Quest for a Better Swing: Initial Considerations, Distance, Accuracy, Survey of Approaches and Fixes

Dear Friends,

This newsletter is the first in a series on the quest for a better swing. For Dr. Putt it is also the quest to recover a game that has faded over the years due to age and injuries. While no one has ever defeated "father time," some have extended the match longer than average. Dr. Putt hopes that his experiences, trials, and especially errors will prove of interest and value to those engaged in this struggle and also aid those just looking to play better golf.

A brief background as to where Dr. Putt is coming from. At his peak thirty some years ago, he had a 3 handicap and a 400 yard hole was a drive and a stock seven iron. Life, responsibilities, and the ravages of time and fortune took its toll. Twenty years ago he was hit with Graves Disease, then a few years later Graves Eye Disease, which caused severe double vision for several years. He got his thyroid levels under control, and had two surgeries to mostly correct the vision. He also had shoulder surgery to repair a frayed bicepts tendon--the result of too much weight lifting and throwing--thankfully also successful. Then at the age of 68 he retired. His children did well enough in life and became financially independent. So he finally had time and a healthy enough body to try to regain some of what he had lost in the wonderful and frustrating game of golf. This is the first installment of that as yet complete journey, one that he is quite aware will never be fully completed.

He quickly came to the realization that he needed to do more than just play his game back into shape after playing in his home club's "dog fight" and failing to break 80 over a few month's time. So for more than a year now he has devoted far more time than Mrs. Dr. Putt would like in reading, looking at and experimenting with what he found, video recording his own swings, trying out new equipment and training devices (some self-made), taking some lessons, listening to some of the ideas a locally based touring pro shares with players on the university team that he once briefly coached, and hitting a lot of balls--about 2 hours a day. Many times he thought he "had it," but then some subtle unconscious change or effort to add one more thing resulted in losing the elusive "it."

Some full disclosure before we proceed. This is NOT one of those columns that go on and on about some secret move or method that will greatly improve your game and then make a sales pitch to get the secret. Dr. Putt will share all that he has learned and not try to sell you anything. Of course you can buy the EOB System and device that will significantly improve your aim and putting it where you aim, but that is sold elsewhere on this site and that is not what this open-ended series of newswletters is about. Moreover, Dr. Putt paid for all the training devices he will talk about and has no financial interests or ties to any of the commercial entities he will mention, whether in praise or citicism.

Where to begin? Let's start with the thing that most players want--distance. We must also consider the other goal that we should want more than we often do--accuracy with respect to distance control and direction. Dr. Putt likes to think of distance combined with and the two kinds of accuracy as a two-dimensional frequency distribution--a bell shaped distribution on distance and a perpendicular one for directional error. Both have averages and standard deviations. We want to maximize the average on distance and have small standard deviations so as to be able to minimize error on distance and direction, especially on approach shots to the green.

Sadly, as any student of the game knows, distance and accuracy are inversely correlated, as anyone who plays the game is painfully aware. The longer one tries to hit a shot, the greater the standard deviations in both distance and direction are likely to be.

All that aside, let us return to distance. We begin with a question and observation. What is the greatest difference between our ball striking and that of the professionals we see on television?

While many differences exist, in Dr. Putt's humble opinion, the greatest differences are in "lean" and "lag." Dr. Putt would add that a close second difference is the quality of the impact--most of us hit the ball all over the face while the best players consistently strike the ball almost exactly in the "sweet spot." That is part of having a consistent repeatable swing, another consideration to be addressed as we go along.

Ok, back to lag and lean. Professionals and top amateurs hit the ball with hands ahead of the ball at impact--"lean." Most of us do well to have hands even with the ball. All too often our very amateur hands are well behind the ball with the clubface having already passed the hands on the way down.

Professionals and top amateurs also maintain the angle between their lead arm and shaft well down into the downswing, 90 degrees or more when the lead arm is parallel to the ground--"lag." By that point most of the rest of us have lost lag and the shaft is little more more than an extension of the arms.

