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How to reduce your handicap (and your back pain) with these simple backswing keys

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One of the most common faults I see among recreational and competitive players is that they believe they should attempt to keep the lower body and hips still in the backswing and turn the shoulders as much as possible to create the maximum amount of separation, or “X Factor.”

Previously, this was thought to be the proper way to create power in the golf swing. As golf instruction has moved forward with the help of technology, however, we now have the ability to measure the club and the body in great detail. Research has shown that this extreme separation between the hips and shoulders is not actually what separates the power players from the shorter hitters, and that it is also a major contributor to lower back pain.

Here are some keys that will lower your handicap… and save your back.

The Takeaway

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After getting into the setup position, you can see here that my first move in the takeaway involves the lower body remaining stable with minimal pressure shift in the feet, and my chest turning away from the target and the clubhead still outside of my hands. At this point, my hands still have not traveled very far, only to my right leg.

Allowing the pressure in the feet to shift and the hips to open a large amount this early in the swing causes problems with sequence and also gets the club inside or “under the plane” too quickly.

Swing to the Top

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As your hands pass your trail leg, allow your hips to open and the right leg to straighten. From the down-the-line view, you should be able to see your lead knee in front of the trail knee, an indication the hips have made a nice turn.

I feel here as if my back foot is turning clockwise against the ground. A good feel at this point of the backswing is that the arms and hands work up to the sky, not around your body, allowing the turn of the body to create the depth. Stay tall and feel a nice stretch in your lead lat. With your trail foot turning against the turf, as opposed to feeling a lateral move, you should get a very powerful feeling from the ground up through the legs and core as if you could jump or do a 360 spin.

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Delivery

This nice turn with the body gives us plenty of room to deliver the club from the inside easily without having to use as much right bend away from the target with the upper body, which over time will lead to injuries. This will also be very helpful for those who having trouble drawing the ball or tend to take very steep divots. We can deliver a big hit from here.

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Finished Product

With all this space and rotation, we can now pivot through the shot freely with our hips more open than our chest, but not to an extreme. This will make the clubface very stable through the bottom of the arc and creates a very powerful strike.

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Make these adjustments to your backswing and your handicap, and your body, will thank you.

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Wills began coaching golf at the age of 19. After moving from Bluefield, Virginia, to Orlando, Florida, at the age of 21, he began to study under swing coach Foley, and has worked as his assistant since 2011. Wills worked as an assistant professional at Lake Nona Golf Club in 2013, which at the time featured 5 of the top 50 players in the world, to study tour players practice and playing habits. Prior to joining the Foley Performance Academy at Eagles Dream, Wills worked as an independent instructor. Clients include elite junior, collegiate, mini tour and LPGA players. Credits one of his students, former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, as well as golf instructor David Lee as his other coaching mentors.

20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. Tanner

    Sep 18, 2017 at 8:01 am

    Thx, Jim. wouldn’t it be rotate the shoulders, closed?

  2. N

    Sep 17, 2017 at 2:14 am

    Just looking at these photos makes my left leg, hip and ribs hurt

  3. Bob Jones

    Sep 16, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    The X factor has to be the dumbest idea going. Look at Bobby Jones’s swing. He has a tiny X factor, but he hit the ball a ton by the standards of his day.

  4. Chris B

    Sep 16, 2017 at 1:01 pm

    The open club face at the top is circa 1970. It’s not going left!

  5. Bob Pegram

    Sep 15, 2017 at 4:58 pm

    One thing I seldom see addressed in articles about the golf swing and back pain is whether the clubs are long enough. For tall golfers (or golfers with short arms) clubs that are too short will cause the golfer to bend over too far. It takes more flexibility to swing when bent over a lot. Standing more upright with longer clubs is much easier on the back and something older golfers should look at. In my case, it may me a more consistent ball striker. It also took the stress off my back.

  6. Speedy

    Sep 15, 2017 at 2:17 pm

    Bottoming out is a back-killer. With today’s clubs, most can choke down a couple of inches and get more solid strikes, as well as saving the back.

    Weight properly dispersed on feet (slight lead foot emphasis) will help govern the swing’s length. A 3/4 swing is another back saver.

