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What we can learn from the greats about golf instruction

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As I reflect on the passing of the immortal Arnold Palmer, “The King,” I can’t help but wonder about all the things that made him the legend he was. There has been so much written about AP’s off-the-course generosity (and deservedly so), but as a teacher what intrigued me most was the unique way he learned to play the game.

Since the earliest days of golf instruction, the fundamentals of the game have always been the same: grip, aim, stance, ball position and alignment (not necessarily in that order). And I think it’s safe to assume that most teachers would agree to that list. “Some things never change,” as the old adage suggests. But in my experience, I might more accurately refer to this list as preferences instead of fundamentals.

Here’s why: If grip, aim, stance, ball position and alignment were truly fundamentals, the very best players would do them the same way. And as we know, that is anything but the case.

The reason I think of the fundamentals of golf as preferences is simply because one can choose to hold the golf club, aim the body and position the ball in individual ways and still play great golf. A few examples might be Jim Furyk’s double-overlap grip, Fred Couples’ open alignment, Bubba Watson’s ball position or Matt Kuchar’s flat swing (which is not ideal for his height, we are told). Watch the video below I made of Arnold Palmer’s swing. What fundamental book is his address from?

When we start out in the game, all of us quickly develop a method of swinging the club. Our earliest days of getting the ball in the air toward the target established a way of   swinging that created a certain ball flight. After that, one is likely to position the golf ball where the bottom of the swing is, and aim the body away from where the ball generally flies. They can even stand up to the ball in a posture that allows them to maneuver as they do. In fact, many great golfers developed their fundamentals as opposed to starting with more “classic” positions and then learned to match their swing to what they did naturally.

Lee Trevino, for example, faded the ball with a STRONG grip and an open alignment. How is that possible? Well, he matched all his elements and learned to make the ball behave. It’s the proverbial chicken-egg dilemma.

  • Did Trevino develop a hook with that grip and then use an open setup to offset the path? Or was it the other way around?
  • Did Furyk develop an upright back swing and then learn to drop it way back in, or was it the other way around?

It really doesn’t matter, does it? Golf history will never forget Trevino or Furyk.

This is not a license to play golf any way you want or hold the club however you please, of course. Let’s say you are comfortable with holding the golf club in a certain way, say in a stronger position. That doesn’t mean you cannot play from there; it simply means you’ll need a swing that is compatible with that grip.

If a strong grip has a closing effect on the club face, perhaps you might consider a more vertical swing plane, a more open setup or a later release, as these factors have a opening effect on the club face, which would balance the grip’s effect.

This is what we do in teaching, juggle things to get the right blend, the right mix for THAT player. It’s not easy, but I believe it’s easier than trying to start over and build a whole new swing. That approach is futile, and the vast majority of the time (if not always) leads to period of getting worse before you get better. As a teacher, that is the LAST thing I want to see.

In any case, I, like millions of others who love golf, mourn the passing of the legend. I’ve been in this wonderful game for more than 55 years now, and there is an eeriness to Mr. Palmer no longer presiding over it.

RIP AP! Long live the King!

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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

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Alex Ross-Edwards

    Oct 2, 2016 at 9:24 pm

    I wished I had been aware of Arnold Palmer much earlier in my life and to witness his ability to bring the game of golf to the average man. Mr Palmers gift to the world is the idea that we all could play and enjoy this great game, – – Which ever side of the track we were from. Thank you Mr Palmer.
    My two bits worth regarding the golf swing and all its nuances. I love this great game simply because I will never fully master it, but I will continue to explore its complexities, and enjoy the ever diminishing journey. I’v been joyfully distracted by the conundrum that is golf for 35 yrs and dread the day I may solve its last mystery. Many, many more hours studying than playing but I do play on most occasions to a very high standard. Thank you for the joy of this, again Mr Palmer.
    I would just like to say to all; Every day you will find the secret of golf and every day it will be different to the day before but within all those secrets there will be a very small piece of the puzzle that will reveal the real secret to how to play your greatest game of all.
    Vale The King. Mr Arnold Palmer
    Thank you for making my life a little bit nicer.
    Cheers.

    • dennis clark

      Oct 3, 2016 at 6:57 pm

      “We are all dogged victims of an inexorable fate” and as Jim Murray once remarked, “Arnold may have been the most dogged victim of them all”. This old pro can’t imagine the game without him!

