In a conventional golf swing, the clubface opens and closes, rotating to the target line. But with the putter, this is often seen as undesirable. In this article I’ll examine how clubface rotation happens, whether it should, and if so, to what extent.
Many people discount that the putter can be swung like a pendulum because the club does not lie vertical at the start. But if you lean a grandfather clock back 20 degrees or so from vertical, does not the pendulum still swing? The requisite feature is not that the pendulum swings vertically, but that it swings in-plane along a theoretical flat surface.
Here are just a few examples to support why an in-plane swing is worth pursuing:
- You can lay a STRAIGHT line on the flat surface of a plane, but not on a CURVED surface.
- Inertial forces act to pull the clubhead in-line with the path of the hands, and thus to form a plane for the swing.
- The best putters in the world swing the WHOLE putter in-plane, or very nearly so (regardless of what some may THINK that they do).
If a club is to swing within a single plane, it must begin the swing within that plane, the address plane, formed between the ball-to-target line and the club. The standard lie angle of a putter is typically 70 degrees, for which the address plane is inclined 20 degrees from vertical (90-20=70). The geometry of a swing within an inclined plane dictates that as the club rotates around the golfer, the clubhead travels up and away from the target line, toward the golfer’s side, on both sides of the lowest point of the arc. As this happens, the clubface will open and close to the target line, even when the clubface remains square to the flat surface of the plane. Additionally, the clubface may roll (rotating upon itself), opening and closing not only to the target line but also to the plane. Example: the Earth rotates around the Sun, and also rolls upon itself.
Modeling the swing
The putting model, “Iron Archie,” can swing a putter pendulum-style with clubface continually square to the in-plane arc when its “shoulders” are set to rotate parallel to the address plane. The only moving part of this simple machine is the entire shoulder/arm/club assembly around a central axis/hub.
Iron Archie in action
The human golfer CAN reproduce the single-action swing of Iron Archie simply by rotating the shoulders, or more accurately, the upper torso, parallel to the address plane.
A difference from the model
The most natural rotation of the shoulders is perpendicular to the spine, specifically a section of the thoracic spine just below the shoulders. This square rotation of shoulders-to-spine allows the whole spine, including the head, to remain fixed. This is why players who “rock the shoulders” on a steeper tilt may be observed with the head teetering back and forth. From an orthodox golf posture, the spine is not normally inclined to the degree that is perpendicular to the address plane. In this scenario (assumed throughout the article), if the golfer’s only movement were to rotate the shoulders naturally perpendicular to the spine, the club would move under and out of the address plane on both sides of the lowest point, the club carving a cone shape through space. In this scenario, a second movement must be added to keep the club moving in-plane – a vertical swinging of the arms from the shoulder joints — and this reality is no different with any other club. This specific action causes the golfer’s arm/club/clubface assembly to roll.
Learning from the best
A fine example of this “rolling” action is seen in the technique of arguably the greatest performer with the putter of our time, Tiger Woods. Tiger swings the putter near perfectly in-plane while maintaining a notably steady head position, indicating that his shoulders rotate mostly perpendicular to the central axis/hub. But since that area of his spine is more vertical than perpendicular to the swing plane, the clubface rolls, as the arms must swing from the shoulder joints to keep the club swinging in-plane. Tiger has been measured by the SAM PuttLab system to exhibit in the impact zone (4 inches before and after impact) 10.2 degrees of clubface rotation relative to the target line, of which 8.5 degrees is clubface roll, relative to the path of the clubhead. This degree of roll, in particular, is notably higher than other Tour players tested. To be clear, the roll of the clubface results not from the wrists rotating about themselves, independently of the upper arms (pronation and supination), but from the roll of the whole shoulder/arm/club assembly around a vertical axis within the swing plane. Thus, this higher degree of face rotation does not represent an undesirable manipulation of the hands, which some might see it as. In fact, the only way for Tiger to maintain a square face-to-plane relationship, all else the same, would be to roll the wrists independently of the upper arms — counter-clockwise in the backswing, then clockwise in the forward swing. Clearly, that would be the manipulation, an unnecessary added movement. And many have wandered down that dark road, often leading to a case of the dreaded “yips.”
