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In our prior lesson, we talked about the positions of the club relative to the body that allow one to build up the most energy or speed or what-you-would-like-to-call-it, in the swing. Here we discuss a subject that really precedes that discussion — the two key elements of power in a swing.
Building Up Power
The first aspect of applying energy to the ball is building up power. A professor friend uses the analogy, in his sport of choice, of taking spoon fulls of water, one by one, carrying them up a hill, and putting them into a reservoir that is dammed. This is a form of storing potential energy, for when the dam is opened and the water falls back down, a tremendous amount of energy is released. (If you want proof, stand at the bottom of a dam when 100,000 gallons of water comes out all at once. I am guessing you’d be crushed – literally.)
This phenomenon occurs all the time around us. We push back a spring. All that effort was to store the energy in the spring. When it is released, a powerful force is let go.
The storing of “potential energy” takes on many forms. In golf, that energy is built up when the clubhead is pulled down from the top of the backswing to the point of release or letting the wrists unhinge. (Note: “Letting” may not be exactly the correct word, since in general most golfers have build up so much energy in the clubhead rotating around the body that their wrists will be forced to unhinge. However, if you can hold back on the unhinging, and then “release” the wrists, you will get more power delivered to the ball, as we shall see below.)
This picture of Sergio just before release is a still shot of a golfer in a position where the clubhead has a tremendous amount of energy built up. In fact, something around 85% of clubhead speed is generated by this point, which is a topic for another time. The faster one can get the clubhead moving up to this point, the greater the energy that will be delivered to the ball, all other things being equal.
If one were to look at the picture above from a different angle, one would see that Sergio’s hands are nearly even with the ball (looked at face-on). This means that his hands will travel a very short distance from here on, and the clubhead will travel a great distance. Why? Because he is going to stop his hands, in effect, and let his wrists give up their hold back on the club, which will cause the club head to, in some sense, snap into the ball.
There are two points to this action. It is useful to separate them out.
One is that Sergio has a tremendous amount of energy in his rotating body. If he stops it (posts up his leg, stops his hands), then that energy (momentum in fact) must go somewhere, and it will go into the clubhead. This adds some power (momentum) to the clubhead. As we said above, the clubhead reaches about 85% of its maximum speed by this point in the downswing. This action is how it gains additional speed. Some people call this conservation of angular momentum. In short, the whole system (club + hands + arms + body) has momentum, and it must stay constant. If the body + hands + arms stop suddenly (posting up, stopping the hands), that momentum has to go somewhere. It goes to the club.
The other thing that will increase the power (momentum) of the clubhead is the time over which this action occurs. It relates to an equation in physics that relates time, power, and work. If one release energy over a shorter amount of time, says this equation, you will get more power.
In golf lingo, the longer you can delay the release, and the quicker you can transfer the energy into the clubhead (the more abruptly you stop the body), the more energy you will get into the ball. (There are other constraints, such as applying the clubhead squarely to the ball that limit how fast one can do this advisedly … but otherwise one wants to make this release as quick as possible.) Pull down hard, then snap the wrists, in some sense.
To see that this is true, consider the opposite. Imagine someone very lazily letting the club release. Well, one can do that, and knows that you will not get the same “pop” at the moment of impact. The more time you take to release your built-up energy, the less you will increase the power of the clubhead.
Both are important
As this discussion should make clear, it is not one or the other that maximizes the delivery of power (momentum) to the ball. It is both. Take an extreme example. Move the club back two inches, and cock it. Then pull back down two inches and “release.” Well, of course, since one has not built up all that “potential energy” anyone knows that the power you can deliver to the ball is minimal. Just as, noted in the preceding paragraph, anyone knows that a lazy release of the clubhead will not result in a long ball flight.
We will try to understand these ideas a bit better in future discussions. For now, however, it is important to understand this is what is at work, and it is all that is at work. Failing to understand these two basic parts of getting power into the ball leads to all kinds of confusion – confusion which results in all kinds of swing faults because people are trying to hit the ball as far as they can without really understanding what it is that maximizes the speed of the clubhead at impact. If you don’t know, it’s going to be very hard to get the most out of your swing — except by luck and then one will never have the foundation upon which to build and understand and make corrections when things have seemed to go awry.
1. One should understand that, while we discuss here the general outline of how power is created in the golf swing in its essential parts, some variables are excluded that would have an impact on the speed imparted to a golf ball, for example, how squarely contact is made. One therefore should understand the discussion as part of an overall discussion of the swing and not as advice on the mechanics of how to swing a club.
