ON GOLF—Lesson 2

The Downswing

Well, I assume that you now have mastered the gentler aspects of the golf swing…the grip, the stance, the “takeaway”, and the pause at the top of the backswing. We are now ready to move into the violent areas, i.e., the downswing where you actually strike the ball!

There are a few things to mention before getting into the actual mechanics of the movement. First, I preach the use of the shoulders and hips to generate “the swing”, not the arms. We’ll explain this in a bit more depth, later.

Also, you should not be moving your body back and forth during the actual swing. In order to check this while practicing, face away from the sun so that you can see your shadow, and place a tee or other small object at the top of the shadow of your head. Then, go through the swing and make sure your head’s shadow is maintaining its position relative to the tee. The core of the swing is ROTATION, not a LUNGE. If your head (and thus your shoulders and body) are moving to the right of the tee on the backswing, and forward to the left of the tee on the downswing, then you will have significant problems in returning the clubhead to the same spot from which it began its trip. You will probably hit a few inches behind the ball, or hit the top of the ball. Remember, I emphasized controlling extraneous, unneeded movements in Lesson 1; this is more of the same.

Okay, we have you with the club at the top of the swing; you’ve reached that position by rotating your shoulders until they are perpendicular to the desired line of flight. As you rotated them, you made sure that the club head was moving straight back from the ball, and low, until the turning motion made the hands and arms go up to the position described in Lesson 1. The side of your left wrist is straight, not hinged, and your left arm is straight and the elbow locked. Note that your hips have also rotated along with the shoulders; you are now ready to commit mayhem on that innocent sphere resting before you.

Your first move back to the ball is with a rotation of your left hip and simultaneously your left shoulder. DO NOT TRY TO STEER THE CLUB WITH YOUR HANDS AND ARMS, LET THE SHOULDER AND HIP ROTATION DO THE WORK! As you make this move, the torque generated by the moving club head will automatically snap the wrists, which you had “cocked” on the backswing. You really don’t have to think about doing it.

At the same time, the rotation should be shifting your weight to your left side; this is very important. One of the biggest faults that beginners have is that they keep their weight on their right leg and try to “swing up” at the ball to get it into the air. They usually top the ball, slice the shot if they make any kind of decent contact, or some other wretched result. They usually say something, if not a curse, like “I looked up before I hit the ball”. Actually, in all my teaching I’ve never seen someone “look up”, what really happens is that they drop their right shoulder while trying to swing up at the ball, not shifting their weight.

A small anecdote—when I was working as a ranger at the fancy golf club in Jackson Hole, James Wolfensohn, at that time President of the World Bank and a club member, often invited colleagues to spend the weekend. On one occasion, he and Alan Greenspan were playing along with the requisite body guard clinging to the rear of the cart. Greenspan was one of those who doesn’t shift weight throughout the swing; he always looked like he was swinging “up hill.” Wolfensohn was a better golfer, but still not great. The next summer I mentioned to Mr. W. that I was pleased to see that he and Greenspan evidently didn’t spend a lot of time on the golf course, given that between them they controlled most of the money in the world. But I asked, “When you and he play for a quarter a hole, is that a real quarter or is that a quarter point on the prime rate? He chuckled and replied, “Alan is coming out next month, perhaps  I’ll suggest it”. I further note that the next month, the prime rate dropped a quarter of a point—–I wonder?

A word about striking the ball—with your irons, you should be striking the ball ON THE DOWNSWING; and with your driver and “woods” have a sweeping motion. Those horizontal lines on the irons’ clubface merge with the dimples on the ball’s surface, and with the downswing impart backspin and height to the shot. Watch the pros; they take a bit of sod with each of their iron shots, called a divot; it starts where the ball was sitting and goes forward from there. The club was descending when it hit the ball, and continued a bit further into the ground; hence, the resulting divot. Once you have become fairly adept at controlling the club on the downswing, you can get more height on your iron shots by playing the ball forward from the usual spot, and can hit lower shots like under a tree limb, by moving the ball back in your address.

Here’ something else—take your club in your right hand, and make a slow, complete swing. You will note that with that right hand in control, the clubhead gets near to the “hitting zone” probably about a foot or so behind the ball’s position. But just about the time it gets to the ball, it wants to start up and your right arm wants to move the club around to your left side, away from the hitting zone and the ball.  Now, do the same thing but with the left hand and arm. You will see that the clubhead is just getting to the hitting zone when it reaches the ball, and is able to stay low to the ground beyond the ball, after hitting it. This is why the weight shift is so important, and why we want you to keep that “damned right hand” out of the shot. Beginners, as well as high handicappers, think they have to steer the club with their right hand when in fact they shouldn’t be driving the club through the swing with their hands, at all. If anything, they might think about “pulling” the club through with the left; that keeps the clubface square to the desired line of flight, when coupled with the shoulder and hip turn.

You might think about bringing the club head from “inside” the line as it descends, and imagine that you’re “swinging out” at the ball. This might either create a nice draw, or a straight shot. After you learn control, you will be able to “shape” some of your shots. In any event, this allows or encourages you to extend the arms through the shot, finishing with the hands and clubshaft wrapped about the shoulder-neck area. This extension increases your clubhead speed, and thus provides more power and distance to the shot.

A word about tempo. Most good golfers don’t appear to be swinging particularly fast, and they aren’t. They are generating clubhead speed with their rhythm and tempo, timing is more important than a major lunge at the ball. Sometimes they forget; I have seen a person who has been considered to be the best golfer in the world for much of the last decade, sometimes dip his body and lunge at the ball on his tee shots. On those occasions, he usually is having a very bad day with his drives; when he doesn’t do that motion he is highly consistent and accurate. Again, watch the pros, many of them appear to be in slow motion. If you happen to be using graphite shafted clubs, you will have to swing more slowly in order to allow the shaft to “kick in” and provide the desired extra power that graphite contributes. If you swing too fast with these shafts, the clubhead will have struck the ball before the shaft snaps into the shot, thus robbing you of some desired distance. I’ve found that graphite shafted clubs hit about 10 yds. further than their steel shafted counterparts. Generally, it is considered to be about 10 yds. difference between clubs as one goes through the numbers, e.g., a 6-iron will hit about 10 yds. farther than a 7-iron, but not as high. And a graphite-shafted 7-iron will hit about as far as a steel-shafted 6-iron.

Another thing that affects your distance is the elevation of your golf course. I recall playing at Pebble Beach, which is at sea level. I had been living at 7000 feet in Carbon County, Wyoming, and found that the ball doesn’t go as far at lower elevations. In fact, there appeared to be about 15 yds. difference between the distance I could hit, with the same club! Although I was playing well at that time in my life, I continually left my shots to the green short of the target at Pebble Beach, not knowing which club to use. I shot a 92 from the back tees, mostly because I was having to chip on to the greens and usually two-or three-putted on the unfamiliar grass.

Well, now you should be ready to bring the golf course to its knees, pleading for mercy. If you follow these instructions, you no longer will have to file an Environmental Impact Statement with the EPA, prior to teeing off. Our next lesson will be on The Short Game, where most of your strokes are made and where the greatest improvement in your scores can be achieved. And where I currently have a lot of trouble!

Always Be Happy!

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