Simplify the Swing

By Connecting the Arms and Body

October 13, 2005

One thing you never hear is that golf, or hitting a golf ball well, is easy. Sure, tour players sometimes make it look easy, but the elite golfers hit hundreds of thousands, even millions of balls during their careers to get that way. And most have coaches to make sure their practice focuses on things that actually make them better.

The trick for the average player, who has to punch a clock rather than practice punch shots, is to make the swing simple. It probably will never be easy, but the simpler the swing is, the more consistent the shots; and the swing will hold up better without a lot of range time.

A lot of golfers struggle to consistently hit good golf shots because their arms and body do not work together. As the shoulders rotate, the arms can swing up and down, like a person might swing an axe. The arms can also swing around the body, which means they are rotating more than the shoulders.

simplify1There are great golfers, even tour players, whose arms behave like this. Swinging the arms up during the backswing, or wrapping them around the body, potentially adds power to the swing. But these movements also require more coordination, better timing, and a lot more practice.

The average golfer usually achieves better results and more consistency by minimizing the use of the arms. The swing becomes simpler if the arms stay close to the upper chest (meaning they do not swing up very much), and if the arms only rotate as far around as the shoulders.

One common phrase I use at the driving range when working with a golfer is, “Hit it with rotation”, or “Hit it with your turn.” This means that the most important part of the swing is the rotation of the body. The arms should “ride” the body, and go where the body tells them to go. Most golfers fight the instinct to pull the club away with the arms, to swing the arms as far and wide as possible, and then to thrust the arms violently through the hitting area.

The downside of all the extra action from the arms is that the club will move through multiple planes during the swing, and the clubface will become unstable. It becomes very difficult to make solid contact and control the direction of golf shots, especially if the golfer hits fewer than 500 balls per day.

There might also be troublesome secondary effects when the arms get “disconnected” from the body. The force of the arms and club swinging upward in the backswing often causes the spine to start rocking or dipping in various directions, especially when the golfer has less than ideal upper-body flexibility; too much lifting often leads to a “reverse tilt”, when the spine tilts toward the target in the backswing, which creates pulled shots and poor contact. Players who pull the club away primarily with the arms (rather than letting the club go back as a result of the shoulder turn) sometimes dip their upper body towards the ball; they will tend to hit behind the ball, and occasionally hit the dreaded shank.

simplify2There are two drills I use frequently to help golfers simplify their swing by uniting the arms and body, and by minimizing the use of the arms. I will have golfers put a bungee cord around their upper bodies, over the arms, and hit wedge shots. While this exaggeratedly limits the use of the arms, it helps golfers feel the rotation of the body as the primary source of the swing. After a short adjustment period, golfers generally hit the ball 80 to 100 percent of their normal distance—but much straighter and more solidly.

A similar drill uses a towel across the chest and under both arms. The golfer rotates through the shot and tries not to drop the towel, which keeps the arms and body connected.

If a golfer addresses the ball with the spine and club shaft at good angles, and then hits the ball primarily by rotating the shoulders on the spine, the club will tend to move through the swing in one plane. This means less clubface rotation, better contact, better directional control, and better golf shots overall—with less effort. When it comes to hitting golf balls, simpler is better.

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