The only three skills you need to play really good golf
Photographs by J.D. Cuban
When I was a kid, we had an old tire nailed to a tree in the backyard, and I’d go out and hit that tire with anything I could get my hands on—a bat, broomsticks, a branch.
I became a pretty good hitter in baseball, and when I started playing golf, I could hit the ball flush right away. Now I know why: Whacking that tire taught me something called “the line of compression,” a fancy way of saying I learned to line up my arms to strike with power without hurting myself. Kids are better than adults at figuring out how to do things because they have fewer preconceptions. They’re all instinct and action.
There’s nothing unique about that story. You, too, have unknowingly trained yourself to be a proficient ball-striker. Don’t get tricked into thinking the golf swing is a technical puzzle that you have to piece together from scratch. You can build your swing from simple moves you already know how to make. I’m talking about three in particular: (1) throwing a ball, (2) hitting with a bat and (3) using your body to counteract a pulling force—think of the game tug of war. You perform these skills without thinking about them, and they translate perfectly to golf. So instead of grinding over new movement patterns, tap into what’s already inside of you, and make that your golf swing. —With Peter Morrice
Throwing a ball is one of the first skills we learn as toddlers. Why? Because it’s so easy to do. Take a ball in your right hand, assuming you’re a righty, and throw it 10 yards. Here’s what you did: You swung your arm straight back and extended your wrist, then you swung your arm forward and released your wrist to launch the ball. Get into your golf posture and do it again, using your arm and wrist in exactly the same way (above, top row). That little lever system is the golf swing in miniature.
Now take a golf club in your right hand only and make a short backswing, letting your wrist bend back just like you did when throwing. Then swing down and through, and let the weight of the club release your wrist (above, bottom row). That last part might surprise you, but of course you should release your wrist! It’s not a fault; it’s how you accelerate the club into the ball. The simple act of extending and flexing your trail wrist is as natural as throwing a ball.
To take it a step further, imagine you’re holding the clubface in your right hand. In effect, I want you to throw the face into the ball. On a chip or pitch shot, that simple levering of the right hand is the whole swing. Longer swings add body rotation, but the basic throwing action—swing back and load the wrist, swing down and unload the wrist—doesn’t change.
THE BIG MISTAKE
Many golfers think they’re supposed to rotate the clubface open on the backswing and close it through impact, and they do that by rolling their forearms (above). That one move has ruined more swings than anything because once the club starts twisting, the ball starts going everywhere. Do you twist your arm when you throw a ball? No, because you’d start throwing it all over the place. So don’t add any arm twisting to your swing. The club will naturally arc to the inside when you extend your wrist back because we play from a side-on position. Same thing going through: Release your wrist, just like the throw, and the club will track out to the ball.
The part that takes practice is the release. If you let go of a baseball too soon, it goes straight up; too late, and you fire it into the ground. In golf, you have to gauge the release of the wrist through impact. Try some pitch shots: Load the right wrist and hit the ball when you still have a little bend in it—that’s the ideal hitting position. Then feel it flatten in the follow-through (above). Groove that timing, and your impact will be pure.
The second movement pattern that works great for golf is batting. The skill here is applying force to an object; in other words, using the lever system we just discussed to strike something hard. When you hit a baseball, you instinctively line up your right arm with the bat at impact to push with power (above left). You don’t twist the bat into the ball; you don’t try to bow your lead wrist at impact. (Those are two beauts we hear in golf.) You turn your lower body out of the way and push the bat to the ball.
I often hear students say they’ve been taught to “swing through the ball, not at it.” Really? Because whether it’s a baseball coming in at 90 miles per hour or a golf ball sitting on the ground, impact is a violent collision. You need your right arm to be lined up with the shaft to support that hit (above right). If the hands and wrists are twisting or turning into impact, they’re less stable, and you risk injury.
The difference in golf versus baseball is that you have to square a clubface at impact. This is where the grip becomes critical. Look at that photo again with the bat: The palm of my lead hand is pointing down—that’s the strongest position of that hand, and you need it for golf, too. To take your lead-hand grip, set the club in the fingers, with the back of the hand turned away from the target and the palm pointing downward, toward your right thigh (below). That’s appropriately called a strong grip, and it prepares you for the hit and promotes a square clubface at impact.
THE BIG MISTAKE
The majority of golfers grip the club with the back of the lead hand facing the target and the handle in the palm instead of the fingers—called a weak grip (above). Then, when they swing into impact and the weight of the club pulls the lead hand into its natural hitting position (palm down), the clubface spins open. That’s why they fight a slice. It’s much simpler to grip with the palm down at address and the glove logo facing upward. That allows you to use your natural instinct to hit and also square the face without any manipulation. A weak grip requires extra rotation from the hands and arms to close the face at impact, which is very difficult to time, especially at high speeds.
The brain is the ultimate taskmaster, but you have to give it the right concepts. This drill is designed to present your brain with a picture of impact. Set up to a ball, but before you swing, simulate impact. Rotate your left hip open, apply pressure into your left heel, and push the club against the ground with your right arm directly behind the shaft. From your perspective, most of your body will appear to the right of the shaft, with your lead hand palm-down (above). Now your brain has a snapshot of impact. Make some half-swings, reproducing that impact position. Do this until you groove the feeling of pushing into the ball. That’s what great ball-strikers feel.
Our last move is how the body works to offset a force pulling away from you. Think of cable exercises in the gym or tug of war: Your body pivots away from the pulling force to create leverage and maintain balance. Without balance, your body is just trying to save itself from falling down, so you can’t really do anything.
Look at the photos in the top row. I’m simulating my swing as someone is trying to pull me off balance. To counter that force, I pivot my body directly away from it. When I swing a club, the pulling force is not as obvious, but it’s there, especially when the club is accelerating. Imagine the swing as a circle created by the path of the clubhead. To maintain that circle, which allows you to maximize swing speed, you have to keep the center (your body) in one place. You do that naturally by pivoting away from the pulling force.
What does this look like in a golf swing (bottom row)? On the backswing, your right hip pushes back, and you feel more pressure in the right foot. That’s because the pulling force is off your right side. Then, on the downswing, the club moves out toward the ball, so you’re pushing more straight away from the ball. When the club swings through impact, the pulling force is off your left side, so your left hip pushes back, with the pressure moving to your left heel. That’s how you offset the force of the swinging club.
Moving away from the force through impact is a huge speed producer because it slings your arms powerfully toward the ball. If you move your body in the direction of the force, there’s no sling. For power and consistency in the golf swing, this pivoting action is essential.
THE BIG MISTAKE
Sometimes words send a bad message, and the term “weight shift” is a real killer in golf. Most golfers take it to mean the body should shift laterally to the right on the backswing and then laterally to the left on the forward swing (above). As we discussed, that’s the opposite of how you should move to create leverage and swing with power. Remember the circle: When your body moves laterally, the circle isn’t a circle anymore, and that makes it hard to accelerate the club and deliver it to the ball in a predictable manner. For instance, the low point of the swing, where you make contact with the ball, is the bottom of the circle. If that spot shifts around, you have to time the lateral movement perfectly to catch the ball solid. It’s much simpler to keep the center in place by pivoting away from the force. If this is sounding complicated, remember we’re just getting you back to what you do naturally.
Tee up four balls in a line, then straddle it and take your setup just outside the first ball. You’re going to shuffle backward and move into each ball, making continuous swings. Start a swing, and take a small step back with your right foot, then your left as you get to the top. Hit the ball, and without stopping, step back again with your right foot, then your left. Keep inching back until you hit all four balls. You’ll realize your body was always moving away from the pulling force, as it should in your normal swing.