Lee Trevino described Jack Nicklaus as longer than Tiger Woods. It is hard to doubt. The PGA at one time held a driving contest prior to the PGA Championship. In 1963, Nicklaus hit a ball 341 yards – a ballata ball with a persimmon driver. In technical terms, back in the day, the coefficient of restitution (the degree to which a ball rebounds off a club face) was about .69. Now it is .83. IBM began keeping track of driving statistics in 1968. Nicklaus averaged 275 yards. (He also hit 75 percent of greens. In the last five years, the leader on the Tour has average 71 percent.) Nicklaus was in a slump from 1967 to 1969. In the 1964 Masters, Nicklaus had 160 yards on his second shot into 15 (then playing at 500 yards) and hit driver-eight iron to reach the green in two. This is the type of play that led Bobby Jones to say “he plays a game with which I am not familiar.” That is power.
We will start the new year with that most important of subjects to almost all golfers. All golfers want to hit if farther. Men may, in their swings, even be victim to this desire, letting it ruin their consistency. And you can tell golfers all day long that the short game is the quickest way to improve scores; show them that Tiger out putts other golfers to win, and they still want to hit it as far as Tiger.
The problem is that very few people understand what produces ball speed, or, one step away, power or swing speed. In fact, it is a surprisingly under-studied subject given how much golfers want to hit the ball far. Technique designed to produce power in sports like baseball and soccer is better understood. One hears statements like “Swing slow and steady.” “Swing smooth.” “Trying to swing harder can cause you to swing slower” from teaching professionals and in golf magazines. These statements are just not accurate. You may hit it farther because you swing slower, but you certainly will not do so because you have brought more power to your swing.
What does all this mean? How we make sense of it. In the posts on this subject, we will include some addenda for those curious about some of the finer ‘mathematical’ detail but the goal is to make the ideas here completely transparent. Every regular golfer should know the principles we are about to discuss. Every teaching professional should know these principles like she knows the back of her hand.
How we will break down the subject.
There are three parts to the equation, factoring out issues that affect distance but are not really about clubhead and ball speed at impact. The first two of those relate to conservation of angular momentum, and fairly well know by those who “know.” The last part of the equation is understood by almost no one except to the extent one can say someone who does something understands it. In the course of discussing what produces power, we will also discuss some of the factors in a swing that can promote enhancing the two main factors.
Conservation of Angular Momentum
We can think of the club head as a weight that will strike the ball if everything is lined up correctly. Our object is to send the club head into the ball with as much energy as possible. To get there, our body twists around the spine, roughly, in a circular motion, and the clubhead orbits around a center point roughly in the center of our chest.
Before we can get to the point of explaining “conservation of angular momentum,” we must understand that building up that energy depends upon making the clubhead orbit as fast as we can, up to a point that we shall discuss later, often called the release. A professor friend calls this point the point at which we turn “potential energy,” a physics term, into actual energy. Examples of other places in which this is done is when we push a spring back to a fully loaded position; or when water flowing down a river is damned (the point of release equal to letting it run through the damn, perhaps turning a turbine that will generate electricity).
In some sense, we want to pull down as hard as is possible. to get the clubhead orbiting around the body as fast as, well, humanly possible.
In fact, as some of these pictures show, a golfer can pull down so hard on the club that the shaft bends considerably. I have a picture that I will post in a subsequent post. It shows Tiger with a three wood in about the position of Sergio above, except that the shaft of the three wood looks more like a noodle than in any of the photos above. It is quite remarkable.
Now, you say, we don’t “pull down.” Well, it is true that we don’t pull straight down. It is more like swinging a bat. It would be more accurate to say that we want to pull around an axis running through our body as fast as we possibly can, without losing the control necessary to strike the ball squarely and solidly (since failing to do so will greatly diminish all that effort we had — even a slightly glancing blow will reduce power more than any added energy we can put into our downswing in trying to speed up the clubhead.)
To motivate the reader, you should know that it is no accident that the angle of the lower leg with the upper leg, and the position relative to striking the ball, in the photograph at right of David Beckham about to kick a soccer ball is completely parallel to the position in which one sees Tiger and Sergio in the photos above. Just as Tiger, Rory, and Sergio have reached a stage where they have built up a tremendous amount of “potential energy” for release into the ball, so has Beckham. The mechanics of this first part of the golf swing and soccer kick are different, but they do have analogs. Likewise, the picture at left of Giants’ pitcher Tim Lincecum shows exactly the same relationship.
If I posted a picture of a field goal kicker, it would be no accident that one sees the same right angles created and the same semi-circular movement of that object that is about to propel the ball, in the relevant sport, hard and fast in a direction the golfer/player/pitcher wants. I will leave, for now, the pictures to speak for themselves.
The point I am making with the photo is to get clear in the reader’s mind that one is first and foremost trying to pull the clubhead around, in a circle, one’s body as fast as possible — consistent with not losing control of the clubhead’s position relative to the actions that must follow to hit the ball.
One professional told me he was taught to feel as though he was driving a stake into the ground. I think this gives one a slightly different feel than one is looking for, but the concept of power is the same. That however is a fine point.
Having a clear picture in one’s mind of what one is doing to get that power is what is important.
Swinger slower does not lead to more power. The object is to make the club head orbit around one’s body as fast as possible, up to a certain point in the downswing. Any movement that is not directed to increasing that speed will improve distance only if it is focused on ensuring a square delivery of the club head to the ball. Then, if slower but directed to a squarer delivery of the clubhead to the ball, it will not increase power (or potential energy) itself; it will increase the degree to which that power is efficiently applied to the ball.
So far so simple. I hope.
In our next discussion, we shall discuss a couple common misconceptions about this part of the swing — building up “potential energy.” We shall do so in the context of discussion “extension” and its role in generating power; the reason for a right angle between club and arm or the role of “lag” in generating power; and how best to pull the club around to maximize its speed at the right moment, about which one hears a few statements about proper technique, all directed toward this particular end of the swing.