2. There are some fine points one could discuss. The discussion above is, however, the heart of the matter. Please feel free to email any questions. We will come back to the subject again.
In honor of Mr. Venturi, I have found this montage of slow motion swings, which includes him, Palmer, Player, and Byron Nelson — in the days where slow motion meant the swing looked like it was slow.
Several years ago, the wife of an economist friend – she a piano teacher – told me that if one watches all sports there is a rhythm to the motions of the best athletes. Of course, I found it to be an interesting, and eye-opening, observation, clearly a very astute woman. I believe that the montage does tribute to the elegance, grace and timing of Mr. Venturi’s great swing. It is also one of the better visual lessons I have seen in a long time — good for all of us to watch:
God rest his soul.
This is an introduction to a familiar debate in golf: whether to try to die the ball at the hole on your putts (e.g., Nicklaus’ preference) or to try to give it enough force to go 17 inches by in case it misses (the “engineering” solution Pelz tells us drops the most putts).
We all have our own putting weaknesses, and it is most likely profitable to analyze our patterns before trying set up any general rule about how close to the hole one wants to be. Having said that, there is something to said for a variety of views. Of course, a putt that is short can’t go in. We know that. That will turn out to be a point of note, but not for the obvious reason, “never up, never in.”
When one thinks about the problem methodically, three main factors come into play. One is the desire to use the “entire hole,” which will give the ball the best chance of dropping. We discussed this, complete with illustrations, last year in the post, “The Faster you Putt, the Smaller the Hole.”
The second factor of importance is variability. The more consistently you can judge your stroke, the more routine it is, the less variability you will have in your distance judgments; and conversely. We will see how variability enters into the equation of whether to try to die the ball at the hole or putt some distance by.
The last factor of importance is, of all things, direction. Not only can a putt that never reaches the hole not go in. But a putt that starts off-line, can never fall into the cup. That much is obvious. What is less obvious is the trade-off between this factor and the other two factors, using the entire cup, and variance.
In our next parts of this lesson: understanding in turn direction, variance, and using the entire cup before pulling it together with a practical application of the principles we learn.
Editor Note: Mr. Pelz is an engineer and a fine one. In many circles there has been an attempt to minimize much of what he has brought to the game of golf. This is disappointing. If one reads the USGA rules process on square grooves, one realizes that a lot of engineering and technical thought went into it. I personally am disappointed that we have seen no similar approach with the belly putter. People hurl claims back and forth, almost like epithets, and yet no real systematic thought or methodology has been brought to an issue that cries out for it. Is it really an advantage, sometimes an advantage, only an advantage in some conditions or for certain players, or only a mythical advantage? Could some players be better with it than a standard putter, while others are better the other way around? We have no idea. The USGA and R&A have not given us any information, which is how these things, in this day and age should be decided. Lawyers can debate ad nauseum what a “stroke” is. To me, such discussions are rather pointless.
There is a problem I have with engineering approaches — or perhaps developing rules of thumb about best practices from experimentation. One needs to reason first from principles of physics and mathematics to have some hypothesis of what might work better, why, and when. Only through a principled structure do people really learn how to adapt; a purely experimental one tends to lead to mechanical thoughts about how one should play golf, and golf is fun precisely because it is so complex — no two situations are ever alike.
Is there such a thing as a theoretical engineer? I think, to those who know engineers, scientists, and mathematicians, the question answers itself. I, however, digress. And have you ever tried to play a round with an engineer?
In any event, appropriate kudos to Mr. Pelz for attempt to bring some rigor to the way we conceive of golf. It is easy enough to criticize. The path to knowledge, however, comes from starting down the right road, not from supposing that there is an end to that road or that all knowledge on even a fairly simple subject like the one we discuss here is possible to summarize in writing.
[Ed. Note: Most of our lessons are about the physical side of golf. But some of the math in golf is not about how the ball bounces down the fairway; it is about how we end up adding up the lowest score after our round. (A gambler would understand this, but we won’t go there. This is a family site.) Some might think of this as optimal strategy. As we stated at the outset, however, the most important lesson to remind oneself of is the need for consistency. To play your best golf, everyone needs it. This is another in that series, which will repeat every so often as a reminder, discussing different aspects of the issue.]
I could not put these ideas better myself. They are ideas any pro should have in their own mind, and, if a teaching pro, should put in the mind of those players whom he teaches.
All credit due to Jim Flick in this Golf Digest article. I therefore will not try to elaborate and will let you read for yourself. Without confidence, consistency is impossible as a practical matter.