below the hands. Passive squaring of the club face means no hand action. Hence vertical swings automatically square the face and more horizontal swings require hand action.

    • Manuel Martinez

      Aug 28, 2016 at 2:40 pm

      From the down the line view of the player, the center mass of the club would be above the plane of the hand path in a steep swing, not below it. You need to view the swing from dtl, put a line on the original shaft plane. Now as the club tracks downward, you need to connect the dots on the movement of the hand path. For a right handed player, the plane the clubhead or center mass of club is tracking on needs to be to the left of the plane the hands are on very early in the down swing. Like during the transition phase. The reason this squares the face is because the shallowing of the shaft initially sends the handpath out towards the target line. Once this happens, there is a torque applied to the shaft at the center of mass that wants to realign itself with the handle of the club. This torque sends the clubhead out towards the ball. This is the passive squaring Sasho is referring to. When the club transitions too steep, the handpath is too down the line. From here, the center mass of club will also need to realign with the grip end. This same torque now sends the clubhead away from the target, not out towards the target line. Now the player is in recovery mode to get the club to the ball with little to no time to make consistent contact. DC is 100% correct with his interpretation.

    • Manuel Martinez

      Aug 28, 2016 at 2:48 pm

      You obviously didn’t watch the first 12 minutes of Sasho’s video. You may disagree with Dr. McKenzie’s research but DC’s interpretation is spot on.

    • Dennis Clark

      Aug 28, 2016 at 2:57 pm

      you interpret that differently?

  4. CLF

    Aug 27, 2016 at 11:34 pm

    Mr. Clark,

    Thanks for the series of articles on the this subject. Being self-taught, I recently thought about this idea (horizontal) as a way to get more square at impact instead of hitting a high slice most of the time LOL. I was messing around with a bowed right wrist (I’m LH) and noticed the club wanted to “go flatter,” all of which made it easier to be square at impact for me.

    Seeing you emphasize this point is extremely helpful for me… it gives me the confidence to try this idea out in practice. One problem I noticed I’m having when I try to flatten out my swing is getting the correct feeling in my left arm during the backswing/transition/downswing. Would love to hear you expand on this “side-arm” idea…. I’m trying to use this idea to find the correct feeling for my left hand.


  5. Ramrod

    Aug 26, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    At 1:38 you highlight the plane lowering to a point where Garcia can just rotate and hit the ball. With this being the case, why not just have a shortened swing whereby the backswing only goes to that point? That’s what I would call a true single plane swing.

    What is the benefit in lifting the arms? To me it just creates a problem on the way back down, that as this article suggests, is very hard to fix.

    • Ben

      Aug 26, 2016 at 2:23 pm

      it’s not just lifting the arms, he continues making a shoulder turn. the bigger the turn the more energy you can release into the ball. if he stopped his backswing there, he would probably hit it just as solid but not as far.

    • Dennis Clark

      Aug 26, 2016 at 4:13 pm

      I agree, those who are too steep would benefit from shorter and more “laid off”. Some would argue that the wrist leverage will add power…

  6. David Ciccoritti

    Aug 26, 2016 at 12:23 pm

    You can not flatten a club. It flattens due to “weight shift” before the swing starts. The swing does not start at the top. It starts late after the weight shift. Biggest instructional mistakes are not understanding the true fundamental moves that cause positions to be more naturally ideal. The club flattening or falling is due to the combination of weight shift before the actual “arm swing” happens. That’s why good golfers and pros don’t “cast”. It’s because they don’t start the swing from the top. It’s a late start, therefore a late cast. Truth be told, everyone casts. This video is very good because it shows a natural good position due to a fundamental move. However the fundamental move is not mentioned. Many seem to point out fundamental positions, but rarely do people point out fundamental moves and how it creates fundamental positions naturally and effortlessly. Thanks Dennis – Enjoyed the video 🙂

    • Dennis Clark

      Aug 26, 2016 at 4:26 pm

      This is another fundamental misunderstanding that the biomechanists and “scientists” preach that misleads golfers. There is no amount of ground up sequence that will, IN AND OF ITSELF, change the inclined angle of the golf club. Yes it may lower the arms as the swing starts from below as great players prove, but it will NOT flatten the shaft onto a hitting pane simply by starting from the ground. I have a lot of students who have very good bodi trak traces, and yet start down too steeply
      with the GOLF CLUB. Getting the club on a good re-entry angle involves the right elbow moving forward, right wrist dorsiflex (cup) and left wrist flattening to join the sequence. My lower body cannot change the golf club simply because it isn’t holding the golf club. Thx.

