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Swing advice is not one size fits all

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I have written a number of instructional articles over the years, and created quite a few “how-to” videos as well. I always enjoy sharing tips with my readers and students and I am grateful when a number of them respond that I have helped with their game.

But I am here to issue a word of caution: It is very difficult to learn the game of golf from a written word or even watching instructional videos. When doing so, you have to be very careful about how you internalize the information. When instructors write these tips, we are doing so very generically, to mass audiences who we have never seen swing the club. So it is incumbent upon the readers to know which tips apply to them and, conversely, which ones do not and can actually hurt their game. This is a fine line we walk and caution is the order of the day.

If you look in the World Golf Hall of Fame, you will see every kind of swing imaginable; flat, upright, long, short, quick, slow, etc. I can think of nothing that every single great player does or has done over the years. If a flying elbow is bad, Jack Nicklaus would not be the great champion he is. If a flat swing is bad, no one would have ever heard of Lee Trevino. If the club is to be swung slowly, Tom Watson would be still playing in Kansas City. This list could go on forever.

Every time I read or watch a suggestion for a position in which a player “should be,” I can find some great golfer who is not in that position. We see many of the greats roll their arms through impact, supinating the left hand; yet Paul Azinger finished “knuckles up.” Freddie takes it outside, Ray Floyd took it way inside. Even if we look at the modern players, those coming up in the Launch Monitor era with coaches, videos, Motion systems, etc., we still see a wide variety of methods employed; from Fowler’s flatness to DJ’s straight up style, there is no end to the differences! What do they have in common? They all square the club face at the right time.

If anyone saw Jim Furyk’s video and didn’t know it was Furyk, they would find fault and make any number of suggestions to correct it. Unless they looked very closely at the club at impact, a fan might think: “Why is he doing that?” But the trained eye thinks: “How did he do that?”

If we look at little closer at Furyk’s move, it’s a stroke of pure genius. I have had a lot of people say, “I hate that swing!” I’m always quick to point out that I would love to have that impact position consistently. The point is simple: It’s a series of moves — a sequence of motions that works. The strange movements in Furyk’s swing don’t matter. One move complements the other. It is a compatible variation!

When I see unique swings like Fuyrk’s I’m not looking at what he does wrong, only how did he match the disparate parts? I love that singularity and want to find out all I can about how he did it. When my students arrive on the lesson tee, they have an incompatible variation, and that’s why they are there. I have to make the parts match. But I need to see it live and in-person to do that completely. I am simply amazed when criticism is offered before the ball flight is known. My very first question to a student: “What is the ball doing?” That’s all that matters. When I am sent a video to analyze, I have to know something about shot patterns, or all I’m suggesting are classic positions. What good are those?

Learning from an article is fine if it is of the “If-this-then-that” nature. If you do this, then try doing that. That’s the way I teach, and I believe it’s the only way to develop a personal style that allows you the freedom to do what comes naturally. IF the swing is wide going back, it has to narrow coming down. If it goes outside going back, it has to loop back under coming down. And the reverse works as well. I personally think Sergio has one of the purest moves in the game. How he got there, only he and his father (his teacher) really know. And the look of it matters not one bit — all that matters is that the ball reacts as he wants it to. But again, if one were sent a video of his swing, comments like laid off, too much lag, hands too low and others might be the typical responses.

“Golf is what the ball does,” the great John Jacobs reminded us, and as an instructor, I let that be my first guide. Writing articles, as I do for this site, are very general suggestions. I remind students and readers that if you want to find your personal problem and get correction for it, see your instructor. He or she will work with what you have, and try to improve on it; at least I do. Look for the “if you do this” approach when sifting through the massive volume of material on the blogosphere about learning golf. And see your teacher to bounce your new findings off — It may keep you from going down a wrong path.

As always, feel free to send a swing video to my Facebook page and I will do my best to give you my feedback.

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

 

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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 Marco Island Marriott in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Mike Leether

    Jan 31, 2013 at 11:58 am

    Amen to that!, a couple years back I developed a bit of a “loopy” swing with an instructor as a way of counter acting some bad swing flaws I previously had. It has some Furyk-esque qualities. I broke par for the first time six weeks later. In the years since I’ve tried to hit some balls with a more “conventional” swing and it just doesn’t work for me. People constantly tell me how “weird” i look, until I beat them….

  2. Dennis Clark

    Jan 30, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    The reason I advocate live, 1 on 1 lessons is obvious I think. The instructor can manage your swing as he/she sees it unfold right in front of them “Your ball did this; that’s because you did that-feel the correlation.

