Step 4. Understand The Purpose of the Golf Swing: the Fundamentals of Ball Contact And Flight Path.
As one who started the game late in life, but then studied hard to improve, I am surprised at the typical approach to teaching by golf professionals. (This is a generalization, I know, but does reflect my own experience and just about every book I've read aimed at the beginning golfer.) Certainly most golf professionals and authors of instruction books start with "the swing," which includes grip, set up, back swing, down swing and follow through. In other words, how to hold the club, address the ball, and then hit it.
To novices this certainly seems the right place to begin. People new to golf want to swing the club, not (in the beginning) read some book or study some diagrams. The initiate has probably swung the club many times, and found that the ball seldom goes where intended. So of course formal teaching should start with "show me how to swing the club." And this is the typical sequence in which "The Swing" is taught.
Setup (including posture, ball position, and alignment)
What could possibly be wrong starting out with these all important fundamentals? What could be more basic than the grip? Everyone acknowledges that without a proper grip you can't play the game. And everyone acknowledges that without proper setup you can't hit effective shots. Obviously beginners need to learn the grip and proper setup.
But as a one time golf hacker, and now a student of the game, I can tell you that along with the basic elements of swing mechanics should be taught the fundamentals of ball contact and ball flight.
Movement of the ball through space is entirely dependent on rather simple laws of physics. Hit the ball a certain way and it will go in some specific direction, always. The beginning player needs to understand these fundamentals: why a ball goes straight, or left or right, or high or low. Only then can he or she appreciate what the swing is for, and learn from the errant shots that will inevitably occur.
There are four fundamentals of ball contact, and they govern where the ball goes:
That's it. That's all there is, except for environmental factors (wind speed and direction, air pressure [altitude]) and the physical makeup of the golf ball itself). While of concern to top players, environmental factors and ball composition are not germane to improving the novice's game (and are seldom the reason for poor shots in any case). Thus, for practical purposes, the four fundamentals of ball contact will determine the path and distance of EVERY SHOT you take.
Here is one example of 9 different shots referenced to the target line, which is straight down the middle. This graphic is taken from the excellent Dave Tutelman golf site. Note that:
If you don't understand these fundamentals you won't understand why you make such bad shots. This is the biggest problem with golf teaching today - it is not balanced between emphasis on swing mechanics and the fundamentals of ball contact.
I first read about these fundamentals in The Golf Swing Simplified, by John Jacobs and was delighted to learn of the John Jacobs Golf Schools, where these contact fundamentals are emphasized, along with the fundamentals of the setup (GASP: grip, aim, stance, posture) and swing mechanics.
This is not to say the fundamentals aren't taught elsewhere. But having been to several schools, taken many lessons and read numerous books, the typical approach is usually based on learning the swing, rather than what the swing is for. In my humble opinion, this is how golf should be taught to novices:
In contrast, this is how golf is usually taught:
FIRST: Swing Mechanics
Why are ball impact factors often omitted from formal instruction? Probably because you need diagrams or a book to teach about impact factors; outside of a structured "school" (e.g., John Jacobs), it isn't common to spend time in a classroom, or send the student home with diagrams to study. In some cases the student may only be taking a single lesson, and no instructor wants to waste an hour teaching diagrams. Students want to hit the ball! But I submit that the hacker who doesn't learn about impact factors at some point will likely flounder far longer than is necessary.
I will provide an analogy. No sailing instructor worth his salt would teach you how to sail without first teaching fundamentals about wind vectors and points of sail. You need to understand how wind coming from different directions affects the sails, how the keel works to keep the boat from drifting sideways, and how the sum of all these vectors make the boat go where you want it to. Call it 'sail theory' or just the fundamentals of sailing, it is pretty basic stuff. You can't hope to become a decent and safe sailor without understanding these physical vectors. You won't get far from the dock if you don't know how to adjust rudder and sails to move your boat.
