How practice builds your game
By T.J. TOMASI
Their swings are different, their backgrounds are different, and their body types aren’t all the same, either, but all the great players have one thing in common: They’ve performed years of nonstop practice that, coupled with correct information, has built a championship game. And the big news is that you already have on board the machine to drive this dynamic duo of information and practice — your brain.
That 3-pound universe that sits between your shoulders is a powerhouse problem solver with 100 billion neurons, each one with 15,000 or so fingerlike projections that reach out to one another and form neural networks that operate in nanoseconds. You are a learning machine. In fact, research by Dr. Patricia K. Kuhl at the University of Washington shows that babies begin to learn while they are inside the womb. For humans, it’s never too early to start learning.
The process of learning your golf swing (or anything else) begins when you challenge your brain by flooding it with new information. The overload creates a period of chaos that prompts your brain to add capacity to handle the new surplus. Your brain grows as you learn.
So there’s no question that you’re a lean, mean, learning machine; it’s in your genes. The point is that you have the wherewithal to play good golf — all you have to do is program in the correct information and then practice.
Positioned for power: Address and impact
By T.J. TOMASI
Even today, some antiquated instruction preaches that impact should mirror your address position, but this is obviously not correct. Three areas of major importance are illustrated in the “view down the target line” photos below: knees, hips and shoulders.
At address, in the first photo, the model’s knees are parallel left of her intended line of flight. At impact, in the second photo, her back knee has moved about 25 degrees to the left of her original line. Notice how her right heel is off the ground at impact as a consequence of this “opening up” coupled with the transfer of weight to her left foot.
At address, her hips are parallel left to her intended line of flight, but at impact, her hips are open. As evidence, only one belt loop is clearly visible at address, while at impact, we can see two. This is proof of a good release of hips that were coiled at the top, then snap open — and that spells power.
At address, her shoulders are parallel to her intended line of flight, and at impact they are open, but not nearly as rotated as her knees or hips. This is a sure sign that she has saved some of the coil she built up on her backswing for release when it counts — through impact.
Insider takeaway: To get the feel of the correct impact position and how it differs from address, sole your clubhead behind the ball, then go directly from address to impact without moving the clubhead. Now hold the position and, using a mirror, compare it to our model’s. If you see and feel the correct positions, your chances of getting there for real are greatly improved.
Drill helps put swing in sync
By T.J. TOMASI
During your swing, there’s a noticeable rotation of the forearms which, if done correctly, is coupled with the unhinging of the wrists to allow the toe of the club to catch up with the heel, thereby squaring your clubface at impact. Since good players have already committed these mechanics (the “what”) to memory, when they go wrong, the problem is usually the “when.” Timing can alter where the clubface is looking at contact.
A good drill to help you sync up your arm and torso rotation for the all-important clubface control is to tee the ball and hit 7-irons with your legs crossed. Start with a short backswing and lengthen out as you feel more comfortable, but don’t try for your normal distance. This drill is for technique, not power.
The key is to let your forearms rotate back and through in response to the swinging of your arms, and let your chest do likewise. If you hook or pull the ball, you’re over-rotating your forearms. If you slice or push it, you’re over-rotating your chest. When you can hit the ball where you’re aiming, your arms and torso are synched.
Drawing a line in the sand
By T.J. TOMASI
Despite what the photos might lead you to believe, this article isn’t about sand play. It’s about where you should start your divot for any iron.
I chose to illustrate this lesson in a fairway bunker because it’s easy to see that I picked the ball cleanly off the surface, after which my clubhead continued down and forward, so the divot starts slightly ahead of where the front of the ball used to be. Most golfers don’t do this. Far too many think they must get the club “under” the ball, a critical mistake.
A properly struck golf ball comes off the clubface spinning, so the air moving over the top of the ball produces a low-pressure flow while the air flow under the ball creates high pressure. This pressure differential causes lift; all you have to do is supply the correct amount of force and direction — and up she goes.
