[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.