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What’s the deal with putter face rotation?

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In a conventional golf swing, the clubface opens and closes, rotating to the target line. But with the putter, this is often seen as undesirable. In this article I’ll examine how clubface rotation happens, whether it should, and if so, to what extent.

Pendulum-style

Many people discount that the putter can be swung like a pendulum because the club does not lie vertical at the start. But if you lean a grandfather clock back 20 degrees or so from vertical, does not the pendulum still swing? The requisite feature is not that the pendulum swings vertically, but that it swings in-plane along a theoretical flat surface.

Here are just a few examples to support why an in-plane swing is worth pursuing:

  1. You can lay a STRAIGHT line on the flat surface of a plane, but not on a CURVED surface.
  2. Inertial forces act to pull the clubhead in-line with the path of the hands, and thus to form a plane for the swing.
  3. The best putters in the world swing the WHOLE putter in-plane, or very nearly so (regardless of what some may THINK that they do).

If a club is to swing within a single plane, it must begin the swing within that plane, the address plane, formed between the ball-to-target line and the club. The standard lie angle of a putter is typically 70 degrees, for which the address plane is inclined 20 degrees from vertical (90-20=70). The geometry of a swing within an inclined plane dictates that as the club rotates around the golfer, the clubhead travels up and away from the target line, toward the golfer’s side, on both sides of the lowest point of the arc. As this happens, the clubface will open and close to the target line, even when the clubface remains square to the flat surface of the plane. Additionally, the clubface may roll (rotating upon itself), opening and closing not only to the target line but also to the plane. Example: the Earth rotates around the Sun, and also rolls upon itself.

Modeling the swing

The putting model, “Iron Archie,” can swing a putter pendulum-style with clubface continually square to the in-plane arc when its “shoulders” are set to rotate parallel to the address plane. The only moving part of this simple machine is the entire shoulder/arm/club assembly around a central axis/hub.

Iron Archie in action

The human golfer CAN reproduce the single-action swing of Iron Archie simply by rotating the shoulders, or more accurately, the upper torso, parallel to the address plane.

A difference from the model

The most natural rotation of the shoulders is perpendicular to the spine, specifically a section of the thoracic spine just below the shoulders. This square rotation of shoulders-to-spine allows the whole spine, including the head, to remain fixed. This is why players who “rock the shoulders” on a steeper tilt may be observed with the head teetering back and forth. From an orthodox golf posture, the spine is not normally inclined to the degree that is perpendicular to the address plane. In this scenario (assumed throughout the article), if the golfer’s only movement were to rotate the shoulders naturally perpendicular to the spine, the club would move under and out of the address plane on both sides of the lowest point, the club carving a cone shape through space. In this scenario, a second movement must be added to keep the club moving in-plane – a vertical swinging of the arms from the shoulder joints — and this reality is no different with any other club. This specific action causes the golfer’s arm/club/clubface assembly to roll.

Learning from the best

A fine example of this “rolling” action is seen in the technique of arguably the greatest performer with the putter of our time, Tiger Woods. Tiger swings the putter near perfectly in-plane while maintaining a notably steady head position, indicating that his shoulders rotate mostly perpendicular to the central axis/hub. But since that area of his spine is more vertical than perpendicular to the swing plane, the clubface rolls, as the arms must swing from the shoulder joints to keep the club swinging in-plane. Tiger has been measured by the SAM PuttLab system to exhibit in the impact zone (4 inches before and after impact) 10.2 degrees of clubface rotation relative to the target line, of which 8.5 degrees is clubface roll, relative to the path of the clubhead. This degree of roll, in particular, is notably higher than other Tour players tested. To be clear, the roll of the clubface results not from the wrists rotating about themselves, independently of the upper arms (pronation and supination), but from the roll of the whole shoulder/arm/club assembly around a vertical axis within the swing plane. Thus, this higher degree of face rotation does not represent an undesirable manipulation of the hands, which some might see it as. In fact, the only way for Tiger to maintain a square face-to-plane relationship, all else the same, would be to roll the wrists independently of the upper arms — counter-clockwise in the backswing, then clockwise in the forward swing. Clearly, that would be the manipulation, an unnecessary added movement. And many have wandered down that dark road, often leading to a case of the dreaded “yips.”

Screen Shot 2016-09-12 at 12.42.16 PM

Tiger Woods’ athletic posture with the thoracic spine (red line) inclined short of 90 degrees to the club, which incidentally lies at roughly 68 degrees to horizontal.

Tiger_putting_2

Tiger’s forearms roll over the swing plane. This is the action that rolls the clubface. In contrast, Iron Archie’s “forearms” remain parallel to the plane, allowing the clubface to remain perpendicular.

