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- Three Dimensional Problems in Golf: What Is a Golf Swing? (Lesson 8, Part 1)
August 2014 S M T W T F S « Nov 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31
- Three Dimensional Problems in Golf: What Is a Golf Swing? (Lesson 8, Part 1)
- Three Dimensional Problems in Golf: What Is a Golf Swing? (Lesson 8, Part 1)
- Consistency: Creating the Foundation that Makes Power Possible
- Golf Is Not Life: Greatest Achievements in a Major
- Heard at the Turn: When Rough was rough
One of the most difficult things in golf is its three-dimensional nature.
This is not just true of golf. I know many people who were very good at, say, mathematics, but floundered on the altar of three dimensions. They could master everything up to and including single variable calculus. When you started to ask them to think in multiple dimensions, their mathematics ship ran into the rocks and sank. Div, grad, curl could have been live, mad, and hurl, for them. The same is true for physics — forget special and general relativity. Maxwell’s Equations — not for the faint of heart. There is a reason humans walked the earth for about 2 millions years without understanding these ideas.
The three dimensional problems in golf appear almost everywhere. One of the most difficult is that funny angle at which the clubhead protrudes from a shaft. It means that the plane on which you swing the club is different than the plane on which the ball is struck. No joke, no lie. It is a very difficult concept for anyone to wrap their heads around, and often causes golfers to want to wrap their clubs around a nearby tree. Put that funny angle at which the clubhead protrudes from the shaft together with the club rotating around the body, and up and away from the ball, and, well, it’s a wonder anyone – literally – can hit a golf ball. Winston Churchill famously said, “[g]olf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an ever smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.”
I know of only a few people who have anything close to a clear picture of this three dimensional problem in their heads. Not even the best touring pros and most of the golf teaching profession. It’s not a criticism. It’s just very very hard to think in that way. It’s why we want to strip out a dimension, or two, in describing a true picture of a golf swing. In all the years I’ve been around golf, I’ve met two people who seem to be able to do it well. (I am not one of those people, incidentally.)
In lessons on three dimensional problems in golf, we will try to help people get a better handle on some of these issues. The goal is to develop a clearer picture in one’s head of what makes up the golf swing.
What is a golf swing?
In this part of this lesson, we describe what a golf swing is, in some very real sense. Though I am reluctant to use equations, here is what it is (for right handed golfers).
The Golf Swing =
(swinging a bat with your left hand and arm)
+ (hitting a nail with a hammer with your right hand and arm)
There you have it. That’s all. It’s as simple as that. Nothing more, nothing less.
I can hear the wheels turning in your head. Huh? How? What? Where’d that come from? But yes, indeed, that is the golf swing. At times, it makes sense, for example if one is teaching or learning, to emphasize one part of the equation, or the other part. In truth, however, that is the whole of the swing. We might make it a little bit more complete by noting that all this is happening while the arms are rotating around the body, and then it would be a very accurate description. (Try hitting a nail with a hammer by starting with your shoulders turned at a right angle to their position while you are at rest, with the nail waist high and to the left of your body.)
The trick in golf is to combine those two motions into one single, unified swing. It’s not so easy. Almost anyone can pick up a baseball bat and make a passable swing of the bat on the first try. Almost anyone can pick up a hammer and hit a nail on the first try. Try doing those two things at once, and, well, you have a billion dollar industry for teaching professionals, golf academies, golf magazines, instructional books and videos, and The Golf Channel ©.
Left and Right Side Combined
Since it’s not so easy, even for those who are practiced at it, to think in three dimensions with moving objects of an odd shape, let’s try to break down the picture with words or phrases you might have heard. A golfer who swings the hammer too fast is said to “come over the top.”
This is literally true. He brings his right arm and hand over as if to strike down on a nail (the ball) in too exaggerated way, thinking this will result in a good strike of the nail (the ball). It’s not a bad idea. It’s actually a pretty good one. A better idea is to try to hit the nail as if it were to the left of your body. And that’s not the only idea one can have if one is going to make a good golf swing. One has to swing the club with the left arm.
A golfer who fails to swing the hammer to hit the nail to his left, at all or enough, is said “to get stuck” or “get stuck behind the ball.” It is a not uncommon ‘fault’ of good golfers who have learned that they must move the club “inside the line to out” in order to make good contact. Tiger Woods has done this with his driver for some time, and you will now see him practicing coming “over the top” when he takes a practice swing in golf tournaments. Watch next time.
