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“The bottom of the swing arc is the only part that matters”

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One of the most discussed topics when it comes to the golf swing is swing plane. It’s is also one of the least understood concepts in that it covers a much broader area than is generally considered.

The golf club is built on an angle for a reason. Simply stated, the ball is on the ground and it is also aside the player. Therefore, the idea of inclined plane is integral to understanding the swing of a golf club. But the incline that affects our ball flight is not the image most people have of swing plane. One of the first images that comes to mind is of Ben Hogan’s famous pane of glass; and as iconic as that illustration was, it has served to distort our understanding of swing plane.

I should add here as well that any complete discussion of plane can never be limited to the golf club only. The torso, the lower body, the arms and hands — as well as the golf club —  all swing on a “plane.” For our purposes, however, we’re only to discuss the golf club.

One way of understanding plane might be to think of it as an arc relative to the ground. Because there are several of these “mini planes” in the golf swing, we see how the club can be traveling on different planes at various times in the swing. The club moves away from the ball on a certain plane, then moves to the top of the swing on a little different arc and transitions down on yet another plane. A golfer’s preferences and body type can dictate all those arcs.

A player can choose how to take it back, even how to transition, but when it comes to the impact area — which is where the club is carrying maximum speed — choice is no longer part of the equation. At this time, the club head might as well be a free-flying object. It weighs the equivalent of about 100 pounds, so golfers have little to no control over the clubface. That’s why the clubhead must be “programmed” VERY EARLY in the swing, well prior to impact.

Flightscope defines Vertical Swing Plane (VSP) as the vertical measurement of the sweet spot movement in the bottom of the swing arc. The bottom of the swing arc is approximately where the golf club gets to parallel to the ground on the downswing to the first time it gets parallel in the through swing.

3D Club Analysis
This 6-iron shot has a VSP of 61.4 degrees and an attack angle of -4.7 degrees. 

Are there optimum numbers for vertical swing plane? Not really, but here are a few PGA Tour averages. You’ll notice that with the irons, that is, for shots hit off the turf, the VSP resembles the lie angle of the golf club.

  • Driver: 47 degrees
  • 6-iron: 61 degrees
  • Wedge: 65 degrees

So what does this mean for your swing? Well, the vertical plane of the swing can make a difference in a few areas. For example, the flatter the plane angle (lower numbers), the more hitting up or down affects path. Path and attack angle are ever changing on an inclined plane, and the more inclined they are they more they change. Someone swinging on a flat plane, say a VSP of 40 degree with a 6 iron, needs to swing or aim more left (if they are a right-handed golfer) than a golfer with a VSP of 60 degrees.

Flatter plane swings also tend to be wider, and may require a more centered pivot, while upright planes are narrower and would allow for more of a move move off the ball going back.

These are just some of the issues we have to deal with when it comes to swing plane. But before we go drawing on videos and seeing lines, remember the bottom of the swing arc is the only part that matters, and the only part that, when set in motion, remains stable enough to stay that way.

Good luck, and those of you interested in my swing analysis program, go to www.dennisclarkgolf.com or check in to my Facebook Page for information on how it works.

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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 JW Marriott Marco Island in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at [email protected]

20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. dg7936

    Sep 24, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    This article is a great reinforcement of the “pocket to pocket” swing. Essentially, the most important position during the swing is the lowest portion of the path, where it’s impossible to manipulate the club due to the speed through this low zone. If the movement through this area is off, the ball cannot go where you are aiming. The variables in backswing and follow-through can exist but not in the impact zone.

  2. Bob H

    Jan 22, 2015 at 5:15 pm

    Impact can not be achieved without a back swing, down swing or follow through.
    The swing plane is clearly defined in a book call “The Shape of Golf Plane and Simple”.
    720 year mystery solved. Single arc plane “sheet of glass” misrepresents golf swings.

  3. ca1879

    Jan 8, 2015 at 10:27 am

    Dennis – interesting that the average VSP is so close to the static lie angle. Wouldn’t you think it would be near the dynamic lie angle (i.e. including droop), or is the difference within the error of the data?

    • Dennis Clark

      Jan 8, 2015 at 6:48 pm

      Yes I would. Droop definitely a factor. How much I’m not sure. Thx

  4. Dan

    Jan 8, 2015 at 1:08 am

    iyo, could the type of sole shape/grind on an iron help to counteract certain attack angle & VSP issues & improve contact & ball flight? I’ve been testing out a few different iron styles & certain sole shapes seem to help me catch the ball better than others. Tks for posting, intersting article.