Tiger Woods’ athletic posture with the thoracic spine (red line) inclined short of 90 degrees to the club, which incidentally lies at roughly 68 degrees to horizontal.
Tiger’s forearms roll over the swing plane. This is the action that rolls the clubface. In contrast, Iron Archie’s “forearms” remain parallel to the plane, allowing the clubface to remain perpendicular.
Seeing the light
The club, as it swings in-plane, will continually point to a straight line on the ground – a line within the plane – a “plane line.” Laser pointers can effectively be used to confirm an in-plane swing.
Practicing an in-plane swing. First, swinging the dominant arm with a laser pointer in-hand, then with the SmartStick training aid. The laser continually points straight to the white target line. Finally, flying solo.
A laser line-generator, like the LaserPutt training aid, can confirm an in-plane swing and also shed light on clubface roll. When the laser line remains on the target line:
- The swing is in-plane to the target.
- The clubface is maintaining a square relationship to that plane.
We saw both of those conditions achieved with Iron Archie in the first video in this article.
Comparing two in-plane swings with the LaserPutt. On the left is an Iron Archie-style “shoulder” swing; the right forearm remains in-plane while the clubface remains square to the plane. On the right is a Tiger Woods-style “arm” swing; the right forearm rotates out of plane slightly while the clubface rolls, evidenced by the laser line rotating off the target line. Even in this case, the LaserPutt provides valuable visual feedback as to whether you are returning the face squarely to impact. The PerfectStroke training aid serves as a suspended “plane line.”
The straight dope
Turning the spotlight to the so-called “straight-back-straight-through” style, in which the clubhead is supposedly to remain directly ABOVE the target line within a vertical plane, realize that when the club is inclined from vertical, this scenario would see the WHOLE club moving along a CURVED surface. I find the feel of this style notably less stable, less natural and less repeatable than the in-plane style. Still, it CAN be done, BUT if you’re hoping to power this style with a “shoulder” swing, know that your shoulders will need to rotate within a VERTICAL plane. This is unnatural at best, UNLESS you can incline your spine to parallel to the ground, but this is quite unnatural also.
Perhaps there was more method than madness to Michelle Wie’s adoption of this posture? Yet even she does not maintain the clubhead entirely within a vertical plane.
Proponents of the straight-back-straight-through style usually suggest also that the clubface should remain square to the target line. Again, to achieve this, either the shoulders must rotate within a vertical plane, or if not, then the golfer must actively roll the wrists about themselves to counter the roll resulting from the vertical arm swing required to maintain the clubhead within the vertical target plane. Frankly, either effort is an aberration. Further, I am not aware of a single player on any major professional tour who swings the putter head entirely within the vertical target plane. This style is mostly a myth. It makes some sense in theory, just not in practice.
Straight vs. curved
Have a look at the following two swings. Which looks straight and which looks curved/arced to you?
It’s a bit of a trick question, as both swings are in-plane. The swing on the right is viewed from within the vertical target plane, while the swing on the left is viewed from within the inclined address plane.
Swing like Archie or Tiger?
Both the style of Iron Archie and Tiger Woods produce the in-plane, pendulum-style swing. The main difference is in the relationship of the incline angles for the shoulder turn and the swing plane. The “flatter” or closer to horizontal the shoulder turn is from the swing plane, the more the clubface will roll, adding to the total face rotation. Many have concluded that less clubface rotation MUST automatically be “better,” less likely to be mis-timed, but consider these three points:
- The additional clubface rotation results simply from the arms swinging the club in-plane while maintaining a fixed spine. The squaring of the face-to-plane for impact in the forward swing is achieved solely by reversing that single action, and not on timing any additional active action to that action.
- A steady head position has always been deemed orthodox, especially when putting.