The opposition position
By T.J. TOMASI
Vivid mental images let your muscles know what needs to be done when you make a golf swing. To better understand how power is unleashed to the ball, picture a horse and rider moving away from a wall with one end of a 60-foot coil of rope tied to the saddle and the other end anchored securely to the wall. The horse gains speed and the rope rapidly uncoils until it suddenly goes taut and the horse stops dead in its tracks. As you can imagine, the rider is flung (released) from the saddle.
Now reverse the situation so that our horse and rider are approaching a 6-foot-high wall at full gallop and just as they get to the wall, the horse stops dead. Once again our hapless rider continues on alone as he’s catapulted over the wall.
In the first image, the wall represents your back leg; in the second, the wall is your front (target) leg. The rider is your clubhead and his separation from the horse is the release of your clubhead through the hitting zone.
Halfway through his downswing, a good player is in the “opposition position,” drawing maximum energy from the ground with both legs planted in resistance and both heels down. Measurements at this point show that energy has flowed upward from the ground, through the legs, into the lead arm, and soon it will be moving down the shaft and into the ball. Although it varies due to body and swing type, at some point, the back heel will raise as it’s pulled up and around by the energy flow.
At first, exaggerate the move by taking some swings where it feels like your trail heel stays on the ground until it’s pulled off by your body turning up and into your follow-through. Feel as if, for a fraction of a second, you’re sitting on your right knee to start the downswing.
There is one caveat here: Make sure you transfer your weight to your front hip to start the downswing. Let your weight empty into your front hip joint while keeping your right heel down — just like your ancestors learned to do to generate maximum striking power.
Two keys to power
By T.J. TOMASI
Power. Everybody needs it; everybody wants it. The question is how to create power in your golf swing, and the answer is twofold: levers and coil.
You must create levers because levers are multipliers of power. If you look at Ernie Els in the address position below, with his arms in front of his body, you will see that there are no levers, no angles of power. It’s the role of the backswing to create power angles, and the downswing to release these angles at just the right time to produce the clubhead velocity you need to hit the golf ball a long way.
Coil is the second characteristic that allows you to achieve your power potential, and as with leverage, there is no coil in the address position. Coil is a ratio produced when you set one part of your body against another, creating potential energy at the top of your swing that is ratcheted up through the levers as it is delivered to the ball.
‘Soft distance’ keeps it low
By T.J. TOMASI
When circumstances such as a low-hanging branch force you to keep the ball low, there’s a special technique that produces what I call “soft distance.” Even though the trajectory of the shot is that of a hard-to-stop long iron, the “soft-and-low” actually comes into the target with some power.
The first step is to create an image of the shot in your mind — in other words, think low. Then select two more clubs than you normally would and choke down on the handle about 2 inches.
Position the ball one ball-width back of normal, but be careful. When you move the ball back in your stance, be sure to open your stance a bit in order to realign your shoulders to the target. Also, move your weight to your front side, where it should be to produce a low shot.
The swing itself is simply a low-hands move with the weight remaining on the front side throughout the swing. Be sure, however, to turn your target shoulder behind the ball because there is a tendency, when you’re trying to keep the ball down, to just lift the arms up without turning. Unfortunately, this causes you to slap at the ball with a return swing that is too steep, creating just the opposite of what you want: a high shot.
The keys for the low shot lie in your swing rhythm and your follow-through. Most golfers hit the ball much too hard when they try to keep it low, and the excess force drives the ball up in the air. So do the opposite when you want a low shot — swing with about half power, and be sure to finish with your hands, elbows and clubhead well below your shoulders.
Last, to hit the ball low, especially if the lie is bad, increase the grip pressure in both hands a bit so the club won’t turn in your hands on contact.
Remain calm when your hands ‘disappear’
By T.J. TOMASI
It’s a frustration every golfer feels: Why does your game come and go on a seemingly random basis? One cause is the failure of your brain to track your hands after they leave your field of vision.
While you may not be consciously aware of it, your brain can easily keep track of your hands when they’re in front of you at address and follow them using your peripheral vision during the takeaway. But as your hands approach the 9 o’clock position (the ball is at 6 o’clock), they exit your visual field, forcing your brain to rely solely on its network of feel sensors scattered throughout your body.
