Hit down to get it airborne : You can fix a score of swing faults with this one forgotten fundamental

All golfers feel that their swing problems are more complicated than they really are. You slice, you top the ball, you hit it fat, you have a reverse weight shift, you look up. Your golf ego refuses to let you believe that there’s a simple solution to all these problems.

Therefore, you spend a lot of time trying to figure out these faults–sometimes one at a time, sometimes several at once. You read books and magazines. You videotape your swing. You ask your friends and playing partners for advice. You take lessons. You go to golf school.

But here’s the thing: Too many teachers deal with the symptoms of a faulty golf swing. Anybody can tell you what you’re doing wrong–superficially. Oh, you’re slicing. That means your clubface is open, you’re swinging from out to in, you’re coming over the top. But does knowing that bring you closer to curing your slice? Not necessarily.

The hard part is getting to the root cause of the problem. In my view, there’s a single cause to most of these faults, the one thing golfers do incorrectly that leads to a host of swing problems: They get the ball into the air, but they don’t get the ball into the air oproperly. Now, there are a lot of different ways to hit the ball so it flies into the air. But there’s only one way to do it correctly, for powerful, accurate shots. As I will demonstrate later in this article, doing it incorrectly leads to many different problems. Doing it correctly, however, will help you avoid all these faults as your game develops.

Think of your golf swing as school. One of the first things you do is learn the alphabet–that’s the golf equivalent of making contact. Then you learn to read–the equivalent of getting the ball in the air. If you can’t do that right, you’ll have years of frustration ahead of you.

Too many golfers are like student-athletes who manage to graduate from high school or college while being illiterate. They have cheated themselves by not taking the time to do it the right way.

When people come to me for lessons, they bring with them years of bad shots and other negative experiences. What I do is back them up to the basic motion of making contact with the ball. It may be boring and frustrating, but until they can prove to me they can get the ball airborne correctly, I’m not going to move on to the next step–because it does no good to do so until you’ve ingrained the right move.

So let’s take a trip back to golf’s first grade–learning to get the ball airborne correctly. By mastering this seemingly inconsequential fundamental, you’ll move quickly up through the ranks and begin playing much better.

Diagnosing the problem

So where do we begin? If you’re reading this, chances are you aren’t going to come to me for a lesson anytime soon. You may be asking yourself, “How do I know if I’m an `illiterate’? How do I know if I’m not getting the ball airborne correctly?”

It’s not hard, really, to identify the solution to the problem. To hit the ball correctly, you need to swing the club so it is traveling slightly downward at the point of impact. It’s not a sweeping motion; it’s not an upward motion. It’s a downward motion. You have to learn to hit down so you direct the force of the club to the middle of the ball. You have to use the loft and the grooves of the club the way they were intended.

Why you scoop

You didn’t do so well on these tests? It’s not your fault, really. There are so many things conspiring against you. Let’s start with the wedge, the club many beginners use when they start hitting balls, because it is the shortest and has the most loft–so it seems the easiest to hit. Set it on the ground and look at it. What does it resemble? To me, it looks like a spoon or a spatula, objects designed to get under something and lift up. So anyone wiith any common sense is going to try to slide the face under the ball and lift up the first time he or she swings. That spells doom from the start.

The downward spiral only worsens from there. Next time you’re hitting balls on the range or taking a lesson, be aware of the following: See if you or your instructor tees up the ball for an iron. It’s a perfectly natural gesture, designed to make you relax and to boost your confidence in getting the ball into the air.

Unfortunately, it’s useless in helping you hit the ball properly–because by placing the ball on a tee, you have already put the ball in the air. Where’s the challenge in that?

Here’s another test. Which lie would you rather have: the ball sitting on a tight lie in a closely mowed fairway, or the ball sitting up loosely in light rough? Pros salivate over the tight lie; they can perform magic with it. Amateurs bemoan it, because they can’t even hit it. They would much rather have a fluffy lie, for the same reason they love a teed-up ball.At the Masters this year, there was a lot of talk about how the rough made the course difficult for the pros, because they couldn’t control the amount of spin they put on the ball. Well, as difficult as Augusta played for the pros, it played that much easier for the members, because the rough made solid contact more likely.

