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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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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. Dennis now teaches at Bobby Clampett's Impact Zone Golf Indoor Performance Center in Naples, FL. .

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. SV

    Oct 25, 2020 at 3:20 pm

    A drill I learned years ago to be sure where you contact the turf is to use a line. Either use 2 tees and string or spray a line on the ground. Then put a ball just in from of the line and hit the ball. This eliminates any question about where you contact the turf.

  2. ProGuy

    Oct 23, 2020 at 10:29 pm

    Dennis as an instructor myself I truly agree with your insight. I see every thing from fat to thin to topped. The one thing I like to explain to my students is how the tool in their hands are designed and to be used. Taking the time to explain to them the sole, leading edge, and most importantly the face of the club and how to use the face to strike the ball. It shocks me many of my students have little or no knowledge of club design and the impact of how it influences the your posture, ball positioning, and mostly your impact and forward lean. With a better understanding of the tools, the students seem to get better results by actually using the face of the club striking the ball with more forward lean at impact. Shocking isn’t it.

    I have a fantastic drill I do with a lot of my students. The impact drill. Start with Pitching wedge and get into the setup to hit the shot. Next have the student get into what the feel is proper impact. Next adjust the student into proper impact for the PW. Have them hit 10 very short shots from that position. Then move to the next club and follow the same routine until you get to the longest club not named Driver. The student will have a better understanding of the impact position for each and the difference of how each clubs design effects their posture, ball positioning and how to deliver the club face to the ball. They will pick up on the steepness of the PW and extreme forward lean of this club and the shallower swing of the Fairway wood and the lack of forward lean required to use the club face at impact.

    Thanks for your great reads and giving us more knowledge and tools to think of and use.

    • Brian Kehlmeier

      Oct 24, 2020 at 9:40 am

      My short iron game and tee game has got me close to a single digit handicap; however, the long iron game is such a pain for me. If I keep the ball in the middle of my stance and hit with a descending blow, the dynamic loft is SO low. The ball simply will not climb. How do I get the ball position more forward while still being able to maintain the descending angle of attack? When I put the ball more forward, I feel like I have to reach for it and the only way to get to it is with an outside-to-in path. The only successful long iron shots I can compress the ball well is by using an OTT swing like a secret weapon and counting on the pull-fade.

      • Dennis Clark

        Oct 24, 2020 at 11:17 am

        Great ideas. Anything that helps them overcome natural tendencies is huge!

      • Raj lp

        Oct 24, 2020 at 1:19 pm

        Have you considered that you might not be shifting your weight forward? I tend to play my pw just a half ball left of center and my 4 iron is about a ball left from there. If I’m shifting my weight when I’m hitting in a natural athletic motion (not sliding but pivoting on my left foot) the downward impact is automatic.

      • Dennis clark

        Oct 24, 2020 at 6:34 pm

        It’s a great question…first thought is a hybrid but to get an iron higher you have to keep it forward, which will change the path a bit more left. You still need the forward shaft lean though. To get it be sure you are clearing to your from foot; any “hang back” when ball is up in the stance will result in fat.

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