Same thing in golf. True, you are unlikely to drown if you don't understand ball impact fundamentals, but the basic knowledge is just as important to golfers as wind vectors are to sailors. However, because of tradition or other reasons, it is rare to find ball impact fundamentals taught to beginners. Thus in a typical early golf lesson, a mis-hit will likely elicit a comment about what went wrong with your swing mechanics and not how the club head hit the ball. For example, suppose you hit a push slice (the ball starts right and then curves even further right of the target). The instructor might offer one of the following comments.
"You moved your head" (up, or down, or left, or right)
"You didn't keep your left arm straight"
"You held the club too far from your body" (or too close)
"You didn't start the backswing with your hips" (or arms or legs, or hands)
"You have the ball too far forward in your stance" (or too far backward)
"You held the club too tightly" (or loosely)
Of course, any one of these observations could explain why you mis-hit the ball. So you make an adjustment, and the next shot is better. But you haven't a clue as to why, i.e., how your change affected the club's impact against the ball. Instead, you are left thinking that better "swing mechanics" will allow you to hit the ball straighter.
Yet when you get to the fairway with your "better" swing, the shot is still sliced badly. So you make some other adjustment and now the shot is hooked (ball goes way left of target). You are frustrated but worse, far worse, you have no clue as to why the ball went right or left. And the reason you don't is because you don't understand ball contact.
The truth is, details of "swing mechanics" -- those movements during the swing of the head, the arms, the torso, the hips, the legs or the hands -- vary tremednously among top players. In terms of movement of the body parts, there is no single "right way" to swing the club. NONE WHATSOEVER. On the other hand, there is an absolutely right way for the club head to contact the ball for every shot you want to make. For each desired path of the ball, the fundamentals of ball contact are UNVARYING. After all, they obey THE LAWS OF PHYSICS.
Please understand, how you move your body parts to make proper contact is an individual thing, and highly variable among top players, past and present. Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods, Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia -- all have distinctive, highly individual swing styles. This means they find their own unique way to bring the club head against the ball so that the ball goes where they want it to, BASED ON THE LAWS OF PHYSICS.
Do you see what this means? If you want the ball to start left of the target line and end up slightly right of the target line, then the clubface has to hit the ball a certain way. (Specifically, a slight out to in swing with the clubface slightly open to the path of the swing.) But 100 Top players could accomplish the same shot with 100 different swings. Like fingerprints, no two would be alike.
In summary, mechanics of the swing (movement of body parts) are highly variable, while the fundamentals of ball contact -- factors that determine how a ball will fly -- are not variable at all. Now you should see the importance of understanding these fundamentals. Understand them and you can learn, with the help of a good instructor, to mold your own particular swing to achieve the desired results. But trying to learn "a swing" without understanding the purpose of the swing is (in my opinion) a futile excercise. Yet that is what most instructors and instruction books seem to attempt: to teach you "the swing" but not the fundamentals of ball contact.
Once you know the fundamentals of ball contact and ball flight, you will begin to understand why your ball doesn't go where you intended. On a full swing, exemplified by the tee shot, most top golfers either draw or fade the ball. Top golfers rarely hit a straight drive, since that is far more difficult to accomplish than a fade or a draw. A "draw" flies straight initially, then curves at the end of flight slightly to the left. A "fade" flies straight initially, then curves slightly to the right.
A "slice", the most common drive among amateurs, is an exaggerated fade, so that it ends up way right of your targe. A "hook" is an exaggerated draw, so that it ends up way left of your targe. Here is a brief overview of the types of drive as compared with the (rarely accomplished) straight shot. Note that each shot obeys the laws of physics, and is predicated on four, and only four, swing fundamentals:
SHOTS THAT END UP LEFT OF CENTER
SHOTS THAT END UP RIGHT OF CENTER
Consider the following scenario. Sharon pulls the ball to the left, and then it curves even farther left (a pull-hook) and lands far from the intended target. Her instructor says her mis hit is because she wasn't properly aligned, and she dropped her left shoulder too much on the back swing. OK, she fixes that. A few shots later, the ball slices (starts straight and ends up going way to the right), and this time it's because she cocked her wrists too much on the back swing; got to keep those wrists straight. OK, she fixes that.