  3. Troy Vayanos

    Jan 30, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    Great advice as always Dennis,

    You’re right, it is difficult to learn off written words no question. At the very least you need to see a video of a specific instruction being performed.

    Nothing beats a live golf lesson from a qualified instructor explaining the elements of the golf swing.

    Cheer

  4. Martin

    Jan 29, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    We are really getting spoiled by your good articles Dennis! Big Thanks!
    Your article got my thinking. I recently saw a video instruction by Jim Mclean where he tells us how good and reliable it is to hit a power fade with the driver, and informed us that Hogan, Lietzke and Nicklaus achieved great success with this shot and nowadays we can see how Tiger is working towards finding the power fade from the tee. BUT I have never met an instructor here in Sweden (and I think swedish teachers generally have good reputation) who has tried to teach me a fade as my basic swing. It also seems like most of the instruction in magazines or in books (for example the slot swing by Jim Mclean, Hardys the plane truth) encourages a in-square-in movement in the swing which ideally would result in a straight shot or maybe a slight draw. Why? If its easier to hit a fade, why dont the pros try to teach us this, maybe a lot of us recreational golfers would benefit from it? Or would it be to difficult for us to understand? When I am driving the ball bad from tee, I set up my body to the left, and the clubface at the target, and try to get the club out in front of me in the backswing and then from the top I basically just turn and the good result is a fade, and the less good result is a push that most of the time finds the right side of the fairway or maybe the light rough. I showed this shot to a coach ones and he just said he didnt like it, that it wasnt the way he wanted me to swing… Are the majority of the pros to obsessed with giving is a traditional swing with the right setup, right angles, correct plane etc.? Are they to obsessed with the perfect swing?

    • Dennis Clark

      Jan 30, 2013 at 9:47 pm

      well i think the draw has always been the coveted shot for amateurs. It usually goes futher because it is launched lower and runs out more; that is, comes in at a shallower landing angle. Fades can get high and short when the attack angle gets too steep.

      • Martin

        Jan 31, 2013 at 6:48 am

        ok, thank you Dennis. I see your point, and I like your arguments. You have to really know what you are doing to start fading with power and maybe it mixes up alignment, posture, backswing etc to much and makes the game even harder…and who wants that:)
        Thanks a lot!

  5. Matt Newby, PGA

    Jan 29, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    Dennis,

    Very well said. Nowadays I find more of my students are over-informed rather than under-informed. While much of the information available is good information (of course not always) most people do not understand what should/should not apply to them specifically. I often use the analogy that a cast is very good for a broken leg, but if your leg isn’t broke a cast is probably only going to hurt your performance.

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Instruction

Functional Golf vs. Optimal Golf

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Optimize this, optimize that. We hear so much about “optimal” golf these days. It’s great that we now have the technology to seemingly optimize every aspect of the golfer, the golf swing, and the golf club, but we have to be realistic in terms of our goals. Ask yourself this question: If I can’t do this optimally, is there a way I can still do it better?

And… how do we define better? That’s easy. More solid impact.

Yes, optimal golf is what we’d all like and perhaps that is the concern of highly skilled players. But for the vast majority of golfers, functional golf might be more realistic. John Jacobs, the best teacher ever, called his approach “practical.” I’m using the term functional in a similar, albeit more specific way. And many of my regular readers know by now that I credit Jacobs for whatever success I’ve had as an instructor.

During a recent lesson, I pointed out a particular swing flaw to a student while we were reviewing his swing on video. He stopped me and said: “See that, what you’re showing me right there? I have done that my whole life. I’ve taken a number of lessons and they all mentioned that very move, and I CANNOT change it. Why is that?”

I thought, man, if I had a few bucks for every time I’ve heard that I’d be, uh,  pretty comfortable.

There are certain habits some golfers simply cannot break no matter how hard they try. For one reason or another, they’re physically incapable of changing. I have observed this for more than 30 years over thousands and thousands of lessons. Does this mean you can’t change the problems these moves may cause? No, absolutely not. There’s a long list of major champions with so called  “flaws” in their swings, from Nicklaus’ flying elbow to Furyk and his quirky move. But what these greats did is find a move that they CAN make, one that’s compatible with their core move.

If you have a move that, for whatever reason, is embedded in the fabric of your golfing DNA, it is probably best you do not beat your head against a wall trying to  change that move, however flawed it may seem. Rather, let’s see if we can find something that blends with that move that you CAN execute.

