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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Forehand Control

Part of the Route 67 series

Yesterday we looked at the characteristics shared by backhand swings; today we look at forehand swings. Remember, a forehand swing is:
  • A swing that a right-hander controls with his or her right hand, or
  • A swing that a left-hander controls with his or her left hand.
Forehand swings are not new to golf -- there's good reason to believe players like Walter Hagen used one. However, it's a fairly new phenomenon in teaching; probably the first "official" teacher of the swing was Jimmy Ballard, back in the 80s. Here is an incomplete list of things that characterize a forehand swing.
  • Stiffer shafts: This is an equipment difference. The forehand swing loads the shaft in a way the backhand swing can’t. If you’re a strong person with strong forearms, you can really blast the ball with this stroke.
  • Pulling the club back: The shoulder of a forehand player is positioned behind the club before it starts the backswing, so the player pulls the club away from the ball. This is a much stronger position, both in terms of muscle power expended and in the wrist position.
  • Weaker grip: Think about this one for a moment. Unlike a backhand stroke, which is not how we normally hit things, the forehand stroke allows you to think in terms of hitting your target with the palm of your hand. As a result, strengthening the grip (turning the hand on the grip in the direction of the backswing) is less desirable. The typical grip would have the “V’s” formed by the thumb and forefinger of each hand pointed toward the support shoulder, but a neutral grip with the “V’s” pointing at the chin (think of praying hands with the fingertips pointed at the ball) is a very popular grip with this kind of swing.
  • Bent lead arm: The “straight left arm” of right-handed golf teaching isn’t really necessary if you use a forehand swing. The backhand at the end of the shaft isn’t controlling the club; it’s merely adding stability. The forehand is both controlling the club and handling most of the club’s weight. In many ways, all the backhand really needs to do is make sure it coordinates with the forehand.
  • Flat swing plane: Another matter of simple mechanics. Bending the elbow on your forehand side is the strongest position you can have at the top of your backswing, and a lower hand position (shoulder height or lower) feels more normal than a more upright position.
  • Starting the downswing by pulling the club around: With a flatter swing plane, the club doesn’t need to go downward as much to keep it inside the target line on the downswing. In fact, the body is squarely in the way because the lower hand position puts it more behind the body. To get the club going, your arm needs to go out and around, not down.
  • Dragging the club around: The bent wrist of your forehand drags the club toward the ball. It may feel like you’re pushing the club past you.
  • Lower lead shoulder at contact: The club is lower at the start of the downswing, and your body is pulling your arm and club around and past it. Again, simple mechanics: Your shoulders are going to remain more level with the ground as your hips and shoulders pull the club around.
  • Belly and spine in a straighter line: Because your shoulders' plane of rotation is more horizontal than vertical, your midsection doesn’t have to “swing” like a pendulum to help get the club around. You rotate around your spine, so your spine remains straighter.
  • Head remains stationary or moves slightly forward: Since your spine remains more vertical, your head doesn’t have to move backward in reaction to your midsection. Some teachers encourage your head (indeed, your entire upper body) to move toward the target, in an effort to get your weight transferred to your target side and prevent a reverse pivot.
  • Straight finish: It should come as no surprise that your head, spine, hips, and target foot all end up in a fairly vertical line at the finish.
While these two lists may convince you that the two strokes are entirely different, that's just not true. In fact, it can be difficult to look at a player and tell exactly which one they're using. These control methods share far more in common than most teachers would lead you to believe, but differences like the ones I've listed cause them to feel very different.

Knowing which way you feel your swing is a big part of both becoming consistent in your play and in knowing which teachers are most likely to help you improve.

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