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Should you really keep your left arm straight?

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“Keep your left arm straight” is a phrase heard a lot on the golf course. Some golfers swear by it, while some are skeptical of its importance and others simply cannot complete a swing with a straight left arm.

The truth is, while keeping the left arm straight is not absolute imperative, it does help most players hit the ball farther and more solid. That’s because a straight left arm creates width at the top of the swing, which helps golfers create more speed and consistency. 

Below, I’ll teach you how to fix the bent left arm and properly keep your left arm straight.

What I usually see in golfers’ backswings

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 12.41.09 PM

  • The left arm is bent. 
  • The right arm is bent very acutely. 
  • The hands are very close to the head. 
  • There is very little width.

What I’d like to see

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 12.41.26 PM

  • The left arm is straight.
  • The right arm angle is 90 degrees. 
  • The hands are “away” from the head. 
  • The wrists are fully hinged. 
  • The shoulders are fully turned over the top of a controlled lower body.
  • The backswing is parallel, with maximum width at this point.

The things I like to see in a backswing are very difficult to achieve for multiple reasons, the biggest being flexibility. That’s why having a perfectly straight left arm at the top of your backswing is great, but sometimes is unrealistic, and not always necessary.

Heck, Curtis Strange won back-to-back U.S. Open’s with a bent left arm!

Just because you can’t make a full turn with a straight left arm doesn’t mean you cannot create width in your swing, which is why we wanted a straight left arm in the first place. So forget about the left arm!

It’s all about your right arm’s position at the top

Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 12.41.37 PM

Whenever the angle formed between the upper and lower arm becomes very acute (as shown on the left), you will lose width and your left arm will bend. This results in a loose feeling at the top of the backswing, and leads to a sloppy transition.

By keeping this angle wide (as shown by the photo on the right), you’ll find that the left arm will react and you will have more width. To achieve this feeling, think about pushing your hands — especially your right hand — out away from your head during the backswing.

If you want a straighter left arm, focus on your right arm at the top and you’ll create the width you desire!

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Tom F. Stickney II is the Director of Instruction and Business Development at Punta Mita, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (www.puntamita.com) He is a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher, and has been honored as a Golf Digest Best Teacher and a Golf Tips Top-25 Instructor. Tom is also a Trackman University Master/Partner, a distinction held by less than 15 people in the world. Punta Mita is a 1500 acre Golf and Beach Resort located just 45 minuted from Puerto Vallarta on a beautiful peninsula surrounded by the Bay of Banderas on three sides. Amenities include two Nicklaus Signature Golf Courses- with 14 holes directly on the water, a Golf Academy, four private Beach Clubs, a Four Seasons Hotel, a St. Regis Hotel, as well as, multiple private Villas and Homesites available. For more information regarding Punta Mita, golf outings, golf schools and private lessons, please email: [email protected]

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Beth

    Jul 4, 2016 at 9:07 am

    I am a fairly low handicapper trying to improve technique. I do have a slight bend in my left arm. in an effort to straighten it i lost the cock in my wrist and my swing felt much less fluid.

  2. Pingback: Handstand - How to do a Straight Arm Press to handstand tutorial - Must Have Yoga Gear

  3. Dennis Clark

    May 28, 2015 at 10:27 pm

    agreed Tom. Too many golfers worried about “keeping right elbow in” ruin their width.

  4. Mike

    May 28, 2015 at 12:05 am

    Interesting that in the top two sets of pictures, after getting more width with a straight left arm, the golfer’s head (and shoulders) have slid well back off the ball in comparison to the top set with the bent left arm. Are you advocating sliding back as part of a correct swing?

    I use to slid a lot, which I’ve fixed, but I’m also not hitting it as far. Should I go back to my “twister’ move?

    • MHendon

      May 29, 2015 at 12:35 am

      Just my two cents. It doesn’t look to me like he has slid off the ball, his head position is basically the same in both swings. However the straight left arm swing has a much bigger shoulder turn and hip turn. That’s probably what has given you the impression he has slid off the ball. If you want to be a consistent ball striker it’s best not to slide off the ball. The closer your eyes stay to the set up position the easier it is to return the club to the ball square and towards the center of the club. Best tip I ever got was to imagine a poll fixed to the ground is going up through the center of your body all the way to your neck. Because its cylindrical you can turn but you can’t slide. It helps keep you centered over the ball.

  5. Regis

    May 27, 2015 at 10:46 am

    Ok now a question that has been plaguing me for years. In an effort to keep the “left arm straight” I sometimes rotate my left elbow clockwise at address. So the elbow points more down the target line as opposed to my left hip. Also strengthens my left hand grip a bit. When it works it works well. Any thoughts?

  6. Bob

    May 27, 2015 at 10:10 am

    I think if your left arm throughout the backswing is the same shape as it was at address, that’s straight enough.

  7. Paul

    May 26, 2015 at 10:52 am

    no stills of Bubba Watson at the top with a bent arm? J.B. Homes? They seem to hit it far.

  8. Jeez Utz

    May 25, 2015 at 3:11 pm

    I don’t care about the arms during the swing as long as the butt of the grip is on the correct line

  9. Tom Stickney

    May 25, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    Thank you Stephen.

  10. Minh Nguyen

    May 25, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    Good article. Same exact thing my instructor preaches to me. He mentioned the “Swing Extender” Training Aid. Not the easiest training device, but it definitely keeps the “right” arm from from bending past 90 degrees.

    http://www.swingextender.com/

  11. Cons

    May 25, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    Tom- Could you not make an argument that slight bend (and I mean slight) in the left elbow can lead to added distance in that you have created another ‘lever’ in the swing?

    Personally I stay away from this, but I have heard the argument before.

  12. Stephen Lee

    May 25, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    i went out to local course with my dad yesterday and i saw the picture on the top all day long.

    because his swing width is narrow, his tempo on the backswing was hasty and resulting downswing was well out of tempo. moreover, his bent left arm never fully extended, he didnt have any space to accelerate and extend on downswing resulting weak and very thin shots. I hope what you suggested in this article helps my dad and become a better golfer.

    I have utmost respect for your effort and time put in the work and always appreciate your quality articles Mr. Stickney. Thank you very much.

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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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