Good pitching beats good hitting . . . and vice versa.
— Yogi Berra
[Ed. Note: While this post is written for all golfers, it likely will be most useful to those who teach the game. Understanding these principles is essential to becoming a good teacher of the game.]
Jack Grout, Jack Nicklaus’ golf coach, had him hit thousands of balls without letting his weight move outside the inside of the right foot on the backswing or outside the inside of the left foot on the downswing and follow through. Why did Grout ask Nicklaus to do this? How did it help his swing? To start to understand why, we have to understand better the way in which the swing works. Not the way in which we take the club back, or start the downswing, or any of a number of other details about the details of the swing. We must be able to know why we undertake to start the downswing in this way or that – what effect we are trying to achieve, and what effect we will achieve – depending upon what we do, and why we are or are not likely to achieve our goal. Only by understanding these fundamentals can we hope to understand our swing, and golf. Anything else is just a blind squirrel running around, trying to find an acorn.
Golf is a game of opposites. This is true in many different ways. You make an adjustment, and you fail to make a corresponding opposite adjustment, and things won’t work the way you thought they should.
Duck Soup and Banana Balls
My golf coach told me about this issue in instruction several years ago: One of the younger pros, at the club where we were, was having trouble with a duck hook. My coach pointed out that this swing problem is an example of why supervision is so important. My coach explained that a really good player, who would be most likely to be prone to developing a duck hook, and who tried to fix it himself, would often subconsciously start aiming more and more to the right, to adjust for the hook. In doing so, he would make his stance progressively more closed to the club path and
intended ball flight. Pretty soon, the good player would be hopelessly stuck. Instead of getting better, the hook would worsen.
We often see the reverse on the practice range. A player who slices does not slice because he loops the club over the top. Instead, he starts by slicing; then his mind tries to adjust his body to hit the ball farther left thinking that hitting the ball at impact on a right to left line will move the ball left. He swings over the top more to make the ball go left, instead of right. His mind, it says, is not foolish. But the ball slices more; he must (his mind thinks) loop the club around and over the top more. The ball slices more. Pretty soon the golfer has an ingrained habit, hard to fix. It turns out that had the player, when his ball started slicing, started trying to hit the ball to the right, that he would have started coming inside-out, and his slice would have fixed itself much quicker (along with the help of a good teaching professional and after reading a few posts on this site).
The more he tries to adjust for his slice by aiming left, the more he ingrains the slice. The more the low single-digit handicapper tries to fix his duck hook by aiming right, the more he duck hooks it. Into the soup. It turns out that the fix is to aim right (or left for the golfer who duckhooks) … well, to oversimplify, that is the fix — certainly a start.
If you want to fix your slice, aim down the middle. Align to hit it down the middle. Keep on doing that. Eventually your body will adjust and you will hit the ball straight, more or less.
Newton’s third law.
Why do I bring this example up. It shows in a very real sense how golf is often a game in which the opposite of what we think works is what in fact works.
You sound like Yogi Berra, I can hear the reader saying.
There are many ways in which this principle is at work in golf (and life), so let’s try to narrow it down to the golf swing. The reason that there are built in “opposites” in golf is Newton’s Third Law of Motion:
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Good pitching beats good hitting … and vice versa.
As an aside, I would like to know how Newton thought of this brilliant and beautiful idea to describe the world around us. It is always true.
What does it have to do with golf? As we said in the “About” page of Golf is a Game of Simple, golf is part of nature’s laws. All that happens in golf somehow has to obey those laws. Let’s be more concrete.
Hitting from a bunker
I take this example for a reason which will become clear. The idea I would like to convey is that anything that you do in swinging the golf club must have an equal and opposite reaction. It is important to understand this. If you are trying to fix a problem with your ball flight, and you make an adjustment – call it X – then you have to be able to understand (or your coach had better understand) what the opposite and equal reaction to X will be. Otherwise,you will not fix anything at all. Chances are, as in our example above of the duck hooker or Mr. Banana Ball, that your attempt to undo something will in fact lead to emphasizing it.
Yep. Precisely. Yogi Berra it.
Our words are still a bit fuzzy. Let’s get into the sand and slow down a bit.
Let’s suppose I think that my swing suffers from a lack of power, so I am going to try to throw my lower body into the swing at the outset of the downswing.
I do so. This, according to Newton, must mean that the extra energy I put into my lower body has to have an equal and opposite reaction. If one thinks about it long enough, or gets a hint from a physicist, there are three possibilities (not counting some combination of all three): (1) the upper body will fall back as the lower body powers forward; (2) the lower body will, yes, move the earth backwards; or (3) the body’s muscles and bones will react in a way to counter-act either (1) or (2).
In future parts of this lesson, we will see why understanding this is important – quite apart from my coach’s observation about professional golfers who get sucked into a duck hooking fit. For now, let us just understand it.