The golfer I was teaching suffered from fat shots and blocks due to an early release. He simply never learned “lag” or a later hit. So the bottom of the swing arc ended up behind the golf ball more often than not. This golfer has done this for some 20 years, so instead of trying to reinvent the wheel I took a different approach. I asked him to address the golf ball with more weight on his left side. Things got a little better. More weight on the left side, even better, and so on. In other words, we started his motion from a different place, one that was more functional for him.

To help this golfer create a more functional golf swing, I had to move his center of mass forward. It wasn’t optimal perhaps, but his real problem (fat shots) had to be addressed within his current skill set. “If I could just stop drop kicking every shot, I’d be happy,” he said. In other words, we worked out a compromise, a way he could hit the ball more cleanly and enjoy golf more.

As an instructor, that’s pretty much what I do every day. I’m always looking for a compatible motion that balances golf swing equations. “If that is a band aid, you better buy a whole box,” Jacobs would say.

I teach in a community of largely senior golfers. Senior but serious, I call them. They are looking for a way to put the club on the ball more often, which means a better impact position. There is no “in the long run” for seniors. I don’t say, “Let’s make a plan for later” because some are fearful of buying green bananas, let alone working hard on a long-term plan. There is also no “new” when your old move has been around most of your golfing life. Senior golfers, myself included, are on the back nine, much closer to the 18th green than the 1st tee. And most golfers are not going back and starting their round over… believe me. But this doesn’t mean they can’t play better. And they do. Every day.

This lesson likely applies to you even if you are younger and more physically capable. Some things just don’t change, and perhaps the learning psychologists or biomechanists can better tell you why. That’s why I encourage all serious golfers to work with an instructor to identify what moves in their swing simply will not change. Then they should learn to work around them, not try to fix them. That’s the way to better golf.

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Instruction

A Jedi Mind Trick For Improved Target Awareness

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I think all golfers, at some point in their life playing the game of golf, has gotten stuck, or become frozen over the golf ball. Why?  They’re trying to remember which of the 23 different swing thoughts they used for the day performed the best.

The disheartening reality: none of us are going to perform well on a consistent basis with our thoughts being so internally driven. Swing thoughts force our awareness inward. Is the shaft in the correct position? Am I making a proper pressure shift? Was that a reverse pivot? Close that club face! Regardless of the technique you are trying to manage or modify, these kinds of questions make you acquire sensations internally.

To complicate things further, we are taught to look at the golf ball, not the target, while hitting our golf shot. And yet instinctively, in almost all other skills of making a ball or object finish towards a target (throwing a ball or frisbee, kicking a soccer ball, skipping a rock across water, shooting a basket ball) our awareness is not on the ball or the motion itself, but rather the ultimate target.

So, can we develop a skill that allows us to still keep our eye on the ball, like the game of golf encourages, but have awareness of our target, like so many other target sports demand?  Yes, the answer is (third rate Yoda Speak), and the skill can easily be yours.

Here’s where this gets fun. You already have learned this skill set, but under different conditions. Perhaps this example resonates with you. Did you ever play hide-and-seek as a child? Remember how you used to close your eyes and count to 10? During those 10 seconds of having your eyes closed, weren’t you using all of your senses externally, trying to track where your friends were going to hide? Weren’t you, just like a bloodhound, able to go directly to a few of the less skillful hiders’ hiding places and locate them?

Or how about this example. When you are driving down your own local multilane highway, aren’t you aware of all the cars around you while keeping your eyes firmly on the road in front of you? Reconnecting, recognizing and/or developing these skills that all of us already use is the first step in knowing you’re not too far away from doing this with your golf game.

Here’s what I want you to do. Grab a putter and place your golf ball 3 feet away from the hole on a straight putt. Aim your putter, and then look at the hole. As you bring your eyes back to the golf ball, maintain part of your awareness back at the hole. Each successive time your eyes leave your golf ball and head back to the hole, your eyes will be able to confirm your target. It hasn’t moved; it’s still in the same location; your confidence builds.

When you know for certain that your external awareness of the target is locked in while still looking at your golf ball, step up and execute your putt.

The wonderful beauty of this skill set is that you now have the best of both worlds. You are still looking at the golf ball, which gives you a better chance of striking the golf ball solidly… AND you are now target aware just like you are when you are throwing an object at a target.

As always, acquire this skill set from a close target with a slower, smaller motion. If you don’t execute properly, you have a better chance of making the proper corrective assessment from a slower, smaller motion and closer target. As you become more proficient with this skill, allow the target to get farther away and try to add more speed with a larger range of motion.

So give learning this skill set a go. I don’t think there is anything more valuable in playing the game of golf than keeping your “athlete” attached to the target. Become proficient at developing this awareness and you can tell all your friends that the primary reason your scores are getting lower and you’re getting deeper into their wallets is because of Jedi Mind tricks. Good luck!

