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Problematic head motion during the putting stroke

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As we all know, putting requires a solid stroke, a stable body and very controlled motor motions in order to be consistent from day to day. It is with this thought in mind that most players focus on keeping a steady head in order to keep their stroke in check when things go wrong. Within this putting study we will examine the most common problems that excessive head motion causes and how to ensure that a controllable center of gravity (CG) and a steady head becomes one of your strongest putting attributes.

In my putting academy, I use several high tech tools in order to study the putting stroke. In this article I will feature two of my systems:

  1. Advanced Motion Measurement’s 3D Motion Analysis System
  2. The SAM PuttLab created by Science & Motion Sports.

AMM’s 3D Motion Analysis System for Putting

The SAM shows over 28 different factors of the putter’s motions during the stroke

If you think about how your body moves during the putting stroke you will find that in order to maintain stability it is necessary to control your head as well as your CG.  Whenever the head moves excessively during the putting stroke you will find that your stroke path, your directional control, and the ball’s impact point on the putterface will be compromised. When your body senses these actions it will subconsciously try and manipulate your hands, the putterhead, your body’s CG and/or the ball’s position in order to try to get your putting back on track quickly.

The reason why you subconsciously adjust for poor balance is because your body has homeostatic mechanisms that keep you upright and from falling down. These actions are present within your life every second of the day. This automated response helps us while walking, sitting, or playing golf — the more complex the motor skill, the more important this reaction becomes.

Homeostasis is controlled by the information given to your brain by your vision and the fluid filled canals within each of your ears. These balance centers allow your body to counter balance itself when things happen to alter your CG, such as excessive head motion. To give you an example, if I pushed your head and upper torso quickly to the right, your spine would shift your hips to the left in order to counter-balance your body so you would not fall down. This is homeostasis and it applies to your golf swing, short game and putting stroke equally.

As we all know, putting is one of the most precise actions in the game of golf. If your head is bouncing around, it makes it almost impossible to maintain your CG control and this throws a monkey wrench in your game. Whenever you call upon your homeostasis to help you control excessive motion while trying to make putts, I will assure you that rolling in that 4 footer will be your body’s last priority.

There are four head motions that plague most golfers today.

From the Frontal View:

Head Sway: The side-to-side motion of the head (lateral)

Head Rotation: The turning of the head from side to side (rotational)

From the Down the Line View:

Head Lift: The up and down motion of the head (top to bottom)

Head Thrust: The front to back motion of the head

Head Sway

Excessive side-to-side motion of the head is the most common balance issue for the beginning golfer. Beginners have not learned that a slight “rocking” of the shoulders during the putting stroke will thrust the arms effectively enough to easily power the putting stroke. These players usually try to “rotate” the shoulders in order to move the arms, hands and putter and the head moves as a result.

When the upper body over-rotates into the backswing, the head tends to move laterally as well. In beginners, this shows up on putts of any length. With better players, it only tends to happen on super-long putts. On the 50-foot putt shown above, the shoulders have rotated 25 degrees while the head has moved 1.4 inches laterally to the right. This causes many issues; however, most often it causes an exaggerated arcing motion of the putter.

For the lower handicap player:

When the shoulders work “normally” but the head moves laterally, the weight will move too deep into your rear foot on the backswing. When this happens the weight will hang back and the putter will move “up” thorough impact, making the impact point too low on the putter face. This action will give you an unsolid feeling, putts will tend to come up short.

During this putting study the player above was asked to hit the same flat 15-foot putt over and over. As you can see, the impact point is not only on the bottom portion of the putter, but there was a variant from side to side as well.  Whenever your head moves laterally too much, you will find that hitting the sweetspot consistently on a horizontal and vertical plane is virtually impossible!

Head Lift

The lifting of your head through impact is described as a “pull up or peek” by the majority of players. It happens mainly on putts from 15 feet and in and most often to players while they are facing what they perceive as a “makeable” putt.  You will find that this happens to you even more when you are nervous or are unsure of the overall putt direction in general. This flaw is comparable to “looking up” during the full swing.  Whenever you “peek,” you will find that the putter head does not want to close naturally through impact.

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

If you look at this player’s putter head rotation, you will see that as this player “lifts” their head during the forward swing you can see that the putter is opening more and more as the putter moves from the transition, through impact and into the finish position. At the peak of the backstroke the putter is closed 1.6 degrees, at impact it is 0.4 degrees open, and at the finish it is 0.7 degrees open! So remember when you “lift” you head through impact the putter does not “close” through the impact zone and missed putts to the right are a result more often than not.