Keeping track of your hands is important because they are the only contact you have with the club, and since they are the “feel center” of your swing, they function as the main means of tracking the clubhead. Basically, your hands are the clubhead.
Think of it this way: You start at address with your two most effective tracking systems on full go (visual and feel), and at 9 o’clock, you’ve cut your tracking information by half as your hands leave your field of vision. This is why the transition from 8 o’clock to 9 is a major breeding ground for swing error, and why, unless you practice or play a lot, feel alone is such a will-of-the-wisp foundation on which to build a consistent, repeating swing.
So it’s not unreasonable to focus some of your practice on the danger zone between 8 and 9 o’clock to make sure that the shock of your hands disappearing from your visual radar screen doesn’t trigger a code red emergency signal — the kind of warning that causes those disruptive lunges and lurches.
When you watch a good player, even one with a funky swing, what you are seeing is someone who has learned to remain calm when his hands (and by extension his clubhead) leave the visual tracking screen.
The key to calmness is to practice the transition so much that you correctly anticipate what’s going to happen, and when it does, your training carries the day. I recommend the following drill, which you should do 60 times a day for 21 consecutive days to insert it into your unconscious competence:
Close your eyes and, from your normal address position, swing your hands/club back to about waist high (8 o’clock). Since you haven’t cocked your wrists yet, you should be able to see both your hands and the clubhead in a straight line when you open your eyes.
This is the end of your takeaway, and the shaft should be parallel to the target line. If you are out of position, realign, then close your eyes again and let your brain register the feeling.
Next, do the same thing, but go to the 9 o’clock position. When you can repeat this correctly, start practicing it 60 times per day for 21 days.
Shortened swing arc reduces power
By T.J. TOMASI
Golf is a game filled with misconceptions, more so perhaps than any other game. The brain is a problem solver par excellence, yet it’s fooled when it comes to golf because you must stand to the side of the ball to play. A few examples of counterintuitive golf solutions that don’t make sense, but are correct:
1. You must hit down on the ball to get it up in the air.
2. Your shoulders swing on one plane while the hips swing on another. Golf is one of the few sports where this puzzling “double plane” is a must.
3. To stop the ball from going left, you must turn your hips to the left — in the direction you DON’T want the ball to go. But if you turn them too soon, the ball goes right. Try figuring that out without help.
4. Through impact, the hands and club handle go to the left while the clubhead goes to the target. Thus, the hands and club handle move away from the target while the clubhead moves toward the target.
5. In most other sports, our arms and body work together, but in golf the arms do the up-and-down and the body does the around, and they don’t get into each other’s business.
And then there is the mother of all puzzlements: The average golfer tries to get the clubhead onto the target line at the start of the downswing. This makes sense because that’s where the ball is, but it causes the most common swing error in golf: “over the top,” in which golfers chop abruptly downward to hit the ball as if they were killing a snake. The good player learns to do just the opposite — keep the clubhead off the target line by moving it away from the ball until the downswing is almost complete.
Takeaway: The steep, over-the-top swing angle may be good for survival skills, such as killing snakes and chopping wood, but don’t be fooled into using it for hitting golf balls.
What’s up with hitting down
By T.J. TOMASI
Every golfer has heard it a million times: “Hit down on the ball.” But this advice is often exaggerated, leading to an ultra-steep approach to the ball that destroys all chance of solid contact. To understand what’s up with hitting down, you need to understand the concept.
Down and Forward
Two directions are involved in this concept: down and forward. And while they coexist, they are not present in equal proportions at any point during the downswing.
The majority of the “down” occurs early, while the “forward” part is a small contributor. But as the downswing nears the three-fourths mark, the mix begins to change. Once the clubhead finishes the majority of its downward movement, most of its forward remains, and the arc of the clubhead begins to level out as it nears the ball.
Golfers who exclusively think “hit down” risk fouling the mix of down-and-forward by being too steep, while those who think only “hit forward” will be too shallow.
