Talking Heads

Misconceptions About Keeping the Head Down

May 22, 2005

When it comes to the golf swing, one of the most talked about body parts is the head. The piece of advice that you hear repeatedly is, “Keep your head down.” This is golf’s equivalent of an apple a day to keep the doctor away. Unfortunately, a lot of the time this remedy is like taking cough syrup to treat a hangnail– it is nasty to take, and does not help the problem.
When a golfer gets the club shaft traveling in too flat of a plane, too much inside-out, there is a good chance that the clubhead will not make it down to the ball enough to achieve that flush, solid, “trapped” feeling at impact. The ball goes scurrying off to the right and is lucky to get airborne. “Keep your head down,” says the playing partner.

head1Coming into impact, another golfer flips his wrists sideways, trying to generate a few extra yards on the shot with his dominant right hand. But this hand action makes the clubhead move past its low-point too soon, and when it reaches the ball it makes contact above the equator, sending the ball rolling off the tee again, this time maybe to the left. “You’re pulling up your head,” says the playing partner.

Another golfer has a habit of tilting his spine away from the target during the downswing. This lowers the right shoulder and takes the clubhead into the ground behind the ball. Over time the golfer instinctively starts shrugging his shoulders and slightly pulling upward from the elbows so that he can make contact. When he gets carried away with his compensation he tops the ball, and his partner says, “You looked up too early.”

So the head takes the blame for all sorts of swing ailments, even when it had little or nothing to do with the actual problem. And as a result, golfers stick their chins down to their chests and keep their eyes glued to the spot where the ball started, looking up sometime after impact to ask which way it went. I usually answer that question with another: “When was the last time you saw a tour player keep his head frozen like that after impact, then turn to his caddy and ask where the ball went?” Never.

Keeping the head locked in place for the entire swing damages the swing at best, and at worst could damage the golfer’s back or neck. First of all, dropping the chin towards the chest bends the top of the spine, decreasing a golfer’s ability to rotate the shoulders. An exaggerated effort to keep the head down also causes the swing to come to an unnatural, sudden stop that makes the swing look like self-induced whiplash rather than the relaxed, flowing finish of a tour player. The body will not appreciate a high number of such swings.

Even when the head comes up during a golfer’s swing, I prefer the phrase, “You came out of posture.” After all, it is not like the head just popped off the shoulders, which presumably causes more problems than a thin golf shot. And a lot of the time, the tendency to lift the head is an instinctive correction for what is about to be a “fat” hit behind the ball. If a player tries really hard to keep his head down, he might end up chunking the shot which is usually worse than the bladed shot he was trying to avoid. In this case, there needs to be an adjustment of the shaft angle on the approach into the ball before the golfer will have any luck keeping his head down.

As for rotation of the head, I like to look at David Duval and Annika Sorenstam, who were the top players in the world at one time. In both of their swings, the head can be seen rotating to face the target even before impact. They certainly do not keep their heads frozen in the starting position through impact. As long as they stay in posture, with a quiet spine, it is not a big head2deal for the head to rotate with the swing, especially on the way through the ball.

In fact, I like to have golfers turn their heads with their chests as a drill. Ideally, the shoulders will rotate in relation to the spine like a “T”. They will rotate perpendicular to the spine. Taking practice swings with the head rotating in unison with the shoulders and chest sometimes allows a golfer to sense a smooth, free flowing swing, and helps keep the shoulders turning properly in relation to the spine. If the shoulders turn in a goofy angle, they will tend to make the neck bend rather than rotate.

It is possible that some people would benefit from the bigger shoulder turn they could generate if they let their head rotate slightly in the direction of the backswing. The idea of keeping the eyes glued on the ball might be overrated anyways—a recent scientific study found that golfers who putt well generally watch the putter-head for part of the stroke, and a spot in front of the ball for part of the stroke. In the full swing, it might be more beneficial for some golfers to generate a large shoulder turn than to keep the eyes religiously fixated on the ball. A little bit of head rotation could be a good thing in certain cases.

It seems that the head takes the blame for a lot of poor shots, even when there is a different cause (too flat of a plane); the head takes the blame when it rises to “fix” another problem (too steep of a plane); and the advice to keep the head down often leads to new problems (restricting the turn).

So the common advice to keep your head down might be the wrong solution to the wrong problem. In general, a small amount of lateral head movement will not hurt the swing; a little bit of head rotation during the swing probably will not hurt; even a very limited amount of posture change will not be too bad (notice that good players tend to drop a tiny bit during the downswing); but sticking the chin in the chest and keeping the head fixed in one position might damage more than the swing. As we all know, in golf the real trick when it comes to the head is controlling what goes on inside.

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