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6 things to consider before aiming at the flagstick

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One of the most impactful improvements you can make for your game is to hit more greens; you’ll have more birdie opportunities and will avoid bogeys more often. In fact, hitting more greens is the key to golfing success, in my opinion… more so than anything else.

However, there is a misconception among players when it comes to hitting approach shots. When people think “greens,” they tend to only think about the flagstick, when the pin may be the last thing you should be looking at. Obviously, we’d like to stick it on every shot, but shooting at the pin at the wrong time can cost you more pain than gain.

So I’d like to give you a few rules for hitting greens and aiming at the flagstick.

1) Avoid Sucker Pins

I want you to think about Hole No. 12 at Augusta and when the pin is on the far right side of the green… you know, the Sunday pin. Where do the pros try and aim? The center of the green! That’s because the right pin is by all means a sucker pin. If they miss the shot just a touch, they’re in the water, in the bunker, or left with an impossible up-and-down.

Sucker pins are the ones at the extreme sides of the green complex, and especially the ones that go against your normal shot pattern.

So go back to No. 12 with a far right pin, and say your natural shot shape is right-to-left. Would you really aim out over the water and move it towards the pin? That would be a terrible idea! It’s a center of the green shot all day, even for those who work it left-to-right. Learn to recognize sucker pins, and you won’t short side yourself ever again.

2) Are You a Good Bunker Player?

A “sucker pin,” or just a difficult hole location, is often tucked behind a bunker. Therefore, you should ask yourself, “am I a good bunker player?” Because if you are not, then you should never aim at a pin stuck behind one. If I wanted to shoot at pins all day, I’d make sure I was the best lob wedge player around. If you are not a short-game wizard, then you will have a serious problem attacking pins all round.

For those who lack confidence in their short game, or simply are not skilled on all the shots, it’s a good idea to hit to the fat part of the green most of the time. You must find ways to work around your weaknesses, and hitting “away” from the pin isn’t a bad thing, it’s a smart thing for your game.

3) Hitting the Correct Shelf

I want you to imagine a pin placed on top of a shelf. What things would you consider in order to attack this type of pin? You should answer: shot trajectory, type of golf ball, your landing angle with the club you’re hitting, the green conditions, and the consequences of your miss. This is where people really struggle as they forget to take into account these factors.

If you don’t consider what you can and cannot do with the shot at hand, you will miss greens, especially when aiming at a pin on a shelf. Sometimes, you will simply have to aim at the wrong level of the green in order to not bring the big number into play. Remember, if you aim for a top shelf and miss, you will leave yourself with an even more difficult pitch shot back onto that same shelf you just missed.

4) Know your Carry Distances

In my opinion, there is no excuse these days to not know your carry distances down to the last yard. Back when I was growing up, I had to go to a flat hole and chart these distances as best I could by the ball marks on the green. Now, I just spend an hour on Trackman.

My question to you is if you don’t know how far you carry the ball, how could you possibly shoot at a pin with any type of confidence? If you cannot determine what specific number you carry the ball, and how the ball will react on the green, then you should hit the ball in the center of the green. However, if the conditions are soft and you know your yardages, then the green becomes a dart board. My advice: spend some time this off-season getting to know your distances, and you’ll have more “green lights” come Spring.

5) When do you have the Green Light?

Do you really know when it’s OK to aim at the pin? Here are some questions to ask yourself that will help:

  • How are you hitting the ball that day?
  • How is your yardage control?
  • What is the slope of the green doing to help or hinder your ball on the green?
  • Do you have a backstop behind the pin?

It’s thoughts such as these that will help you to determine if you should hit at the pin or not. Remember, hitting at the pin (for amateurs) does not happen too often per nine holes of golf. You must leave your ego in the car and make the best decisions based on what information you have at that time. Simple mistakes on your approach shot can easily lead to bogeys and doubles.

6) When is Any Part of the Green Considered a Success?

There are some times when you have a terrible angle, or you’re in the rough/a fairway bunker. These are times when you must accept “anywhere on the green.”

Left in these situations, some players immediatly think to try and pull off the “miracle” shot, and wonder why they compound mistakes during a round. Learn to recognize if you should be happy with anywhere on the green, or the best place to miss the ball for the easiest up and down.

Think of Ben Hogan at Augusta on No. 11; he said that if you see him on that green in regulation then you know he missed the shot. He decided that short right was better than even trying to hit the green… sometimes you must do this too. But for now analyze your situation and make the best choice possible. When in doubt, eliminate the big numbers!

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