Golf instruction suffers today, as it has from perhaps its beginnings, from a fundamental imbalance which has hindered its potential effectiveness — too much emphasis on form, and not nearly enough on function. To highlight the sentiment, let’s draw an analogy between striking a golf ball and another task, which most would consider fairly uncomplicated.
Let’s call this fictional task “hammering.” Let me explain quickly how it works. We’ll be using a long-handled hammer to drive a spike into the trunk of a tree. The head of the spike will be roughly a foot above the ground, and already inserted into the trunk in some pre-specified direction. The object of our “game of hammering” is to drive the spike into the tree without bending the spike.
For now, let’s simplify the game further by saying that it hardly matters how FAR you drive the spike in, only your efficiency in doing so. A hammer strike with 100 percent efficiency will see three specific conditions met:
- The head of the hammer should be delivered accurately to the head of the spike (you might call this hitting the nail on the head).
- The direction that the hammer head is travelling at the moment of the strike should be in the same direction that the spike is pointing.
- The face of the hammer head should arrive flush or square to the direction that the hammer head is traveling.
Any deficiencies in one or more of these three conditions will result in more bending and less driving-in of the spike. So the RESULT we are after is the spike being driven in straight, and the ACTION that achieves that result is described by the three specific conditions of the strike. Fairly simple, right?
Not coincidentally, for ball-striking, the same three user-controlled strike conditions are the factors that create your ball flight, besides speed. And your ball flight creates your results, which in turn, creates your scores. Yet in a lesson for the beginning golfer, how often do you think it is explained that the sole purpose for the swing is to achieve just three conditions at the strike point, plus speed; or what those conditions should specifically be; or how to determine them on your own?
All too often, I find the form of the golf swing — the position and movements of the body, or biomechanics — are over-emphasized at the expense of the function of the swing. Ask yourself, given the task of hammering as described, do you feel that the average person would feel like they would have a decent chance of achieving good results equipped only with the intention to create the three strike conditions described, with no formal instruction on how to achieve those conditions? Do you think that person would feel intimidated to even try? So then why is it that although the criteria for the two tasks, hammering and ball-striking, are virtually identical, one task seems fairly straight-forward and achievable for persons of average physical ability, while the other (golf) is generally perceived as difficult to learn?
Now let’s say a new “hammer player” makes some strikes that reveal a noticeable bend in the stake. To the expert observer, that player’s next question might likely be, “What did I do wrong?” Ask yourself, if the expert answer/analysis were a report of the actual strike conditions against the known ideal, would that seem to be lacking? Would it be enough, on its own, for you to feel better-prepared for future strikes, equipped with a new/different intention(s), based on the findings?
In golf, the question, “What did I do wrong?” is asked all the time to teachers and friends alike. Very rarely is the answer a factual report of the strike conditions such as “You struck it on the heel,” or “Your club face was open.” Rather, the usual answers belong to an infinite number of unverifiable, subjective opinions relating to biomechanics. Ask your buddy what you did wrong after a particularly poor result, and the response is likely to be something like, “You picked up your head.” This approach seems like a clear case of putting the cart before the horse.
Let me share a couple of quotes on this subject from two of the greatest golfers of all time.
- “The only reason we bother with form and the correct swing is to find the best way of consistently bringing about the proper set of conditions at impact.” — Bobby Jones
- “Whatever any golfer does with a golf club should have only one purpose: to produce correct impact of club on ball.” — Jack Nicklaus
Now there are probably plenty of people reading this who are thinking that the strike conditions required in golf are obvious, but the real secret is HOW to consistently achieve them. But in order to improve one’s ball-striking, it would be wise to first make an accurate assessment of the present strike conditions, for any given stroke, and on average. In my experience, very few players, including good ones, possess the level of skill required to determine this on their own without falling into common traps. And most aren’t even trying, skipping this critical step entirely and moving right on to the biomechanical self-analysis.
