Three Dimensional Problems in Golf: What Is a Golf Swing? (Lesson 8, Part 1)

Garcia when the ball is on its way.

Garcia when the ball is on its way.

About this site: Golf as God Gave It To Us

Introduction

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.

Bradley is having some trouble with that third dimension here

Bradley is having some trouble with that third dimension here

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.

Explantion

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.)

Note how the left-handed man has his wrist bent back and how he holds the hammer.

Note how the left-handed man has his wrist bent back and how he holds the hammer before taking a whack at the nail.

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.”

Notice in this picture how Nicklaus' right arm is fully extended AFTER the ball is on its way, and the right wrist has fully unhinged AFTER the ball is well on its well.

Notice in this picture how Nicklaus’ right arm is fully extended AFTER the ball is on its way, and the right wrist has fully unhinged AFTER the ball is well on its well.

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.

Will someone please tell me how Sergio gets from this position to impact?

Will someone please tell me how Sergio gets from this position to impact?

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.

Now that is a three-dimensional picture.

Now that is a three-dimensional picture.  Where can we buy this software?

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.”)

If we only had to worry about the right side of our equation, life would be much simpler.

If we only had to worry about the right side of our equation, life would be much simpler.

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.

Conclusion

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.

No one ever said that playing golf would be having a party . . .

No one ever said that playing golf would be having a party . . .

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.

A. Einstein

A. Einstein

A. Einstein

Notes:

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.

Ali after felling Liston, 1965

Ali after felling Liston, 1965

 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.

Do we think they are really concerned with the line she is choosing for her next putt?

Do we think they are really concerned with the line she is choosing for her next putt?

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.

Ortiz can generate more power with his swing because he does not have to come over the ball with his trailing (left) arm.

Ortiz can generate more power with his swing because he does not have to come over the ball with his trailing (left) arm.

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.

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