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Top of the backswing: Cupped, bowed or flat?

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Should a golfer have a cupped, bowed, or flat left wrist position at the top of swing? The answer is it doesn’t matter.

Now that’s not 100 percent true, but I will explain why you shouldn’t be paying attention to the left wrist at the top of the swing (for a right handed golfer). If you look at the best players in the world, you will see some large variations in left wrist positions at the top of the swing. This is because they all have different grips. So you ask, “If we aren’t supposed to pay attention to the left wrist at the top of the swing, what are we supposed to be working toward?”

When we get into wrist conditions at the top of the swing, we can keep it simple by looking at the right wrist. In order to have a forward leaning shaft at impact and take a divot after the ball the right wrist must be bent backwards. If you want the right wrist bent backwards at impact, common sense would tell you that you want to create this backward bend in the right wrist in the backswing. If your right wrist is not bent at the top of the backswing it will be much harder to create this bend on the downswing, and even harder to do it consistently.  Let’s look at a couple tour players at the top of the swing at see where they differ and where they are similar.

        
[Above, from left to right: Nick Faldo (cupped), Tiger Woods (flat) and Dustin Johnson (bowed)]

If we look at these three swings we see players on every end of the spectrum; cupped, flat, and very bowed. While these three players look quite different at the top of the swing in many respects they all have a very similar amount of right wrist bend at the top of the swing. The stronger your left hand is in relation to your right hand the more cupped the left wrist will appear when your right wrist is bent backwards.  If your left hand is weaker than your right hand the left wrist will appear bowed when your right wrist is bent at the top of the swing.

For the majority of golfers who struggle to get shaft lean and slice the ball the left hand grip is weaker than the right hand. So when this right wrist bend is created, it makes the left wrist bowed which feels both awkward and wrong.  For many golfers, creating this right wrist bend will make the club face feel very closed, almost like it is facing the ground.  This is to be expected and is a good thing, because if the clubface is too open on the downswing you will never have forward shaft lean.

The secondary benefit of right wrist bend is it helps shallow out angle of attack and helps shallow out the plane angle making it easier to get path inside out for the average golfer. So in summary, the correct left wrist position at the top of the swing is whichever one that results from having your right wrist bent at the top of the swing. This will vary based on how you grip the club and for many will make the club feel more closed during the backswing.

As a drill I suggest hitting 3/4 punch shots where golfers focus on creating a bent right wrist in the backswing and then thumping the ground after the ball. Hopefully this leads to more solid contact and shorter putts.

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum. 

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I currently teach at Hidden Hills Country Club in Jacksonville, Fla. I began teaching golf in 2001 and have had PGA Tour teaching credentials since 2009. I have been lucky enough to work with players on the PGA, Web.com, LPGA and Symetra tours as well as top amateur and collegiate golfers, including multiple NCAA national champions. I've had two students in the last two years graduate from the Web.com Tour to the PGA Tour. I am constantly trying to push myself to learn as much as possible about golf and many other areas of life.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Tom

    Nov 17, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    Yup, dump! Lol

  2. Jerry Noble

    Jan 7, 2016 at 9:58 pm

    If you are a bogey golfer then you have more problems than your wrist

  3. Sebastien

    May 20, 2015 at 3:54 am

    Ben Hogan was cupped at the top and then released it in transition to bowed, it takes ages to learn (3 months), Sergio Garcia is flat at the top and bows at transition also, bowing the wrist at some point in the downswing leads to an impact that is indescribable like Moe Norman’s feeling of greatness.P.S. that top picture is Ernie Ella. Regards.

    • ed

      May 24, 2015 at 12:24 pm

      Spot on. I recently just viewed a video of how Ben Hogan would basically manually bow his wrist at the peak of the back swing. I am trying to keep my wrist bowed from the get go (kind of like Dustin Johnson). At some point in order to create lag your wrist is going to have to bow. No way around it. I think the negative connotation from the bowing comes from golfer’s who do not leverage their forward momentum correctly which will eventually square the club face to the ball. Of course if your club is coming around faster than your body the club face will be angled inwards which creates a hook. It’s all about the timing. I used to cup my wrists when I first starting playing…and there are definitely no benefits at all to this. That will lead to scooping the ball in order to attempt to get the club face around.