Case in point: when a slicer produces a ball flight that starts fairly on-target and curves well to the right, why is the self-correction almost always to strike in a MORE leftward direction when the ball flight indicates a strike direction which is ALREADY leftward of ideal? Or what of the player who commonly intends to strike upwardly a ball lying on the ground? Could you imagine intending to hammer the spike upward into the tree if it were clearly pitched downward? A golfer doing this is not even clear on the required direction of the strike!
Very often, struggling players will swear that they know “what they’re doing wrong.” Yet almost never does the self-analysis relate to the actual strike. Apparently, this has been going on for some time. More from Nicklaus’ “Golf My Way,” published in 1974:
“I got into a discussion with a pro-am partner about his slice … He’d tried just about every method or gimmick ever invented. But what he’d obviously failed to comprehend were the simple, basic mechanics of impact-what causes the ball to fly a certain way. He was forever changing his swing without really considering what he wanted it to achieve for him at impact.”
As a player, your ball striking is driven by your intent or intentions. And these are all that an instructor ultimately passes on to a student. There are mainly three types of intentions a player can have. The first is internal or biomechanical. This involves the intention to do something specific with part(s) of the body. This is all that most golfers seem to think golf instruction is or can be. They’ve learned this by the historical methods of golf instructors, which in turn, have influenced “what my friend said.” The second is what you might call an abstract intention. An example would be the intention to swing at a specific tempo. The third is an external intention. This involves physical objects outside the body, like the club and ball. An example would be the intention to push the club head downward through the ball.
As you may have guessed by now, my favorite intentions for my students and for my own striking are usually external. Recent research testing on athletic cuing has also found that external intentions easily outperform internal types. And this is why I feel that it is a mistake to present a biomechanical analysis before determining what intention(s) will be best to improve ball-striking. Remember, most people only have room in their conscious mind for one or two intentions. So if it is ultimately determined that the best intention(s) for improvement are not internal, then introducing a biomechanical analysis will only serve to confuse and constitutes too much information.
It’s usually at this point where skeptics might come back at me with, “So you’re saying that it doesn’t matter what you do with your body?” Hardly. EVERYTHING matters. What I do for my students is to teach them to strike the ball better, more efficiently. I evaluate ball-striking from strike conditions, then instruct what I feel is the best intention — sometimes more than one — to improve specific strike conditions, and thus the strike as a whole and on average. Your consistency can simply be summed up as your average strike conditions for ALL strokes played.
Sometimes my instructed intention(s) is purely biomechanical, and the video camera and V1 software become important tools. But most of my students are regular people who don’t have the time or desire to embark on a major swing change. They just want to hit the ball better. I find that these folks, like just about all golfers, have wandered down the wrong path in their progress to varying extents, drawing the wrong conclusions about their own performance, stemming from a lack of knowledge.
“Knowledge of the game, not talent, is the equalizer that eludes the many who strive for excellence.” — Moe Norman
The comment of one of my recent new students sums-up my approach perfectly. He said, “I can’t believe how much better I’m hitting the ball and you haven’t tried to change my swing!” But of course, his swing DID change. Only he wasn’t aware of it because his only intention, per my instruction, was to strike the ball in a specific, new way.
The following is from Ernest Jones’ instruction classic, “Swing the Clubhead:”
“Ernest Jones had happened upon the then-little-understood fact that the human brain need only experience a persons’ desire to perform a task. On its own the brain devises a means to create the muscular action to achieve the task. The individual is only aware of ‘what’ they want to do. The brain’s action in deciding ‘how’ it will accomplish the task is completely unconscious.”
But you see, very rarely is it enough to simply have the intention to achieve a final result, such as to hit it on the green. WHERE you want to go is quite obvious. More than that, you should be clear on HOW the ball must be struck to achieve a desired flight. And this is where I find much room for improvement, especially for recreational players. Now, I’ll concede that if the name of the game were primarily speed, then biomechanical intentions would surely dominate. But the vast majority of my students tell me that they just want to hit it straight and be consistent. Top speed is usually the LAST strike condition I would seek to improve.