  7. Laugh

    Sep 15, 2017 at 1:48 pm

    Sorry but I had to LOL this article.
    I can’t feel a thing ur talking about, as I HAVE to move my lower body and engage the legs and ankle lift to throw my weight forward and down into the strike otherwise your method is showing me that I have to keep my legs planted and rigid and then stretch upwards with the torso into the finish which will wreck your ribs and hip joints.
    I had to laugh

    • Laugh

      Sep 15, 2017 at 1:53 pm

      Because there is no way that I can keep my left foot planted like that and twist on it as I have no flexibility on that leg or ankle and need to eject it soon after the hit. Otherwise I will end up breaking my ankle or the calf strain will be way too immense to be able to use it the next day the pain will be unbelievable

      • Speedy

        Sep 15, 2017 at 2:20 pm

        Then you’re likely stubborn, out of shape, and/or swinging way too hard. Flexibility can be learned. It must be learned to save the back.

        • Phys

          Sep 15, 2017 at 10:43 pm

          Actually, no. There is a limit to things, just like anything else. Some people are more naturally limber and soft in their tendons than others.

  8. AllanA

    Sep 15, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    The source of the back pain is usually found in the transition from the thoracic to the lumbar sections of the spine (T12-L1). The lower lumbar vertebrae do not rotate, only the upper thoracic vertebrae twist around.
    If you are a sedentary type your lumbar vertebrae and muscles are continuously overstressed and the strain causes pain. When you try to rotate your thoracic spine against the rigid lumbar spine you aggravate the pain. You can develop sciatic pain too.
    A normal healthy spine assumes an ‘S’ shape while an unhealthy spine looks like a hunched over ‘C’ shape. Sedentary people invariably have ‘C’ spines and develop back pain. These people should not be playing golf for obvious reasons.
    Excessive sitting will also shrink and tighten the muscles in the back of your legs and weaken the front muscles. If your legs are weak your golf swing attempts will suffer.
    All good golfers have strong legs and good feet….. which is the true foundation of the golf swing. The hips and torso generate and transmit energy to torque the shoulders that whip the arms and club. Simple, and if you have doubts visit a sports chiropractor.

    • Zu Qu

      Sep 16, 2017 at 2:01 am

      Good points. But every single tour pro on any tour worldwide, spends a significant time sitting down – whether its travel, work or other forms that normal people face. Their bodies are just better equipped at handling it. I’ll also assure you many tour pros especially on the champions tour have very deformed postures and the C shape spine you’re talking about, but they still get it done. There are many ways to play the game. If you limit your mind and get lost in this biomechanic mumbo jumbo, then of course you’re doomed to fail before you begin. Hell, there are guys with severe physical disabilities playing at a high level. This isnt as much of a cookie cutter sport as some make it seem. While a healthy spine, strong legs and feet may help give a foundation for better golf, it doesnt guarantee the touch required for the short game or the nerves. You can have great strategy and know-how of how to play the game even with compromised health. There’s a reason the 70 year olds at my club clean up the young bucks.

      • AllanA

        Sep 18, 2017 at 2:50 am

        Most of the pro golfers started playing golf at an early age, like 6-7 y.o., or like Tiger as a toddler. Their golf swing neuro-muscular system is hard wired into their body and brain.
        They can make compensations to their golf swing and maybe get away with it, but most suffer and give up the game for a living.
        Also, your body shape affects how well you can compensate for a wonky spine. A tall slim golfer will have problems while a short stocky golfer may get away with it.

    • Tim

      Sep 17, 2017 at 1:33 am

      I am a sports specific chiropractor, and you are somewhat on the right track. Sedentary lifestyles are definitely bad for a number of reasons, but they are not the main contributor to low back pain in golfers, or even general back pain. Don’t get me wrong, lack of meaningful movement is a huge contributor to negative health conditions, but as far as back pain specific to golf, it is more complicated than comments on Golfwrx can cover. I would say 60% (maybe more) of clients from more than a dozen different sports and age ranges of 14-42 have had lower back (lumbar) pain at some point in the past. All of these clients are on the high end of “fit” by today’s standards. As an aside, I would ask you to consider how it is possible for handicapped (one legged) golfers to still hit the ball a respectable distance (approximate 250 yd. driver carry) and play solid (single digit handicap) golf. I’ve known a couple of guys who over the years who could do this. I think they would agree it comes down to centrifugal force.

      • AllanA

        Sep 18, 2017 at 2:44 am

        Of course you are right about back pain in the general population, but back pain cause by rotatory sports such as golf and tennis can show up at T12-L1 the transition from the twisting thoracic vertebrae to the rigid lumbar vertebrae.
        Lumbar pain due to a sedentary lifestyle is a chronic condition and such people should avoid rotatory sports where demands on posture and torsion are extreme.
        Please understand that the momentum of the hip mass must be transferred as kinetic energy through the core and to the shoulders. If the spine is compromised anywhere, rotation is also compromised.
        (p.s. there is no such thing as ‘centrifugal force’ in rotation, only ‘centripetal force’ and ‘torque’… per Newtonian physics.)

