MIKE LABAUVE: LaBauve, ranked 31st on Golf Digest's list of America's 50 Greatest Teachers, is director of instruction at the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa in Scottsdale.
Golf has turned into a high-tech sport, but even with swing-analysis software and high-definition video, I still find that one of the most useful teaching tools is a Hula Hoop--you know, the kind you buy for your kids at the local toy store. I set one up on the range every day for visual effect. If it's resting on the target line at the correct angle, you can really see the proper shape a golf club should make as it swings around you. I use the hoop to correct golfers who swing down either over the plane (most golfers) or under the plane (better players). If you want to make good contact and control your shots, it's critical that you swing along the hoop coming down to square up the club at impact. I'll show you how.
SETTING UP THE HOOP
To correctly use a Hula Hoop to check your swing plane, sole a middle iron and match the angle of the hoop to the angle of the shaft at address. Now stick two stakes in the ground to hold the hoop on that angle. Make sure it points to the target. Make easy swings along the hoop to feel the correct plane.
YOU'RE TOO STEEP
Many amateurs swing the club down on a steep, out-to-in path with the face open. If I were to adjust the Hula Hoop so it reflected your club's motion on the downswing, it would look like a Ferris wheel lined up left of the target. When the club travels on this path, it'll hit the ground in front of a ball placed in the middle of your stance (right), unless you make compensations. The typical compensations are shifting your weight away from the target on the downswing or playing the ball way forward in your stance. Neither is very reliable, because even if you strike the ball solidly, the out-to-in path will cause you to either pull it or slice it.
1. Swing Super Flat
The best way to correct steepness is to know what the opposite feels like. So try making full swings with the club getting only waist high (right). You won't be able to keep it that low, but that's the feeling you want. You can even tee up a few balls and practice hitting shots like this. But to hit the ball, you'll have to bend over more at the hips. This swing will feel more rounded and will promote the correct plane and the proper release of the club.
2. Utilize Your Right Arm
On the range, practice hitting 20-yard pitch shots using your right arm only. Hold your finish then put your left hand on the grip (right). Notice how much your left arm bends to grip the club? Most steep swingers try to keep the left arm straight too long. This one-arm drill helps athletes intuitively swing the club on the proper plane and reconditions them to feel the role of both arms. Allow the right arm to take its naturally dominant role.
YOU'RE TOO SHALLOW
Swinging below the correct plane is not as common, but it does happen--especially with better players. The typical result is a blocked or hooked shot. If you have this problem, picture this: Your Hula Hoop, which started at a 60-degree angle to the ground, stays roughly at that angle but points to the right of the target. When you swing down from the inside this much, your club will bottom out before the ball (right), unless you shift your weight dramatically forward or play the ball way back. Like with the steep swinger, these compensations reduce your consistency. One possible benefit: Some would argue that the shallow swinger hits it longer.
1. Hit Balls--Eyes Closed
Most people who are too flat rehearse a swing that bottoms out behind the ball. Then when they swing at the ball, they expect a good result. It's not going to happen. To fix this problem, make some short swings at a ball blindfolded or with your eyes closed. Have a friend put a ball slightly forward of middle in your stance. When you swing, keep adjusting your path until you hit the ball solidly. When you do, note how that swing differs from your original swing. It should feel as if your Hula Hoop is pointing to the left.
2. Use The Bounce
Many times a shallow swinger gets the leading edge of the club stuck in the ground, causing fat or thin shots. To correct this, take a sand wedge and set it so the shaft is leaning slightly back at address with the face a touch open, as I'm simulating below. Then try to hit shots with the clubhead sliding along the turf on its sole, or bounce, and the club moving left through impact.