    • Dennis Clark

      Jan 8, 2015 at 10:10 am

      Dan, Always possible but I cant see the design affecting the VSP that much. At impact of course the lie angle, and grind on trailing edge will make a difference. As far as AoA goes, yes grind can affect where and how the club meets the ball/ground. For example on a mid- sole pitch like a lot of the tour players hit, the AoA needs to be fairly steep but with a leading edge square type hit, shallower is better. Does that help?

      • Dan

        Jan 9, 2015 at 5:52 am

        Hi Dennis, and yes it does tks. I think I’m talking more about attack angle… I’ve noticed my divot pattern (depth & width) changes with certain sole types, and helps to get a better strike/impact.

  5. Dennis Clark

    Jan 7, 2015 at 7:31 pm

    The information in this article is from my reading the scientific research of Dr. Steven Nesbitt professor of mechanical engineering at Lafayette College. His extensive work in this area is enlightening and I suggest a thorough investigation of his findings.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3761476/

  6. Plain Plane

    Jan 7, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    Great article. What do you mean when you say “That’s why the clubhead must be “programmed” VERY EARLY in the swing, well prior to impact.” How do you program the club head? By gripping it at address? By its open or closed orientation on the back swing?

    • Dennis Clark

      Jan 7, 2015 at 7:19 pm

      If the face is open at the top it needs to be corrected well before the bottom with an EARLY pronation of right palm etc; cant wait to get near bottom…or vice versa for closed. Thx

  7. Jack Heath

    Jan 7, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    Agree with most of the swing issues, however, like all golf coaches you are trying to perpetuate the myth that the club head follows a true semicircle, This can not be true if there is a weight change from back leg to front leg causing a change in the “centre of effort” or “pivot point”, the club head must follow an ellipse, so, the important factor must be the timing of the weight change to ensure the flat part of the ellipse occurs during impact, until the golfer has got this right s/he will not get much benefit from the “angle of the dangle”. The recent posting of “microwave training”, cheek to cheek would be a good starting point and work backwards to the full swing from there. Although I play a lot of Golf, I have based these assumptions on my experience as a Gymnastics, Trampolining and Skiing coach and the related study of body mechanics and theory of movement. Too test this, push two map-pins next to each other in an inclined surface such as a drawing board or a pizza box use your ingenuity to set it at the angle you want, make a loop of string (long enough to go round a cup), place this over the pins, then, using the sharp end of a pencil, pull the string away from the pins until it is taught, this point would represent the centre of the flattest part of the Swing/Ellipse, from here, keeping the string taught draw the backswing to the point when the pins and the pencil are in line with each other or beyond, then, go back through the impact point and draw the front swing ’til the pencil and pins are again in line or beyond, the resulting drawing will show the path of the club head. Too confusing, if anyone is interested, I will produce a video or schematic to explain what I mean.

  8. JEFF

    Jan 7, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    Yea,,, be sure to think about all of that crap just before you take it back!

    • Dennis Clark

      Jan 7, 2015 at 7:20 pm

      thanks for the positive contribution to the discussion

  9. Plane

    Jan 7, 2015 at 3:43 am

    Excellent stuff! This is what I talk about, with my kids, all the time.

  10. Andrew Cooper

    Jan 6, 2015 at 6:16 pm

    Interesting article thanks for sharing. One question-you note the 6 iron VSP of 61 degrees is close to the lie angle, the driver is 47 degrees (a little above its lie angle?) Is returning the club close to its static lie angle something you look for? Would be interested to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

    • Dennis Clark

      Jan 6, 2015 at 6:53 pm

      Not necessarily Andrew, it varies. But again, think about the article in terms of the way Tracking radar devices have redefined swing plane. A player can return the shaft over or under its original incline and still be “on plane”. Or the shaft can be get back to original incline and come in below or above the “plane”. The measurement is from the center of mass of the club head, sweet spot to the target line or ground. If the ball is say 6 o’clock, the VSP is from 8 to 4, where the head of the club is at maximum stability

  11. TR1PTIK

    Jan 6, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    Good discussion Dennis. Not sure when I’ll be able to get some video of me actually hitting a ball since it’s so cold in Missouri right now, but I definitely plan on submitting something to your swing analysis program.

  12. Todd H

    Jan 6, 2015 at 3:26 pm

    Very good read, now, how can make sure the bottom of the arc is past the ball? Depending on club and shot shouldn’t the club bottom out an inch or 2 after contact?