        • Tim

          Sep 19, 2017 at 10:19 pm

          AllanA,
          I should have assumed you knew what most people refer to as centrifugal force is actually centripetal force. I apologize.

          Your comment regarding “back pain cause by rotatory sports such as golf and tennis can show up at T12-L1” is a broadly generalized statement. Back pain from rotatory sports presents itself in a variety of ways and is not always CAUSED by rotation in the sport. The T12-L1 focus makes sense on paper and is good for textbooks but in real practice the human body compensates differently than most (99.99999999%) of the population realizes. I guess you’ll just have to take my word on it.

          “Please understand that the momentum of the hip mass must be transferred as kinetic energy through the core and to the shoulders”. (I hope after 16+ years in sport specific practice and hundreds of hours in post graduate work I’m starting to). Your statement assumes the sedentary people you mentioned in your first post and latest post actually swing in the same fashion as tour pros. I don’t have specific numbers, but I’m willing to bet that essentially no 10+ handicap golfer does. I’m sure you’ve seen and could describe the stereotypical weekend golfer swing with the super tight grip, right arm dominance, and almost no lower body involvement. In reality, the common instinctual weekend golfer swing has little to do with a professions in the areas of weight transfer, proper rotation, flexibility, balance, rhythm, or consistency.

          • AllanA

            Sep 20, 2017 at 1:45 am

            Sorry, Tim… in my haste to post I should have said that spinal injury can cause back pain. I tried to verbally illustrate how the spinal column can be injured due to the golf swing and omitted all the other causes that you no doubt have experiences professionally.
            My engineering assessment is that an irregular column undergoing rotatory stress has weak points, particularly in transitions from rigid to flexible sections… ergo T12-L1.
            The supporting musculature, deep and surface, also contributes to potential back pain due to vigorous rotation torque … and particularly when the column is tilted like a cantilever. Regardless, most of humanity is out of shape to play any sport.

  9. Jonesy

    Sep 15, 2017 at 8:43 am

    Very good article.

  10. Jim

    Sep 15, 2017 at 8:24 am

    I’ve recently seen some other pros that suggest that after you’ve completed your one piece take away, that you should feel your trail shoulder rotate open. That movement allow your trail elbow to get closer to vertical rather than flying open and then allow you to lead with that elbow in the downswing and create more clearance. I’ve been trying this recently and it really works. I’ve noticed a reduction in back pain by accentuating the one piece take away and then this shoulder rotation move too (which is good for someone with a bad back like me). Good points on the article.

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Davies: The Trail Elbow In The Downswing

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In this video, I discuss the role of the trail elbow in the downswing. I also share some great drills to help golfers deliver the trail elbow correctly, which will help improve distance and contact.

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The 3 different levels of golf practice

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“I would have practiced as hard, but I would have made my practice more meaningful. I would have worked more on my short game and putting. I would’ve done a lot more drills to make the practice more meaningful, and I would’ve added pressure to the practice as much as possible.” — Lee Westwood

Now here’s the rub. Practice is not monolithic! I approach practice as having three different, distinctive and separate curriculum and criteria.

  • Level 1: Basic
  • Level 2: Advanced
  • Level 3: Extreme

Basic Practice (Level 1) by definition is “repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.” Basically, it’s doing the same thing over and over again to get better at it. My favorite skill that requires practice is the 76-yard “flighted wedge.” I do it, and I recommend it be done at every range practice session. Additionally, I identify and then practice as many different “skills” that are required to hit different golf shots. I have found that a non-pressurized environment is the best way to practice in a basic model.

It goes without saying that golf is not played in a pressure-free environment, so basic practice doesn’t help us play golf. The prime objective of Level 2 Practice (Advanced Training) is to take what you do in Basic Practice to the golf course.

First, create on-course situations that require you to hit the shots you have practiced. There should be rewards for demonstrations of competence, and there should be consequences for demonstrations of incompetence

“When you practice, try to find a situation to fit the shot you’re trying to practice.” — Ben Hogan

For example, a major problem is the unevenness of the lies you will encounter during play as opposed to the lies you used for your drills. From marginal to extreme, lies are difficult to replicate on the practice tee. So, play a round of golf and move the ball into the most undesirable lie that is very close to where you are.

