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What we can learn from the greats about golf instruction

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As I reflect on the passing of the immortal Arnold Palmer, “The King,” I can’t help but wonder about all the things that made him the legend he was. There has been so much written about AP’s off-the-course generosity (and deservedly so), but as a teacher what intrigued me most was the unique way he learned to play the game.

Since the earliest days of golf instruction, the fundamentals of the game have always been the same: grip, aim, stance, ball position and alignment (not necessarily in that order). And I think it’s safe to assume that most teachers would agree to that list. “Some things never change,” as the old adage suggests. But in my experience, I might more accurately refer to this list as preferences instead of fundamentals.

Here’s why: If grip, aim, stance, ball position and alignment were truly fundamentals, the very best players would do them the same way. And as we know, that is anything but the case.

The reason I think of the fundamentals of golf as preferences is simply because one can choose to hold the golf club, aim the body and position the ball in individual ways and still play great golf. A few examples might be Jim Furyk’s double-overlap grip, Fred Couples’ open alignment, Bubba Watson’s ball position or Matt Kuchar’s flat swing (which is not ideal for his height, we are told). Watch the video below I made of Arnold Palmer’s swing. What fundamental book is his address from?

When we start out in the game, all of us quickly develop a method of swinging the club. Our earliest days of getting the ball in the air toward the target established a way of   swinging that created a certain ball flight. After that, one is likely to position the golf ball where the bottom of the swing is, and aim the body away from where the ball generally flies. They can even stand up to the ball in a posture that allows them to maneuver as they do. In fact, many great golfers developed their fundamentals as opposed to starting with more “classic” positions and then learned to match their swing to what they did naturally.

Lee Trevino, for example, faded the ball with a STRONG grip and an open alignment. How is that possible? Well, he matched all his elements and learned to make the ball behave. It’s the proverbial chicken-egg dilemma.

  • Did Trevino develop a hook with that grip and then use an open setup to offset the path? Or was it the other way around?
  • Did Furyk develop an upright back swing and then learn to drop it way back in, or was it the other way around?

It really doesn’t matter, does it? Golf history will never forget Trevino or Furyk.

This is not a license to play golf any way you want or hold the club however you please, of course. Let’s say you are comfortable with holding the golf club in a certain way, say in a stronger position. That doesn’t mean you cannot play from there; it simply means you’ll need a swing that is compatible with that grip.

If a strong grip has a closing effect on the club face, perhaps you might consider a more vertical swing plane, a more open setup or a later release, as these factors have a opening effect on the club face, which would balance the grip’s effect.

This is what we do in teaching, juggle things to get the right blend, the right mix for THAT player. It’s not easy, but I believe it’s easier than trying to start over and build a whole new swing. That approach is futile, and the vast majority of the time (if not always) leads to period of getting worse before you get better. As a teacher, that is the LAST thing I want to see.

In any case, I, like millions of others who love golf, mourn the passing of the legend. I’ve been in this wonderful game for more than 55 years now, and there is an eeriness to Mr. Palmer no longer presiding over it.

RIP AP! Long live the King!

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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]

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Alex Ross-Edwards

    Oct 2, 2016 at 9:24 pm

    I wished I had been aware of Arnold Palmer much earlier in my life and to witness his ability to bring the game of golf to the average man. Mr Palmers gift to the world is the idea that we all could play and enjoy this great game, – – Which ever side of the track we were from. Thank you Mr Palmer.
    My two bits worth regarding the golf swing and all its nuances. I love this great game simply because I will never fully master it, but I will continue to explore its complexities, and enjoy the ever diminishing journey. I’v been joyfully distracted by the conundrum that is golf for 35 yrs and dread the day I may solve its last mystery. Many, many more hours studying than playing but I do play on most occasions to a very high standard. Thank you for the joy of this, again Mr Palmer.
    I would just like to say to all; Every day you will find the secret of golf and every day it will be different to the day before but within all those secrets there will be a very small piece of the puzzle that will reveal the real secret to how to play your greatest game of all.
    Vale The King. Mr Arnold Palmer
    Thank you for making my life a little bit nicer.
    Cheers.

    • dennis clark

      Oct 3, 2016 at 6:57 pm

      “We are all dogged victims of an inexorable fate” and as Jim Murray once remarked, “Arnold may have been the most dogged victim of them all”. This old pro can’t imagine the game without him!

  2. gvogelsang

    Oct 2, 2016 at 9:03 am

    someone once said that Arnold Palmer’s hands looked beautiful on a golf club. All of the great players have something between a two knuckle to almost three knuckle left hand, with the butt of the club held up underneath the heel pad. The right hand simply compliments the left.

    I have seen film of Arnold’s swing when he won the US Amateur. He had a beautiful, full follow through. The famous Palmer finish developed years later as he became afraid of the hook. It is a shame, because his 1950’s swing was exceptional, and textbook.