Some time later her ball is skyed. Well, it's because she moved her head, and stood up a little on the downswing. OK, something else to think about. At the end of the session, or perhaps after several sessions over days or weeks, Sharon's mind is so filled with body positions and movements and tips that she becomes hopelessly confused (a conditon sometimes called 'paralysis by analysis').
What's the problem? The problem is that Sharon has yet to learn that "the swing" is really not about exact positioning of body parts, exact movements of head, arms, legs and hips, or even ball positioning or alignment. Yes, these are important and must be properly individualized. But what Sharon should have learned is that the purpose of the swing is to contact the ball square with the club face, and that this contact should be accomplished with a swing that comes from the inside, hits the ball square, and then returns to the inside. How exactly she does that will depend on her physical makeup and size, her innate ability to rotate her body and other features unique to her particular talents.
But before she can develop a useful swing to accomplish this task she must first understand what the task is: to bring the club face square to the ball at impact, a task that requires proper clubhead alignment, clubhead path, angle of approach, and clubhead speed. Once she understands these four fundamentals, she will have a firmer understanding of why the instructor is rearranging her body movements to achieve a better swing. This point is obvious to people who have studied the swing, but believe it or not most novices are oblivious.
Top golfers all contact the ball the same way for a given result. How they get to that contact point (the "swing mechanics") varies tremendously. The swing of Jim Furyk and Tiger woods and Nick Faldo vary quite a bit, but they all end up contacting the ball so that, based on simple laws of physics, the ball goes where they want it to.
Until a novice golfer like Sharon understands this, she will forever be confused. And so will you. Always remember:
The purpose of the swing is to get the club face in proper contact with the ball, and with sufficient force, to propel it to where you want it go. There are an infinite variety of "swings" by which to accomplish this task.
It is true that among top players, certain general body positions and movements -- of the head, arms, hips, legs, feet, etc. -- seem to accomplish proper ball contact most efficiently and consistently. And it is these "general body positions and movements" that are most commonly taught. But are they absolute? No way. Just ask proponents of Natural Golf.
"Natural Golf" is an unorthodox method of swinging the club, unorthodox in that no tour players use it (to my knowledge) and it is still not widely taught. It seems to have originated with a Canadian golfing genius named Moe Norman, who was active in the 1950s and 1960s. Moe Norman used a decidedly unconventional swing to hit the ball further and straighter than just about any of his contemporaries (Norman was a major success on the Canadian tour).
In theory, Norman's swing simplifies the traditional swing by having the player place the club grip in the palms of the hands instead of the fingers, and by making the club a straight extension of the left arm, instead of angled as in the traditional swing. There are other differences between the tradional swing and Norman's swing, and now Natural Golf schools have sprung up to teach this alternative approach to the basic golf swing.
The point here is not to advocate one type of swing over any other. The point is that Moe Norman accomplished with an unorthodox swing what the world's top player at the time, Ben Hogan, accomplished with a traditional golf swing - ability to hit the ball straight and far, time after time after time. And why? Because both Norman and Hogan contacted the ball square and with great power -- even though their swing mechanics were completely different.
So whether you are a proponent of Natural Golf or the traditional swing espoused by Hogan and most other top players, what is important is to understand ball contact and flight fundamentals. Regardless of your particular swing, an understanding of ball contact and flight will help you focus on what's important: how to hit the ball to make it go where you want.
In the traditional swing (the one taught by the vast majority of golf professionals, and the one I use) some body positions and movements -- common among novices -- are properly called "death moves" because they kill any chance to hit the ball well. Two examples of death moves: the "reverse pivot" - where your weight shifts to the right foot on follow-through, and lifting your head on the down swing. So there are definitely some important swing mechanics to learn. But a close examination of the best players reveals a wide variety of exact positions and movements that all accomplish the same thing: bringing the club face square to the ball.
So what you need to know, at least in the beginning, is not a thousand and one body positions and movements (e.g., "keep your left arm straight, right arm bent, hips pointing to ball on backswing, etc., ad nauseum), but just "swing so the club hits the ball square."
Chances are overwhelming you won't learn to do this well from a book. You need a golf professional to show you how (see Step 3).