These differences have several critical negative consequences. We lose a lot of clubhead speed if the clubhead has already passed the hands at impact--"hitting from the top" or "casting." Casting also usually causes one to hit from the outside to the inside, which causes pulls, pull slices, or pull hooks. Having the hands behind the ball at impact often results in hitting the ball thin or fat, not "ball then ground" with a nice divot in front of the ball. Failing to hit "ball then ground" means that we do not compress the ball as much, causing a loss in distance.

Another way of thinking about this is that any speed we have achieved with the mass of the clubhead, i.e. energy, is not efficiently transferred to the golf ball at impact. Sometimes this is called the "smash factor," which is the ratio of ball speed leaving the clubface to the speed of the club head. An efficient swing will result in a much higher ball speed than club head speed yielding a smash factor significantly greater than one.

Okay, so how we can achieve more lag and lean more consistently?

In thinking about this, Dr. Putt first did what he was trained as an academic to do--a search of the literature. What follows is a listing of remedies and a few insights about issue. Some are "tips" which can be seen as band-aids that can help improve your current swing. Others are aimed at fundamentals, rebuilding the swing based on some basic swing theory. And of course the many training aids on the market--more than Dr. Putt can reasonably cover, might also be considered here.

Let us begin with a comprehensive theory of the swing when golf was becoming popular in America, a theory that has had great impact on many subsequent theories and tips offered, the theory found in the classic book Ben Hogan's Five Lessons. This was the text that Dr. Putt utilized to teach himself the golf swing in college in the 1960s, using a five iron, a thick towel, and a whiffle golf ball. In the hallway of his dorm, he tried to master hitting it down the hallway off the towel without the ball striking either wall. On page 122 under "The Second Part of the Swing" the text shows a close-up drawing of the left wrist beginning "to suppinate" as the ball is struck. That is, the back of the wrist is slightly bowed forward and slightly down, which places the shaft behind the hands thereby keeping the clubhead behind the hands and hitting down on the ball. Hogan is reported to have said that he felt he was shooting a pistol with his left hand at impact, aiming the pistol behind the ball.

This is great advice, IF you hold the club with a relatively weak grip in order to fight a hook, as Hogan was. A weak grip with the back of his left hand facing forward and bowed down at impact was mandatory to keep the hands ahead of the clubface. With a stronger grip the lead wrist can be flat rather than bowed at impact and the hands will still remain well ahead of the clubface. Of course the danger with the strong grip is the the release of the hands (something that needs a great deal of discussion later) will severly close the clubface at impact unless the release is held off until after impact. You can see this if you go to the impact position with a club in your hands with weak and strong grips noting where the clubface is and what happens as the release takes place.

Moving to a stronger grip is a rather common piece of advice in trying to get the hands ahead of the club face at impact, because you can accomplish this a flat rather than bowed lead wrist. Two related dangers here. As noted, the first a hook if one releases the wrists and forearms a bit too early. The second is the result of holding the face square too long and losing the speed that is created by naturally releasing the hands through the swing with the right hand and forearm rolling over the left at full extension with the toe of the clubface pointing up.

Of course this can be accomplished quite successfully if the release is timed just right. But that requires learning to hold off what the hands and forearms and clubface want to do as a result of the biomechanics of the body and design of the golfclub. One must hold off the roll or rotation of the forearms until after the ball is struck and using a release that uncocks the wrists in a kind of chopping or hammering motion with the right palm staying square or even facing up as the clubface passes through through the ball.

You can see how this release works by holding the club in front of you, arms straight out and with the shaft extended out from the arms and the blade pointing up as though you were going to hit a ball on a tee that is shoulder high. Put another way, you are pretending that you are hitting on a horozontal plane. Grip the club with your palms facing each other with the palm of the lead hand pointing down and the palm of the trial hand pointing up, that is, an extremely strong grip. Without moving your arms, hinge your wrists so that the club moves straight back and forth on that plane and so that the face of the club stays perpendicular to the plane. Go back and forth. With this extremely strong grip swing, rotation with the trail forearm crossing over the lead forearm does not happen until well after impact during the follow through. Dr. Putt would note that you can weaken this extreme grip somewhat as long as you can get the same unhinging to produce speed without closing the clubface.