  2. gvogelsang

    Oct 2, 2016 at 9:03 am

    someone once said that Arnold Palmer’s hands looked beautiful on a golf club. All of the great players have something between a two knuckle to almost three knuckle left hand, with the butt of the club held up underneath the heel pad. The right hand simply compliments the left.

    I have seen film of Arnold’s swing when he won the US Amateur. He had a beautiful, full follow through. The famous Palmer finish developed years later as he became afraid of the hook. It is a shame, because his 1950’s swing was exceptional, and textbook.

    • Dennis Clark

      Oct 2, 2016 at 11:07 am

      Well his swing was always beautiful in terms of what it produced. talent, drive, determination, great athleticism and pair of hands that were like two massive hunks of steel. I was in his company several times and one could not help but be taken aback by those mitts! (John Daly was another with hands like that). You couldn’t be built any better, think any better or be more determined than AP. “I wanted to win, DESPERATELY” he said so many time…RIP

  3. Philip

    Oct 1, 2016 at 11:16 am

    Denis, I think the failing comes from our language and our minds in that we have a hard time wrapping around the concept that “grip, aim, stance, ball position and alignment” are both fundamentals of golf AND preferences of golf – it is not night and day. In the beginning for a golfer they may be considered preferences and for sure between golfers they are preferences. However, once a golfer has set themselves upon a repeatable version of their personal “grip, aim, stance, ball position and alignment” then these elements go from being a preference to becoming a fundamental for that golfer and their unique swing – especially as they rise to be one of the better golfers. At least, that is how I see it. I don’t go to a golf swing coach to tell me how to swing the club and how I need to do my preferences/fundamentals – I go to them to help me understand concepts, to check when I say I am aligned that I am, is the ball going left because of what I think or maybe something else, to point out that the club has moved into my palm – I need to figure out how to correct the issues (hopefully with some tip or drill from the coach) and work on it – not have the swing coach wave their magic wand suddenly everything is fixed :o)

    • dennis clark

      Oct 1, 2016 at 12:17 pm

      Phil, yes those are the reasons you should check in with your coach. You’re not going to change your swing very much if you have played for some time; you’re simply going to see if you have the balance in your swing elements that have allowed you to play best. Remember what you did when you played your best, and keep working toward that goal.

      • Sometimes a Smizzle

        Oct 1, 2016 at 9:10 pm

        Great article. But i disagree that making big changes are difficult.
        I dramatically changed my swing by focusing on one of the different changes i wanted each week. Made several changes in 2 months. Started with a matt kuchar swing and switched to something between Bubba and a young Tiger swing. Need slow motion camera to do it. One hour per night practicing and also rehearsing the movements in my living room when i walked past my wedge. Also got rid of back pain.

  4. Tom Duckworth

    Oct 1, 2016 at 11:07 am

    Perfect…You are so right. So many golfers have been frustrated by lessons by a teacher trying to force them into that teachers idea of a perfect swing. I’m not saying lessons are bad but finding the right teacher is important. That’s the hard part finding someone who you can relate to.

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Instruction

How to fix the root cause of hitting your golf shots fat

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Of all the shots golfers fear, hitting the ball FAT has to be right up at the top of the list. At least it heads the list of commonly hit poor shots (let’s leave the shank and the whiff out for now). After fat, I’d list topping, followed by slicing and then hooking. They are all round-killers, although the order of the list is an individual thing based on ability. Professionals despise a hook, but club golfers by and large fear FAT. Why?

First of all, it’s embarrassing. Secondly, it goes nowhere — at least compared to thin — and it can be physically painful! So to avoid this dreaded miss, golfers do any number of things (consciously or subconsciously) to avoid it. The pattern develops very early in one’s golf life. It does not take very many fat shots for golfers to realize that they need to do something differently. But rather than correct the problem with the correct move(s), golfers often correct a fault with a fault.

Shortening the radius (chicken-winging), raising the swing center, early lower-body extension, holding on through impact (saving it), running the upper body ahead of the golf ball and even coming over the top are all ways of avoiding fat shots. No matter how many drills I may offer for correcting any of those mistakes, none will work if the root cause of fat is not addressed.

So what causes fat? We have to start with posture. Some players simply do not have enough room to deliver the golf club on a good plane from inside to inside. Next on the list of causes is a wide, early cast of the club head. This move is invariably followed by a break down in the lead arm, holding on for dear life into impact, or any of the others…

“Swaying” (getting the swing center too far off the golf ball) is another cause of fat, as well as falling to the rear foot or “reversing the weight.” Both of these moves can cause one to bottom out well behind the ball. Finally, an excessive inside-out swing path (usually the fault of those who hook the ball) also causes an early bottom or fat shot, particularly if the release is even remotely early. 

