As a beginning golfer that is addicted beyond obsession with this wonderful sport, the search for nuggets of knowledge and insight into how to become a better player has been a passion of mine.
I was extremely fortunate that early in my struggles, I became a student of Coach Mike Wydra, UCSD head golf coach and one of a select few inductees to the Golf Coach Association Hall of Fame.
I recently sat down with him to pick his prodigious golf brain on just HOW a beginning golfer should approach learning the game, something I feel that has been somewhat neglected in existing literature.
Neil Crutchfield: First thing I wanted to ask you, what should beginning golfers be most aware of?
Mike Wydra: Golf is a technique-oriented game and people who have good hand-eye coordination don’t always excel at it. Probably the worst student I ever had was an Olympic decathlete who was a fantastic athlete but who wasn’t a good listener. He wanted to do what he felt was correct and he wasn’t interested in the technique — he thought he could conquer it like he’d conquered everything else, and so he became really quite a bad player as a result. So once you understand that there is a very specific technique, that there is something that you need to do and you need to learn it and you’re enamored with that, that’s a big deal.
NC: It sounds like you have to be really open to being wrong for a long time before you get it right.
MW: It’s a very frustrating sport — if you can’t take a little failure, golf’s not for you. I think that’s why you see so many people in the game who are of high character. They’ve gone through that. They understand that they have to persevere and you’ll come out the other side a better golfer and maybe even a better person because of it.
NC: Along these lines, what mindset should a beginning gofer adopt when striking out to learn the game? What kind of expectations?
MW: I think they key to that is where you are in your life. Your age, your body size and type, your flexibility, your coordination those kinds of things. How quick, fast and strong are you? If your talent set is limited there’s certainly lots of things you can still do to be very good at it, you shouldn’t sell yourself short. It depends upon more than anything else on your goals, what you want to do, and how often you’re willing to practice to get it done.
Your expectations — I’m borrowing this from Hogan’s book — that anyone of average body type, size and intelligence and who goes about it seriously I think should have no problem breaking 80 within a relatively short time. I would say between a year and two is very reasonable.
NC: What are common pitfalls that most beginning golfers encounter?
MW: Adults when they take the game up and they don’t want to embarrass themselves on the first tee. What happens to them then is that they get good enough at their long game quickly enough so that they could play if they had a short game, but actually they have just waited to embarrass themselves until they get to the green! It’s almost more frustrating to be right there and you can’t close the deal. So, all aspects of your game need to rise simultaneously.
NC: So you think there should be about a 50/50 split in practice between irons/woods and short game?
MW: I would say that the better you get the more time you spend within 50 yards of the green and certainly if you’re interested in scoring that’s a big, big part of what you need to do. You should get 50 yards away and say, “Oh boy, now I’m going to show everybody.” And most people get close to the green and say, “Oh no I hope I don’t mess it up.”
NC: Please don’t skull it!
MW: Exactly! So what I tell most people is that when you’re at the range you should hit half of your balls with your most lofted wedge and your driver and then the other half of the balls you should hit with all of your other clubs combined. And putting is another thing unto itself. The driver and the shortest wedge, those are the things you’ll need the most.
NC: At what point in a golfer’s learning process should they begin taking lessons? Getting fitted for a set of clubs?
MW: Well, it depends. Obviously there’s the monetary thing. But if you begin by playing poorly, if you just do what’s natural and you go out there and see how good you are before you get lessons, basically what happens is that you develop bad habits and then when the instructor gets you, the process is both getting the bad stuff out and the good stuff in at the same time which slows things down.
Club fitting — when you first get started you’re going to be very hard on your golf clubs. Your first set of clubs, it’s not that important to have really good clubs. A good piece of advice: It’s better to get a high-quality brand of club that’s used rather than something that’s shiny and new but maybe low quality.
NC: What should a beginning golfer look for in an instructor when looking for lessons?
MW: I think almost universally the best combination is someone who can play and someone who can teach. If you can find an instructor who you’ve checked out their resume and you know that they have played at a high level and they’ve taught at a high level, so you look at do they have successful students who have won tournaments? That’s the best possible combo.