Professionals Judy Rankin and Paul Azinger had great careers using very strong grips that minimized roll until well after the ball was struck. Zack Johnson's swing is close to this today, This grip and method meant that their clubface stayed closed (or perpendicular to the swing plane) through the backswing (not toe parallel to the plane at the top). It also meant that the clubface was square to the line longer through the hitting area, reducing the problem of timing the release so that the face is square precisely when the ball is struck. You can visualize this by thinking of driving a nail into the ball holding a hammer in your left hand (driving the nail slightly down into the ground with irons, parallel to the ground with fairway woods, and slightly up off the tee with the driver. You can find many videos on the "hammer swing" on YouTube--a related swing theory. This is a fun swing to try, but if you hit from the top and rotate/roll forearms/hands at all before impact you will hit a lot of snap hooks. And because you must hold off the release, you will generally not get quite as much clubhead speed and distance with this swing. The tradeoff is one less variable with which to contend and probably more consistency--IF you can manage holding off the hand/forarms roll until after the release. If you can accomplish this you will reduce variance in direction variance we spoke about at the outset.

Ok, let's go back to the quest for lag and lean using the more traditional neutral grip. Sam Snead in his highly entertaining Education of a Golfer advises "uncocking the wrists as late as possible," which creates "the lag" with a leading left hand. How? Snead used grip pressure. He consciously gripped more lightly with his right hand, allowing the left hand to dominate. Later we will see that pulling with the left arm and side of the core of the body is a prime directive in the "Rotary Swing" theory of the golf swing.

A variety of tips focus on rehearsal of the impact position. Advice to "pose at the impact postion" with the hands ahead of the ball so as to get that position ingrained is typical.

One can employ an "impact bag" to add a dynamic quality in getting to the proper impact position. Place the back of the bag where the ball would be and take a slow swing into the bag, making sure that the hands are ahead of the back of the bag at impact.

If one swings with the left hand alone lightly holding the club using a neutral grip, one is forced to swing with the hips and shoulders leading the arms and with the left arm dragging the club face through the ball. As noted above, the grip determines how the release takes place. If you use a strong grip (as noted above), little rotation of the clubface should take place, at least up to impact with the bag--the clubface will stay perpendicular to the swing plane before impact. If you use a neutral grip with no more than two knuckles of the hand showing, then some rotation of the clubface will take place on the downswing. If the release is timed correctly, the face should he perpendicular to the swingplane at the point of impact with the bag. But again, the point of this exercise is to let the movement of the hips along with weight shift initiate the downswing in a pulling motion so that the clubface stays behind the hands with no conscious hand action.

Swinging with the lead hand alone and holding the club with only the last two fingers against the palm is a fundamental drill in the Rotary Swing approach to the golf swing. Allowing the clubface to snap from toe trailing behind to toe leading naturally as the wrist releases--from the back of the hand (or face of a wrist watch worn on the lead hand) facing away from you to facing behind you or even down toward the ground on the followthrough is critical. One starts with tiny swings going back and forth using little more than gravity. One should not make any conscious manipulation with the hand. If the grip is very light, then the release will happen naturally at the bottom of the swing. If you slow the hand near the bottom and pull up a tiny bit (which later turns into a "posting up" motion with the body by pushing the heel of the lead foot into the ground and straightening the leg), the result is a feeling that the release is much like the cracking of a bullwhip, which can produce a great deal of speed with little effort. For more details on this, you should visit the Rotary Swing website.

Dr. Putt employed this drill regularly as he was recovering from surgery on the right bicepts tendon. One also can do the same drill with the right (or trial) hand, though it feels much more awkward and tends to result in pulling the club to the left (which illustrates the problem in having a swing that is right hand dominated). Again, the key is a light enough grip so that you feel the weight of the clubhead and let the rotation of the upper torso and shoulders pull it through the hitting area while letting the face of the club naturally rotate from toe on plane near the top of the backswing and then to toe up at the 9 o'clock position in the downswing, to square--hopefully precisely at impact--and then toe up again at full extension on the follow-through at the 3 o'clock position. The best drill for this is the 9 to 3 drill, looking for toe up at both 9 and 3.

