The Physical Challenge of Golf

The Search for Power and Accuracy

December 18, 2005

Hitting a golf ball well, or hitting a golf ball consistently well, has to be one of the most difficult things in the world of sports; maybe the most difficult thing. Most athletic endeavors put a premium on either power or finesse, either strength or accuracy. Golf’s full swing requires all of that and more. The challenge is that we have to use those warped sticks we call golf clubs not just to hit the ball a long ways, but to hit it to relatively small targets. Doing this well, and often, is a physical achievement equivalent to the high-speed movie antics of Jackie Chan.

The first job of the golfer’s body is to pass energy to the ball to move it forward. Just getting the ball to move takes a highly coordinated series of movements. This is where people who study bio-mechanics use terms like “kinetic linking”, and “sequencing”, and “stretch reflex”.  Basically, this means that we rotate and coil the body to provide momentum to the arms and club, and eventually to the ball.

To create distance, a golfer must produce clubhead speed; and the clubhead speed only counts at impact. So we swing the clubhead on a wide arc by turning the body and swinging the arms, add a lever for power (which is a fancy way of saying we cock the wrists), and increase the speed by uncoiling of the body in a particular sequence (use the lower body to unwind the upper body, etc.)—all without any “power leaks” before impact.

To do this requires strength in the hips, core muscles (abs, obliques, and back), forearms, and hands. It requires great neurological skill—awareness, timing, and coordination of all the moving parts. And that is not all.

All the clubhead speed in the world is worthless if we do not put the clubface on the ball, which means we have to produce speed while maintaining stability. If I lose balance during a swing, if the planes of my club or arms suffer, if my spine moves too much, or if my arms and hands over-manipulate the club, the contact on the clubface will be off-center, and the clubhead speed I created will be wasted. There will not be enough energy transferred to the ball.

In other words, I have to get my body and club really moving, without really moving my body. No problem. It is kind of like throwing a hard punch while standing on a basketball.

So, we golfers have to produce clubhead speed and solid contact to get the ball moving forward. But that is not the only challenge. Distance is just the first dimension of ball flight. We also have to control the direction.

Controlling the direction is largely a matter of face angle and swing path. This means that, by impact, I have to get the face of the club and the path to interact in a way that either produces a fairly straight shot, or at least creates a shape that still brings the ball to my target. Another easy task, right?

Getting good direction from a ball is not so much a question of strength as stability. Getting the club moving on a good and consistent plane through the swing makes for a good path through the ball; this means I need to limit the movement of the hands, arms, and spine or else the shaft will move through multiple planes—which makes it difficult for the club to move, give or take, towards the target at impact. And extra moving parts are likely to make the clubface rotate out of position as well. Poor path and poor clubface angle rarely add up to exciting golf shots.

So we have to use our strength, coordination, timing, and stability to create distance and directional control. Then there is a third dimension to ball flight — trajectory. But that is another story (and not quite as dependent on our physical abilities).

Long and short, it is no easy task to hit a golf ball well. On top of some natural ability, it helps to have a level of physical fitness when it comes to things like strength, flexibility, and balance; and then, ideally, there will be endless hours of practice to learn the skills specific to swinging a golf club. It is a lot to ask. But that is golf, and the challenge is part of the game’s allure.

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