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Instruction: What is the ball doing?

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John Jacobs, the great British instructor and one of the greatest teachers of all time, was one of the first to ask the question: “What is the ball doing”?

It seems a simple enough question to me. What does the ball do when you hit it? There are a finite, not infinite, number of possibilities.

The golf ball has initial trajectory, starting direction, spin and curvature. That’s it. All four of those characteristics are progammed at impact — the 0.ooo4 seconds the golf ball is on the face of the club. And to break it down even a bit further, the golf ball gets its marching orders half way through the impact interval!

Side note: From the start of 2013 to the time the average tour player gets to Augusta for the Masters, he has had the golf ball on the face of the club about a second in tournament time. By the time of the U.S. Open, about two seconds, and maybe 4 seconds for the entire Tour season. Impact is a very short period of time! But in golf, impact is all that matters.

As Jacobs often said, “Golf is what the ball does.” Or even better: “The purpose of the golf swing is to apply the club correctly to the ball. The method employed is of no consequence as long as it can be repeated.”

This was, believe it or not, grounbreaking stuff back in the 60s. Before Jacobs, the golf community was largely concerned with “shoulds.” The club should be here, the body should be there, etc. He suggested there are no “shoulds” beyond impact. The elbows don’t hit the ball, the hands, legs, hips or arms don’t hit the ball. The body moves the golf club; the golf club moves the ball. So I learned to teach by asking three simple questions:

  1. What is the ball doing?
  2. What did the club do that made the ball do what it did?
  3. What did the player do that made the club do what it did?

To suggest any other way is mere folly.

I was fortunate enough to learn from Jacobs and a few of his disciples, and I can assure you that I would never have succeeded in golf instruction over these last oh so many years, had I bought into the conventional wisdom of the time —  teaching the prototypical positions we are all supposed to be in to play good golf.

My take on this is pretty simple, apparently radical in its simplicity: If a player spins around three times and hits the ball with one hand, and hit fairways and greens, they have a great swing. Period. They have balanced their equation, they have matched their components.

The danger of the internet age, particularly the burgeoning golf blogosphere, is reversing this trend. When someone asks me to “look at my video” the FIRST question I always ask is: What is the ball doing? What is your general shape, trajectory, spin, distance, etc?

How can anyone look at swing and start critiquing it without knowing how that person hits the golf ball? The video of Alan Doyle’s swing below is a prime example of what I mean.

[youtube id=”CC4hgHucPY4″ width=”620″ height=”360″]

His swing, without knowing what it accomplished — 11 Champions Tour wins including four majors — would be picked apart mercilessly on the cyber school of golf. And most everybody would be dead wrong about them. Nobody can actually see impact. Even TrackMan and Flightscope estimate variables based on other information that the GOLF BALL is supplying.

For every position it is suggested someone should be in, I can find some Hall of Famer NOT in that position. From Jack Nicklaus’ flying elbow to Lee Trevino’s”caddyshack” move, it does not matter if they get the club to the ball as these great players do. And the same goes for the average golfer.

Let me give you an example — suppose you have a noticeable sway off the ball in your backswing, and an upright backswing that is quite narrow. Let’s say the ball flight problem is sculled, half topped shots and late slices. Someone sees a video and suggests that you take care of that sway and be sure and stay more over the ball. Why? Because the prototypical swing should not have a sway — it looks bad, it’s not textbook and it MUST have something to do with your problem. Well, you have added a narrowing element, your pivot, to another narrowing element, your backswing. Now you can’t hit it all. You just moved the bottom of a too forward arc even farther forward!

Another example: Your backswing is very flat. And you have a reverse pivot (weight going to left side in takeaway). Suppose impact is a very shallow, drop kicking some drivers and shallow topping irons. Someone looks at your video and says, look at that reverse pivot. Let’s fix that because well, because great players just don’t reverse pivot. So you learn to turn “properly” in the backswing, and now you are so flat you can’t hit a ball teed up 6 inches! The correction here for me would be simple: Learn to swing your arms and club in the air and LEAVE the reverse pivot alone until you start to get just the opposite impact, which in this case is quite steep.

I could go on and on with these scenarios but I think you get my point. If your impact is not solid, something is wrong. That something has to be corrected, NOT everything. And if you need two things corrected (the most I ever correct is two) the order in which they are corrected is vitally important if you don’t want to hit it worse. It’s all about balancing the equation and finding compatible variations for your own swing. So if you post a video and you want it analyzed, it needs be complete with a full description of ball flight and all its characteristics. And even then there is just no substitute for being there.

I can HEAR a slice, a top, a toe, and I can tell then from a mile away; but it’s a feeling an instructor gets that just won’t ever come from video analysis only. A lot of players have gone down dark roads trying to make their swing prettier. The hall of fame is filled with “ugly” moves. Let impact be you guide and fix only what needs fixing.