    • Dennis Clark

      Oct 2, 2016 at 11:07 am

      Well his swing was always beautiful in terms of what it produced. talent, drive, determination, great athleticism and pair of hands that were like two massive hunks of steel. I was in his company several times and one could not help but be taken aback by those mitts! (John Daly was another with hands like that). You couldn’t be built any better, think any better or be more determined than AP. “I wanted to win, DESPERATELY” he said so many time…RIP

  3. Philip

    Oct 1, 2016 at 11:16 am

    Denis, I think the failing comes from our language and our minds in that we have a hard time wrapping around the concept that “grip, aim, stance, ball position and alignment” are both fundamentals of golf AND preferences of golf – it is not night and day. In the beginning for a golfer they may be considered preferences and for sure between golfers they are preferences. However, once a golfer has set themselves upon a repeatable version of their personal “grip, aim, stance, ball position and alignment” then these elements go from being a preference to becoming a fundamental for that golfer and their unique swing – especially as they rise to be one of the better golfers. At least, that is how I see it. I don’t go to a golf swing coach to tell me how to swing the club and how I need to do my preferences/fundamentals – I go to them to help me understand concepts, to check when I say I am aligned that I am, is the ball going left because of what I think or maybe something else, to point out that the club has moved into my palm – I need to figure out how to correct the issues (hopefully with some tip or drill from the coach) and work on it – not have the swing coach wave their magic wand suddenly everything is fixed :o)

    • dennis clark

      Oct 1, 2016 at 12:17 pm

      Phil, yes those are the reasons you should check in with your coach. You’re not going to change your swing very much if you have played for some time; you’re simply going to see if you have the balance in your swing elements that have allowed you to play best. Remember what you did when you played your best, and keep working toward that goal.

      • Sometimes a Smizzle

        Oct 1, 2016 at 9:10 pm

        Great article. But i disagree that making big changes are difficult.
        I dramatically changed my swing by focusing on one of the different changes i wanted each week. Made several changes in 2 months. Started with a matt kuchar swing and switched to something between Bubba and a young Tiger swing. Need slow motion camera to do it. One hour per night practicing and also rehearsing the movements in my living room when i walked past my wedge. Also got rid of back pain.

  4. Tom Duckworth

    Oct 1, 2016 at 11:07 am

    Perfect…You are so right. So many golfers have been frustrated by lessons by a teacher trying to force them into that teachers idea of a perfect swing. I’m not saying lessons are bad but finding the right teacher is important. That’s the hard part finding someone who you can relate to.

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Instruction

What you can learn from Steve Elkington

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When you think of great golf swings from the past and present time, Steve Elkington’s golf swing instantly comes to mind. His playing career has included a PGA championship, two Players Championships and more than 50 weeks inside the top-10 world golf rankings. This article will examine not only key moves you can take from Elk’s swing but learning to take your swing to the golf course.

As opposed to looking at a swing frame by frame at key positions, viewing a swing at normal speed can be just as beneficial. This can give students a look at the sequence of the swing as one dynamic motion. Research also suggests learning a motion as one movement as opposed to part-training (stopping the swing at certain points) will enhancing learning.

When viewed at full speed, the simplicity of Elk’s swing is made clear. There is minimal motion as he gets more out of less. This swing pattern can correlate to a conversation he once had with five-time British Open winner Peter Thomson.

When asking Thomson keys to his golf swing and it’s longevity, Thomson explained to Elk, “You have to have great hands and arms.” Thomson further elaborated on the arms and body relationship. “The older you get, you can’t move your body as well, but you can learn to swing your arms well.”

So what’s the best way to get the feel of this motion? Try practicing hitting drivers off your knees. This drill forces your upper body to coil in the proper direction and maintain your spine angle. If you have excess movement, tilt, or sway while doing this drill you will likely miss the ball. For more detail on this drill, read my Driver off the knees article.

Another key move you can take from Elk is in the set-up position. Note the structure of the trail arm. The arm is bent and tucked below his lead arm as well as his trail shoulder below the lead shoulder – he has angle in his trail wrist, a fixed impact position.

This position makes impact easier to find. From this position, Elk can use his right arm as a pushing motion though the ball.

A golf swing can look pretty, but it is of no use if you can’t perform when it matters, on the golf course. When Elk is playing his best, he never loses feel or awareness to the shaft or the clubface throughout the swing. This is critical to performing on the golf course. Using this awareness and a simple thought on the golf course will promote hitting shots on the course, rather than playing swing.

To enhance shaft and face awareness, next time you are on the range place an alignment stick 10 yards ahead of you down the target line. Practice shaping shots around the stick with different flights. Focus on the feel created by your hands through impact.

Twitter: @kkelley_golf

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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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