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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Incompleat Backswinger

My post about one-piece takeaways (OPTs for short) on Sunday mentioned Jim McLean’s “V-gap” technique, which is really just a new way of teaching OPTs. That post drew a comment from BMAC, who said he’d used it and it worked, but he’d lost it again and didn’t know how to get it back. I’m going to try and help him today.

Without seeing his swing I’m forced to guess at the problem, but since he was hitting the ball 300 yards using OPT, I suspect my guess is accurate. BMAC is probably a victim of the incompleat backswing. (And for the curious among you who wonder where that weird spelling of “incompleat” originated, I think it’s from Sir Francis Cowley Burnand’s 1887 book entitled The Incompleat Angler.)

A proper backswing is described in many ways, most of which you’ve probably heard at one time or another―completing your backswing, dropping the club into the slot, feeling the change of direction, setting the club, gathering yourself at the top. They’re all ways of identifying the somewhat difficult-to-pinpoint position where:
  • your upper body has coiled fully,
  • the clubhead has spent almost all its momentum traveling away from the ball, and
  • you can start the club back down in a way that uses the remaining momentum to keep the wrists cocked.
What I suspect BMAC has begun doing is starting his downswing before he reaches this position. It’s the most common problem for players, weekend or pro, because we’re all taught to accelerate the club as we hit the ball. But here’s a fact you may not have realized: If you simply lift the club up and then just drop it, it will accelerate! Gravity is a constant acceleration, which means it causes objects to speed up at a constant rate―specifically, 32 feet each second (fps). If at 0 seconds it is dropped from a dead still position, at the 1 second mark it will be traveling at 32 fps; at 2 seconds, 64 fps; at 3 seconds, 96 fps; and so on.

What does this mean for you? Because this acceleration is constant and such a familiar feel to us, we tend to think of the club as moving at a constant speed, even though we are actually accelerating it as we swing. As a result, when we are told to accelerate the club, we think it should move faster and so our natural reaction is to jerk the club around. And what happens when you jerk the club? You tighten up and ruin your rhythm. Typically, your swing shortens and you start down before the club gets into position.

The “late cock” of the wrists that OPT and the “V-gap” use actually make it easier to feel that moment when the club is in position. Here’s how it works:

Diagram of a late wrist cock

The wrists have to move a much greater distance in order to cock when you use an OPT technique. This distance is labeled ‘a’ in the diagram. As a result, the club exerts more force on the wrists at the end of the backswing, in the area labeled ‘b’ in the diagram. making it easier to tell when the club is “in the slot.” When you feel this pressure, you start your downswing.

Now, the “V-gap” article tells you some other things to do―things like pivot to the right, shift to the left, hold the hinge. Don’t get tied in knots over these things!

The pivot to the right is to increase your shoulder turn, or coil. I said last week that I intended to do some articles this week on how to coil, and I will. But you should know this: Even if you’re not getting a huge coil now, the “V-gap” will increase your distance.

The shift to the left happens naturally. If you step up to a doorway, put your hand against the jamb, and try to push it, you will automatically “push off” with your legs; it’s almost impossible not to! If you want to make sure this happens automatically, just make sure you still have a slight bend in your right knee at the top of your backswing. (Or your left knee, if you’re a lefty.)

As for holding the hinge… if you start down when you feel that pressure in the back of your wrists, the hinge will “hold” naturally; it’s called the laws of physics. That pressure means the clubhead is still traveling away from the ball; when you start down, you’re using that momentum to keep the wrists cocked.

This technique works really well with the deadhanded approach shot I covered a few weeks ago. (You can find those posts under the "approach basics" category in the sidebar.) You should become quite a bit longer while still having decent control over your distance.

Tom Watson, who I keep holding up as a great model for weekend golfers, uses these techniques and at 60 he's still able to compete with the young guys. Trust me, this stuff works! Here are two of the frames from that Watson swing sequence I mentioned a few posts ago, showing Watson's OPT and his wristcock as the club swings down.

Tom Watson sequence

You can find the entire swing sequence at the Golf Digest site here.


  1. Thanks so much for this!
    It's very helpful and very well explained. I look forward to trying this at the range this evening!

    Very much appreciated
    Bmac (aka Brian in Ottawa, Canada).

  2. I hope it helps, Brian - good luck!

    There'll also be a post or two about coiling this week. They may help as well.

  3. Good tips here Mike. I love seeing how little Tom Watson's swing has changed. I got to follow him at the Senior Championship in Cleveland this year and it was a real pleasure to watch him play.

  4. Yeah, Tom is just... COOL. I'm really pulling for him to win at St. Andrews next year, just so he can get the 10 year exemption. Golf NEEDS Tom Watson.