- In the full swing, a so-called “square” position at the top of the back-swing is reached when the clubface rolls, building up to 90 degrees to the swing plane along the path of the clubhead.
Of course, the golfer may use a degree of shoulder tilt somewhere between parallel to the address plane and perpendicular to the spine. The arms are then required to swing from the shoulder sockets, more than Iron Archie (zero) but less than Tiger, producing less face rotation than Tiger but more than Iron Archie (zero). But since the degree to which the shoulders tilt affects the face-to-path alignment, as we have seen, variance in that angle during the swing can directly cause clubface misalignment at impact.
For the in-plane, pendulum-style swing with the putter, since the clubhead path parallels the plane direction ONLY at the lowest point of the arc, in-line with the thoracic spine, this is where the back of the ball should be positioned. The elbow and wrist joints should be immobile also, maintaining the one-piece structure of a single pendulum, unlike the double-pendulum action used with other clubs.
Those interested in exploring the in-plane, pendulum-style swing with the putter will find the training aids highlighted in this article to provide essential feedback. When guided on an in-plane swing, golfers consistently discover a feeling that they intuitively sense to be most appropriate. Perhaps that’s because an in-plane swing is the accepted ideal with any other club — in the area approaching impact at the very least.
Your sense of touch may guide you, as the stable feel of the hands and clubhead swinging in-line with each other contrasts to the wobbly feel of motion out-of-plane. Your sense of direction may guide you also, since although the clubhead is constantly changing direction as it circles within the plane, the plane ITSELF has direction with the target.
Conflict arises from beliefs that make sense in theory but not in practice, such as the belief that the clubhead should move in-line with the target for an extended length rather than in-line with the hands. And although an in-plane swing FEELS right, it may not initially LOOK right to you. You must not be alarmed when you see the path of the clubhead progressing inside the target plane and the clubface opening to the target line as the clubhead swings up the straight, inclined address plane. As an old Jedi Master once said, “May the force be with you.”
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Short Game University: How to hit wedges 301
In golf, there is nothing harder than judging a flop shot over a bunker to a tight pin out of long grass. Why? Because there are so many variables to account for — in addition to what you can and cannot do with a wedge. In fact, up until very recently in the world of wedge design, we were limited to only increasing the landing angle to stop the ball, because relying on spin from this lie and this close to the green was next to impossible.
Now with the advent of things like raw faces, different CG locations, new groove design, and micro-ribs between the grooves, we can now spin the ball out of lies that we never could have done so before. This is not to say that you can now zip the ball back from these types of lies, but we are seeing spin rates that have skyrocketed, and this allows us to not open the face as much as we needed to do before in order to stop the ball.
Before we get into the shot around the green itself, let’s talk a bit about wedge design. For that, I called a great friend of mine, Greg Cesario, TaylorMade’s Staff Manager to help us understand a bit more about wedges. Greg was a former PGA Tour Player and had a big hand in designing the new Milled Grind 3 Wedges.
Cesario said: “Wedge technology centers on two key areas- the first is optimizing its overall launch/spin (just like drivers) on all shots and the second is optimum ground interaction through the geometry of the sole (bounce, sole width, and sole shape).”
“Two key things impact spin: Groove design and face texture. Spin is the secondary effect of friction. This friction essentially helps the ball stick to the face a little longer and reduces slippage. We define slippage as how much the ball slides up the face at impact. That happens more when it’s wet outside during those early morning tee times, out of thicker lies, or after a bit of weather hits. Our Raised Micro-Ribs increase friction and reduce slippage on short partial shots around the round – that’s particularly true in wet conditions.”
“We’ve been experimenting with ways to find optimal CG (center of gravity) placement and how new geometries can influence that. We know that CG locations can influence launch, trajectory and spin. Everyone is chasing the ability to produce lower launching and higher spinning wedge shots to help players increase precision distance control. In that space, moving CG just a few millimeters can have big results. Beyond that, we’re continuing to advance our spin and friction capabilities – aiming to reduce the decay of spin from dry to fluffy, or wet conditions.”