The recent trend of decreasing the lofts of irons also encourages a poor swing. The less loft you’re looking at, the less confidence you have that you’ll get the ball airborne. So you feel as if you have to help the club hit the ball into the air. The result is a scoop.

The bigger problem

So what? Who cares? Well, the scoop in itself isn’t all that bad. The problem is, it causes or contributes to a lot of other faults. Here are a few:

Looking up: This is probably the most common fault you hear people say they made in the swing. The reason you look up is that the club is swinging up through the ball or you are anticipating that you’ll swing up. If you were going to strike down, the natural inclination would be for everything to stay down.

Reverse weight shift: To scoop, you need to get under and behind the ball. That’s your impact position. And in your follow-through, your body stays behind the ball to facilitate the lifting motion. To get there, you have to be ahead of the ball in the backswing and then fall back on the downswing–a reverse shift, resulting in weak, often topped shots. To drive the ball down and through the way you should, you would do the opposite.

The slice: Scooping is the result of a right-palm-up release to get under the ball. With longer clubs, this opens the face through impact. The result: a slice. If you had a palm-down release, the club would be de-lofted and be closing or square through impact, for straighter, longer shots.

So there are all these things you probably haven’t thought about, and they’re causing all these horrible shots. But don’t lose heart. With the correct understanding of what I call the “delivery mechanism,” you’ll be back on the right track and most likely be hitting powerful, accurate shots. I’m not saying it will be easy. But you’ll be doing it the right way.

The delivery mechanism

In my opinion, the hands are the eyes of the golf swing. The first thing you have to do is train the hands, wrists and fingers to work properly to get the ball airborne. This is done through learning the delivery mechanism.

The delivery mechanism is a short motion–shoulder high to shoulder high, or shorter–that is the foundation of the golf swing. It is the “hit” in the golf swing. Wrapped around it is the “swing”–the larger motion of the golf swing.

The hit directs the power of the golf swing to where it counts most–the back of the ball. Ben Hogan said that once he got into the hitting area, he wished he had three right hands to deliver the club into the ball.

When you can use your hands correctly, your swing becomes more efficient. You’ll find you can hit the ball a long way using just the small muscles and a fairly short motion. Simply put, it’s a much better way to hit the ball.

In my mind, this is the forgotten fundamental of golf. A lot of teachers and players downplay the importance of hand action, saying instead that it is more consistent to focus on the bigger muscles of the body. Which brings us to another of golf’s contradictions: First, you must teach your hands and wrists to work properly, and once you do, you’ll spend the rest of your golf life feeling as if you’re not using them.

The delivery mechanism: Small swing, down and through

Start slowly, with the most lofted club in your bag, to learn the proper delivery mechanism. Take a normal stance or even keep your feet close together. This keeps the body as passive as possible. You want to feel as if the swing is made solely with your hands and arms. Gently cock the wrists upward and swing the arms back. Your hands should reach no higher than your shoulders.

Notice that by a passive body I don’t mean that the big muscles–shoulders, back, legs–should be still. Because your hands and arms are connected to your body, it will follow along. Don’t be a stiff. What I don’t want is for the big muscles to control the swing. They should simply respond to the swinging of your hands and arms.

When you do this correctly with the right palm down through impact, the result is a down-and-through motion of the club that hits the ball first, then takes a shallow divot beyond the ball.

After the wedge, move on to the 7-iron, 5-iron, then eventually to a lofted utility wood. Even with a 7-wood, try to take a divot beyond the ball. There’s a common notion that you’re supposed to sweep the ball off the turf with the woods. I don’t agree. Take a divot.

After a while, you’ll be ready to make fuller swings. Remember, all you’re doing is enlarging the swing. Don’t try to do anything different with the body. When you do add the body, don’t overdo it. All you want is to drive the right knee toward the target to clear the hips and transfer your weight through impact. In most cases, the divot will occur at your right knee.

Because you’ll hit the ball so efficiently with the delivery mechanism, fight the natural tendency to lunge at the ball to hit it farther. Maintain the rhythm and motion of the delivery mechanism. Just make it bigger for the full swing.

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