Of course, “coming over the top” and “getting stuck” are not the only two problems that can occur if the right and left arms and hands are not coordinating these two motions correctly. For example, you will hear, mostly touring professionals, talk about “turning the club over too quickly,” which results in a hook. Ben Hogan had to fix this problem in his own swing, as he describes it, to go from being a good professional to being one of the greatest golfers of all time.
Likewise, the lack of coordination of these two simultaneous movements can be a fault in what one is doing with the left side — swing the bat. Golfers who fail to get the left arm straight at impact are said to “lack proper extension” or “lack proper extension through the ball.” The golfer who swings the club with the left arm, and lets only the left arm control the swing, tends to “block out.”
Both motions in our equation are necessary. Neither by itself is sufficient.
And both motions are required in just the right balance.
What makes golf very difficult is getting the right balance between these two motions — as some like to put it, a classic Goldilocks problem — it must be neither too hot, nor too cold, but ‘just right.’
For those of you who have heard of the “right side” versus “left side” debate for years, you now know that it is a false debate. Power tends to come from the right side, but not solely; control tends to come from the left side, but not slowly; and to have a good or excellent golf swing, one needs both sides. Ask anyone who has to play golf with just one arm.
Understanding the Three Dimensional Picture
Once you begin to put together this three dimensional picture in your head, you will see why the golf swing works best on a 45 degree plane to the ground, roughly measured. Of course, the ball is well below you arms, so one would expect that one would need a swing that works efficiently on such a plane. The two are inextricably intertwined. Ying and yang.
I will not try to help, at least for now, you visualize these two motions, and their perfect balance. Take out a golf club and play with it with each hand and arm, one at a time. “Swing” with the left arm and hand; “hit a nail to your left with a hammer held in your right hand,” with the right arm and hand. Put the hands together, and vary the degree to which you do either motion — slowly. I recommend this because really for just about everyone it is very hard to think in three dimensions. On the other hand, if one has something in one’s hand, one can experiment in three dimensions very easily. Because, well, not to be trite, but that’s the world we live in.
The Perfect Balance with Different Clubs
It is a commonplace to say that all full shots are made with the same swing. I work with a famous teaching professional, and he says it. Jack Nicklaus says it. But this is a myth and the myth is intimately connected to the equation that makes up the golf swing described above.
Two things, which every golfer knows and experiences during every round, make it clear that this is a myth — the ability to tee the ball up for some shots and the varying length of the shaft on different clubs. It is better, we know, to be able to hit the ball on a slightly upward part of the swing arc, on a drive with a driver or other wood off the tee. One has to “hit down” with an iron off the fairway. It is very difficult to hit a fairway wood off the fairway. (Lee Trevino told Golf Digest in an interview, “I have one superstition: I won’t use a yellow tee. Yellow is the color of cowardice. I’ll hit a 3-wood off the deck first.”)
The left side of our equation is more important when the length of the club is long and we can hit off a tee (or a teed-up lie, for example, on certain bermuda grasses in the fairway). Here, we seek to “sweep the ball” some will say. An old Scottish pro told a young golfer, perhaps apochryphally, “Laddie, when you play golf, bring your broom and leave your axe at home.” The right side of our equation is similarly more important when the length of the club is short and we must hit from the fairway, or worse, get a ball out of the rough. And, to repeat, it is the correct balance of the two sides of the equation, which varies with every shot, that will determine how good a shot we will hit.
The equation above does accurately describe the golf swing, properly balanced. It should be obvious, but I will state it anyway, that any discussion of the swing is, on some level, an abstraction. There are so many variables at work that any statement is a simplification.
Understanding that, you now have the fundamental equation that describes a golf swing in your hands. As for thinking in three dimensions, don’t get carried away any time too soon. It is hard. Very hard.
1. It is often useful to think of other sports and compare the motions in those sports that may or may not work well for golf. For example, a boxer (right handed) can make a very powerful punch with a right upper-cut, but it is almost impossible for him to throw a left upper-cut.
At the same time, a right-handed boxer has to learn to be able to throw a left jab all day, but he never uses, to speak of, his right hand to jab at an opponent. He needs both skills. In boxing, his problems are simplified a bit because he is allowed to execute the motions sequentially – a right, then a left, another left, a left again, a right up to the jaw, a left jab, and so on. In golf, one has to coordinate both arms at the same time. It is, in truth, a nearly impossible task.