      • David Ciccoritti

        Aug 26, 2016 at 8:30 pm

        I wouldn’t call it starting from the ground up at all. What I found accidentally is because I’ve been working with my son’s pitching and batting for the last 3 years. Batting is a lot more similar to the golf swing than most will have you believe. The key is, if the body begins the weight shift/rotation but the arms “do not start to release”, the elbow and wrist naturally fall into the positions you mentioned. Because the swing (release) is delayed, the weight shift and body rotation cause the front shoulder to go up and the back shoulder to go down. When that happens, the plane of the club will drop because it has to. I believe the secret to this whole move is what I call the “delayed swing/release”. You take it back, start the weight shift/forward rotation, the arms are delayed and hanging back. Then the release happens when arms knows it’s now or never. When I began to do this, I had great lag without even thinking about it and my ball flight rose to the clouds without even thinking about it. A batter drives forward and begins body rotation while leaving the bat behind him/her. Front shoulder goes up, back elbow comes down and the bat naturally finds itself close to level (flattened). At this point in time, I believe this is the true key to having a very good swing. There is also one more key that has to do with the wrists in the back swing but that’s another discussion. Again, your video demonstrates a result that should happen but I would suggest that it happens naturally due to a “delayed swing/release”.

        • Dennis Clark

          Aug 27, 2016 at 2:43 pm

          Teach golf for 35 years, you’ll find out nothing happens naturally. Theory and reality clash in the 1.5 seconds of swinging. Or hitting. Yes when the hit is “delayed” by the movement of the lower body and the upper body remains on its axis, you will lower the arms. But the flattening I’m describing must be programmed and the arms and hands need to feel the proper torque in sequence. You can hold the arms back but it does not flatten the club in and of itself The bat is flat largely because baseball is a one-plane game with bat and ball BOTH in the air. Thx for your interest.

      • Jim

        Aug 26, 2016 at 11:50 pm

        I’ve been at a few very fine private venues. Few members were truly scratch but even the pretty decent 9-12 hcp folks were fighting the top (especially the top right side) coming into the downswing before the weight shift gave the hips the chance to lead the body derotation before the ‘hitting muscles” jump in and overpower what the hips should produce: centrifugal force, by leading the downswing. I’ve taught lessons
        indoors in a couple of high tech venues as well.

        It wasn’t until I arrived at my current facility in 2006 that I saw the WIDEST possible variety of golfers doing those same swing flaws – at the same time. While there was an unbelievable variety of atrocities occuring, two or three variations all ended up causing the same bad impacts and finishes – the finish being a ‘side effect’ of what happened on the way there.

        My current venue has over 100 hitting bays. We’re 20 minutes north of NYC and the only 300 yard covered/heated facility in the area. Saturdays look like a UN outing.There’s at least 6 or 7 Taxi’s from the city – waiting for their clients as well as a half dozen Diplomatic license plates on cars in the lot.
        While I’ve seen and ‘corrected’ these most common flaws for years, and figuring most
        Americans usually swung a bat before a golf club, I assumed the cupped wrist – other than people with smaller or ‘weaker’ wrists and forearms or with women was due to how we were taught to hold the bat or waggle it at the plate..

        It wasn’t until I saw all these ‘humans’ – from all over the world doing it wrong at the same time that I realized it was ‘universal’ – a HUMAN thing. Since the dawn of time people have hit things with sticks – usually in anger, fear or defense. There’s an inate ‘human hitting instinct’ – millions of years ago when critters were trting to eat us, the smart ones learned to pick up sticks and whack them in the head; the dumb ones got ate. We’re decedents of the smart ones…

        seriously. The body doesn’t know what ‘golf’ is. All your body knows is tou have a stick, and you’re trying to whack someting – HARD! In other sports, the balls travelling at you – try returning a serve from Venus Williams without holding on tight and creating a solid, leveraged stance that stays behind the racket and it’ll get ripped out of your hand.