  4. Pingback: Cupped, flat or bowed wrist at the top?

  5. heath

    Jan 22, 2014 at 8:56 am

    forget about what your wrist “looks” like at the top…i cup my wrist at the top and i hit it further than anyone at my club, it’s where all my power comes from, i also have no problem hitting a draw with a fairly neutral grip while doing it. this exercise of trying to unnaturally flatten your left wrist at the top of the swing so you can look good is a load of toss

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  7. Aaron Johnston

    May 30, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    I’m much more in favour of the flat left wrist simply because at the top of the backswing it looks more natural and you can focus on a flat left wrist easier thank a bent right wrist.

    To hit the ball solid, its all down to not hinging the wrists on the downswing along with keeping that shape you had at the top of the backswing, until you reach waist height and starting to rotate the forearms aiming for your left wrist to be facing the target line.

    Nice article, though I’m not sure about the right wrist drill.

  8. mike d

    Mar 26, 2013 at 10:54 am

    Brilliantly said dan…most address swing problems from the outside in. The game should be taught from the inside out, ground up.

  9. Sara

    Dec 11, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    Very nice, Dan!

  10. ben

    Nov 21, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    Whatever works for each individual, its the right way. To me the flat wrist to me is the most simple and gets the club on plane better and a better position at the top without compensations.

  11. David

    Nov 17, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    I’m sure this is all true. All I know is what works for me. If I don’t have my wrist flat, I’m hitting a bad shot.
    I’m not gonna’ work on it any more as I’m just a bogie golfer and kinda’ satisfied with that. If I were to be a 10 handicap golfer, maybe, but, I’m fat, dump and happy 🙂

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Instruction

How-to Series: How to move your hips on the backswing

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Lucas Wald How To Series: How to move your hips on the backswing

This is the first installment in our How To Series — follow this plan to master the movements of the hips on the backswing!


Watch the series introduction here

This new series is all about helping you improve your golf swing quickly. We’re going to break the swing down into its component parts and give you specific practice direction — master these key elements of the swing and you’ll see improvement fast!

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Instruction

How “long arms” at the top of the backswing can help you hit the ball farther

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One of the hardest things to do as we get older is to make a big shoulder turn with extended arms at the top. It’s the swing of a younger golfer! However, every one of us can add width at the top so we can hit it further, but few know how to actually do so. In this article, I will use MySwing 3D Motion Analysis to help you understand how beneficial long arms are at the top.

As you examine the swing of this particular player, you will notice that the lead arm is “soft” and the hands are close to this player’s head at the top. This is the classic narrow armswing to the top that most older players employ. And as we all know this position leaves yardage in the bag!

Now let’s look at the data so we can see what is actually happening…

At the top you can see that the shoulders have turned 100 degrees which is more than enough, but the arms look jammed and narrow at the top. Why?

The answer lies within the actions of the rear arm, the lead arm is only REACTING to the over-bending of the rear elbow. As you can see at the top the rear elbow is bent 60 degrees. In a perfect world, when the rear elbow is at 90 degrees (a right angle) or more, the lead arm will be mostly straight — depending on how you’re built.

Something to note…in this position the hands are just past the chest and the shoulders have turned almost 90 degrees. However, when this player finished his backswing, he added 30 more degrees of rear elbow bend and only 11 more degrees of shoulder turn! What this means is that for the last quarter of the backswing, all this player did is allow the hands to basically collapse to the top of the backswing. This move is less than efficient and will cause major issues in your downswing sequencing, as well as, your transitional action.

As stated when your trail elbow stays at 90 degrees or wider in route to the top, you will have a much straighter lead arm.

One last thing to note when comparing these two players is that this player two had a shorter backswing length but a BIGGER shoulder turn with WIDER arms at the top, giving this player a short compact motion that resembles Adam Scott — which seems to work for he and Butch!

Therefore, the thing to remember is that if your lead arm is soft at the top and your arms look crowded at the top, then you must fix the over-bending of the rear elbow on the backswing. And if you have wider arms you will have a more solid “package” to become a ballstriking machine!