Another example would be duplicating the creativity that is sometimes required during actual play. The prime example of that would be the sensation of “being in-between clubs.” I would suggest that you play an occasional round of golf using only half of your clubs. Take two wedges instead of four. Take only the “odd” or “even” numbered irons. Look at not taking the driver, or not taking all of your fairway clubs. I have not taken my putter, which forced me putt with my sand wedge!

A third example would be to play a round of golf and deliberately miss every green in regulation. Should your ball accidentally finish on the green in regulation just move it off into the rough, a bunker or whatever else could use the extra attention. You can create games where your opponent moves your ball off the green into something that would be advantageous to him.

Level 2 Practice is conducted on the practice ground as well as on the course. What I do and recommend is to take each of the shots, skills and drills used in Level 1 and add some accountability to the range experience. I have my students and clients use a “Practice Book” to schedule activities and to keep track of improvement.

Author Note: I will send you a sample practice book page that many of my players actually use. Request it at edmyersgolf@gmail.com.

Please be advised that Level 2 Practice can feature games, wagering or other forms of friendly competitions because they should only activate the lesser emotions of irritation, annoyance, anticipation, anxiousness, joy, pleasure and disappointment. Dealing with these feelings in practice will help you recognize and deal with the minor stresses experienced by most recreational golfers.

Stress is the major cause of “CHOKING.”

Stress, by definition “is a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” Stress can ruin our ability to perform when we experience the major emotions such as fear, anger, shame, humiliation, euphoria, ridicule, betrayal, doubt and/or disbelief.

Level 3 Practice (Extreme Preparation) is on-course training sessions best suited for very serious competitive golfers. The more a player is able to compete in a simulated or controlled environment that accurately replicates the actual “pressures” that produce the kind of stresses that can effect performance, the better the player will perform when stressed in actual tournaments or events. Please be advised that Extreme Practice DOES NOT feature games, gambling or “friendly” competitions. They don’t control the conditions of play sufficiently to replicate the type of pressure that would induce “stress.”

“Simulation, which  is a technique (not a technology) to replace and amplify real experiences with guided ones, often “immersive” in nature, that evoke or replicate substantial aspects of the real world in a fully interactive fashion.” For many years now, the medical profession has used simulations to train doctors, the military has used simulations to prepare troops for the realities of the battlefield and aviation has used simulators to train pilots. Simulating has the added benefits of being cost and time effective while producing verifiable results.

If it’s possible for airlines to replicate every possible scenario that a pilot could experience in the cockpit by using simulations, then why isn’t it possible to replicate situations, and subsequent emotional responses, that a competitive golfer could experience on the golf course? Let me give you an example of what I mean.

“I got nervous all the time, as nervous as the next guy. It’s just that I caught myself before it became destructive.” Jack Nicklaus

Recent events at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play gives us some evidence of the destructiveness of uncontrolled emotions. Justin Thomas said that he couldn’t get the thought out of his mind of becoming the No. 1-ranked player in the world should he defeat Bubba Watson in the semi-finals, which he failed to do.

“I haven’t had such a hard time not thinking about something so much,” Thomas said. “And that really sucked. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, to be perfectly honest.”

Then there was Ian Poulter being told that with his win over Louis Oosthuizen he had earned a spot in this years’ Masters tournament only to be told 10 minutes before his next match that he had not actually secured the coveted invitation. With elation, joy and satisfaction jerked away and replaced with disappointment, and possibly anger, the Englishman went out and got whipped by Kevin Kisner 8 & 6!

I concede that Justin Thomas’ and Ian Poulter’s situations were so unique that simulation-based practice and preparation techniques may not have been available to them, but now they both must know that their performance was effected negatively by mental stresses. And with that knowledge they may want to get tougher mentally. Level 3 Practice does that!

Not all that long ago, I was approached by a PGA Tour veteran for some on-course, one-on-one training. He was experiencing severe “choking” in pressurized short-game situations. So I took him out on the course and we replicated the exact shots he had problems with in the past. He demonstrated that he could perform each and every shot in a stress-free environment. We went into a “low-stress” training environment and his performance began to suffer. Then, at his urging to get “real,” we went into a “high-stress” practice mode and he melted down. Without going into details, he became so angry that not only couldn’t he hit golf shots, he tried to run me down with the golf cart as he retreated to the safety of his car.