The second key is pulling the shaft mostly with the left arm which is in turn pulled by the shoulders as opposed to pushing it down into the ball with the right hand. The image to keep in mind is that pulling keeps the shaft in line with the downswing plane like pulling a wagon keeps it moving straight as compared to pushing. Anyone who has tried to back a trailer up a driveway will understand this immediately. Dr. Putt takes no credit for this insight. This idea comes from Chuck Quinton, founder of Rotary Swing. They have an abundance of excellent videos and useful drills, many of which are free.

The "Medicus" training club was designed to promote pulling rather than pushing along with a release with hands and forearm rolling over rather than flipping the clubface through impact with the wrists. We should note that it is designed to promote the more traditional swing with a neutral grip and not the hammer swing with a strong grip.

A related drill is the wet towel drill. Tie a wet towel to a middle to long iron and lay it on the ground trailing the club at a point about halfway through the downswing. Drag it through the hitting area by shifting the hips and rotating shoulders rather than the wrists to give the feel of dragging the club face through the hitting area.

One can get the same feeling by assuming the impact position with the clubface on the impact bag, and try to move the bag by shifting weight and turning the shoulders as opposed to pushing with the hands--the idea is you feel more power with the body than with just the arms and hands.

To maximize domination by the left hand rather than the right on the downswing, you can use a triple overlap grip with only the right thumb and forefinger lightly on the grip. This can be used in training or even as a permanent grip, as one teacher advocated in a 1979 article that Dr. Putt found.

Many tips involved trying to keep the hips ahead of the shoulders through the downswing. One extreme version advocats totally relaxed shoulders and arms and making the swing entirely with the hips and a weight shift.

The "pump drill" is very good for getting the hips cleared ahead of the shoulders and arms and holding the angle between the arms and shaft until the arms are almost pointing down. Todd Graves of Graves Golf Academy (another interesting website that teaches Moe Norman's single plane swing, which reduces the number of moving parts and greatly simplifies the swing) sees this as the "golden position" that must be achieved on the downswing for a good golf shot. The idea of the drill is to take a full backswing, then shift your weight and turn your hips with no conscious movement of the hands or arms to a position where the arms are at about 45 degrees with the ground and the shaft is about 90 degrees relative to the arms. Then return to the top by shifting and rotating the hips back. Repeat again so that you have rehearsed and felt the positon twice. On the third "pump" complete the swing rather than stop. You can find videos of this drill on You Tube by searching for "golf swing pump drill."

A drill with a similar feeling involved swinging a rope through the ball--to achieve any speed on the hitting end of the rope one must swing slowly with the hands leading. This feeling is captured by a quote that Dr. Putt liked very much. To paraphrase, a great swing creates power without effort as opposed to what most of us have, a lot of visible effort without power: "effortless power versus powerful effort." Dr. Putt remembers watching a rather senior former PGA pro who was warming up at Augusta National before he played as a "marker" to fill out a group in an early round. He struck ball after ball with effortless swings producing shots that seemed to float a great distance and then gently fall to the ground. Some of the greatest hitters seem to use little effort in producing booming shots--Freddie Couples, for example. Good images to keep in mind while swinging.

The "Orange Whip" is a farily expensive training device that promotes pulling with the lead side and feeling the weight of the orange ball at the end and then naturally releasing it with a smooth tempo. Dr. Putt found this device excellent for promoting a smooth tempo, as it is nearly impossible to swing fast.