    • Dennis Clark

      Jan 6, 2015 at 3:45 pm

      Yes. But that is attack angle. The VSP IS THE BOTTOM PART OF THE SWING FROM SAY KNEE HIGH TO KNEE HIGH THROUGH.

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Instruction

Dennis Clark: Hitting from the turf

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I have seen as much as 4-5 MPH increase in clubhead speed when my students hit form a tee compared to hitting off the turf. Why?  Fear of FAT shots.

First question: Are you better hitting off a tee than on the turf?

Next question: When you play in a scramble and you have the option of dropping in the fairway or slightly in the first cut, do you choose the rough-especially when hitting over water or sand?

The answer to all these the same: Because the vast majority of golfers do not have a bottom of the swing arc safely in front of the golf ball consistently.

Consider a PGA Tour event, Korn Ferry, Champions Tour, LPGA Tour, whatever…You might see missed fairways, missed greens, hooks, blocks, etc. but we rarely, if ever, see a FAT shot. They simply do not hit the ground before the golf ball. Of course, there are exceptions, into the grain on short pitches, for example, but they are just that-rare exceptions. On the other hand, go to any golf course and watch average golfers for a while. Fat shots are not uncommon. In fact, they, or the fear of them, dominate most golf games.

The number one mistake I have seen on the lesson tee for over 35 years is unquestionably a player’s inability to control the bottom of the golf swing. I have seen everything from hitting 4 inches behind the ball to never reaching the bottom at all It has been my experience that that hitting fat shots is the number one flaw in most golf swings.

Let’s start with this fact: elite level players consistently reach a swing bottom (low point) some 3-4 inches in front of the golf ball-time after time after time. This happens for a variety of reasons, but the one I’d like to look at today is the position of the golf club at impact with the golf ball.

The club is leaning forward, toward the target, the hands are ahead of the club head, never straight up over it, never behind it-always, always leaning forward is the only way to consistently bottom out in front of the golf ball.   

A player cannot hit a ball consistently from the turf until he/she learns this and how to accomplish it. For every golfer I teach who gets into this position, I might teach 50 who do not. In fact, if players did not learn how to “save” a shot by bailing out on the downswing (chicken wing, pull up, raise the handle, or come over the top, (yes over the top is a fat shot avoidance technique) they would hit the ground behind the golf ball almost every time!  Hitting better shots from the fairways, particularly from tight lies, can be learned, but I’m going to be honest: The change required will NOT be easy. And to make matters worse, you can never play significantly better until you overcome the fear of hitting it fat.. Until you learn a pattern where the bottom of the swing is consistently in front of the ball, the turf game will always be an iffy proposition for you.

This starts with a perception. When first confronted with hitting a golf ball, it seems only natural that an “up” swing is the way to get the ball in the air-help it, if you will. The act of a descending blow is not, in any way, natural to the new player. In fact, it is totally counterintuitive. So the first instincts are to throw the club head at the ball and swing up to get the ball in the air; in other words, it makes perfect sense. And once that “method” is ingrained, it is very difficult to change. But change if you must, if your goal is to be a better ball striker.

The position to strive for is one where the left wrist (for a right-hander) is flat, the right is slightly dorsiflexed, and the handle of the golf club is ahead of the grip end. Do your level best to pay attention to the look and feel of what you’re doing as opposed to the flight of the golf ball. FEEL that trail wrist bent slightly back, the lead wrist flat and the hands ahead. It will seem strange at first, but it’s the very small first step in learning to hit down on your tight lies. If some degree of that is not ultimately accomplished, you will likely always be executing “fit in” moves to make up for it. It is worth the time and effort to create this habit.

My suggestion is to get on a Trackman if possible to see where you’re low point actually is, or perhaps you may just want to start paying close attention to your divots-particularly the deepest part of them. I’m sure you will get into a pattern of bottoming out consistently in front of the ball when you begin to learn to get the hands ahead and the club head behind. And best of all, when this becomes your swing, you will lose the fear of hitting the turf first and be free to go down after the ball as aggressively as you like.

Ok, so how is this accomplished? While many players are looking for a magic bullet or a training aid which might help one miraculously get into a good impact position, I dare say there is not one. It is a trial and error proposition, a learn-from-the-mistakes kind of thing achieved only through repetition with a thorough understanding of what needs to be done. The hardest thing to do is IGNORE the outcome when learning a new motor skill, but you must do it. A couple of things you might try:

  • Start with 30-50 yard pitch shots, paying close attention to the hands leading at impact. Again ignore the outcome, look only at the divot.
  • Hit a TON of fairway bunker shots. Draw a line in the sand 3-4″ in front of the ball and try to hit it.
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What you can learn from the rearview camera angle

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We often analyze the golf swing from the face-on view or down-the-line camera angle. However, we can also learn how the body moves in the swing from the rearview or backside view.