At the present time, golf instruction largely has no formal standardization. This is not such a good thing. My wish is that it becomes standard practice to make a formal assessment of the strike conditions as the basis for analysis. These conditions are a question of fact and subject to physical law. And while launch monitors from the likes of Foresight, TrackMan and Flightscope can largely make that analysis for you, it is not difficult to make actionable determinations without them with the acquired skill. Once the proper analysis is made, instructors are still free to teach whatever they like as no intention is wrong, per se, if it improves performance. But the continuing measure of performance lies in the strike conditions, the true beacon for those seeking the path to improvement.
What about stats and scores as the ultimate performance measures, you say? As these are affected by influence outside the player’s control, they are not the best measurement of pure performance. There is an element of luck in golf, albeit a relatively small one. Besides strategy, the strike is the aspect of performance for which the player is in total control. That’s why when people ask me for my teaching philosophy, I’ll often say, partly for effect, “Three keys: impact, impact, and impact!”
The Wedge Guy: My top 5 practice tips
While there are many golfers who barely know where the practice (I don’t like calling it a “driving”) range is located, there are many who find it a place of adventure, discovery and fun. I’m in the latter group, which could be accented by the fact that I make my living in this industry. But then, I’ve always been a “ball beater,” since I was a kid, but now I approach my practice sessions with more purpose and excitement. There’s no question that practice is the key to improvement in anything, so today’s topic is on making practice as much fun as playing.
As long as I can remember, I’ve loved the range, and always embrace the challenge of learning new ways to make a golf ball do what I would like it to do. So, today I’m sharing my “top 5” tips for making practice fun and productive.
- Have a mission/goal/objective. Whether it is a practice range session or practice time on the course, make sure you have a clearly defined objective…how else will you know how you’re doing? It might be to work on iron trajectory, or finding out why you’ve developed a push with your driver. Could be to learn how to hit a little softer lob shot or a knockdown pitch. But practice with a purpose …always.
- Don’t just “do”…observe. There are two elements of learning something new. The first is to figure out what it is you need to change. Then you work toward that solution. If your practice session is to address that push with the driver, hit a few shots to start out, and rather than try to fix it, make those first few your “lab rats”. Focus on what your swing is doing. Do you feel anything different? Check your alignment carefully, and your ball position. After each shot, step away and process what you think you felt during the swing.
- Make it real. To just rake ball after ball in front of you and pound away is marginally valuable at best. To make practice productive, step away from your hitting station after each shot, rake another ball to the hitting area, then approach the shot as if it was a real one on the course. Pick a target line from behind the ball, meticulously step into your set-up position, take your grip, process your one swing thought and hit it. Then evaluate how you did, based on the shot result and how it felt.
- Challenge yourself. One of my favorite on-course practice games is to spend a few minutes around each green after I’ve played the hole, tossing three balls into various positions in an area off the green. I don’t let myself go to the next tee until I put all three within three feet of the hole. If I don’t, I toss them to another area and do it again. You can do the same thing on the range. Define a challenge and a limited number of shots to achieve it.
- Don’t get in a groove. I was privileged enough to watch Harvey Penick give Tom Kite a golf lesson one day, and was struck by the fact that he would not let Tom hit more than five to six shots in a row with the same club. Tom would hit a few 5-irons, and Mr. Penick would say, “hit the 8”, then “hit the driver.” He changed it up so that Tom would not just find a groove. That paved the way for real learning, Mr. Penick told me.
My “bonus” tip addresses the difference between practicing on the course and keeping a real score. Don’t do both. A practice session is just that. On-course practice is hugely beneficial, and it’s best done by yourself, and at a casual pace. Playing three or four holes in an hour or so, taking time to hit real shots into and around the greens, will do more for your scoring skills than the same amount of range time.