Some tips involve the setup position and initial move to start the swing. Some, including Jack Nicklaus, advise placing the hands ahead of the ball and club face at setup with the left arm and shaft making a straight line. Another way to see this is you create a small case "y" at address with the arms and shaft rather than a capital "Y." This partially mimics the impact position at least with respect to the arms and hands relative to the club face. This is close to what Todd Graves advises for the setup position in his singel plane swing. Others advise a forward press that places the hands ahead of the clubface to start the swing. Critics argue that either of these force the shoulders open at address or at the beginning of the swing thereby creating an ouside to inside swing. So if you try this, make sure that you do not open the shoulders.

One interesting idea rests on where you look when striking the ball. The suggestion is to look at a spot on the ground one to several inches ahead of the ball rather than the ball or the back of the ball, trying to strike the ground at that spot. This encourages one to strike the ball on the way down to the earth, or to use a rather well-known quip, "hit the little ball before the big ball." Dr. Putt feels that this also promotes one to hit through the ball rather than at the ball. You may have to experiment with exactly how far to look ahead of the ball.

A drill on this involves placing a tee so that just a little of it is showing above the ground. Try to break the tee without hitting the ground behind so that the grass is removed in front of the tee. One can make this progressively harder by hitting tees with less and less of the tee above the ground.

A less extreme version of the same idea is to imagine driving a nail into the back of the ball at about a 15 degree angle with surface of the ground. On drivers, the nail should be straight into the back of the ball or slightly up. This part of the idea of the "hammer golf swing" mentioned earlier. Of course this is easier to imagine if one is swinging the club like a hammer.

Several drills involve starting with chip shots trying to keep the hands ahead of the chip through the shot, and then extending the drill through pitch shots into half and finally full shots. The difficulty here is extending beyond longer chip shots because the relatively firm grip used to keep the hands ahead of the ball at impact and abbreviated follow through tends to inhibit release of the club through the ball.

A variation that avoids this problem is to take a miniswing rather then thinking about an extended chip shot. Take a short backswing, arms back to no more than parallel to the ground, make a full wrist cock, and then hit the ball with a complete follow through. This helps you avoid "hitting from the top" or "casting" because you never get to the top on the backswing.

Consciously trying to deloft the club helps keep the hands ahead of the clubface. This concept is tied to a couple of drills. One instructor advises to work on "knockdown" shots with the ball placed more forward in the stance than normal. To move the ball back in the stance is "cheating" according to the instructor. To execute a knockdown shot, one does deloft the club by keeping the hands well ahead of the club face at impact and then hits more easily than usual so as not to impart a lot of backspin, which would cause the ball to balloon when hitting into the wind, the situation in which one normally tries to hit knockdown shots.

A variation on this is in one of the very good short instruction videos from Graves Golf Academy. Execute partial shots from a position of the arms at about 7 o'clock and wrists fully cocked, as should be the case when at that point in the downswing. Then turn the hips and shift the lower body forward while keeping the head back and execute the downswing and a minifollow-through to about 5 o'clock. At the end point the shaft of the club should be in line with the lead arm, but not ahead of it. You should feel that you are compressing the ball against the ground with mainly hip rotation, weight shift, and letting the arms and hands follow the body action naturally.

Another teacher advises to try and take a divot with an eight iron with the ball placed far forward in the stance in the same position as one would when hitting a driver. This really forces one to consciously keep the hands ahead a long time and still hit down on the ball.

One concept drill is simplying trying to hit the ball as low as possible, again by delofting it in the swing. Start by trying to hit really low wedge shots and then extending this idea moving up through your bag through the driver, which also should be hit with the hands leading, but slightly on the upswing so as to minimize backspin that causes lost distance on the drive. The driver is generally the only club that one should hit on the upswing--but again, with the hands ahead of the clubface and ball at impact. You must be very careful not to deloft the club by rolling the and forearms before impact, because this moves the club head ahead of the hands and closes the face leading to a low hook. One should think of trying to hold the face square through the hitting area. Dr. Putt was able to get the feel of this first with a driver by trying to hit power fades, feeling that he was trying to hold the release until after contact. As discussed earlier, this is a must if one is using a strong grip.

