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Instruction: What is the ball doing?

by   (Senior Writer I)   |   February 27, 2013
What is the ball doing?

John Jacobs, the great British instructor and one of the greatest teachers of all time, was one of the first to ask the question: “What is the ball doing”?

It seems a simple enough question to me. What does the ball do when you hit it? There are a finite, not infinite, number of possibilities.

The golf ball has initial trajectory, starting direction, spin and curvature. That’s it. All four of those characteristics are progammed at impact — the 0.ooo4 seconds the golf ball is on the face of the club. And to break it down even a bit further, the golf ball gets its marching orders half way through the impact interval!

Side note: From the start of 2013 to the time the average tour player gets to Augusta for the Masters, he has had the golf ball on the face of the club about a second in tournament time. By the time of the U.S. Open, about two seconds, and maybe 4 seconds for the entire Tour season. Impact is a very short period of time! But in golf, impact is all that matters.

As Jacobs often said, “Golf is what the ball does.” Or even better: “The purpose of the golf swing is to apply the club correctly to the ball. The method employed is of no consequence as long as it can be repeated.”

This was, believe it or not, grounbreaking stuff back in the 60s. Before Jacobs, the golf community was largely concerned with “shoulds.” The club should be here, the body should be there, etc. He suggested there are no “shoulds” beyond impact. The elbows don’t hit the ball, the hands, legs, hips or arms don’t hit the ball. The body moves the golf club; the golf club moves the ball. So I learned to teach by asking three simple questions:

  1. What is the ball doing?
  2. What did the club do that made the ball do what it did?
  3. What did the player do that made the club do what it did?

To suggest any other way is mere folly.

I was fortunate enough to learn from Jacobs and a few of his disciples, and I can assure you that I would never have succeeded in golf instruction over these last oh so many years, had I bought into the conventional wisdom of the time —  teaching the prototypical positions we are all supposed to be in to play good golf.

My take on this is pretty simple, apparently radical in its simplicity: If a player spins around three times and hits the ball with one hand, and hit fairways and greens, they have a great swing. Period. They have balanced their equation, they have matched their components.

The danger of the internet age, particularly the burgeoning golf blogosphere, is reversing this trend. When someone asks me to “look at my video” the FIRST question I always ask is: What is the ball doing? What is your general shape, trajectory, spin, distance, etc?

How can anyone look at swing and start critiquing it without knowing how that person hits the golf ball? The video of Alan Doyle’s swing below is a prime example of what I mean.

His swing, without knowing what it accomplished — 11 Champions Tour wins including four majors — would be picked apart mercilessly on the cyber school of golf. And most everybody would be dead wrong about them. Nobody can actually see impact. Even TrackMan and Flightscope estimate variables based on other information that the GOLF BALL is supplying.

For every position it is suggested someone should be in, I can find some Hall of Famer NOT in that position. From Jack Nicklaus’ flying elbow to Lee Trevino’s”caddyshack” move, it does not matter if they get the club to the ball as these great players do. And the same goes for the average golfer.

Let me give you an example — suppose you have a noticeable sway off the ball in your backswing, and an upright backswing that is quite narrow. Let’s say the ball flight problem is sculled, half topped shots and late slices. Someone sees a video and suggests that you take care of that sway and be sure and stay more over the ball. Why? Because the prototypical swing should not have a sway — it looks bad, it’s not textbook and it MUST have something to do with your problem. Well, you have added a narrowing element, your pivot, to another narrowing element, your backswing. Now you can’t hit it all. You just moved the bottom of a too forward arc even farther forward!

Another example: Your backswing is very flat. And you have a reverse pivot (weight going to left side in takeaway). Suppose impact is a very shallow, drop kicking some drivers and shallow topping irons. Someone looks at your video and says, look at that reverse pivot. Let’s fix that because well, because great players just don’t reverse pivot. So you learn to turn “properly” in the backswing, and now you are so flat you can’t hit a ball teed up 6 inches! The correction here for me would be simple: Learn to swing your arms and club in the air and LEAVE the reverse pivot alone until you start to get just the opposite impact, which in this case is quite steep.

I could go on and on with these scenarios but I think you get my point. If your impact is not solid, something is wrong. That something has to be corrected, NOT everything. And if you need two things corrected (the most I ever correct is two) the order in which they are corrected is vitally important if you don’t want to hit it worse. It’s all about balancing the equation and finding compatible variations for your own swing. So if you post a video and you want it analyzed, it needs be complete with a full description of ball flight and all its characteristics. And even then there is just no substitute for being there.

I can HEAR a slice, a top, a toe, and I can tell then from a mile away; but it’s a feeling an instructor gets that just won’t ever come from video analysis only. A lot of players have gone down dark roads trying to make their swing prettier. The hall of fame is filled with “ugly” moves. Let impact be you guide and fix only what needs fixing.

About

Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional, a distinction held by less than 1 percent of all PGA Professionals. He is recognized as one of the top instructors in the country, and holds no less than seven PGA awards including "Teacher of the Year" and "Golf Professional of the Year."

