Rickie Fowler isn't some physical freak who can bench press 400 pounds and run a 4.4 40. He's 5-foot-9, 150 pounds. But he produces 117 miles per hour of clubhead speed with his driver and can carry the ball 300 yards—and you don't. Why is that? It isn't some magic "it factor" that only great athletes are born with. Thanks to some advanced motion-capture technology and biomechanical research from a few very smart guys, we're starting to get a much clearer picture of how elite players produce power, and what you can do to get some more of it.
I vividly remember going to the New Orleans PGA Tour event with my dad 40 years ago, and we'd watch Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson hit balls on the range. My dad was a big guy and a great athlete, but he couldn't produce anywhere near the same clubhead speed. "Those guys are doing something different," he'd say.
They still are.
To get that seemingly effortless power, tour players aren't just relying on centrifugal force to sling the club through impact on a single plane. They're actively torquing—or twisting—the club in three specific ways during the downswing to help produce those high speeds.
The concept comes from research by Dr. Steven Nesbit, a professor of mechanical engineering at Lafayette College and an expert in mechanism analysis and design. He decoded the pro swing and identified the torques at work.
Using the Gears Golf system for tracking body and club movement—the same technology that produced the 3-D swing images in this story—we're able to pinpoint the moves that create those torques and compare them from player to player.
To produce peak repeatable speed in a swing, the player needs to use the three torques (or twisting motions) in the correct order and degree. In swing-geek shorthand, we call the torques Alpha, Beta and Gamma, but it might help you to think of them as "Out," "Over" and "Around," because that's how each torque moves the club on the downswing.
These twisting movements are what make a great swing take on its characteristic look. Alpha torque changes the relationship between the club and arms from an L shape at the top of the backswing to more of an I shape near impact. Beta torque sets the club in the right position in relation to the body during the downswing. Gamma torque helps square the clubface. In short, to get from the top to impact powerfully, the club has to move out, over and around—and the three torques make that happen.
Relax—it isn't as complicated as it might sound. The swing issues you have will dictate the torque (or torques) you need to improve. Start with the simple drill that corresponds to the appropriate torque for your issue, and you'll be able to add speed to your swing and start consistently smashing the ball.
MAINTAIN YOUR LEVERAGE
The first torque (Alpha) happens after you move the club down from the top of the backswing to where your left arm is parallel to the ground. It's the unhinging of your wrists in line with the direction the clubhead is moving, in combination with the extending of your right arm. If you're a short hitter who struggles to produce good clubhead speed, this torque is where you want to start. Most players either add Alpha torque too early, throwing the clubhead away from the body, or delay the torque too long in a misguided effort to lag the clubhead behind the hands to store more power for the hit.
DRILL: To feel this torque, get in your stance with your right foot about six inches from a wall. From a top-of-the-backswing position, make a slow downswing until the clubhead gets to the wall (right). The key to doing it correctly is shifting your lower body to the left while keeping your back turned toward the target enough so you still have leverage to push hard against the wall when the club reaches it. If you hang back on your right side or turn your upper body forward too soon—two common high-handicapper mistakes—you won't have the leverage to push very hard.
PITCH THE CLUB FLATTER
The second torque (Beta) is the movement of the club into a flatter position as you get halfway through the downswing. If you tend to get too steep or over the top, here's where you want to focus. In a good downswing, the lower body shifts left and then the upper body turns and pushes into the left arm, which pitches the club into a slightly flatter, more horizontal position. From there, you can turn hard and use the right side of your body to produce extra speed. As your hands move closer to your body near impact, the club whips in line with your left arm—the bit of turbocharging at the bottom that tour players use to get extra distance.
DRILL: Set up with a mirror behind you, on the target line, and make a chest-high backswing. Your right elbow should be higher than your left, the butt of the club pointing just inside the ball, and your weight shifted to the right (right, top). From there, flow into the beginning of a downswing by pushing off your right foot, hovering your hands in place. Feel the turning of your chest causing your right arm to work under your left arm, the shaft laying down and the butt of the club pointing outside the ball (right, bottom).
TWIST THE FACE SQUARE
Of the three torques, the third (Gamma) is the simplest. It's the twisting of the grip to open and close the clubface. If you hit a slice, you need to twist the club more coming down. Most players don't know they're supposed to do this—or, if they do, they've turned the club so far open on the backswing that they can't get it back to square at impact.
DRILL: To get a visual cue that shows how this torque works, tape a drinking straw along the bottom groove on the clubface of a middle iron so half the straw sticks out past the toe. With a mirror behind you, on the target line, swing down until you see the shaft covering your right forearm. At that point, the straw should be pointing straight up (right, top). Move back and forth from this position down to where impact would be, twisting the shaft so the straw points at 45 degrees when your hands get to thigh high (right, bottom) and straight away from you at impact. A club's loft can make the face look more open than it is, but the straw shows whether you've squared it.
*Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher
Brian Manzella is based at English Turn Golf & Country Club in New Orleans.***