Here are 4 things to try if you’re hitting fat shots

  1. Better Posture: Bend forward from the hips so that arms hang from the shoulders and directly over the tips of the toes, knees slightly flexed over the shoelaces, seat out for balance and chin off the chest!
  2. Maintaining the Angles: Casting, the natural urge to throw the clubhead at the golf ball, is a very difficult habit to break if one is not trained from the start. The real correction is maintaining the angle of the trail wrist (lag) a little longer so that the downswing is considerably more narrow than the backswing. But as I said, if you have been playing for some time, this is risky business. Talk to your instructor before working on this!
  3. Maintaining the Swing Center Over the Golf Ball: In your backswing, focus on keeping your sternum more directly over the golf ball (turning in a barrel, as Ernest Jones recommended). For many, this may feel like a “reverse pivot,” but if you are actually swaying off the ball it’s not likely you will suddenly get stuck with too much weight on your lead foot.
  4. Setting Up a Little More Open: If your swing direction is too much in-to-out, you may need to align your body more open (or feel that way). You could also work with a teaching aid that helps you feel the golf club is being swung more out in front of you and more left (for right-handers) coming through — something as simple as a head cover inside the golf ball. You’ll hit the headcover if you are stuck too far inside coming down.

The point is that most players do what they have to do to avoid their disastrous result. Slicers swing way left, players who fight a hook swing inside out and anybody who has ever laid sod over the golf ball will find a way to avoid doing it again. This, in my opinion, is the evolution of most swing faults, and trying to correct a fault with a fault almost never ends up well.

Get with an instructor, get some good videos (and perhaps even some radar numbers) to see what you are actually doing. Then work on the real corrections, not ones that will cause more trouble.

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Instruction

Right Knee Bend: The Difference Between PGA Tour Players and Amateurs

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The knees play an especially important role in the golf swing, helping to transfer the forces golfers generate through our connection with the ground. When we look closer at the right knee bend in the golf swing, we’re able to get a better sense of how PGA Tour players generate power compared to most amateur golfers.

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How to eliminate the double cross: Vertical plane, gear effect and impact location

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One of the biggest issues teachers see on the lesson tee is an out-to-in golf swing from a player who is trying to fade the ball, only to look up and see the deadly double cross! This gear effect assisted toe hook is one of the most frustrating things about trying to move the ball from left to right for the right-handed golfer. In this article, I want to show you what this looks like with Trackman and give you a few ways in which you can eliminate this from your game.

Below is the address position of a golfer I teach here in Punta Mita; his handicap ranges between scratch and 2, depending on how much he’s playing, but his miss is a double cross when he’s struggling.

Now let’s examine his impact position:

Observations

  • You see a pull-hooking ball flight
  • The hands are significantly higher at impact than they were at address
  • If you look at the clubhead closely you can see it is wide open post impact due to a toe hit (which we’ll see more of in a second)
  • The face to path is 0.5 which means with a perfectly centered hit, this ball would have moved very slightly from the left to the right
  • However, we see a shot that has a very high negative spin axis -13.7 showing a shot that is moving right to left

Now let’s look at impact location via Trackman:

As we can see here, the impact of the shot above was obviously on the toe and this is the reason why the double-cross occurred. Now the question remains is “why did he hit the ball off of the toe?”

This is what I see from people who swing a touch too much from out-to-in and try to hit fades: a standing up of the body and a lifting of the hands raising the Vertical Swing Plane and Dynamic Lie of the club at impact. From address, let’s assume his lie angle was 45 degrees (for simplicity) and now at impact you can see his Dynamic Lie is 51 degrees. Simply put, he’s standing up the shaft during impact…when this happens you will tend to pull the heel off the ground at impact and this exposes the toe of the club, hence the toe hits and the gear effect toe hook.

Now that we know the problem, what’s the solution? In my opinion it’s a three stage process:

  1. Don’t swing as much from out-to-in so you won’t stand up as much during impact
  2. A better swing plane will help you to remain in your posture and lower the hands a touch more through impact
  3. Move the weights in your driver to promote a slight fade bias

Obviously the key here is to make better swings, but remember to use technology to your advantage and understand why these type of things happen!

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