The gentle “rocking” of the shoulders up and down during the putting stroke that we described earlier must be taken with a grain of salt, as you can interrupt the natural motions of the clubhead on the way through the ball. Keeping your head from lifting keeps the left shoulder in check and allows your left forearm to naturally rotate, closing the putter face through impact without a conscious manipulation or release.

When the head lifts (upward 2 inches in the above model) and/or forward, the  shoulder pulls-up the lead forearm and it will not be allowed to rotate naturally. The lead wrist will break down and the putter will stay open through impact as a result.

Note for the better player:

If you are a career “head-lifter,” you might want to consider a full toe-hang putter like a Ping Zing. The extra weight in the toe of the putter will allow the putter to close through impact slightly quicker than a face-balanced putter, like a Taylor Made Monza Mallet.

Head Thrust

Very seldom do we see players who “fall forward” during their putting strokes; however, you will see this happen for one of three basic reasons:

  1. When the player’s putter does not fit it will cause the player to bend over too much from the waist placing the hands too low at address and rocking the CG toward the toes
  2. On very windy days, when the player has placed their CG too close to their toes in general, it makes it very easy for the wind to push them out of balance
  3. When the overall tempo of the backstroke is too jerky and too much on an inside track

This player is bent from the waist almost 47 degrees, slightly more than we’d like for him. In order to get his eyes over the ball without being too bent over he would need a differently fit putter!

As you look at the CG shot above you will see that even though the red dot (the player’s real-time CG location) shows that the weight is currently balanced from toe to heel at basically 50/50, the yellow line marks where the CG was a few milliseconds earlier.  Notice that there is a substantial amount of yellow above the red dot.  This helps us to identify that this player tends to be slightly toe-heavy during their address position.  This is all it takes for the wind to knock you out of balance during your stroke. This is precisely the reason why you will see players with wider stances and more knee flex when the wind blows.

The Tour average backswing speed is 650 milliseconds, and as you can see this player is slightly jerky off the start which could move the putter too much to the inside on the backswing and knock him off-balance if he is not careful!

Head Rotation

Excessive head rotation during the putting stroke seems to only happen within three instances for most players:

  1. Whenever you are left eye dominant and your head is too “centered” at address
  2. Whenever the chin is too low (tucked too close to the chest) at address
  3. Whenever you become “stroke” focused and begin to follow your backswing path with your eyes in order to audit where it is moving.

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

An excerpt from “The Putting Zone” by Geoff Mangum

“The brain only sights accurately with the dominant eye. Eye dominance is not dissimilar to hand or foot dominance. The brain favors only one of the two eyes to define the body’s relation to the target in terms of direction and habitually uses only that eye to target objects and locations in space in terms of direction.

Over time, the vision yielded by the other eye is ignored by the brain, so effectively when we sight targets; we use only our dominant eye. Trying to target only with the non-dominant eye is a little like trying to sign your name with the wrong hand: it can be done, but not gracefully.

Try holding both hands out at arm’s length, thumbs up side by side like a gun sight. Use the sight to target a distant object, with both eyes open. Close the right eye. If the object jumps to the left, you are right-eye dominant. Confirm this by opening eyes, re-sighting, and then closing the left eye. The object will remain in the sight. You are left-eye dominant if when you close the right eye the object remains sighted, and when you use only the right eye, the object jumps to the right of the sight.”

If your head is too centered during the address position and you are a left eye dominant player (use the test above), your head will tend to rotate to the right during the backswing so that you can “focus” on the ball and sight your target more effectively. The normal amount of head rotation at address is between five to ten degrees in order to sight the ball with your dominant eye.

The second way excessive head rotation creeps into your putting stroke is when your chin is too low and tucked into your chest at address. As your putting stroke occurs the shoulders rock and slightly rotate “running into” your chin, and as a result, you lift your head to accommodate this motion.

This player has the optimum amount of head bend at address (45 degrees) placing his chin in a position where the shoulders can move freely back and forth without danger of running into the chin.  If a golfer’s head moves to 47 or more degrees, then he or she is looking out past the ball. If the head bend is below 40 degrees, then the golfer will not be able to move with freedom and excessive head rotation will occur.

A note for players who wear prescription glasses:  Tucking your chin too low is a very normal occurrence for golfers who wear bifocals — you will “bury” your chin in order to see over the top of the lower part of the lens that is designed for close up vision. Speak to your eye doctor and get “golf specific lenses” sooner rather than later.

The third and final way to have too much head rotation within your putting stroke is when you become too “stroke” focused and begin to monitor the putter head during the backswing in order to make sure it is on the correct path.

First, you must understand that your stroke path ONLY accounts for 18 percent of the ball’s directional error, so focusing on the backswing path is a total waste of time. Secondly, there is little you can do to consistently alter the putter while it is in motion, so it’s a total waste of time. When players have trouble with their backstrokes, usually you will find that the problem is with a set-up position that causes the putter path to be off-track, such as poor torso alignment.