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Instruction

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

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Golf can be a lonely game. Rarely in sports are you more on an island while battling fears, doubts, and inner demons in the effort not to choke — especially on the biggest stages. But even if we’ve never been a champ, or played in a major championship, we’ve all been there, battling those same demons, and that’s why most of us can relate so well with some of golf’s most infamous chokes.

The pinnacle of these ignoble events was likely on the final hole at Carnoustie, in the ‘99 British Open, when Jean Van de Velde gave up a three-shot lead in a tragic comedy of bad shots (and even worse judgment), a scene that saw him take off his shoes and socks and wade deep into the Barry Burn before finally coming to his senses. Van de Velde ultimately lost in a playoff to Paul Lawrie, earning his place in golfing infamy, but when it comes to choking away victory on the biggest stage, he certainly wasn’t alone.

In the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, Arnold Palmer lost a seven-shot lead to Billy Casper on the final nine holes. Ed Sneed blew a five-shot lead on the final day of the ’79 Masters that was a three-shot lead with three to play by missing very short putts on each of the last three holes. Greg Norman’s infamous collapse at the 1996 Masters should be counted as well, when he threw away a six-shot lead with an atrocious 78 on the final day, allowing Nick Faldo to win.

And the champions of this generation haven’t proven immune either. Rory McIlroy coughed up a four-shot lead on the final day at Augusta in the 2011 Masters, ultimately carding an 80. And Dustin Johnson has a hat trick of tight-collar escapades in majors, losing the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by shooting a final-round 78 after starting with a three-shot lead, and the 2010 PGA by committing a rules violation when he had the lead on the final hole, and the 2015 U.S. Open to Jordan Spieth when he three-putted the final hole from just 15 feet. And speaking of Spieth, his final round collapse at Amen Corner on the back nine at the 2016 Masters, when he gave up a five-shot lead by going bogey-bogey-quadruple-bogey after putting two balls in the water at the dreaded 12th, is how that year’s event will forever be remembered.

Now golfers aren’t alone when it comes to choking. Athletes in nearly every sport fear it, suffer from it, and work their entire careers to avoid being associated with it. It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that a large percentage of athletes would rather be known as a cheat, a thief, and a liar before being known as a choker. Our sports culture reveres the clutch athlete, the player who can handle the biggest moments on the biggest stage and rise to the occasion time and again. And possibly because most of us can’t, we look up to those who can handle those pressure-packed situations like almost no other. And we cast aspersions upon those who can’t, labeling some who’ve done it even once as chokers, and those who have a habit of self-sabotage as choke artists. We are fascinated by those who can succeed in the spotlight, and, as sports fans, frustrated by those who wither when the lights are brightest. And the awareness of this is so pervasive that avoiding having to wear the choker label can arguably be in and of itself the greatest pressure.

As a result of this preoccupation with choking, scientists have studied it quite a bit. And some are finally beginning to identify its causes and how to avoid it. And while it sounds like a gross oversimplification, much of this study seems to conclude that choking ultimately comes down to simply this… Thinking too much. When athletes get nervous about their performance they stop doing whatever it is they do instinctively and essentially fall into the trap of trying not to make mistakes. They begin to desperately try and control whatever the necessary motions they need to make to a higher degree than normal and, in the process, the fluidity of those motions is lost along with their grace and talent.

Now that’s a layman’s description of what happens, but let’s use putting to explain what’s going on a little more scientifically. When people first learn to putt, they have numerous things to consider. They need to assess the break of the green, what line they will use, and at what speed they will need to roll the ball in order for it follow their intended path. They must also ensure their stroke is not only straight enough to send the ball upon the intended line, but the right size so that it rolls it at the intended speed. For a new golfer, this is more than challenging enough to require the majority of their focus and attention, and at first this necessary. By focusing on their stroke mechanics, as well as the other necessary elements they are trying accomplish, they can avoid mistakes and make better putts.