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

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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]

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. joro

    Mar 13, 2013 at 11:02 am

    This is a great article. It also reflects the teaching method of Butch Harmon and most of us old teachers. The days when we corrected what is wrong and based it on what the ball is doing. Today is all “science”, machines, and teachers who don’t have a clue. They try to make everyone have “the perfect” swing, and that is impossible. THe perfect swing is what works for you.

    As a teacher for over 50 yrs. I will say that today Teaching is one of the biggest scams going, along with more distance is what it is all about. A good teacher is a teacher that teaches the basics to non gifted players, and corrects a problem in better players. And then of course, believe it or not there are some people who just do not have what skills they need to get better and will forever be stuck with what they have, teach them to have fun and enjoy the game.

    Bottom line is that Golf today is so over taught and over hyped it is ridiculous. More games are ruined than helped by all the theories and lessons are ruined by turning them into a video game. Equipment is better than ever but unfortunately the “fitters” have no idea what they are doing, nor do they know anything about the product they push. Good luck to todays student and club buyer.

  2. inall

    Mar 12, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    I often come across a guy on the course who hits a big banana slice but hits it pretty far. He just aims way left and the ball lands in the fairway. Does the same for approaching the greens. Plays to a low handicap.

  3. Gary Lewis

    Mar 12, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    I like what you have to say and I am a BIG John Jacobs fan. Based on my misses it seems my issue has been too much in to out for quite awhile now, main problem has been push fades, straight pushes, some draws. Since trying to switch to a Sean Foley type swing (Stack and Tilt Lite as Jeff Mann calls it) things are improving. What other kinds of misses will you see if you are swinging down too much inside to out?

  4. Doug

    Mar 12, 2013 at 12:04 am

    Spot-on article. I took a series of 5 lessons at the end of last years golf season from a pro to try and shave a few strokes off my 3.9 index. The pro hooked me up to motion monitors and used video analysis to compare my swing to tour pro swings and by the end of the series, my swing was disjointed wreck. I’ve spent the winter doing nothing golf related in the hopes of flushing away his lessons from memory.

  5. Walt

    Mar 2, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    Another thing I disagree with is using someone like Trevino or Doyle as examples. For that matter any tour player with a non cookie cutter swing. Why? Because they constantly hit balls with their funky swings.

    The majority of golfers might hit balls once a week if even that much. If you have an oddball swing and just try to hit balls that infrequently you aren’t ever going to get anywhere with your swing.

    But if you have a mechanically simple swing that doesn’t require as much maintenance to keep it solid then you can get away with less practice time.

    For this impact concept to work you must be repeating something in your swing. And the less complicated your swing is the easier it will be to repeat.

    • Dennis Clark

      Mar 2, 2013 at 3:36 pm

      Oddball is a catch phrase that connotes less-than-conventional. Once a swing gets into a groove, it repeats, conventional or not. You have to trust it. Like Bruce Lietzke. I saw him start a ball out over the middle of the water on #9 at Doral. He TRUSTED the fact that the ball was cutting back. Every time. I played with a guy who won a state open once who played a 30 yard hook on every hole. His path was probably 7-8 degrees inside out!

      • Walt

        Mar 2, 2013 at 8:34 pm

        Right. You are missing what I am writing. An unorthodox swing needs more maintenance from everything I have seen in my golfing life. You can do something odd and if you repeat it be my guest but you need to really work on the timing and mechanics of your unique swing.

        Lietzke did what he did but he hit lots of balls to groove that feeling.

        What do you do with the golfer with the bad swing that doesn’t hit at least two bags a day?

        If he can’t come back once a week and repeat his flaw that works he is lost.

      • Walt

        Mar 2, 2013 at 8:47 pm

        Let me state this another way.

        Golf is a repetitive game. It really helps if the golfer can do the exact thing he is doing over and over every time he swings the club. In fact great success can come from it. A strange swing can be great. This I fully agree with.

        But…the worse of a golfer you are the less you stick to doing the same thing over and over. You fiddle with your grip, you fiddle with your takeaway. You fiddle with…yeah every single part of your swing.

        You are only looking at this impact from they aspect of pro golfers with funky swings make em work. Yes they do, I see it too, but I know they don’t just walk out there and swing funky. They work really hard at it.

        So what does the 20 handicapper who isn’t even sure how to hold the club supposed to do? They can’t read the ball flight when the ball doesn’t fly the same way each time.

        I know what you are saying though, I have read Jacobs books and I agree with the concept.

        I am just saying its much easier to tell one of the collegiate golfers at my range how to turn his baby fade into a straight ball or a tight little draw.

        But the older gentleman I talk to with the issues I wrote about above fights something different every time I see him out there. Fat shots, bladed irons, shanks, then a good shot, then a hook. I mean literally anything can happen when he takes the club back.

        You can’t just say its all about the ball flight when the ball isn’t consistently flying out of there.

