In 1919, reigning PGA champion Jim Barnes put out the first “modern” golf-instruction book. It was called Picture Analysis of Golf Strokes, and it gave the average golfer a chance to see how the best players swung the club. In the hundred years since, almost everything about the game has changed—including how we learn from the best. Now technology is helping to clarify what photos and videos from the 1920s to the 1990s could only hint at. At GolfTEC, we’ve measured hundreds of thousands of swings from the time our first teaching center opened in Denver in 1996. (We now have more than 850 instructors and about 200 locations in the U.S.) By crunching and decoding the data from all those players over 23 years, and comparing it to the same measurements captured from more than 200 tour players, we’ve been able to identify the specific swing movements and skills that separate average players from good ones, and good ones from elite ones.
You’ve probably heard that golf swings are like fingerprints, and each player’s is different. That can be discouraging, because it seems like no advice you might get would be perfect just for you. But the takeaways from all that number crunching we’ve been doing strongly suggest otherwise. As different as golf swings look, they have a lot more commonalities than distinctions. And the real reason you hit most of your bad shots is much simpler—and easier to fix—than you might think.
In other words, swing problems aren’t that unique and tricky to diagnose. People slice because of a few common issues—not because they do one or two things from a menu of a hundred possibilities.
This is important, because if you focus your energy on fixing one major problem we see in most amateur swings, you’re making a change that has the biggest impact on the quality and consistency of your contact. That frees you up to get out on the course and learn important skills like strategy, green-reading and handling pressure—the things that turn you into a good player.
So what’s the thing missing from your swing? You aren’t turning properly when you take the club back.
Using GolfTEC’s proprietary measurement system linked with launch-monitor data, we know that the checkpoint that correlates most directly to a player’s ability to hit good shots occurs when the club reaches parallel to the ground in the backswing. Take the elite pros you see on this page. All of them—Dustin Johnson, Jessica Korda and Jordan Spieth, and virtually every tour player we’ve measured—get to a very similar position at this point.
When the shaft is parallel to the ground, they’ve turned their shoulders about 60 degrees. Their shoulders start 7 degrees open to their target (to help avoid hooking the ball) and then rotate 53 degrees away from it. In comparison, amateurs have far less turn when they reach this position. We’ve recorded thousands of amateurs, and the amount they’re moving back is anywhere from 10 to 30 degrees less than the pros. Don’t take our word for it, go to your local range and see for yourself. It’s easy to spot.
From that shaft-parallel-to-the-ground position, tour players go on to turn their shoulders 30 more degrees. But the average amateur has pretty much stopped turning and spends the rest of the backswing and downswing playing kinetic catch-up—re-routing the club to try to make up for the poor takeaway. The overwhelming tendency is to get the shaft too vertical, swing down on a path from out to in, and hit a weak (and persistent) slice.
I know what you’re probably thinking: This information is interesting, but not useful. I don’t have the flexibility of a 20-something tour player, so turning more is going to be difficult. That’s both true and false. You aren’t as flexible as a young professional athlete, but you can get more shoulder turn. Some of it comes just from realizing that you should be doing more of it. The rest you can get with a simple series of address hacks.
If you turn your trail foot (the right foot, for right-handers) out slightly at address, it will be easier to rotate your torso away from the target. And letting your trail leg straighten and your lead knee flex inward toward the ball, you’ll also be able to increase your turn.
Off the course, it certainly can’t hurt if you want to work on flexibility in the gym.
I think exercise is great for your swing. But the reality is, you don’t have to work out. We’ve measured thousands of players who were all over the spectrum in terms of being fit, and every one of them was able to get to that magic turn number of 53 degrees with or without a stretching program. Anybody can do it . . . including you! Our data shows that shoulder turn is the biggest separator among ability levels in golf, but hip turn is an indicator, too. Tour players get to that shaft-parallel position with about 25 to 30 degrees of turn in their pelvis. Most weekend players, however, turn only a maximum of 15 degrees.
This rotation of the shoulders and hips is so important because increasing both increases the two things players need to hit the ball far and straight: time and space. More turn translates into a wider, deeper backswing and more time to store power that can be released in the downswing. When your turn is constricted, you don’t have the time or space to get the club up to the speed you see from tour pros.
Of course, having our measuring devices makes it easy to see if you’re getting to this spot in the backswing correctly, but you can use a mirror or a friend with a smartphone camera to examine it, too. One easy-to-check sign that you’re out of position is if your elbows drift away from each other as you swing—that indicates you’re taking the club back with your arms, not the rotation of your torso.
Also look to see that your head remained at the height it was at address and that your upper body didn’t start leaning toward the target—known as the dreaded reverse pivot.
To start back correctly, the thing you’re looking for is that your trail shoulder moves up and behind you as you maintain your address posture. Your hands should stay relatively passive while your shoulder turn propels the club. When you first try this move, it’s going to feel radical, like you’re making a lot more body turn than necessary. You might even worry about being able to get the club back to the ball. But trust it. Your upper body and lower body will soon start responding to the move, and you’ll be producing effortless speed while straightening that nasty slice.
Does all of this data mean it’s impossible to hit good shots any other way? Of course not. Players have far more similarities than differences, but they do have differences—and there are certainly outliers. Brooks Koepka turns noticeably less than 53 degrees when he gets to this key checkpoint. But he also has more natural athleticism than most people. If you’re capable of hitting a ball 180 miles per hour like he can, you don’t need 53 degrees of turn at this point in the swing. (I’m excited to measure the next generation of super-athletic players, like rookie tour winners Cameron Champ and Matthew Wolff, to see how their swings compare.)
But back in the real world, where most of you are swinging your driver slower than 100 miles per hour, you’re in the sweet spot of the data curve—not an outlier. For you, grooving this takeaway move is the fastest route to longer, straighter shots.