Seeing the light

The club, as it swings in-plane, will continually point to a straight line on the ground – a line within the plane – a “plane line.” Laser pointers can effectively be used to confirm an in-plane swing.

Practicing an in-plane swing. First, swinging the dominant arm with a laser pointer in-hand, then with the SmartStick training aid. The laser continually points straight to the white target line. Finally, flying solo.

A laser line-generator, like the LaserPutt training aid, can confirm an in-plane swing and also shed light on clubface roll. When the laser line remains on the target line:

  1. The swing is in-plane to the target.
  2. The clubface is maintaining a square relationship to that plane.

We saw both of those conditions achieved with Iron Archie in the first video in this article.

Comparing two in-plane swings with the LaserPutt. On the left is an Iron Archie-style “shoulder” swing; the right forearm remains in-plane while the clubface remains square to the plane. On the right is a Tiger Woods-style “arm” swing; the right forearm rotates out of plane slightly while the clubface rolls, evidenced by the laser line rotating off the target line. Even in this case, the LaserPutt provides valuable visual feedback as to whether you are returning the face squarely to impact. The PerfectStroke training aid serves as a suspended “plane line.”

The straight dope

Turning the spotlight to the so-called “straight-back-straight-through” style, in which the clubhead is supposedly to remain directly ABOVE the target line within a vertical plane, realize that when the club is inclined from vertical, this scenario would see the WHOLE club moving along a CURVED surface. I find the feel of this style notably less stable, less natural and less repeatable than the in-plane style. Still, it CAN be done, BUT if you’re hoping to power this style with a “shoulder” swing, know that your shoulders will need to rotate within a VERTICAL plane. This is unnatural at best, UNLESS you can incline your spine to parallel to the ground, but this is quite unnatural also.

Screen Shot 2016-09-12 at 12.46.05 PM

Perhaps there was more method than madness to Michelle Wie’s adoption of this posture? Yet even she does not maintain the clubhead entirely within a vertical plane.

Proponents of the straight-back-straight-through style usually suggest also that the clubface should remain square to the target line. Again, to achieve this, either the shoulders must rotate within a vertical plane, or if not, then the golfer must actively roll the wrists about themselves to counter the roll resulting from the vertical arm swing required to maintain the clubhead within the vertical target plane. Frankly, either effort is an aberration. Further, I am not aware of a single player on any major professional tour who swings the putter head entirely within the vertical target plane. This style is mostly a myth. It makes some sense in theory, just not in practice.

Straight vs. curved

Have a look at the following two swings. Which looks straight and which looks curved/arced to you?

It’s a bit of a trick question, as both swings are in-plane. The swing on the right is viewed from within the vertical target plane, while the swing on the left is viewed from within the inclined address plane.

Swing like Archie or Tiger?

Both the style of Iron Archie and Tiger Woods produce the in-plane, pendulum-style swing. The main difference is in the relationship of the incline angles for the shoulder turn and the swing plane. The “flatter” or closer to horizontal the shoulder turn is from the swing plane, the more the clubface will roll, adding to the total face rotation. Many have concluded that less clubface rotation MUST automatically be “better,” less likely to be mis-timed, but consider these three points:

  1. The additional clubface rotation results simply from the arms swinging the club in-plane while maintaining a fixed spine. The squaring of the face-to-plane for impact in the forward swing is achieved solely by reversing that single action, and not on timing any additional active action to that action.
  2. A steady head position has always been deemed orthodox, especially when putting.
  3. In the full swing, a so-called “square” position at the top of the back-swing is reached when the clubface rolls, building up to 90 degrees to the swing plane along the path of the clubhead.

Of course, the golfer may use a degree of shoulder tilt somewhere between parallel to the address plane and perpendicular to the spine. The arms are then required to swing from the shoulder sockets, more than Iron Archie (zero) but less than Tiger, producing less face rotation than Tiger but more than Iron Archie (zero). But since the degree to which the shoulders tilt affects the face-to-path alignment, as we have seen, variance in that angle during the swing can directly cause clubface misalignment at impact.

Anything Else?

For the in-plane, pendulum-style swing with the putter, since the clubhead path parallels the plane direction ONLY at the lowest point of the arc, in-line with the thoracic spine, this is where the back of the ball should be positioned. The elbow and wrist joints should be immobile also, maintaining the one-piece structure of a single pendulum, unlike the double-pendulum action used with other clubs.

Conclusion

Those interested in exploring the in-plane, pendulum-style swing with the putter will find the training aids highlighted in this article to provide essential feedback. When guided on an in-plane swing, golfers consistently discover a feeling that they intuitively sense to be most appropriate. Perhaps that’s because an in-plane swing is the accepted ideal with any other club — in the area approaching impact at the very least.

