Michael Phelps might be the greatest athlete in history. When you win 18 Olympic gold medals—and set a bunch of world records—you're in rare air, with legends like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. Phelps left the pool after the London Olympics last summer with nothing more to prove as a swimmer. At 27 years old and in top physical condition, he was looking for a new challenge to take on. He chose golf, and for the next six months, we worked together for "The Haney Project," my show on Golf Channel. When we started, he was a 26-handicap with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and a long, slow swing. He was struggling to break 100. Despite his freakish athleticism, Michael had a lot of the same swing faults many other amateur players deal with. He improved dramatically in the four areas you'll see here and is now shooting in the 80s. With a few technical keys and a little practice, I'll bet you can do the same—and start adding to your trophy case.
The whole body should get involved
Before we made changes, Michael would initiate his downswing with his upper body, which would send the club on a steep, out-to-in path. His big miss was a weak slice. We improved his downswing, and right away he started to hit a wicked hook because his lower body was slowing down and not getting all the way through (above, left). That caused his hands to cross over in front of him and the ball to curve to the left. A good downswing starts from the ground up—through the feet, knees and hips—and the lower body turns through to a full and balanced finish, like you see above.
Make sure the hands work together
Michael's grip developed the same way most golfers' do—as a response to the ball flight he was seeing. He was hitting big slices, so he turned his right hand stronger (left) to try to make the clubhead release more and produce a straighter shot. Once we improved his swing plane and path, I adjusted his right hand to a more neutral position (right) to match his left. We also got him holding the handle so that his right index finger was in more of a trigger position, and we closed the gap between the thumb and forefinger. These adjustments helped him keep more control over the clubhead through the tighter, shorter backswing to come.
Pay attention to tension and forward shaft lean
The address position you see in the left photo is common among beginners. Michael shoved the handle toward the target, with his arms extended and tight and the clubface open. From that position, it was impossible for him to do anything but take the club back on a flat plane, low and too far to the inside. Then, he would loop it over the top and get super steep coming down. By moving the shaft back into a more neutral position at address and softening his arms (right), he started having a much easier time swinging the club back on the correct plane.
Length doesn't always produce power
When you're as strong and flexible as Michael is, you can run into some interesting issues. He's 6-foot-3, with that crazy wingspan and shoulders that are basically double-jointed. His backswing used to be long and sloppy (left), with the club pointing way right of the target at the top. We improved his plane so the club is pointing more to the left, and matched the length of his arm swing with his body turn (right). Add the improvements we made to his grip and a flat left wrist at the top, and he started consistently producing a more controlled backswing. Shorter, faster and more aggressive was our rallying call during many, many hours on the range. Now he has the swing of a 70s-shooter.
HANK HANEY runs the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy in Hilton Head Island. The academy has produced numerous Division I college golfers and tour professionals, including Morgan Hoffmann, I.K. Kim, Marta Silva and Shanshan Feng.