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Clark: Head for the hills

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Golf is a game of the earth. It is played on fields that were there long before any architect laid a golf course on them. It is, of all games, the one that uses that very feature as one of its primary challenges. The golf ball bounces, rolls and much of time comes to rest on slopes that are not exactly level with where we’re standing (at least for me it does).

The ball always seems to be below our feet, above them, or on a downhill or uphill lie — everywhere but on level ground. That’s golf, and of course,we play the ball as it lies. But if we want to learn to play the game, we have to learn to play from these hills. In doing so, we can also learn a lot about our swing and even come to appreciate the fact that practicing from uneven lies can actually help us. Almost any swing problem you’re having. Whether you’re struggling with plane, path, or swing shape, hitting balls on certain moguls can help you work it out.

There are four uneven lies: sidehill above the feet, sidehill below the feet, uphill and downhill. Every one of them requires a distinct posture and dictates a different swing plane and shape to play them; so we can and should train on these slopes. Here’s how to do it:

Uphill: Let’s start with the easy one, uphill. Uphill lies are a great place for new players to begin golf for one simple reason: they make it easier to get the golf ball airborne. Additionally, anyone who is too steep coming into the ball can benefit from practicing on this lie. The shot requires a stance where the shoulders have to be parallel to the slope, so the right shoulder is significantly lower than the left allowing the player to swing more up, which creates a more shallow angle into impact. It also helps those of you getting well ahead of the ball to feel what’s its like to stay behind the ball with your upper body. So if you’re just starting out, or you’re really steep, try hitting some balls on an uphill lie. Swing down the hill going back and up the hill coming through to get more shallow. Always allow for this shot to go a club or so less because of the highest trajectory uphill lies create.

Downhill: Downhill lies are the most difficult lie of all, and just the opposite of the uphill lies. To play these shots you have to set your shoulders with the slope, so the left shoulder is lower. It’s hard to imagine this lie actually helping anyone, but it can. If you are really shallow into impact, or early with your release, this lie can be a great help. I have worked with some really high level players on this slope. It helps you learn to lag the club, delay your release a bit and hit DOWN with a steeper angle. Swing up the hill going back, and down the hill coming down to get steeper. Allow for this shot to come out low and “hot” because of the lower trajectory downhill lies create. If there is nothing in front of you or the green, no problem. By the way, don’t practice off of downhill lies if you’re new at the game!

Sidehill above the feet: I use this a lot in teaching average golfers. If your swing plane is too upright or if your transition is too steep, this lie can really help.  It helps flatten the plane, and can help you swing more from the inside on the downswing if you have a tendency to come over the top. Remember to keep your posture more upright with a lot less bend at the waist. You will feel taller which helps your shoulder turn and can flatten your downswing. Allow for this shot to go left because of the lie angle of the golf club coming into impact more upright, and the flatter plane which will cause the face to close more closing coming into impact.

Sidehill below the feet: A sidehill lie is another difficult shot for most golfers. You have to bend more at the waist so balance is an issue, but it can help you feel more upright and it creates a steeper downswing. It is also a great trainer for those who tend to “chicken wing” or shorten their left arm radius on the downswing. You have to completely extend your arms to reach the golf ball, so a downhill helps you feel this. Allow for this shot to go right because of the lie angle of the golf club coming in flatter and the upright plane that will open the face coming into impact.

The best part of using moguls as training aids is they’re free and readily available. Your swing has a shape and a plane, and if you want to change it, head for the hills!

As always, feel free to send a swing video to my Facebook page and I will do my best to give you my feedback.

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum.

Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington, Pa., and Marriott Marco Island Resort in Naples, Fla. He has been a professional for over 25 years. You can learn more about Dennis on his website, http://www.dennisclarkgolf.com

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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]

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Denny

    Oct 19, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    Remember this shot will curve in the direction of the down slope so aim to compensate. Then be aggressive through the shot for best results.

  2. James Lythgoe

    Aug 28, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    You have written a very good article here. As a teenager, I used to practice in a cow pasture. This is a perfect place to play or practice golf – the cows chew the grass to a very good length from which to hit golf shots from.

    Downhill lies are very strange. You don’t want to spend much time practising from a downhill. It can be extremely destructive to your golf swing. You also don’t want to practice with a tail wind either.

    Practicing from a level or slightly uphill lie is best with a slight head breeze is perfect.

  3. dennis clark

    Aug 14, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    If you can’t find hills, try tees. You can simulate a sidehill lie above your feet but getting some really tall tees and addressing the golf ball with the club in the air, as high as the ball. This will help you swing flatter and learn what a more horizontal shaft plane into the golf ball will feel like.

  4. Vincent Dice

    Aug 13, 2012 at 11:22 pm

    I tried it! I’ve been a golfer for 15 years and more of a weekend warrior than a true golfer but passionate nonetheless. I tend to get fast and release too soon but working the hills today and then heading out to golf immediately afterwards shaved 4 strokes off my 9 hole round. My swing just made sense afterwards. Thank you, Dennis! Great post.

  5. Troy Vayanos

    Aug 9, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    Nice Post,

    That’s the problem with practicing a lot at the golf driving range. The area is flat and you are hitting of a hard lying artificial grass area.

    The biggest challenge with this type of practice is finding the right area to be able to do it in.

    Cheers

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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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