Dennis holds two degrees in education and has worked with golfers of all levels for over 30 years. A native of Philadelphia, Dennis currently directs the Dennis Clark Golf Academy at the Marco Island Marriott in Naples, Fla.


16 Comments

  1. joro

    March 13, 2013 at 11:02 am

    This is a great article. It also reflects the teaching method of Butch Harmon and most of us old teachers. The days when we corrected what is wrong and based it on what the ball is doing. Today is all “science”, machines, and teachers who don’t have a clue. They try to make everyone have “the perfect” swing, and that is impossible. THe perfect swing is what works for you.

    As a teacher for over 50 yrs. I will say that today Teaching is one of the biggest scams going, along with more distance is what it is all about. A good teacher is a teacher that teaches the basics to non gifted players, and corrects a problem in better players. And then of course, believe it or not there are some people who just do not have what skills they need to get better and will forever be stuck with what they have, teach them to have fun and enjoy the game.

    Bottom line is that Golf today is so over taught and over hyped it is ridiculous. More games are ruined than helped by all the theories and lessons are ruined by turning them into a video game. Equipment is better than ever but unfortunately the “fitters” have no idea what they are doing, nor do they know anything about the product they push. Good luck to todays student and club buyer.

  2. inall

    March 12, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    I often come across a guy on the course who hits a big banana slice but hits it pretty far. He just aims way left and the ball lands in the fairway. Does the same for approaching the greens. Plays to a low handicap.

  3. Gary Lewis

    March 12, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    I like what you have to say and I am a BIG John Jacobs fan. Based on my misses it seems my issue has been too much in to out for quite awhile now, main problem has been push fades, straight pushes, some draws. Since trying to switch to a Sean Foley type swing (Stack and Tilt Lite as Jeff Mann calls it) things are improving. What other kinds of misses will you see if you are swinging down too much inside to out?

  4. Doug

    March 12, 2013 at 12:04 am

    Spot-on article. I took a series of 5 lessons at the end of last years golf season from a pro to try and shave a few strokes off my 3.9 index. The pro hooked me up to motion monitors and used video analysis to compare my swing to tour pro swings and by the end of the series, my swing was disjointed wreck. I’ve spent the winter doing nothing golf related in the hopes of flushing away his lessons from memory.

  5. Walt

    March 2, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    Another thing I disagree with is using someone like Trevino or Doyle as examples. For that matter any tour player with a non cookie cutter swing. Why? Because they constantly hit balls with their funky swings.

    The majority of golfers might hit balls once a week if even that much. If you have an oddball swing and just try to hit balls that infrequently you aren’t ever going to get anywhere with your swing.

    But if you have a mechanically simple swing that doesn’t require as much maintenance to keep it solid then you can get away with less practice time.

    For this impact concept to work you must be repeating something in your swing. And the less complicated your swing is the easier it will be to repeat.

    • Dennis Clark

      March 2, 2013 at 3:36 pm

      Oddball is a catch phrase that connotes less-than-conventional. Once a swing gets into a groove, it repeats, conventional or not. You have to trust it. Like Bruce Lietzke. I saw him start a ball out over the middle of the water on #9 at Doral. He TRUSTED the fact that the ball was cutting back. Every time. I played with a guy who won a state open once who played a 30 yard hook on every hole. His path was probably 7-8 degrees inside out!

      • Walt

        March 2, 2013 at 8:34 pm

        Right. You are missing what I am writing. An unorthodox swing needs more maintenance from everything I have seen in my golfing life. You can do something odd and if you repeat it be my guest but you need to really work on the timing and mechanics of your unique swing.

        Lietzke did what he did but he hit lots of balls to groove that feeling.

        What do you do with the golfer with the bad swing that doesn’t hit at least two bags a day?

        If he can’t come back once a week and repeat his flaw that works he is lost.

      • Walt

        March 2, 2013 at 8:47 pm

        Let me state this another way.

        Golf is a repetitive game. It really helps if the golfer can do the exact thing he is doing over and over every time he swings the club. In fact great success can come from it. A strange swing can be great. This I fully agree with.

        But…the worse of a golfer you are the less you stick to doing the same thing over and over. You fiddle with your grip, you fiddle with your takeaway. You fiddle with…yeah every single part of your swing.

        You are only looking at this impact from they aspect of pro golfers with funky swings make em work. Yes they do, I see it too, but I know they don’t just walk out there and swing funky. They work really hard at it.

        So what does the 20 handicapper who isn’t even sure how to hold the club supposed to do? They can’t read the ball flight when the ball doesn’t fly the same way each time.

        I know what you are saying though, I have read Jacobs books and I agree with the concept.

        I am just saying its much easier to tell one of the collegiate golfers at my range how to turn his baby fade into a straight ball or a tight little draw.