2. There is a very real sense in which a fourth dimension comes into play, which is time (or, if you like, velocity). Leaving the full swing aside for just a moment, many putts can be made (in three dimensions) with more than one “line” of the putt. (Yes, indeed, those fancy pictures they now show on television describing the ‘perfect’ line to make a putt are a . . . well, lie.) Both speed and direction are important, and more than one combination of speed and direction will sink a putt. We know this when someone says, “I just rammed it into the back of the cup,” or “I tried to die it just at the hole.” The statements appear to speak only to speed, but in fact they also speak to the line that the golfer decided to take on the putt. One sees this most clearly on fast greens when the hole sits on a very slopey part of the green.
Moreover, if one’s speed is not sufficient, gravity takes over and the golfer loses all control over where the ball is going to end up. Sometimes it is good to let gravity to take over; other times, it leads to a three putt or worse. These are familiar ideas, though they may not be ones that we think of as three, yet alone four, dimensional problems.
3. A golf swing would be much easier if the ball could always be up on a tee. This seems almost a trivial observation, but compare the baseball swing. A great home run hitter tries to extend into the ball with his leading arm (“the pitcher let me extend out over the plate with that pitch, and I hit it out of the park”), and he has the advantage of being able to swing only up with his powerful trailing side. The picture in the margin of David Ortiz shows it.
The golfer, by contrast must at some point with his trailing arm be “under” the plane, and then find a way to get “on top” of the ball or “over” the plane with the trailing arm and hand. If he does so too much, we say, as noted, that he has ‘turned over on the ball.’ If one is unable to do this, then one’s iron play will suffer as one cannot hit ball and then turf. It’s a very difficult motion to master. If interested in Hogan’s struggle with it, you might read the Foreward by David Seitz to the 1985 Golf Digest reprint of Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.
[Ed. Note: We have not posted in a while. We apologize. There are a series of posts we intend to post. Other commitments have made it difficult to post for a time.]
We have repeatedly emphasized that consistency is golf’s one constant. Because golf is a game of accuracy and as few strokes as possible, consistency is paramount. Consistency is what leads to predictability: you are standing over a shot and you want to be able to have the best possible idea what your swing or putt will do to the ball. If you know that, it makes the game infinitely simpler. In a follow-up lesson, we will someday explain the logic of this on the course not just on one shot, but on a series of shots.
Ego is the enemy of consistency
Everyone knows that practice is important to build a repeatable swing — a grooved swing, if you will. (Linked here is a story I tell about how I was beaten in a tournament when my opponent stopped trying to swing “perfectly,” and returned to the grooved swing he knew, mid round. Smart man, my opponent.)
However, I see it every day, in almost every swing, of at least every male who plays the game. Ego. “I want to be like Tiger.” Which means, every man wants to hit the ball as far as possible. Unfortunately, they confuse hitting the ball far with swinging as hard as possible. This leads to swings in which power is applied out of sequence, it is not maximized at impact, and, worse, all that wasted energy involves so much flailing around that the swing never becomes simple or predictable.
Tiger swings like a maniac. Shouldn’t I?
Building a Powerful Swing Requires Building a Consistent One
Heros don’t magically appear, they are built over time. Hero shots require hours of practice. This is a difficult lesson for most golfers to learn, at any level. You have to play the shots, almost always, that you have already hit hundreds if not thousands of times on the practice range. This much, all good golfers would accept.
A more difficult – often not known – is how one builds the best foundation for a fast, powerful swing. (We will discuss in the lessons on “Power” how to maximize power. Here we discuss the ideal method to ensure one is consistently as powerful as one can be.
In brief, in all things in life, one learns best by starting out slowly. This is what we learn about mental processes in Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. People who appear to be able to think about a problem and come up with an instantaneous answer have spent years thinking about that or a similar problem, which gives them a kind of “intuition” — having mastered a complex mental process. A chess grandmaster who can walk by a board in a tournament and say, “white should win” with a glance. The orthopedic surgeon who sees the odd patient and happens to look for just the part of the X-ray that reveals the problem, in a few seconds. Indeed, this is how most of us memorize our multiplication tables. We start by learning that 4 times 5 is 5 adding up 4 times. We do that math on paper, or problems like it, several times, and pretty soon we skip directly to 4 times 5 equals 20. And so forth.
The same is true of physical processes controlled at least in part by the mind. And especially those that require speed. When we swing the club, we don’t want to think about many variables – we want them to be automatic. This is the reason for practice.
But it is more important when dealing with speed. To groove a fast swing with power, we first want to grove all the technical aspects of our swing so that it is ideal at a slower speed.
