January 16, 2012

5 Keys For More Distance

Why the method most tour players use doesn't work for the average golfer

GET STARTED: To gain a sense of swinging the club with support from your feet and legs, begin by hitting a line of balls in a continuous motion.

GET STARTED: To gain a sense of swinging the club with support from your feet and legs, begin by hitting a line of balls in a continuous motion.

Playing fine golf, on any level, is not an exact science. It's an art form. But I've become increasingly concerned that you are being given information that works mostly for tour professionals, who already hit the ball far enough but are looking for robotic consistency. In general, trying to swing like most of today's tour players will make the average golfer--say, a 5-handicapper and higher--only worse. Let me explain.

Tour players are highly athletic, hit thousands of balls a week and have spent a lifetime learning to swing the club in a way that produces a long, powerful draw. But they are also afraid of hooking the ball. To be really consistent on tour, they're trying to control their ball flight under tremendous pressure and eliminate the left side of the course. Therefore, they curtail swinging the arms and club freely, which would allow the smaller, faster-speed muscles in the hands and arms to react to the weight of the clubhead so it releases fully into the ball. They maximize the upper body and minimize the lower body, swinging almost flat-footed. For the average golfer, this creates excessive body rotation, with the hips opening so much that the chest can't face the ball at impact and the arms will swing down from the outside. Most golfers who try to swing this way will slice the ball, give up rhythm and longevity, and be prone to injury.

So why do average golfers try to imitate high-profile tour players? Because a lot of today's teachers try to swing like tour pros. They are enamored with what works for them and give the same information to their higher-handicap students. But if there's one thing I've learned in my 50-plus years of teaching, it's that when average golfers try to swing like tour players, they often over-rotate their hips and shoulders, and have little chance of improving.

The average golfer's needs and physical abilities are likely to be the opposite of a tour player's. The typical amateur needs more clubhead speed and needs to draw the ball. And this golfer doesn't have the time and strength necessary to practice like a tour pro. The average golfer needs to swing the club rhythmically, allowing the clubface to rotate open on the backswing and closed through impact, thereby creating extra clubhead speed. This golfer needs to train the body to react to the club--instead of overcontrol it--and move more adeptly with the feet and legs, keeping the hands and arms relaxed so the club swings freely.

There are some modern tour players who do swing the club rhythmically and freely: Ernie Els, Bubba Watson, Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy come to mind. Also, most women tour pros rely on rhythm and a free swinging of the club, rather than strength, to generate distance and control. And there's no doubt that players with the longest careers throughout history let the club swing: Sam Snead, Tom Watson, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Hale Irwin based their games on rhythm and footwork to support the swinging of the club. These are some of the most successful players in golf, having won a combined 47 major championships and more than 340 PGA Tour and Champions Tour events.

Should we forget their style? I don't think so. You'll do better by emulating these great players.

If you try the drills I demonstrate here, I'm confident you'll improve your game and extend your golfing life.

WALK-THROUGH DRILL

Promotes rhythm and footwork

This drill synchronizes the support of your feet and legs with the swinging of your hands, arms and club. And it develops rhythm. Start by teeing six balls in a line (above). Begin with a short iron, and work up to the driver. Address the first ball, swing the club back, your left heel coming off the ground, then hit the ball. Without stopping, swing back again and step toward the line of balls so you hit one after another in a continuous walk-through motion. Jack Grout told his young pupil, Jack Nicklaus, to roll his ankles throughout the swing. This drill achieves the same goal. All great players through time started the downswing with a lateral motion of the feet and knees, which allows the hips and shoulders to react to the swinging of the club. When you walk forward, your hips can't open at impact, so this drill promotes an inside path to encourage a draw.


SPEED DRILL

Where distance comes from

Take an alignment rod (or one of those sticks they sell in the hardware store to mark your driveway before the snowplow comes) and place it firmly under your left armpit. Get into your normal address position, and turn back as if you were making a backswing. Now turn through as fast as you can, as I'm doing here (below, left). Not much speed there. Next, hold the rod with your normal grip and whip it through using your hands and arms (below, right). Not only will you see the difference, you'll hear it. And the more relaxed you keep your hands and arms, the faster you can swing the rod. The same is true for your golf club. Tension destroys speed.


TRANSITION

Start with pitch shots

Practicing different-length pitches teaches you to swing the club freely and sense how to use the clubhead. Because your sand wedge is the heaviest club in the bag, you quickly get a feel for letting the club swing, your hands, arms and body reacting to the club instead of trying to control it. You also gain a sense of how your weight rolls to the inside of your right foot on the backswing and then to the outside of your left foot on the through-swing (left). Often the best way to improve your full swing is by hitting pitch shots. Varying the pitches you practice helps you understand how your feet and legs support the swing, which will transfer into longer shots.


CHAIR DRILL

Feel forearm rotation

Bob Toski has used this drill for decades, and it's still valid today. Sit in a chair, feet flat on the ground, and hold a club in front of you with your normal grip. Swing the club back, making a full shoulder turn, then swing through. Feel your forearms rotate the clubface open going back, square through "impact" and closed on the follow-through. By restricting your lower body with the chair, you isolate and enhance the feeling of forearm and clubface rotation. I actually hit balls with my right foot angled to the ground to show how rotation increases clubhead speed (below), but I'd recommend you use the chair drill at home without hitting balls.


OFF-COURSE

Final thoughts for swinging

Make full-motion swings at half speed with your driver, starting at approximately 100 yards and increasing by 25-yard increments up to your maximum distance. That synchronizes your lower-body support with your arm swing. At home, get in your setup and swing your arms back and through while rolling your ankles (right). Lead your downswing with your left foot, knee, thigh and hip, in that order, your right foot and knee following and supporting. This will allow you to swing the club.

FLICK, a longtime Golf Digest Teaching Professional and PGA Golf Professional Hall of Famer, worked with hundreds of amateurs and tour players including Jack Nicklaus.