        Most students arrive as “hitters” none are ever ‘flat’….you don’t instinctively ‘hit’ something hard or even in anger – as the case may be from ‘flat’. Understanding WHY the body does what it ‘thinks’ is ‘helping you answers why so many people are defeating the lower body by ‘hitting’ instead of swinging first – and THEN hitting the pellet

        • Dennis Clark

          Aug 27, 2016 at 2:51 pm

          The uniqueness of our game is we’re trying to hit an object aside us AND on the ground, AND get it airborne. It is counter-intuitive to hit the golf ball the way it should be hit. And that illogic defines the majority of mistakes I’ve seen over many many years. Ice hockey comes close to golf BUT…instinctively they know the puck will be hit along the ice., not 90-100 feet in the air. Teaching the design of the golf club itself helps juniors immensely. All the juniors Ive worked with who have gone to collegiate golf and beyond, got on to this idea early. Thx for your feedback.

      • Tony Payne

        Aug 27, 2016 at 7:12 am

        Dennis, very good video. Would you advocate starting the downswing as described in the last paragraph of your reply to David’s post. I sense the conscious move is to push the trail arm elbow in front of the body and the rest follows. Easy to do on a practice swing but more difficult when hitting the ball.

  7. David

    Aug 25, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    Great information!! One question: Why not just flatten the backswing to begin with and swing down on the same path?

    • Dennis Clark

      Aug 25, 2016 at 4:06 pm

      you can for sure…the single plane motion does NOT need flattening as it it a good position to hit the ball already

      • David

        Aug 25, 2016 at 4:23 pm

        Thanks. I have found that keeping my right tricep pinned to my rib cage/side has improved my ball striking. I’m now realizing that this is likely b/c it has forced a flatter swing.

  8. Fok

    Aug 25, 2016 at 12:27 am

    Jim Furyk? Please?

    • Chris

      Aug 25, 2016 at 8:31 am

      Furyk has a very steep backswing but actually comes into the ball flatter than most players.

      • cgasucks

        Aug 25, 2016 at 9:33 am

        True dat…

      • Dennis Clark

        Aug 25, 2016 at 10:47 am

        Correct epitomizing what Im describing see the Ryan Moore video in the comments section. That swing has won him 70 million playing golf and shot 58 and 59…zeros out Trackman more than anyone!

      • Dennis clark

        Aug 26, 2016 at 12:33 pm

        Yep. And if you look how open his body is at impact, its to avoid getting too under and flat. You’d never guess that where he is at the top. But we don’t hit the ball with the backswing do we.

  9. Willow

    Aug 25, 2016 at 12:06 am

    I only watched to levy swing because I thought wow is anyone buying this. The best players don’t flatten out when they get to the top they start to use there body to create force through rotation. They don’t just throw it over the top! Wow

    • Jim

      Aug 26, 2016 at 7:01 pm

      OR – ‘ROLL’ THE RIGHT CHEST / SHOULDER Arms or Hands ‘forward’ toward that ball to shoulder ‘boundry’ line.

  10. Travis

    Aug 24, 2016 at 9:44 pm

    To get flatter…I tend to think more fluid motion in my swing. When I get to rigid or mechanical I yank the handle, get steep and god only knows what comes next! Stay loose!

  11. Chris

    Aug 24, 2016 at 6:11 pm

    Hello Dennis, I have actually been working this for awhile now, used to struggle with OTT. I am a huge Ben Hogan fan even though he died when I was 7, I also like to look at dufner’s swing, but my all time favorite swing to look at is Peter thomson. I feel Thomson’s swing is very similar to Hogan’s but is simpler because no one is athletic enough to copy Hogan’s swing exactly. When I feel like I swing correctly (or somewhat lol) I hit a nice baby draw. I will be playing well and all the sudden a push fade will come into play and turn my +2 round to an 80. I feel like I am coming from the inside because the ball starts left and lightly falls even more left (I’m left handed), when I hit my draw it starts basically on the same line as the push but falls to the middle instead of left. My question is when working in this would you see ur students having issues like me? Or would you normally see hooks? It’s frustrating because most of the time I hit the draw.. I worked on getting rid of my Hogan type wrist at the top and make it flatter and my alignment to no avail.