As our confidence and ability to replicate the swing improves, then we can swing faster. And faster. But if one skips the replication at a speed at which we can get the technique correct, we are doomed to hit inconsistent shots, which are the equivalent of the new golfer’s attempts to flail at a ball.
That is why Tiger swings so fast. He does so because he can. He has built up his swing at slower speeds over time. As his confidence and ability to replicate it increases, he gradually increases the speed. Or he may swing at a slower pace for shots on which he wants to ensure the best possible technique, and reserve full power for those few times on a course when he might need something extra.
Here is what Jack Nicklaus said about a closely related idea back in the day:
If you’re seeking more distance, maximizing clubhead speed is one way to achieve it; hitting the ball more squarely is another. In fact, power is a balance of the two. Unfortunately, many golfers overlook ball-striking in their preoccupation with increasing clubhead speed.
Maintaining control over the club is the key to achieving both of these goals. With the driver, I can swing up to about 90 percent of my physical capacity and still deliver the clubhead accurately on a consistent basis. If I swing any harder than that, the extra speed I generate is often negated by poor contact, hurting the shot’s direction as well as its distance. Unfortunately, many golfers overlook ball-striking in their preoccupation with increasing clubhead speed.
Given a wide fairway with few hazards along the way, or the possibility of getting home in two on a big par five, I’ll sometimes swing all out. On the other hand, when not swinging my best, I’ll generally throttle back to around 80 percent for a slower tempo to ensure that I hit the ball squarely.
Remember, power is only valuable when you apply it effectively.
Good words to live by, from the greatest golfer to play the game (still). Remember, the mind and body have to learn at a slower speed than they can execute after thousands of repeat performances. Trying to short-circuit this process is a sure way to doom yourself to years of inconsistent play, always searching for the perfect swing on the next shot, one shot at a time, and never finding it.
Note on the Advice to Swing Slow and Easy
Many golfers will hear from professionals, “swing easy, swing slower.” Here is Nick Faldo referring to it in a video of his.
The golfer then looks at Tiger or Nicklaus literally coming out of their shoes, and wonders, what? Why should I swing like that.
Did Muhammad Ali throw that knock-out punch, that landed squarely on Sonny Liston’s chin, in the ring? No, he learned over years on the punch bag in the gym. Does the concert pianist sit down at the piano and, upon first try, play “Flight of the Bumble Bees” perfectly? No, it takes hours of practice to learn the proper fingering and to build up to the speed that the score requires. “Prestissimo,” you can listen to it here.
Some things are never explained, let alone explained well. Usually the advice of swing easier, or swing slower, is focused on getting the golfer to make a more technically correct swing — one in which as Nicklaus says power is applied efficiently. It is a learning mode, except that it is almost never explained that way by professionals who teach or play the game, perhaps because they only have an apprehension, and not full comprehension, of what the golfer needs.
Then, once the golfer can do that consistently, he can speed up his swing. Proficiency must come first. (There are other problems a “too fast” swing can create, but that is for a post on power and golf.) If one reverses the pattern – trying to swing as hard as possible, one never gets the same swing twice, and therefore never builds a consistent, repeatable swing, where, on the shots where extra power is absolutely required, he can swing harder.
Be like Jack. When learning, especially when learning or improving a new part of the swing, dial it back to 70 or 80 percent until that swing movement is grooved. There is also a mental element to this, as Kahneman’s writings indicate. It is hard for the mind to control the body when the movements occur in a shorter amount of time. Until those movements become automatic, the mind needs sufficient time to ensure the body executes corectly. That is how human beings learn best. Don’t be wasting energy until you learn to apply it efficiently.
This is the road to becoming a solid, consistent, and lastly, powerful ball striker. And that is where we all want to get.
It is the week of the United States Open. For this week, we will suspend any discussion of mathematics and mechanics of golf. We return to one of our themes, Golf Is Not Life.
This week it takes the form of a poll. Which of the following do you think is the greatest life achievement in a major:
Graeme McDowell has described the last four holes at Merion as “brutal.” A picture of the 18th suggests that the rain this week won’t be softening the greens but thickening the rough. Trevino had his fun with the thick rough at Merion in 1971. Here is a photo of Hogan in the 1955 Open, when he hooked his drive into the rough on the last playoff hole and took not one, not two, but three shots to get out. Looking at the rough, it’s little wonder. Where have those days gone?
Get ready for a great US Open at Merion.