Here’s a drill that will give you the feeling of the correct mix of down and forward movement:
Lay out three tees as I have in the photo below — one at the back of the ball, one in the middle and one in front. Now hit the ball and notice where your divot is in relation to the tees.
Most golfers hit the ball fat, i.e., they hit the ground before the ball, which means their divot starts where the first tee lies, behind the ball. The second tee, in the middle of the ball, is where most decent players start their divot.
The best starting point is the tee nearest the target, in front of the ball. The only way to strike the ball correctly is to think “hit forward” at impact instead of “hit down.”
Correct swing plane is a must-have
By T.J. TOMASI
The type of grip you use (strong, weak or neutral), your posture at address and the alignment of your body are all important factors in the golf swing, but they are preferences. This shouldn’t be taken to mean that you can grip, stand or align yourself any old way. An important part of assembling a good swing is how you arrange and sequence your preferences.
But in addition to preferences there are principles, a few important rules that must be followed, no matter who you are, if your game is to prosper. One of these principles is swing plane, and, as any good teacher will attest, it is one of the most-violated swing principles in golf. Most of the time, I fix plane problems first as they are a sign of structural weakness.
In the first photo below, I’ve spun my torso around too early and the swing plane is too steep. The shaft is across my neck; it should bisect my arm where the arrow is.
To fix this, drop the butt of the club straight down to the ground as you start back to the ball as I have done in the second photo. That’s why they call it the downswing, not the around swing. Note also that my back is still facing the target as it should in the second photo.
Three separations fuel a powerful impact
Once you have coiled correctly, you are poised to release your pent-up power. This release at impact is related to three separations that occur as you start back to the ball:
- Your hands must separate from your back shoulder and move directly down toward the ground. This is an essential power lever, and it is not released until impact.
- Your front shoulder must separate from your chin, a move that aids in dropping the arms and club into the slot.
- Your front hip should shuttle forward, then turn away from the target, creating a separation between your legs.
In the accompanying photos, PGA Tour pro John Callahan is demonstrating all three of these separations, highlighted by the separation of the legs using a beach ball. Failure to make this separation usually leads to the club being pulled across the golf ball, resulting in a weak slice.
In the first photo, John is fully coiled. His shoulders have turned twice as much as his hips over a braced right leg. Swinging in this manner, he can easily hold the beach ball between his knees.
In the second photo, he has achieved the so-called “sit-down” position caused by his knees separating. Note that he has maintained the 90-degree angle between the shaft and his left arm.
The stop-action photo allows us to check out this sit-down action with regard to his hips, too. A club shaft placed across his thighs would point parallel left of the target, indicating that while there has been a shift of weight to his front hip, the hips have only slightly rotated, with most of the motion being a shuttle toward the target. From here he is ready to rotate through the hitting area and deliver a powerful blow from inside the target line.
Slot is supreme
By T.J. TOMASI
No rocket scientist will tell you ignition is the most important part of launching a rocket, yet it is ignition that gets the public’s attention. The same is true of the “ignition” of the golf ball — impact. But all the important work must already have been done by that point for the swing to be successful; impact is a result.
The closer you get to impact, the less chance you have of adjusting for error, so while impact is the point at which the flight information is dumped to the ball, it’s basically out of your control. The most important part of your swing is the slotting of the club because you can control how you arrive at this point. Slot the club correctly and you have to work hard to make a mistake at impact.
When your swing gets off, the first place you see its effects is in the transition from backswing to forward swing. The key is to make sure you give your club time to change directions and drop into the slot.
During the transition, your clubhead not only reverses its direction, but if you give it enough time, it will also drop down before it starts toward the target. This slight deepening of the clubhead just as you start down puts it in a perfect position to come at the ball from inside the target line, an approach that ensures a powerful striking angle.
Initially, instead of trying to focus on slotting at full swing speed, proceed in slow motion in front of a mirror. Seeing yourself slot the club as you tell yourself why it’s so important will speed learning.