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Instruction: 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:
- What is the ball doing?
- What did the club do that made the ball do what it did?
- 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.