NC: What are the most important principles to developing a solid, repeatable swing?
MW: All of the best players in the world have certain things in common. So if you see a Jim Furyk and you see a Rory McIlroy and you see the two swings and you think “Oh my god nothing could be more different than those two swings!” I would say that if you looked at them from halfway down in the downswing to halfway through the follow-through they look almost exactly the same. So if you look at videos and sequence photos and you see that one person’s doing one thing and that another person’s doing another thing, well then that’s style. But if you see them and everyone’s doing the same thing, that’s fundamental.
NC: What you say your top three to five most important fundamentals are?
MW: Grip, absolutely. There’s an old saying that occasionally you’ll see someone who’s a pretty good player who has a bad grip but you’ll never see someone who has a good grip that isn’t a good player.
If I go out to dinner with someone that says they’re a golfer I say “Show me your grip” — I can tell them normally within a shot or two what their index is just by looking at it. They always seem shocked by that but really it tells a lot about what is going on –- nearly everybody puts their hands on the club either poorly or improperly and they’re making it harder for themselves.
Second –- everyone is a scooping bastard. I mean, if you’ve ever taken a shoveful of dirt and thrown it over your shoulder or flipped a burger on a grill your hand-eye coordination is telling you that ball that you just topped you need to get under the next one better — and that’s exactly the opposite of what you need to do.
And that speaks to the flat left wrist. If you’re going to be ahead of it the only way that you can square the club up with a good grip is to change your wrist as you go through –- to supinate your wrist. If we went to Torrey Pines today and we saw high-speed photos of everyone hitting the ball off the first tee, we might not see a perfect one all day. But if you went to the final round of a PGA Tour event and took high-speed photos you wouldn’t see one all day long that wasn’t absolutely perfect.
NC: How can beginning golfers learn how to learn in between lessons when our coach isn’t around?
MW: Basically, you have to be a good observer. The tendency is to have an emotional reaction to every shot you hit. You cannot be mad, you cannot be sad, you cannot be glad about anything. But to first say, “What did the club do the ball to make the ball do that?” and then to understand the physics of impact and secondly say, “What did my body do to make the club do what it just did?” If you just jump from the shot right back to your swing it can be very confusing to the beginning player. So you have to really stop and say, “Woah, what just happened there? I sliced it that much, the club was that open? OK now, what could I have done that could have made the club be that open?”
So be a good observer, understand the physics of impact and then once you know the cause and effect relationships you can make big, very valid adjustments quickly and easily.
NC: What parting advice would you like to give to my fellow newbie golfers?
MW: A little knowledge is dangerous. You should try to learn everything you can about the game, really become a student of the game so you’ll enjoy every practice session you have, you’ll get better every time you go out, and you’ll continue to learn and continue to improve really for your entire life. That’s the thing -– if you don’t know why you hit a bad shot, you’ll continue to hit the bad shots. So if you’re not interested in knowing as much as you can about the game, we’ll just have another beer, buy the newest driver that’s out there…
NC: Flirt with the cart girl…
MW: That whole kinda thing. A lot of people say, “Ahh I’m just out for the exercise.” What a load of bull that is. Everybody would give almost anything to get better but they’re afraid to take their ego and put it on the backburner. So if you really want to approach the game properly get some quality instruction and enjoy the process of getting better, and you’ll be a golfer for life.
What is ground force in the golf swing?
There is no doubt about it, the guys and gals on tour have found something in the ground—and that something is power and speed. I’m sure by now you have heard of “ground reaction forces”—and I’m not talking about how you “shift your weight” during the golf swing.
Ground force in the golf swing: Pressure and force are not equal
With respect to ground force in the golf swing, it’s important to understand the difference between pressure and force. Pressure is your perception of how your weight is being balanced by the structure, in this case, the human body. Your body has a center of mass which is located roughly one inch behind the belt buckle for men and about one inch lower in women. When we shift (translate and/or torque) the center of mass, we create a pressure shift as the body has to “rebalance” the mass or body. This pressure shift can help us understand some aspects of the golf swing, but when it comes to producing power, force and torque are where it’s at.