So there you have my five practice tips. I’m sure I could come up with more, but then we always have more time, right?
More from the Wedge Guy
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- Wedge Guy: There’s no logic to iron fitting
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The Wedge Guy: Anyone can be a better wedge player by doing these simple things
As someone who has observed rank-and-file recreational golfers for most of my life – over 50 years of it, anyway – I have always been baffled by why so many mid- to high-handicap golfers throw away so many strokes in prime scoring range.
For this purpose, let’s define “prime scoring range” as the distance when you have something less than a full-swing wedge shot ahead of you. Depending on your strength profile, that could be as far as 70 to 80 yards or as close as 30 to 40 yards. But regardless of whether you are trying to break par or 100, your ability to get the ball on the green and close enough to the hole for a one-putt at least some of the time will likely be one of the biggest factors in determining your score for the day.
All too often, I observe golfers hit two or even three wedge shots from prime scoring range before they are on the green — and all too often I see short-range pitch shots leave the golfer with little to no chance of making the putt.
This makes no sense, as attaining a level of reasonable proficiency from short range is not a matter of strength profile at all. But it does take a commitment to learning how to make a repeating and reliable half-swing and doing that repeatedly and consistently absolutely requires you to learn the basic fundamentals of how the body has to move the club back and through the impact zone.
So, let’s get down to the basics to see if I can shed some light on these ultra-important scoring shots.
- Your grip has to be correct. For the club to move back and through correctly, your grip on the club simply must be fundamentally sound. The club is held primarily in the last three fingers of the upper hand, and the middle two fingers of the lower hand. Period. The lower hand has to be “passive” to the upper hand, or the mini-swing will become a quick jab at the ball. For any shot, but particularly these short ones, that sound grip is essential for the club to move through impact properly and repeatedly.
- Your posture has to be correct. This means your body is open to the target, feet closer together than even a three-quarter swing, and the ball positioned slightly back of center.
- Your weight should be distributed about 70 percent on your lead foot and stay there through the mini-swing.
- Your hands should be “low” in that your lead arm is hanging naturally from your shoulder, not extended out toward the ball and not too close to the body to allow a smooth turn away and through. Gripping down on the club is helpful, as it gets you “closer to your work.
- This shot is hit with a good rotation of the body, not a “flip” or “jab” with the hands. Controlling these shots with your body core rotation and leading the swing with your body core and lead side will almost ensure proper contact. To hit crisp pitch shots, the hands have to lead the clubhead through impact.
- A great drill for this is to grip your wedge with an alignment rod next to the grip and extending up past your torso. With this in place, you simply have to rotate your body core through the shot, as the rod will hit your lead side and prevent you from flipping the clubhead at the ball. It doesn’t take but a few practice swings with this drill to give you an “ah ha” moment about how wedge shots are played.
- And finally, understand that YOU CANNOT HIT UP ON A GOLF BALL. The ball is sitting on the ground so the clubhead has to be moving down and through impact. I think one of the best ways to think of this is to remember this club is “a wedge.” So, your simple objective is to wedge the club between the ball and the ground. The loft of the wedge WILL make the ball go up, and the bounce of the sole of the wedge will prevent the club from digging.
So, why is mastering the simple pitch shot so important? Because my bet is that if you count up the strokes in your last round of golf, you’ll likely see that you left several shots out there by…
- Either hitting another wedge shot or chip after having one of these mid-range pitch shots, or
- You did not get the mid-range shot close enough to even have a chance at a makeable putt.
If you will spend even an hour on the range or course with that alignment rod and follow these tips, your scoring average will improve a ton, and getting better with these pitch shots will improve your overall ball striking as well.
More from the Wedge Guy
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- The Wedge Guy: Understanding iron designs, Part 1
- The Wedge Guy: Understanding iron designs, Part 2
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