Your sense of touch may guide you, as the stable feel of the hands and clubhead swinging in-line with each other contrasts to the wobbly feel of motion out-of-plane. Your sense of direction may guide you also, since although the clubhead is constantly changing direction as it circles within the plane, the plane ITSELF has direction with the target.

Conflict arises from beliefs that make sense in theory but not in practice, such as the belief that the clubhead should move in-line with the target for an extended length rather than in-line with the hands. And although an in-plane swing FEELS right, it may not initially LOOK right to you. You must not be alarmed when you see the path of the clubhead progressing inside the target plane and the clubface opening to the target line as the clubhead swings up the straight, inclined address plane. As an old Jedi Master once said, “May the force be with you.”

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As an independent contractor based in Scottsdale, Arizona, Todd Dugan provides video swing analysis as a player gift to groups hosting golf tournaments and also is available for private instruction. * PGA Certified Instructor * Teaching professionally since 1993 CONTACT: ToddDugan@PGA.com vimeo.com/channels/todddugangolf

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Josh

    Dec 16, 2018 at 1:44 am

    Is there are type of toe-hang that assists the putter face staying on plane (with less/no rotation as it pertains to hitting the ball)? Face balanced, etc.? Thanks

  2. Cumby Long

    Oct 21, 2016 at 12:23 pm

    i’d trust this article more if i heard of the writer before

    • Todd Dugan

      Oct 21, 2016 at 2:46 pm

      I never “trusted” anything I heard from a golf instructor. I study and test everything to my own satisfaction. I encourage others to do the same and discover that the information presented in this article is true.

  3. Dill Pickleson

    Oct 17, 2016 at 9:54 pm

    This is fantastic stuff. The ‘feel players’ will hate it and say they don’t need it but they don’t know how truly great consistent putters they can be. Once you get this right, then feel comes. There are no penalties in putting so people only judge themselves on made or missed “makeables” and enjoying occasional hot streaks. How about being hot every day you play and being white hot on some days….now you’re talking. Keep up the good work.

    • Todd Dugan

      Oct 20, 2016 at 4:24 pm

      Thanks, Dill. You’ve got it. Once you get you stroke on-plane, you roll out of bed putting great. Its no different in the full swing really.

  4. kevin

    Oct 6, 2016 at 2:40 pm

    would you recommend using that raised putting rod that keeps the putter on plane for longer putts too? or does it work better for short putts? thanks for the help

    • Todd Dugan

      Oct 6, 2016 at 4:32 pm

      Kevin, the rod can be used to guide an in-plane swing with any club, up to the length of the rod. You can use the PerfectStroke aid for longer putts, the longest depending on the tempo of your swing. You raise a good point; the rod could be longer. I saw a video on YouTube where a long rod was suspended with a chair at both ends. You might try that.

      • kevin

        Oct 7, 2016 at 3:11 pm

        thanks for the reply. built one yesterday and seeing way better face rotation numbers based on my blast sensor!

  5. Bill Presse

    Oct 5, 2016 at 11:45 am

    This article is dead nuts on point. A putter that is Lie Angle Balanced (Directed Force Putters) is balanced to remain square to each individual’s arc. ‘May the force be with you’????

  6. Mr. Wedge

    Oct 5, 2016 at 11:33 am

    Albeit putting can be broken down into science, I always feel that putting is more of an art. Go with what feels natural and if you can read greens you will be a decent putter.

    • Todd Dugan

      Oct 13, 2016 at 12:27 am

      Mr. Wedge, with great technique, you can be far beyond a “decent” putter. But historically, nobody’s ever had much idea on what good putting technique actually is. In over 20 years as a pro, the best putters I’ve ever seen swing in-plane or nearly so. I’ve always been a good putter, but since developing an in-plane swing, I have become much better.

  7. Bob Jones

    Oct 5, 2016 at 10:10 am

    Horton Smith, the best putter of his era, rotated his hands counter-clockwise to keep the putter going exactly straight back and straight through. This is really hard to do and get it right, but he made it work. Billy Casper hooded the putter on shorter putts, too.

    Just for the record, astronomers say one body revolves around another (Earth-Sun, Moon-Earth) and bodies rotate on their own axis.

  8. TheCityGame

    Oct 5, 2016 at 9:49 am

    Maybe it’s me, but there are no videos. There are just lines that say, in bold, “INSERT VIDEO”.

    • Zak Kozuchowski

      Oct 5, 2016 at 10:26 am

      Sorry about that, TheCityGame. We’ve fixed the issue.