The reason I pick the sand trap out is that it is very difficult to see that (2) occurs anywhere else on the course. (It occurs on wet grass as well, but most people don’t understand why.) And the fact that (2) occurs is why, in fact, we wear cleats. Or put differently, as we shall see, the fact that it is very difficult to make (2) occur — the earth move — is why we wear cleats, and dig our feet into the sand when preparing to hit a bunker shot.
The earth moves under my feet
Yes, the earth moves. No, this is not a Carole King concert tour.
It is not so hard for the average golfer to believe that if you thrust your legs and hips out, that your upper body will have to fall back. Indeed, this is a common fault of golfers, called “not getting off your back foot.” The more you try to thrust your legs and lower body forward, the more it seems it is difficult to “get off your back foot.” The teaching professional will appreciate this phenomenon. The everyday golfer has seen it on the course, when another golfer exaggerates the movement of his lower body through the ball. (More on the common result after we get out of the sand.)
It is also not hard to see that the body can restrict its muscles or use its bone structure to counter-act any force on it. Whether it is “efficient” to use one’s muscles to do so when so much effort is being put into moving the lower body through the hitting area is a different question. Most of us can readily see that we can counter-act the reaction.
Let’s stick with the fact that the earth moves. Well, we can make it move. Yes. No joke. No lie. The earth moves.
How do we make it move? By being firmly affixed to it when we exert a force in some direction. The more firmly affixed we are to it, and the harder we effectively push in a direction, the more that the earth will move.
Isn’t the earth immovable?
Sure. It’s also flat.
A simple example can be seen when you drop a brick onto hard, dry soil. You will see dust rise. Dust = earth, which is earth moving. If you drop the brick into the sand, you see more of the earth move – in the form of the loosely packed particles that make up sand.
The brick thuds into the sand, and the sand moves all around it. You pick up the brick, and there is an impression left. With the hard, dry soil, there is likely no impression and the only evidence of the earth moving is the dust you see rising after the thud. Drop the brick onto a hard cement road and, what happens? Yes. The earth also moves. No joke. No lie.
Now that we’ve gotten past that notion, let me give you an example that my high school physics teacher gave to us.
One learns in physics that there is conservation of momentum, not energy. Energy dissipates. Momentum is conserved. A pool player knows this. If he strikes one ball into another, he can make one ball stop and the other move away with the same speed that the cue ball hit it with.
This means that when you drop something into the ground, and if it stops, something had to move. That’s right. The earth doesn’t stop a falling brick. It absorbs its momentum. Think of a billiard ball being hit into the earth, a very, very, very large billiard ball. The very, very, very large billiard ball will absorb the momentum of the cue ball. It will therefore move. Because, however, of the earth’s tremendous mass, it won’t move much. The earth weighs roughly 13 x 1022 pounds. If you throw a one pound brick into it at 60 mph, the earth will move away from the collision with a speed of about 1/2 x 10-21 miles per hour. At that speed, the earth would move about 2 feet in a trillion millenia. Yes, a trillion millenia; not a trillion years. The earth moves. Very, very, very, very slowly.
The earth moves, except when it doesn’t
Back to Yogi Berra. When we say that the earth moves, as it always does, the sand trap illustrates something else quite useful. When we take a swing, we will move the earth – but will we move the entire globe, or just a small pile of dust near our feet? Ahhh…. Well then, you say, now you see the importance of being anchored to the “Earth” and not just the earth around our feet. If it is easier to move the dirt around our feet rather than entire globe, which will move? That is easy.
It also points to an important small lesson about golf – because we are often trying to apply a force in one direction, while minimizing movement of our bodies in an opposite direction – negating our efforts – we are constantly looking for ways to anchor our movements. We want to “push off” the Earth; we want to use our (for right handed golfers) left leg to “post up” in our swing; we want to keep our head still so that we tend to rotate around the axis of our spine, rather than straight down the line – because that straight movement down the line will mandate, says Newton’s third law, an equal and opposite reaction of our body (the golfer who can’t get off his right foot – which is seemingly inexplicable, unless we know about Newton’s third law, because it seems the harder we try to move off that foot and toward the hole, the more difficult it becomes!!!)
Why does this matter? We are making a general point about how movements in golf have an equal and opposite reaction. In the case of one of the possible reactions, we see, as a start, the importance, of a good stance firmly rooted to the ground – literally “rooted” into the ground if we could. (I just don’t believe that those new rubber soled golf shoes are as good as rubber spikes, nor the rubber spikes likely as good as metal spikes….)
It is interest to note that Nick Faldo  and a famous teaching professional  postulate the importance of the ground, but they do not explain why. We are here to explain why. Always why.
We will also see this principle at play to a great extent in subsequent parts of this lesson – the notion that for every action we generate an equal and opposite reaction has consequences for every single thing we do in the swing (and often in putting). This helps understand better why we do certain things in golf to create a sound, repeating, consistent swing; and it helps us make the right adjustments, which often will be the adjustments that our unschooled intuition would tell us to make. (Aiming more right to compensate for a hook likely won’t fix the hook, but will exacerbate it as our stance becomes more closed to the intended flight path.)