    This is a link to my swing , I know you can’t be looking at strangers swings all day on the internet but thought I’d throw it up anyway just in case. I am playing to a 5 handicap

    • Denni clark

      Aug 24, 2016 at 9:29 pm

      You can fade/slice from inside for the very reason I’m discussing in the article. I have an online video service. If interested I’ll explain how to use. Thx

      • Sometimes a Smizzle

        Aug 26, 2016 at 11:51 pm

        During my last round of golf i swung from what felt like the inside amd with a square face. But kept pushing it. Got on a flightscope a few hours later and it said i swing 3-4 degrees from the inside. With a face 3-4 degrees open to target. Oops. Good thing my short game was fine and i 2 putt the whole way.

        • Dennis Clark

          Aug 27, 2016 at 2:32 pm

          exactly; that’s a slice technically from inside the golf ball but with face open to path…happens a lot for better players. Higher caps come over it.

  12. Dennis Clark

    Aug 24, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    Flipping is the result of too steep, therefore too open, trying to square it.

    • Dennis Clark

      Aug 24, 2016 at 5:52 pm

      Under plane is hook is almost always…and those who hook tend to hold on…slicers coming in steeply over it tend to more to flip to square the face. In fact, the ONLY way you can keep turning through is by laying the club down because you don’t have to back up and flip…When you see tour pros so able to “get through it” its because they’re on plane or even a little under coming down.

    • Jim

      Aug 26, 2016 at 7:35 pm

      ….it’s due to incorrect use of the hands – I don’t know if there’s a Webster’s Video Dictionary, but I show folks ‘flipping’ is like trying to lift a hockey puck – a wrist shotn and what the lead hand needs to do is assist with supination – or risk getting ‘flipped’ and pushed out of the way by the strong hand…The lead hand should ‘Flick’ INTO rotation – kinda like the the back of the hand is flat perpendicular to the ground and tossing a frisbee 20 feet – level to the ground…
      Flipping is also caused when a fine swing – all the ‘moves’ are there – BUT the person’s wrist break was too cupped and they either let the
      hands and arms follow the body (properly) and
      ‘drop the club’ But unless they flatten the wrist in the first tenth of a second after the drop, THE
      LEAD HAND ends up anatomically superior (on
      TOP) of the right hand – now just above the belt line z where it should now be starting to initiate ‘the hitting rotation….A ‘Sergio’ style wicked pulling down & in with the strong side elbow also contibutes to this ANATOMICALLY COMPROMISED POSITION….If your body/arms & hands are moving at speed, it’s impossible to
      CONSISTANTLY release the club head (and with the driver ‘continue to make speed 4 feet after the ball) if the back of the lead hand is facing up in the air at this point without some strong hand flip….

      This is NOT a ‘skill level’ issue. It’s a functional anatomy issue….

  13. Nolanski

    Aug 24, 2016 at 4:54 pm

    I like to think like I’m hitting a midget with a right hook during the swing.
    Really helps me shallow out.

  14. Marnix

    Aug 24, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    Nice demonstration of this essential swing characteristic. Now that we know the ‘what’ (flattening the plane at transition), can you comment on the ‘how’, as in: how does one actually accomplish this? Is it forearm rotation, rotating the hips or upper body, flattening the left wrist, etc.

    • Denni clark

      Aug 24, 2016 at 4:30 pm

      That’s the eternal question I get more often than maybe any…it deserves a longer answer but here’s the short version. To change this in your golf swing requires a new orientation to swinging the club. I generally put students on a side hill lie with the ball above their feet but it’s not something you can change quickly. Personally I hit hit balls on this lie for a full year every time I practiced. Hope this helps

      • Marnix

        Aug 24, 2016 at 6:51 pm

        Well, yes, to some extent. Still, the mechanics should be easy to explain – and probably hard to execute …

        • Denni clark

          Aug 24, 2016 at 9:35 pm

          On the contrary I would say it’s the hardest thing to do n golf but still the one that separates the wheat from the chaffe…mechanically the rear elbow move out, the lead wrist flattens, the trail wrist dorsiflexes, and the arms lower. That’s actually what happens but again it requires a new mindset, a whole different paradigm in ones conception of a swing. I.E. Horizontal. Thx. .