If you are having trouble with your putter path on the way back and cannot stop “watching,” first make sure your alignments and “flow-lines” are correct (as shown above). From there, practice putting while closing your eyes in order to feel a more natural putting stroke that can happen much easier if you have positive alignments.

Conclusion

Putting is an accuracy endeavor, thus if you have excessive motion within your body you will have to make physical manipulations in order to make up for the deficiencies that your imbalance causes. For most people, the thought of maintaining a steady head is the key to staying still while putting, for others, just focusing on your CG and its position between your feet is the key.

Regardless of the methodology you use to control your head motion, torso actions and CG, remember that balance is the key to your putting success. You will not see any player on Tour who is a good putter violate one of the four head motion or the CG rules laid out above, so:

  1. Control your Head Sway
  2. Control your Head Rotation
  3. Control your Head Lift
  4. Control your Head Thrust

-Or-

  1. Control your CG from Toe to Heel
  2. 2. Control your CG from Right to Left

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

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Tom F. Stickney II is the Director of Instruction at Combine Performance in Scottsdale, Arizona. He is a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher, and has been honored as a Golf Digest Best Teacher and a Golf Tips Top-25 Instructor. Tom is also a Trackman University Master/Partner, a distinction held by less than 60 people in the world.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Hugo Mader

    Jun 24, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    Great article! And just a correction: on the heading “Head Lift”, its said that “At the peak of the backstroke the putter is closed 1.6 degrees”, you actually mean OPENED 1.6 degrees? And, what the hell are “golf prescription lenses”?!?

  2. Ben Alberstadt

    Jan 5, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    Many thanks for this quality assessment and advice, Mr. Stickney!

  3. pablo

    Jan 3, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    good article. i like the CG ‘checks’ at the end.

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Instruction

Your Body Is Your Most Important Piece Of Equipment; It’s Time For An Upgrade

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Clubs, balls, shoes, mental training, lessons. Golfers are always searching for the next thing that is going to transform their game. If a product has promise, golfers are like addicts; they must have it… regardless of the price. What’s usually ignored, however, is the most important piece of equipment for all golfers: their body, and how their physical conditioning pertains to golf.

Everything becomes easier by getting in better “golf shape.” You will likely hit the ball farther, have better energy and focus, fewer aches and pains, improved ability to actually implement swing changes and the durability to practice more.

When trying to improve your physical conditioning for golf, it would shortsighted not to mention the following requirements:

  1. Discipline: There will be times you don’t want to train, but should.
  2. Patience: Small, incremental progress adds up to big improvement over time.
  3. A Path: Make sure you use your time and effort efficiently by having a training plan that matches your goals.

If you can adopt these principles, I am confident you will be very happy with the return — even more so than the latest driver, putter or practice aid.

I like to compare having a well functioning body to a painter’s blank canvas. By ensuring you have adequate coordination, motor control, mobility, stability, strength and speed, you have the basic tools necessary for a high-performance golf swing. Of course, you will still need to develop a functional technique and specific skill level that matches your goals. On the flip side, if you are deficient in these areas, you are like a dirty canvas; your options are limited and you will need to make compensations to achieve anything close to the desired outcome. In simpler terms, movements that are universally desirable in the golf swing may be very difficult or impossible for you based on your current physical state.

Earlier, I mentioned the term “appropriate training,” and now I am going to discuss one of the ways to identify what this means for you as a golfer trying to use physical training to support a better golf game. The TPI (Titleist Performance Institute) Movement Screen is a great start for everyone. It is a combination of 16 exercises that are used to assess your current movement capabilities, identify limitations and provide you with your “Body-Swing” connection. The “Body-Swing” connection is a term coined by TPI that illustrates the link between physical deficiencies and potential swing tendencies based on its “Big 12” model. The Big 12 swing characteristics that TPI has identified are as follows:

  1. S-Posture
  2. C-Posture
  3. Loss of Posture
  4. Flat Shoulder Plane
  5. Early Extension
  6. Over The Top
  7. Sway
  8. Slide
  9. Hanging Back
  10. Reverse Spine Angle
  11. Casting
  12. Chicken Winging

It’s important to note these as tendencies rather than flaws, as great ball strikers have demonstrated some of them. When done excessively, they make high functioning swings more difficult and may make potential injury more likely. Rather than going through all 16 screening exercises (which would be a very long read), I have selected five that I feel provide a lot of useful information. They can often broadly differentiate the playing level of golfers.