When seeing the swing from the rearview, we can easily see how the glutes work. The trail glute actually moves back and around in the backswing. This means the glute moves towards the target or towards the lead heel. Note the trail glute start point and endpoint at the top of the backswing.

To some, this may seem like it would cause a reverse weight shift. However, this glute movement can enable the upper body to get loaded behind the ball. This is where understanding the difference between pressure, and weight is critical (see: “Pressure and Weight”).

This also enhances the shape of the body in the backswing. From the rear angle, I prefer to have players with a tuck to their body in their trail side, a sign of no left-side bend.

This puts the body and trail arm into a “throwing position”, a dynamic backswing position. Note how the trailing arm has folded with the elbow pointing down. This is a sign the trailing arm moved in an efficient sequence to the top of the backswing.

Next time you throw your swing on video, take a look at the rearview camera angle. From this new angle, you may find a swing fault or matchup needed in your golf swing to produce your desired ball flight.

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How to stop 3-putting and start making putts

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When we are 3-putting we are ‘stuck in the box’. This means that when we are standing over the putt the second before we make our stroke everything happens to ‘go downhill.’ When this happens, depending on your playing level, things can become a bit erratic on the putting surface.

When a 3 putt happens, it is typically because you failed to do something before you made your stroke. The large majority of my 3 putts happen when I am not completely SOLD on the line of my putt, aka not committed. Questioning anything over the ball will lead to 3 putts.

Here is a breakdown/checklist on how to approach the green and get your ball in the cup without hesitation.

1. It starts with the approach shot into the green and the decision of direction you make to enter the hole. Scan the entire green with your eyes on the walk-up. Left to right and right to left. Look for a few seconds before you step onto the putting surface. This helps determine the high side and the low side, or if the green is relatively flat. Don’t be picky, just look and make a decision.

2. Once you get to the ball, mark it. Take 3 steps behind your ball mark. Now you must pick a line… Left, Center, or Right of the cup. (Skip step 3 if you know the line) It should take seconds but for those that are not sure it will take longer. Understand that every putt has a statistical level of difficulty. So to increase the odds, players must avoid putting in the unsure mind, and take the time to figure out a line. I also find that people who are 3 putting are overly confident and just not committed aka too quick to putt.

3. To commit, you must find the angle of entry into the cup. Walk up to the hole and look at the cup. How is it cut? Determine if it is cut flat or on a slope angle. This will help you see the break if you are having a hard time. Then determine how much break to play. Cut the hole into 4 quarters with your eyes standing right next to it. Ask yourself, which quarter of the cup does the ball need to enter to make the putt go in the hole?

I encourage using the phrases ‘in the hole’ or ‘to the hole’ as great reinforcement and end thoughts before stroking the ball. I personally visualize a dial on the cup. When my eyes scan the edges, I see tick marks of a clock or a masterlock – I see the dial pop open right when I pick the entry quadrant/tick mark because I cracked the code.

Remember, the most important parts of the putt are: 1.) Where it starts and 2. ) Where it ends.

4. To secure the line, pick something out as the apex of the putt on the walk back to the mark. Stand square behind the ball mark and the line you have chosen.

5. To further secure the line, place your ball down and step behind it to view the line from behind the ball. Don’t pick up the ball mark until you have looked from behind. When you look, you need to scan the line from the ball to the cup with your eyes. While you are scanning, you can make adjustments to the line – left, right or center. Now, on the walk into the box, pickup the mark. This seals the deal on the line. Square your putter head to the ball, with feet together, on the intended line.

6. To make the putt, look at the apex and then the cup while taking your stance and making practice strokes to calibrate and gauge how far back and through the stroke needs to be.

7. To prove the level of commitment, step up to the ball and look down the intended line to the apex back to the cup and then back to the apex down to your ball. As soon as you look down at the ball, never look up again. Complete one entire stroke. A good visual for a putting stroke is a battery percentage and comparing your ‘complete stroke’ to the percentage of battery in the bar.

8. Look over your shoulder once your putter has completed the stroke, i.e. listen for the ball to go in and then look up!

If you find a way that works, remember it, and use it!

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