An interesting drill involves hitting balls off a tee with the ball just off the ground, and then trying to hit the ball and then the ground in front of the tee without damaging the tee. This might be combined with the "looking at the ground ahead of the ball" drill. The idea is to hit just ball well before one hits the ground.

One final drill is hitting balls while having all ones weight on the left foot. Place the right foot next to the left and then drop the right foot straight back and use only the toe for balance. What you in effect have is an extremely narrow closed stance. This will promote a smooth swing with the left arm leading the shaft and clubface so as to maintain balance. This is a more extreme version of the "stack and tilt" swing, which keeps the weight on the lead side throughout the swing and keeps the spine straight rather than tilted to the rear thereby promoting a more downward swing.

A totally different approach is to let all this happen naturally without any conscious thought of holding back the release. Former champion long drive champion Monte Scheinblum argues against unnatural lagging of the club, which he feels only causes a range of problems. Instead, he argues that we need to feel the club head and swing with our shoulders rotating on plane with relaxed arms and shoulders. While his entertaining YouTube video "rants" may seem very unconventional, he has the support of none other than Jack Nicklaus. In the January 2011 issue of Golf Digestt, Jack Nicklaus talked about his natural release: " looks like I'm purposely delaying the release of the club. But I can assure you I never tried to delay the hit or retain my wrist cock. That happens naturally, if you start with a proper grip, maintain a light grip pressure and keep your arms relaxed. It's impossible to release the club too early in the downswing -- as long as you move to your left side and swing the club from inside the target line." The key is that happens ONLY if you relax the arms and hands. But you also should keep the lead arm as straight as possible on the backswing and especially the downswing until after the release to maximize the radius and in turn maximize swing speed. That does add some tension in the lead arm. Doing two contradictory things at the same time is of course difficult. But as I often told my college students when they complained about the difficulty of a class: if it were easy, anyone could do it. Read More

A couple of other considerations. First, the whole point of the quest for lag and lean is distance, and that is a product of clubhead speed and other factors we did not consider in this review of common advice: striking the ball in the center of the clubface, angle of attack, unloading the shaft bend at just the right point, and leveraging the ground, or posting up, just before releasing to create a cracking of the whip effect just at impact.

A few additional comments about this last point: leveraging the ground. It is both difficult and somewhat controversial. Clearly almost all of the best professionals do it, with some like Justin Thomas almost leaving the ground with both feet as he strikes the ball. It starts with the beginning of the downswing, which overlaps with the end of the backswing. We might consider this transition part of the swing a separate part of the swing: backswing, transition, and then downswing.

Out of all this, what will work best? That will vary with the person, as we all learn and understand in slightly different ways. Ideally this does happen naturally, using a smooth swing with relaxed arms and hands--the Jack Nicklaus approach. The more conscious manipulation you have to do in a swing, the harder it will be to repeat that swing when under any pressure. If you are trying to manipulate the clubhead through the ball with your hands and wrists, you will be especially prone to pressure because small muscles are more likely to tighten up under pressure than large muscles. Hence the optimal approach is to rely more on legs and core muscles than the hands.Hence the wise addage in basketball to shoot with the legs rather than the hands and arms.

If you are plagued with mishitting fat and thin and with the shank happening far too often and get little reward for too much physical effort, you should try all these drills and see which one "clicks" for you. See which one gives you a different feeling in the swing that also produces the best divot patterns and shots. What you should feel is more effortless power and a sense that you are pinching the ball off the turf, to use an image Dr. Putt remembers Arnold Palmer having once suggested.

Please let Dr. Putt know if you have other drills (yes, Dr. Putt knows that he has only scratched the surface on this!) that have worked for you. He would be happy to share them with others as well as try them himself--of course!

Dr. Putt will probably tinker with his swing until he can swing no longer! This last predictive comment, based on his own assessment of his personality and life work as a social scientist suggests the topic of the next installment of this quest--committment to a single swing theory. Endless experimentation can lead to chaos on the course if one lets the perfect be the enemy of the good and in doing so fails to stick with any single swing, sometimes even for a few holes.

Till next time!

Best regards,
Dr. Putt