1. Static Setup Posture

There is a lot of debate in golf instruction about what is the correct way to assume posture for the golf swing. Some prefer more rounded shoulders akin to what was common in years gone by: Jack and Arnie being good examples. Others prefer a more extended thoracic spine (less curved upper back): Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott are good examples. I’m not a golf instructor and clearly both types can hit great golf shots. I am more concerned with the lumbar spine (the lower back, which doesn’t seem to get as much attention when the setup is being discussed).

Note the difference between the spinal curvatures of Jack and Rory. I’m OK with either as long as the lower back is in a biomechanically sound position (explained in video).

An overly extended or arched lower back (which I demonstrate in the video) creates too large a space between the alignment rod and my lower back. This is a common issue I see, and it can lead to a lack of pelvis rotation, a lack of power due to the inability to effectively use the glutes and abdominal muscles and lower back discomfort. Cueing a slight posterior tilt (tucking the tailbone underneath you) often makes a noticeable difference in pelvis mobility, power, and comfort.

 2. Pelvic Rotation

Pelvic rotation is essential for X-factor stretch, the ability to increase the amount of separation between the pelvis and torso during transition (moving from the backswing into the downswing). This is often referred to as starting the downswing with the lower body/hips (while the torso is still rotating away from the target or is paused at the end of the backswing). It is critical for effective sequencing and power production. Increasing the separation between your pelvis and torso on the downswing increases what is known as the “stretch-shortening cycle” of your trunk and torso muscles, which is like adding more stretch to an elastic band and then releasing it. If you cannot separate pelvic rotation and torso rotation, it will be extremely difficult to be a good golfer.

In the video below, watch how Rickie Fowler’s pelvis rotates toward the target independently of his torso. This increases the elastic energy stored in his muscles and tendons, allowing for big power production.

 3. Lower Quarter Rotation

The Lower Quarter Rotation Test shares some similarities to the Pelvic Rotation Test, but one key difference is that it doesn’t require nearly as much motor control. Many people fail the pelvic rotation test not because of a mobility limitation, but because they can’t control the different segments of the their body and perform the action they want (motor control issue). The Lower Quarter Rotation Test, on the other hand, does not require anywhere near as much control and therefore looks more directly at the internal and external rotation mobility of the lower body. People who struggle with this test are more likely to sway, slide and have reverse spine angle.

DJ Top of backswing.jpg

I’m confident Dustin Johnson would do OK on the Lower Quarter Rotation test. Look at how well he can turn into his right hip.

 4. Seated Thoracic Rotation

This one usually resonates with golfers, as “getting a full shoulder turn” is something that golf media and players like to talk to about regularly. I think most people understand the concept of a sufficient shoulder turn being important for creating power. Restricted thoracic spine rotation can stem from a few different causes. A common one is excessive thoracic flexion (rounder upper back). To test this for yourself: 1) try the test in the video hunched over and 2) with your spine as long as possible. You should notice you can rotate farther when you sit extended.

5. 90/90 External Shoulder Rotation  

Many popular golf instruction pages on social media talk about the importance of shallowing the shaft in transition and trail arm external shoulder rotation. I understand the reasoning for this in terms of swing technique, but something that needs to be taken into consideration is whether golfers actually have the ability to externally rotate their shoulders. This is often not the case. Two interesting trends I have noticed with golfers and external shoulder rotation:

  1. A larger percentage of U.S. golfers compared to Irish golfers (the two countries I have worked in) tend to have much more trail arm external rotation available. This is mainly due to throwing baseballs and footballs in their youth, which doesn’t happen in Ireland.
  2. Shoulder external rotation, shoulder flexion, and thoracic extension really seem to reduce as golfers get older compared to other movements. Please take note of this and put some exercises into your routine that promote mobility and stability in the thoracic spine and scapula, as these are the foundation for sound shoulder mechanics. Thoracic extensions on a foam roller, relaxed hanging from a pull-up bar and wall slides with external rotation are some exercises I like to use.
MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Toronto Blue Jays

I think this pitcher would have enough external shoulder rotation in his golf swing.

I hope this article gave you some more understanding of how learning about your body and then working on its limitations might be beneficial for your golf game. If you have questions about the TPI Movement Screen or are interested in an online evaluation, please feel free to e-mail me.

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Let’s Talk Gear: Frequency and Shaft CPM

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When it comes to fine tuning a golf shaft and matching clubs within a set, frequency and CPM play a critical role in build quality and making sure what you were fit for is what gets built for you.

This video explains the purpose of a frequency machine, as well as how the information it gives us relates to both building and fitting your clubs.

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How to Deliver the Club Better With Your Trail Arm

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The vast majority of golfers want to be consistent. The reality is that they are… the consistency they have just doesn’t produce the outcome they want.

In this video, I share a simple drill that will improve the way you deliver the club with your trail arm and give you a more consistent delivery from the inside to promote more consistent outcomes.

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