        But the older gentleman I talk to with the issues I wrote about above fights something different every time I see him out there. Fat shots, bladed irons, shanks, then a good shot, then a hook. I mean literally anything can happen when he takes the club back.

        You can’t just say its all about the ball flight when the ball isn’t consistently flying out of there.

        • Dennis Clark

          March 3, 2013 at 6:23 pm

          Walt,

          Im not talking about Jacobs book here. I relating my 30 years, 35,000 lesson experience. Again, everybody’s swing repeats if they have been playing even for a little while. And the ball flight is what identifies what is incompatible in the swing. I finished a weekend school today and all the students have a better understanding of what they need to change based on the shots (or lack of them) they hit. IF the ball did this (rolled, shanked, topped, sliced whatever) THEN you did this. Lack of consistency in ball flight does not equate to lack of consistency in PATTERN. The degree of it perhaps, but the general pattern is very repeating. These things fall into a pattern when you do this every day for as long as I have. Thx for reading and replying

        • Andrew Cooper

          March 5, 2013 at 5:18 am

          Walt, I think the idea that unorthodox swings require more maintenance is a myth. I’d actually suggest they need less work- they are that player’s move, he’s not TRYING to do anything, he’s not TRYING to swing like somebody else, he’s just making HIS swing. I think the old one about technically “perfect” swings holding up under pressure is similarly not true for the same reason. I’d also say in terms of career longevity, the guys who find their swing early, stick with and learn to score tend to do ok.
          Leitzke rarely practiced, yet he topped or was near the top of GIR for years on the PGA Tour. In Europe, we had Colin Montgomerie, who also rarely practiced, had very much his own swing, and obviously was as consistently good as anyone tee to green in Europe for a 10, 15 year spell.
          I remember Trevino saying he felt his swing would always hold up BECAUSE of the seemingly unorthodox move-it was his move. That’s an inner confidence that players who’re constantly trying to perfect a move, or correct their “faults”, swing into positions, trying to swing like their favourite tour player that week e.t.c. will never find.

  6. Walt

    March 2, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    I agree with this and with John Jacobs.

    But one thing has me question how to apply this method. The “bad impact” then fix it with one or two things has to be based on the fact that the golfer is repeating that bad impact, right?

    What do you do when the golfer hits it low one time, high another, hooks it and slices it swing to swing?

    There is just this type of golfer at my range. He has a terrible reverse pivot, takes the club back insanely flat, comes over the top and hits with all his weight on his back foot.

    The ball goes everywhere. So where do you start when the player is unable to repeat bad impact?

    • Dennis Clark

      March 2, 2013 at 3:14 pm

      First of all golfers swings fall into patterns. Out to in is out to in. Period. NOBODY goes from that path to in to out on the next swing. My job would be infinitely harder if they did. But here is what youre missing…An out to in path can produce slices, pulls, tops, toes…But the PATH is still the problem and THAT does NOT vary or change until it changes.

  7. Adrian

    February 28, 2013 at 9:30 am

    Absolutely fantastic article and I will be passing this information on because I love how you put it. I have been working with a couple friends trying get them to understand the ball flight laws and how to get the shots to fly the way they want them to, and after getting one of my friends to execute draws and fades on command in just a few minutes he then asked me “how did his swing look?” I told I didn’t really care how his swing looks and wasn’t even paying attention to the positional aspects of his swing I was simply trying to “talk him into executing the shot shape and that was it.” The shot shape obviously told me everything that I needed to know. He also thought I was crazy when I told him that I was listening to his impact because I told him that solid impact makes a distinct noise that I call ” cracking eggs” because it sounds like a raw egg being dropped on the kitchen floor to me. Great Great article….I have been lurking around this forum for over a year but I will definately be joinging now!

  8. Steve

    February 28, 2013 at 5:26 am

    This really IS a great article – Way too much is made over picture-perfect video swings and virtual lessons. I actually forced myself to use a ‘putting guru’ template and struggled for a season before going back to my not-so-good, Nicklaus-style-putts, with far better results.

    Like Harvey Penick Said: “Use the Swing God has Blessed You With, and Go Play Golf.”

  9. 3Puttnomore

    February 27, 2013 at 11:35 pm

    As the old saying goes, ‘Golf is a game that can be taught… It can’t be learned, but it CAN be taught’… I think what this means is that we all have in ourselves an innate ability to hit the ball correctly. We just have to find it.

  10. Turn & Release

    February 27, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    Dennis
    Another great piece. You have a way of explaining things that other instructors (at every level) seem to talk around so far; that i find myself back at the beginning and with more questions then when I started. I balanced equation makes perfect sense! However, I assume that you are talking about players that have been playing and repeat their mistake over and over again. I’m sure many new golfers see balls flying in multiple directions. In the case of junior or new player would you not point them in the direction of “text book” swing? Just for a better chance of making contact.
    I have to say; I read all these articles, and most of them are noted by 200-300 people on other websites. I love your writing and look forward to reading what you have to say because it always makes sense and gives me fresh thought for several days.
    Big Fan!!

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