Once they’ve played for a while, though, and possess the requisite skill to putt, everything changes. Analyzing the stroke at this point is wasted mental energy as the brain almost automatically computes the necessary break and speed needed for a successful putt. Complex learned motor skills like putting are controlled by the cerebellum, and trying to consciously control these skills shifts control to the slower, more deliberate prefrontal cortex, causing a performance drop. If you look at the brain waves of athletes during performance, those of beginners tend to have erratic dips and spikes as well as wildly inconsistent rhythm, the neural signature of a mind engaging in conscious thought. By contrast, expert athletes’ minds look almost eerily serene, showcasing a mental tranquility that ignores disruption or interruption from the outside world, highlighting the fact that in optimal performance those who succeed essentially don’t think, they just do.

This is why studies show that experienced golfers who are forced to think about technique hit significantly worse shots. Once our technique is embedded we instead want to rely on the automatic brain. Conscious thought essentially erases years of practice, and this is what often happens when athletes start to choke. They begin to second-guess their skill, and the part of the brain that monitors their behavior begins to interfere with the types of actions that are normally made without thinking. Before long, performance spirals, as failures mount and increasing doubt about the ability to perform begin to rise.

So why are golfers so much more apt to choke than other athletes? Well, unlike most reactionary sports, we’ve unfortunately got a lot of available time to engage in all that unnecessary thinking. This means we have a proverbial minefield of potential mind-traps out there waiting for us to step on. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we take cues from the available research, we can devise habits, routines, and strategies to help short-circuit the choking phenomenon, and potentially avoid becoming another Van de Velde the next time the chips are down.

  1. Practice Desired Outcome Focus – It’s essentially impossible (and a bad habit) to try and not do something. Telling yourself not to hit it left in the hazard, or to stay away from the bunker right is a really bad idea, and there are studies backing that up. Shift your focus instead to what your desired outcome is.
  2. Practice Positive Visualization – Positive visualization is a great tactic to use to avoid choking. Get in the habit of mentally rehearsing a positive image of the skill you want to perform, or better yet, a successful image of the shot you want to make like a high fade towards the tallest pine at the corner of the dogleg.
  3. Practice Implicit Learning – This is learning through observation, rather than the step-by-step instruction manual approach, and its practitioners have been observed in studies to be much less susceptible to choking than their overly analytical counterparts.
  4. Practice a Pre-Shot Routine – Players who have a disciplined performance routine that allows them to become engrossed in the process, shifting their mind away from too much outcome thinking, have also proven to be much less susceptible to choking.
  5. Embrace Distraction – Athletes asked to listen to sounds or words unrelated to the actions they are performing rarely show the type of drop-off in performance in high pressure situations than those who are actually focused on what they are doing. So, next time listen close to all those birds chirping, partners yakking, or clubs jangling with a welcoming ear, instead of an instinctive complaint.

While these practices can really help you start understanding what to do if you want to become an actual champ, learning a few lessons from the foibles of some of those would-be champs can be helpful as well. When Palmer melted down in ’66, it was because he got over-confident and began firing at pins in an attempt to break Ben Hogan’s Open scoring record. As things started to unravel, though, he got tight, surly, and uncharacteristically dour in the effort to get things under control.

When Norman’s bid for his first green jacket began to fall apart like the proverbial cheap suit, he too got tight, making one uncharacteristically poor decision (and swing) after another in attempt to get things under control. When Rory McIlroy collapsed, he approached the entire day of the final round differently then he did typically, thinking he needed to be more serious and stoic in his quest to nail down his first ever major and it backfired.

And for Van de Velde, the succession of agonizingly poor decisions, beginning essentially on the 18th tee of the final hole, was actually his attempt to not do anything different when common sense dictated he should have. When asked about it in an interview fifteen years later he said,

“What do you want me to say? I should have played it differently? I believe that…with what I do and the way that I do it, day in, day out… that I played it correctly. I hope that people learned that it’s a game and there’s bigger things in life. Winning with grace is pretty easy. Losing with it is a lot harder.”

Quite a profound statement form someone nearly unequally qualified in the game to make it. Bravo Jean. You may not have ended up a champ, but you certainly won’t find me calling you a choker.

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