          • Double Mocha Man

            Aug 24, 2016 at 10:33 pm

            Smizzle… ya gotta knock it off with faking who you are. We catch on. You were even me once before.

    • christian

      Aug 24, 2016 at 11:46 pm

      Push your right elbow into the side of your body in the beginning of the downswing. Done.

    • christian

      Aug 24, 2016 at 11:51 pm

      It’s also what happens in the video, from having the right elbow clearly free from the body, he is pushing the elbow into the side of his body and thus flatten the plane. It’s the one thing most players should do, push the elbow into your right side at the beginning of the downswing

  15. Nolanski

    Aug 24, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    Great stuff. Doing it is another story but I’ll keep working on it. And I love the Hogan material.

  16. Dennis Clark

    Aug 24, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    Here’s an EXTREME example of what I mean…

  17. B Hock

    Aug 24, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    What’s an easy and good drill to help counteract the over-the-top move and to promote laying it flat to start the downswing? Thanks and Great Article!

    • Dennis Clark

      Aug 24, 2016 at 2:20 pm

      Well what I have seen most effective is a side hill lie with the ball well above your feet. Set the club up on the back swing and try hitting balls. You’ll soon be able to tell if your laying it down coming down.

  18. Dennis Clark

    Aug 24, 2016 at 2:00 pm

    Adam, when you say “under plane” what do you mean? Have you had Trackman or FS eval with very low vertical plane? Inside maybe but I’m guessing club is still more vertical?

    • Adam Cahill

      Aug 24, 2016 at 2:44 pm

      I fight having an open club face at the top so I back up and flip the club under plane.

  19. cgasucks

    Aug 24, 2016 at 1:55 pm

    “The flatter I get the fatter my wallet gets.”

    Claude Harmon Sr. (Butch’s Dad)

  20. Justin

    Aug 24, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    EVERYONE needs to watch this video! The number one problem I see with the average amateur golfer is the “over the top” move, which is the result of not flattening the downswing. Do you know how many more people would play golf more often (or even at all) if they knew they could hit something other than a pull slice off the tee? This isn’t new info, but a great reminder and great video. The only comment I have is that you should have chosen other players besides the ones who are the “extreme” example (Sergio, Rahm).

    • Leavy

      Aug 24, 2016 at 1:54 pm

      Yep! It took me a while to quiet down my overactive right shoulder in the downswing. This video shows how good the pros do it.

      What’s also interesting is how close the right arm is to your thigh at impact instead of flying out from your body. Zach Allen has a good drill for that on YouTube “The Magic of the Right Arm”. Good stuff!

  21. Adam Cahill

    Aug 24, 2016 at 1:15 pm

    My main swing fault is coming in very under plane on the downswing, which I assume would be steep?Would you suggest working on a flatter backswing and maintain more of that horizontal plane on the down swing?

    • Justin

      Aug 24, 2016 at 1:40 pm

      Look at the second swing that Dennis analyzes here (Rahm). Notice that the club seems to be “falling” (movign vertically) at one point while the rest of his body is moving horizontally. You need to achieve that feeling of the club “falling” out of your set position at the top. Far too many players increase their grip pressure from the top of the swing down and this often results in a weak move that is not on plane. A good drill you can do is to take the club back to the set position at the top and drop the club to the ground right before you start the downswing (complete the rest of the swing without the club in your hand). This will give you the feeling of a “lighter” overall downswing (which will help with grip pressure) and in turn help you to let the club naturally fall from the top like the pros do.

      The best instructional video (quick tip) that I’ve seen is from PGA teacher Zach Allen. You can find it on youtube or on his website.

      • Leavy

        Aug 24, 2016 at 1:59 pm

        Hah! I see you’re a Zach Allen fan too Justin! Zach’s just one of those teachers that gives concise instruction.

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



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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