As you move your body into the hitting area, one of three things must happen in reaction: either your muscles must prevent the opposite reaction, or you must move the earth, or your body must move backwards to some degree. That’s it. Those are your choices. Since one is usually trying to move forward through the ball, one wants to push off the earth – that makes more sense, doesn’t it? Yes. Of course, when one is “pushing off” the earth, one can do so effectively if one has a firm grip on the earth. So we dig into the sand trap, we want long metal spikes on sidehill lies, and we prefer dry grass to wet grass. In pushing off the earth, we are in fact moving the earth. Except the earth doesn’t want to move much. So if we are firmly affixed to it, we get that forward momentum are muscles are trying to create and ultimately transfer to the ball.
We picked the sand to start golfers in an effort to understand that in fact, some or all of 1, 2, and 3, above occur when we start our downswing – Newton said it must be so. In the sand, we can actually see that the sand does move.
In fact, you will hear people advising you to place your weight in the sand on your left foot. There can be two reasons for this. One is that it will steepen the club’s path into the sand, and ball. Certain shots – but not all shots – benefit from a steep angle of attack. The other reason is that it helps counter-act the natural tendency of the body to move backward when its muscles attempt to move forward as one swings into the ball. The sand, even if we dig our feet in, just isn’t that solid. Sometimes we can tighten up the muscles in our body to counter-act this reaction, but it can be very hard to get the body’s muscles to do two opposite things at once – like rubbing the top of your head and patting your stomach at the same time – the brain just doesn’t like coordinating those types of actions. For most of us, the brain overloads, and we fail to do what we had “in mind” before we started to swing.
Making Sense of Nick Faldo
In the notes at the end of the post, there is a link to a Youtube video in which Nick Faldo discusses the importance of remaining “grounded,” if you will.  Sir Nick contrasts two downswing moves. In one, the player moves toward the ball hard with his entire body. Sir Nick explains that “[you need] something to pull away from…. too many golfers will move toward the ball and top half and bottom half move together.”
Sir Nick gets it mostly right. What does it mean to say top half and bottom half move together? And what does that have to do with the chest (and by inference the arms and club) speeding up?
Sir Nick sees, yet does not see, that there are two options. If you move toward the ball with your lower body, there are two possibilities, as we noted above – your upper body can react by moving back, in part, or your feet can push the earth back, which allows your upper body not to react (move backward). When Sir Nick says that the upper body and lower body “move together,” he implies that they move in the same direction. If one watches the video closely, one will, however, see what is happening. When the feet leave the ground – that is the body loses its anchor to the earth – then the upper body has to counteract (react in an equal and opposite way) to the momentum one is trying to create with the lower body. One tries, in practice, to launch the whole body at the ball (which is when the feet leave the ground). However, the amount of speed that are imparted to the arms is limited by the fact that it moves back in part. The net effect may be forward (one did after all leap toward the ball) but that net effect cannot be as great if one stays affixed to the ground for longer. One has more time to “leverage” off the ground, as one stays connected to the earth and can push off it for longer.
Subtle. Clear. We will discuss the notion of “getting off your back foot” in a subsequent part of this lesson. The ideas about Faldo, the ground, the body, and the like are intimately related to getting off your back foot.
Somewhere in the middle of this post, we have a picture of a golfer at the finish of his swing. How do we know that he sliced the ball? We don’t for sure. There are many things he could have done to prevent a slice. But if we look at the position of his body at the end of the swing, the club is high and he is unbalanced to the left.
This strongly suggests that his club path through the ball was over the top and that he is leaning in the direction he is because he has pulled over and around the ball. If one came down the line, or inside out, it would be hard to finish the swing so high and with one’s weight so far to the left. Prior to the body reacting as it has at the end of the swing, we know that there had to be an opposite and equal action that led to that position. The human body and the earth below it will only allow so many such positions. It therefore is not hard to make a pretty good guess at how the golfer swung through the ball.
Comparing Rory McIlroy’s swing, we see that the direction of his motion is, on balance, down the line. The club has finished in a position where, we know, it had to come around his body, not down and over his body, and so forth. We can reason this backward all from knowing Newton’s Third Law, and a bit about human phsyiology.
Likewise, the golfer who starts to think about these ideas in this way can determine how a planned swing fix will impact his overall swing, what changes will be necessary to effect the net desired result, and where one should expect the ball to fly, on average, as a result.
Complex? Perhaps a bit. But a lot less complex than not knowing that all this goes on in every golf swing you take, every time you step onto a golf course or the driving range.
 Nick Faldo on the Swing (“You’ve Got to Use the Ground … Our only point of fixation to this planet”) Youtube Video.
 Nick Bradley, The Seven Laws of the Golf Swing (2005).