Now, that’s not the end of the story. A few hours later, after some soul searching, he apologized for his lack of self-control and acknowledged that he had recognized the early signs of stress growing internally as we worked. We went back out onto the course and got back to work.

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Winning Ways: Here’s what it takes to become a winner in Junior Girls golf

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Every competitive golfer strives to win, and I want to help them achieve their goals. Recently, I wrote a story highlighting the statistics behind winning in junior boys golf, and how they can do it more often. Now, we set out to examine the data on winning in junior girls golf, and provide ways they can improve. The data is based on an analysis of tournament results from all events during the 2017 year from the Junior Tour of Northern California. We then asked stats guru, Peter Sanders, Founder of ShotByShot.com, to provide the stats related to the winning scoring numbers that we found. Finally, we discuss ways that juniors can practice building skills and work towards becoming tournament winners.

The Winning Scores

In 2017 the Junior Tour of Northern California held 26 tournaments with 850+ members. According to our data collection based on information available on the website, the average girl’s tournament course measured 6145 yards. The average winning score for girls was 146 (36 holes), or 73 per round. Ten of the 22 tournaments where won with scores of 144 or better and the low 36 holes total was a whopping 133! In the data collection we also collected the average 10th place scores girls. The average 10th place score for girls was 159 or 79.5.

The Winning Stats

We provided the numbers to statistics expert Peter Sanders. Peter’s company has been providing Strokes Gained analysis for golfers for the last 29 years. Peter is the founder of ShotByShot.com, a website that provides golfers at all levels with Strokes Gained analysis, pinpoints specific strengths and weaknesses and highlights improvement priorities. Since the launch of ShotByShot.com in 2005, Peter has collected over 317,000 rounds. Accordingly, Peter has agreed to share the numbers, below, for a typical female player who averages 73. There are two important points to consider when reviewing these statistics:

  1. In order to have a complete picture of the puzzle that is golf, one must consider the ERRORS, or lack thereof, that play such an important role in scoring at every level. Even the 650+ PGA Tour stats ignore these important miscues. Shot By Shot has included them in their analysis from the beginning and they are highlighted in the infographics below.
  2. The data provided represents only tournament rounds. As such it will primarily represent the high school and college programs that use ShotbyShot.com

Infographics Created by Alexis Bennett

The Winning Preparation

Junior girls are encouraged to use these stats as a benchmark against their own performance to determine where they might need to improve against the “typical 73 player.” After identifying gaps in their game, they can then create practice plans to help improve. For example, a junior might notice they have more 3-putts than the model. To improve, they could work put more time into practice, as well as playing games on the golf course like draw-back and 2-putt.

  • Drawback is a game where after your first putt, you draw the second putt one putter length away from the hole. This often changes a shorter putt (> 2 feet) to a putt of between 3.5 – 5 feet. This putts significantly more pressure on your putting.
  • You may also play Two-Putt, a game where when you reach the green, you (or your playing competitor) tosses the ball away from the hole. You must 2-putt from that spot to move to the next hole (even if it takes a couple attempts!).

Others reading this article might find that they don’t hit enough greens. Improving this area will require more consistent strikes, which may require further technical development and block practice, as well as working on the golf course. To start, I would recommend that every junior implement the yardage rule. The yardage rule works like this; figure out the distance to the very back of the green. For example, this number may be 157. Then figure out what club ALWAYS flies 157, which might be 6-iron. Then choose 7-iron for the shot. This way your best shot will not fly the green, your average shot will likely be in the middle of the green and your less-than-perfect shot will hopefully end up on the front of the green.

During practice rounds, play competitive games with yourself to sharpen your ability to hit greens. For example, if you normally hit 7 greens per round, in practice your goal might be 9. You would track your results over a month and then see your progress.

Beyond building individual skills, like hitting greens or working on putting, junior golfers need times to play competitive rounds on their home golf courses. Ideally, these rounds are played against other people with similar skills and done under tournament like conditions with consequences (loser buys winner a coke or cleans their golf clubs). Playing hundreds of rounds at your home golf course under these conditions gives you a unique opportunity to sharpen your game, learn your tendencies and build skills such as endurance and mental toughness. Most importantly, it teaches you to win and shoot under par!

Please also keep in mind building these skills may take months (or even years). In my own personal experience, when I set out to improve my birdies per round, it took nearly 4 months and 75+ rounds and significant practice to begin to see a change. Depending on your schedule and access to resources like a golf course and instructor, some changes might take a year or more. Regardless, don’t ever worry; building a solid foundation in golf will always lead to rewards!

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