Pressure can only be expressed in relation to the mass or weight of the body. Therefore, if you weigh 150 pounds, you can only create 150 pounds of pressure at one time. However, when we direct that mass at a larger object than our mass, all of a sudden that larger mass directs an opposite and equal reactionary force. So now, when a human being “pushes” their legs against the ground and “feels” 150 pounds of pressure, they now get 150 pounds of force directed back towards them from the ground, creating a total of 300 pounds of force that allows them to jump off the ground in this scenario.
If ground reaction forces don’t have anything to do with the “weight shift,” then what do they affect? Everything!
Most people use the same basic ingredients to make chocolate chip cookies. However, almost everyone has chocolate chip cookies that taste slightly different. Why is that? That is because people are variable and use the ingredients in different amounts and orders. When we create a golf swing, whether we are aware of it or not, we are using the same basic ingredients as everyone else: lateral force, vertical torque, and vertical force. We use these same three forces every time we move in space, and how much and when we use each force changes the outcome quite a bit.
Welcome to the world of 3D!
Understanding how to adjust the sequencing and magnitude of these forces is critical when it comes to truly owning and understand your golf swing. The good news is that most of our adjustments come before the swing and have to do with how we set up to the ball. For example, if an athlete is having a hard time controlling low point due to having too much lateral force in the golf swing (fats and thins), then we narrow up the stance width to reduce the amount of lateral force that can be produced in the swing. If an athlete is late with their vertical force, then we can square up the lead foot to promote the lead leg straightening sooner and causing the vertical force to happen sooner.
While we all will need to use the ground differently to play our best golf, two things need to happen to use the ground effectively. The forces have to exist in the correct kinetic sequence (lateral, vertical torque, vertical force), and the peaks of those forces need to be created within the correct windows (sequencing).
- Lateral force – Peak occurs between top-of-swing and lead arm at 45 degrees
- Vertical torque – Peak occurs between lead arm being 45 degrees and the lead arm being parallel to the ground.
- Vertical force – Peak occurs between lead arm being parallel to the ground the club shaft being parallel to the ground.
While it may seem obvious, it’s important to remember ground reaction forces are invisible and can only be measured using force plates. With that said, their tends to be apprehension about discussing how we use the ground as most people do not have access to 3D dual force plates. However, using the screening process designed by Mike Adams, Terry Rowles, and the BioSwing Dynamics team, we can determine what the primary forces used for power production are and can align the body in a way to where the athlete can access his/her full potential and deliver the club to the ball in the most effective and efficient way based off their predispositions and anatomy.
In addition to gaining speed, we can help athletes create a better motion for their anatomy. As golfers continue to swing faster, it is imperative that they do so in a manner that doesn’t break down their body and cause injury. If the body is moving how it is designed, and the forces acting on the joints of the body are in the correct sequence and magnitude, not only do we know they are getting the most out of their swing, but we know that it will hold up and not cause an unforeseen injury down the road.
I truly believe that force plates and ground reaction forces will be as common as launch monitors in the near future. Essentially, a launch monitor measures the effect and the force plates measure the cause, so I believe we need both for the full picture. The force plate technology is still very expensive, and there is an educational barrier for people seeking to start measuring ground reaction forces and understanding how to change forces, magnitudes, and sequences, but I’m expecting a paradigm shift soon.
Why you are probably better at golf than you think (Part 2)
Golf is very much a monkey-see-monkey-do sport. If you ever go to the local range, you are sure to see golfers trying to copy the moves of their favorite player. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it does not. While I understand the logic of trying to mimic the “secret move” of the most recent winner on tour, I always balk when the person trying to create their best impression fails to realize the physical differences between them and the best golfing athletes in the world.
In addition to most golfers not being at the same fitness levels as the best players in the world, they also do not have bodies that are identical to their favorite player. This single statement proves why there is not one golf swing; we all are different sizes and are going to swing the club differently due to these physical differences.