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Instruction

Stickney: Sit on it (for a better backswing)

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As we know golf, is a very tough sport and one that involves many moving pieces. Whenever something overreacts or moves too much on the way back, you end up playing catch-up on the way down. One of my favorite things to watch is how the head moves or doesn’t move on the backswing. Sure, you can have some movement, but you can’t have too much or you put yourself behind the eight ball.

I have charted the head position of a tour player at address and we can see that this is a very normal set up position. It is one that looks positioned to do great things.

However, en route to the top, you can see that this player has put himself into a position where his rear knee straightened too rapidly off the start of his backswing. When this occurs the pelvis “runs out from under” the upper body on the backswing the hips will react and begin to slant downward. (You can see a -10 degree tilt versus 3 degrees the opposite way at address for you number people.)

This causes the head to move out in front of where it was at address. This is not a bad position for the irons but for a driver we have a pending issue. If you don’t make a compensation from here then the player will have an angle of attack that is too much downward through impact with their driver.

As the player moves into his transition, the hips have leveled as the rear shoulder lowers the club into delivery but the head and pelvis are still too far out in front of the ball. The only thing you can do from here is fire the lead side upwards and hope that your head falls back into the correct position. If so, you will have the correct angle of attack, if not, you will chop down on the ball causing your launch conditions to be faulty.

And as we see here that this is precisely what this player did at the very last minute…not the easiest way to swing the club but it is functional IF you make the right correction. So, now that you understand how simple things like the action of the lower body can cause your head to move and your angle of attack to become faulty, what is the secret to controlling your lower body?


Just “sit” on the rear knee flex slightly longer during the backswing as you see here. This will slow down the tilting of the pelvis on backswing and thus your head will stay more in position en route to the top.

Personally, I teach both flexion and extension of the rear knee to the top, depending on what the player is wanting to do, so it really does not matter. However, what does matter is the rate at which it begins to straighten for those of you who do allow it to lengthen. I try to make most of my students hold the most of their address flex until the club moves between belt and chest high, any sooner and you risk the faulty pivot we saw above.

Therefore, take it from me and “sit on it” slightly longer for more quiet head motions as well as a more balanced backswing—your angle of attack will thank you!

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Davies: Training the trail elbow in the golf swing

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Alistair Davies shares with you how to get the correct trail arm and elbow action in the downswing. He shares some great drills that can be done at the range or at home to help lower your scores.Get the correct training for the trail arm here today!

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Instruction

The important lessons you can learn from Peter Senior’s golf swing

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He may not be a household name in the United States, but Australia’s Peter Senior has a swing for the ages. At 60 years old, Senior has 34 worldwide professional wins including the 2015 Australian Masters beating a competitive field with several top-ranked players in the world. Turning professional in 1978, his career has spanned over 40 years.

Senior’s game and swing have stood the test of time, and the longevity of his career should be recognized. Senior formerly worked with Australian instructor Gary Edwin, and the structure to this swing taught to Senior paved the way for a future of consistent, high-quality professional golf.

Having a great golf swing isn’t the only key to becoming a great golfer, one must learn to play the game. However, you can learn a lot from Senior’s swing.

The origin to Senior’s swing lies in his set-up. Senior sets up in what I call his “hitting angles” or a position that mirrors impact.

From this position, Senior is able to simply keep these angles he established at address throughout the swing. This is why the set-up is so critical. The further he deviates from these “hitting angles”, the more he will have to find that impact position with his body in the backswing and downswing. In other words, more movement. The goal of his backswing will be to maintain these original starting angles.

From the picture, Senior has maintained his original body shape that he established at address. From this position, it will be much easier and repeatable to return the club to impact.

Note how his impact position now mirrors his original address position. All his original angles were maintained with a slight bump of the body towards the target. From impact, he can simply fold up his arms as his right side of his body rotates around his left side, keeping the clubface square to the body.

This standing tall finish position with the head following the torso is much easier on the back. His body has come forward and around beautifully, covering the ball for a proper strike.

The beauty of Senior’s swing lies in its simplicity. The changes Senior made to his swing can apply to anyone. Let’s look at two simple drills to make your swing more efficient and powerful.

“To a large extent, my backswing is a product of my set-up position” – Tiger Woods, Golf Digest 2020

To get into these impact angles simply practice pushing into an impact bag with the head and shaft of the club. Make sure your trail arm is tucked, lowering the trail shoulder as you pressure the bag.

To get the feeling of the proper coil from this set-up position, grab an impact bag and hold the bag in front of you.

From here, swing the bag around you with your arms keeping the top of the bag level. You will feel the trail side of your body move back and the lead side move out, coiling around your spine angle.

The trail glute will also move back and around with this drill, a key move the great Ben Hogan used to pivot his body. To develop an efficient swing and a long, injury-free career, take note of Peter Senior’s key moves.

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