Basically, what Greg is saying is that without improvements in design, we would never be able to spin the ball like we would normally when it’s dry and the lie is perfect. So, with this new design in a wedge like the Milled Grind 3 (and others!), how can we make sure we have the optimal opportunity to hit these faster-stopping pitch shots?
- Make sure the face is clean and dry
- Open the blade slightly, but not too much
- Set the wrists quicker on the backswing to increase the AoA
- Keep the rear shoulder moving through impact to keep the arms going
Make sure the face is clean and dry
If your thought is to use spin to stop the ball quicker under any situation, then you must give the club a chance to do its job. When the grooves are full of dirt and grass and the remaining exposed face is wet, then you are basically eliminating any opportunity to create spin. In fact, if you decide to hit the shot under these conditions, you might as well hit a flop shot as this would be the only opportunity to create a successful outcome. Don’t put yourself behind the eight-ball automatically, keep your club in a clean and dry condition so you have the best chance to do what you are capable of doing.
Open the blade slightly, but not too much
Without going into too much extra detail, spinloft is the difference between your angle of attack and your dynamic loft. And this difference is one of the main areas where you can maximize your spin output.
Too little or too much spinloft and you will not be able to get the maximum spin out of the shot at hand. With wedges, people equate an open clubface to spinning the ball, and this can be a problem due to excessive spinloft. Whenever you have too much dynamic loft, the ball will slide up the face (reduced friction equals reduced spin) and the ball will float out higher than expected and roll out upon landing.
My thought around the green is to open the face slightly, but not all the way, in efforts to reduce the probability of having too much spinloft during impact. Don’t forget under this scenario we are relying on additional spin to stop the ball. If you are using increased landing angle to stop the ball, then you would obviously not worry about increasing spinloft! Make sure you have these clear in your mind before you decide how much to open the blade.
Opened too much
One final note: Please make sure you understand what bounce option you need for the type of conditions you normally play. Your professional can help you but I would say that more bounce is better than less bounce for the average player. You can find the bounce listed on the wedge itself. It will range between 4-14, with the mid-range bounce being around 10 degrees.
Set the wrists quicker on the backswing to increase the angle of attack
As we know, when debris gets in between the clubface and the ball (such as dirt/grass), you will have two problems. One, you will not be able to control the ball as much. Secondly, you will not be able to spin the ball as much due to the loss of friction.
So, what is the key to counteract this problem? Increasing the angle of attack by setting the wrists quicker on the backswing. Making your downswing look more like a V rather than a U allows less junk to get between the club and the ball. We are not using the bounce on this type of shot, we are using the leading edge to slice through the rough en route to the ball. Coming in too shallow is a huge problem with this shot, because you will tend to hit it high on the face reducing control.
Use your increased AoA on all of your crappy lies, and you will have a much better chance to get up and down more often!
Keep the rear shoulder moving through impact to keep the arms going
The final piece of the puzzle through the ball is speed through the pivot. You cannot hit shots around the green out of tall grass without keeping the club moving and having speed. A reduction of speed is obvious as the club enters into the tall grass, but you don’t want to exacerbate this problem by cutting off your pivot and letting the arms do all the work.
Sure, there are times when you want to cut off the body rotation through the ball, but not on the shot I am discussing here. When we are using spin, you must have speed to generate the spin itself. So, what is the key to maintaining your speed? Keeping the rear shoulder rotating long into the forward swing. If you do this, you will find that your arms, hands, and club will be pulled through the impact zone. If your pivot stalls, then your speed will decrease and your shots will suffer.
Hopefully, by now you understand how to create better shots around the green using the new wedge technology to create more spin with lies that we had no chance to do so before. Remembering these simple tips — coupled with your clean and dry wedge — will give you the best opportunity to be Tiger-like around the greens!
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Many lag drills have come and gone in this game because they have a hard time working when the ball is there! How many times do you hear about someone having a great practice swing and then having it all go away when the ball is there? This one is a keeper!
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