You have to understand your swing
The biggest reason I believe that golfers are better than they think is most golfers I meet do not understand what their swings should look like. Armed with video after video of their golf swing, I will always hear about the one thing that the golfer wishes they could change. However, that one thing is generally the “glue” or athleticism of the athlete on display and is also the thing that allows them to make decent contact with the ball.
We are just coming out of the “video age” of golf instruction, and while I think that recording your golf swing can be extremely helpful, I think that it is important to understand what you are looking for in your swing. As a young coach, I fell victim to trying to create “pretty swings”, but quickly learned that there is not a trophy for prettiest swing.
It comes down to form or function, and I choose function
The greatest gift I have ever received as an instructor was the recommendation to investigate Mike Adams and BioSwing Dynamics. Mike, E.A. Tischler, and Terry Rowles have done extensive research both with tour-level players as well as club golfers and have developed a way to test or screen each athlete to determine not only how their golf swing will look, but also how they will use the ground to create their maximum speed. This screen can be completed with a tape measure and takes about five minutes, and I have never seen results like I have since I began measuring.
For example, a golfer with a greater wingspan than height will have a golf swing that tracks more to the outside during the backswing and intersects the body more towards the trail shoulder plane during the backswing. A golfer with a shorter wingspan than height will have a swing that tracks more to the inside and intersects the body closer to the trail hip plane. Also, a golfer with a greater wingspan than height will have a more upright dynamic posture than a golfer with a shorter wingspan than height who will be more “bent over” at the address position.
Sport coats and golf swings
Have you ever bought a sport coat or suit for a special occasion? If so, pay attention to whether it is a short, regular, or long. If you buy a long, then it means that your arms are longer than your torso and you can now understand why you produce a “steeper” backswing. Also, if you stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and your middle-finger tips touching the top of your kneecaps, you will have perfect dynamic posture that matches your anatomy. If it appears that you are in a taller posture, then you have your second clue that your wingspan is greater than your height.
Translation to improvement
Using this and five other screens, we can help the athletes understand a complete blueprint of their golf swing based off their anatomy. It is due to the work of Mike, E.A., and Terry that we can now matchup the player to their swing and help them play their best. The reason that I believe that most golfers are better than they think is that most golfers have most of the correct puzzle pieces already. By screening each athlete, we can make the one or two adjustments to get the player back to trusting their swing and feeling in control. More importantly, the athlete can revisit their screen sheet when things misfire and focus on what they need to do, instead of what not to do.
We are all different and all have different swings. There is no one way to swing a golf club because there is no one kind of golfer. I encourage every golfer to make their swing because it is the only one that fits.
How golf should be learned
With the COVID-19 pandemic, golf is more popular than ever. Beginners being introduced to the game often find that golf is very hard, much harder than other sports they have played. To simplify the golf swing and make the game easier, it needs to start with a concept.
Golf should first be learned from a horizontal position. If the ball was placed four feet above the ground on a large tee, players would naturally turn in an efficient direction with the proper sequence to strike the ball on the tee.
Take for example, a person throwing a ball towards a target. With their eyes out in front of them? having an awareness to the target, their body would naturally turn in a direction to go forward and around towards the target. In golf, we are bent over from the hips, and we are playing from the side of the golf ball, so players tend to tilt their body or over-rotate, causing an inefficient backswing.
This is why the golf swing should be looked at as a throwing motion. The trail arm folds up as the body coils around. To throw a ball further, the motion doesn’t require more body turn or a tilt of the body.
To get the feeling of this horizontal hitting position or throwing motion, start by taking your golf posture. Make sure your trail elbow is bent and tucked with your trail shoulder below your lead shoulder.
From here, simply lift your arms in front of you while you maintain the bend from your hips. Look over your lead shoulder looking at the target. Get the clubhead traveling first and swing your arms around you. Note how your body coils. Return the club back to its original position.
After a few repetitions, simply lower your arms back to the ball position, swing your arms around you like you did from the horizontal position. Allow your shoulders, chest and hips to be slightly pulled around. This is now your “throwing position” in the golf swing. From here, you are ready to make a downswing with less movement needed to make a proper strike.
Note: Another great drill to get the feel for this motion is practicing Hitting driver off your knees.
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