        • Dennis Clark

          Mar 3, 2013 at 6:23 pm

          Walt,

          Im not talking about Jacobs book here. I relating my 30 years, 35,000 lesson experience. Again, everybody’s swing repeats if they have been playing even for a little while. And the ball flight is what identifies what is incompatible in the swing. I finished a weekend school today and all the students have a better understanding of what they need to change based on the shots (or lack of them) they hit. IF the ball did this (rolled, shanked, topped, sliced whatever) THEN you did this. Lack of consistency in ball flight does not equate to lack of consistency in PATTERN. The degree of it perhaps, but the general pattern is very repeating. These things fall into a pattern when you do this every day for as long as I have. Thx for reading and replying

        • Andrew Cooper

          Mar 5, 2013 at 5:18 am

          Walt, I think the idea that unorthodox swings require more maintenance is a myth. I’d actually suggest they need less work- they are that player’s move, he’s not TRYING to do anything, he’s not TRYING to swing like somebody else, he’s just making HIS swing. I think the old one about technically “perfect” swings holding up under pressure is similarly not true for the same reason. I’d also say in terms of career longevity, the guys who find their swing early, stick with and learn to score tend to do ok.
          Leitzke rarely practiced, yet he topped or was near the top of GIR for years on the PGA Tour. In Europe, we had Colin Montgomerie, who also rarely practiced, had very much his own swing, and obviously was as consistently good as anyone tee to green in Europe for a 10, 15 year spell.
          I remember Trevino saying he felt his swing would always hold up BECAUSE of the seemingly unorthodox move-it was his move. That’s an inner confidence that players who’re constantly trying to perfect a move, or correct their “faults”, swing into positions, trying to swing like their favourite tour player that week e.t.c. will never find.

  6. Walt

    Mar 2, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    I agree with this and with John Jacobs.

    But one thing has me question how to apply this method. The “bad impact” then fix it with one or two things has to be based on the fact that the golfer is repeating that bad impact, right?

    What do you do when the golfer hits it low one time, high another, hooks it and slices it swing to swing?

    There is just this type of golfer at my range. He has a terrible reverse pivot, takes the club back insanely flat, comes over the top and hits with all his weight on his back foot.

    The ball goes everywhere. So where do you start when the player is unable to repeat bad impact?

    • Dennis Clark

      Mar 2, 2013 at 3:14 pm

      First of all golfers swings fall into patterns. Out to in is out to in. Period. NOBODY goes from that path to in to out on the next swing. My job would be infinitely harder if they did. But here is what youre missing…An out to in path can produce slices, pulls, tops, toes…But the PATH is still the problem and THAT does NOT vary or change until it changes.

  7. Adrian

    Feb 28, 2013 at 9:30 am

    Absolutely fantastic article and I will be passing this information on because I love how you put it. I have been working with a couple friends trying get them to understand the ball flight laws and how to get the shots to fly the way they want them to, and after getting one of my friends to execute draws and fades on command in just a few minutes he then asked me “how did his swing look?” I told I didn’t really care how his swing looks and wasn’t even paying attention to the positional aspects of his swing I was simply trying to “talk him into executing the shot shape and that was it.” The shot shape obviously told me everything that I needed to know. He also thought I was crazy when I told him that I was listening to his impact because I told him that solid impact makes a distinct noise that I call ” cracking eggs” because it sounds like a raw egg being dropped on the kitchen floor to me. Great Great article….I have been lurking around this forum for over a year but I will definately be joinging now!

  8. Steve

    Feb 28, 2013 at 5:26 am

    This really IS a great article – Way too much is made over picture-perfect video swings and virtual lessons. I actually forced myself to use a ‘putting guru’ template and struggled for a season before going back to my not-so-good, Nicklaus-style-putts, with far better results.

    Like Harvey Penick Said: “Use the Swing God has Blessed You With, and Go Play Golf.”

  9. 3Puttnomore

    Feb 27, 2013 at 11:35 pm

    As the old saying goes, ‘Golf is a game that can be taught… It can’t be learned, but it CAN be taught’… I think what this means is that we all have in ourselves an innate ability to hit the ball correctly. We just have to find it.

  10. Turn & Release

    Feb 27, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    Dennis
    Another great piece. You have a way of explaining things that other instructors (at every level) seem to talk around so far; that i find myself back at the beginning and with more questions then when I started. I balanced equation makes perfect sense! However, I assume that you are talking about players that have been playing and repeat their mistake over and over again. I’m sure many new golfers see balls flying in multiple directions. In the case of junior or new player would you not point them in the direction of “text book” swing? Just for a better chance of making contact.
    I have to say; I read all these articles, and most of them are noted by 200-300 people on other websites. I love your writing and look forward to reading what you have to say because it always makes sense and gives me fresh thought for several days.
    Big Fan!!

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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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