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Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Power Sources in Your Swing

Part of the Route 67 series

Today I will explain to you why it takes hours and hours of practice to get better at golf... and how you can change things so you DON'T need hours and hours of practice to get better at golf. It's so dreadfully simple that you'll say "How did I miss that?"

It all comes down to the power sources in the golf swing. Simply put, there are two -- the upper body and the lower body. Not coincidentally, these two power sources coincide with different approaches to the swing... and even the equipment itself!
  • THE UPPER BODY POWER SOURCE, sometimes called a "hands-and-arms" swing, is the dominant power source used in what we now call the traditional or classic swing. The traditional swing tends to be more upright, and was very popular during the time of hickory (softer) shafts.
  • THE LOWER BODY POWER SOURCE, sometimes called a "hips-and-legs" swing, is the dominant power source used in what we now call the modern swing. The modern swing tends to be flatter, and became very popular during the time of steel (stiffer) shafts.
Let me take a moment to explain upright and flat swings. Imagine you have set up to hit the ball and turned to the top of your backswing. Draw a line from the ball through your highest shoulder (left for a lefthander, right for a righthander) and check the position of your hands. If your hands are above this line, you have an upright swing; if your hands are below the line, you have a flat swing.

For a couple of examples (male and female) you might recognize, Jack Nicklaus and Juli Inkster have been upright swingers, while Matt Kuchar and Rosie Jones are very flat swingers.

Now, I don't want you to get the idea that these two power sources are entirely separate. An "arms-and-hands" swinger also uses his/her lower body, and a "hips-and-legs" swinger also uses his/her upper body. It's a question of focus. Players using their upper bodies as their primary power source do use their lower bodies; it's just that their lower bodies move in response to their upper bodies, rather than through a conscious effort of the player. The same is true of players using their lower bodies as their primary power source; their upper bodies react in response to the lower body's movement.

However, things have ceased to be quite so simple these days... and therein lies the difficulty. Blame Ben Hogan for this one; while Ben has been accused of having a flat swing, that is completely incorrect. Hogan did swing on a flatter plane than most players of his time (he played during the switchover between hickory and steel, so most players were still fairly upright), but his swing is not flat; it's on a neutral swing plane. In our hypothetical example above, Ben's hands would be centered on the line.

This neutral plane is the Holy Grail of most players (and teachers) these days. Do you know why? Because it's the best position for a player trying to use both power sources at once! Modern players are trying to get everything they can out of their swing, so the logical approach is to use every power source at their disposal. Makes sense, right?

Here's the problem: These two power sources work on different principles, so making them work in tandem causes timing problems. That's the reason golf takes so much practice: Most players, be they weekenders or pros, are attempting to use both power sources at once. I think this may be the result of past player-teachers like Bobby Jones trying to explain what each part of the body was doing during the swing. Jones was a rare flat swinger during the age of upright swingers; everybody wanted to be Jones, and Warner Brothers obliged by making his teachings -- which rightly spent a lot of time on leg action (the series was called "How I Play Golf" for a reason!) -- readily available. Players then took what they learned from Jones and mixed it with what their local (upright) pro taught them, and the confusion began.

If you want to develop a controllable swing and eliminate the need to spend so much time practicing, you need to focus on maximizing only one power source. Choosing the one that suits you best (and we will get to that in future posts) can make you play way beyond what others expect, and with less practice. For the record, that's why Fred Couples and Tom Watson are playing so well; they are essentially upper body players... and they know it. Their lower bodies move well under them but aren't their primary power source... and again, they know it. Because of this, they don't have the timing problems of other pros. (And for the record, according to the Champions Tour website, Tom hits it 281.5 yards with 71.73% accuracy; Freddie's Champion Tour stats aren't up, but they've got to be at least as good as the PGA stats I listed yesterday.)

There's so much more to be said on this, but that's enough for today. We'll pick it up again tomorrow, and we'll focus on the most publicized timing problem... getting stuck. That may best help you understand the differences between the modern and classic swings.

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