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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Elbow Room

Part of the Route 67 series

It's possible that you've tried some of the different versions of the Secret Move from last week... and immediately "got stuck." No matter what you tried, you just couldn't get that club in front of your body, and you ended up swinging out to the right (or left, for you lefties) -- a push, maybe even a push slice.

That's why we're going to interrupt our look at ways to delay the uncocking of your wrists and take a look at what I think is Ben Hogan's greatest contribution to the weekend player's game -- an understanding of how the elbows (particularly the one you bend) work during the swing.

On page 49 of Five Lessons it says, "Keep the elbows and arms as close together as possible throughout the entire swing," and it is accompanied by a drawing of Hogan's forearms bound together from elbows to wrists. It looks like a triangular mummy wrap! Then on page 98-99, where he compares the downswing motion to a baseball infielder's sidearm throw, Hogan says, "As he swings his arm forward, his right elbow is very close to his right hip. The elbow 'leads' the arm -- it is the part of the arm nearest the target as he begins to make the throw. The forearm and hand catch up with the elbow, and the player's arm is extended relatively straight when he releases the ball."

Here's my pathetic attempt to copy an illustration of Hogan's elbow position on the downswing (from page 98 -- that's the drawing on the left below), along with a comparison to the more typical incorrect position that plagues weekend players:

Hogan's elbow vs the incorrect position

Those gray dots represent the position of the elbow in each downswing. And if you compare the descriptions to the arrows, you might think I screwed up the drawing. What you need to understand is that the arrows show where the upper arm is pointed on the downswing, while the words beside them describe where the elbow finally ends up. The words in the black box describe how the motion feels to most people. Most weekend players never recognize there's a difference, and that's why they get frustrated. If you follow instructions that tell you how to move, but perform them by how they feel to you, you may never figure it out!

It is important to remember that your body is not straight up and down during the swing, the way it is when you stand upright. You are leaning slightly forward, and that's the source of the apparent contradiction. Most of us interpret how these motions feel relative to our body, not relative to the ball.

So, to reach the incorrect position, when we feel that the elbow is dropping straight down, what we actually feel is our elbow moving parallel to our spine from around shoulder level down to our hip. Normally when we stand straight that's down, and our minds continue to equate "down" with "parallel to the spine." However, since we're bent forward, the motion we feel as "down" actually means we're moving slightly backwards away from the ball. Can you see how that happens?

By comparison, Hogan has actually dropped his elbow straight down relative to the ball. If you were standing straight up, swinging your elbow this way would actually feel as if you were moving your elbow forward toward the ball.

Do the arrows and words make sense now? To actually drop your elbow straight down toward the ground on the downswing, you have to feel as if you are moving it forward toward the ball. When you get in the correct position, your upper arm is vertical relative to the ground... which means your elbow will swing past your hip and you won't get stuck. (Take a good look at that drawing. See the vertical upper arm?) It's simple once you know what you're looking for.

Now come the big questions: How do we make this move? What does it feel like? How can I check that I'm doing it right?

This is where Hogan's image of the elbows being tied together, along with his "sidearm throw" description, is so helpful. It's an awfully mechanical way to swing, but studying it a bit shows us what the actual move looks like. Once we know how to do it, we can do it slowly and see how it feels, so we can just duplicate the feel when we play.

The elbow "leads" the arm -- it is the part of the arm nearest the target... Relative to the spine, the elbow is certainly out in front of the rest of the hand. But as the Hogan drawing shows, his upper arm is actually vertical once it gets down close to the front of the hip. (The front of the hip, not the side of the hip! This can make as much as much as 6 inches difference in where the elbow is when you reach the hitting area. Do you think that would make a difference in your swing plane?) But, if you are getting into the position at the top of your swing that most teachers say you should -- with your upper arm parallel to your spine -- then your forearm is leaning toward the ball.

In order to get your elbow to the front of your hip -- where you can swing the club freely down the target line -- you're going to have to let your elbow swing forward under your hands as the club comes down. Think of your hands as a tree branch and your elbow as a swing; let the elbow swing under the hands! This isn't a move that takes a lot of effort; in fact, if you try too hard, you'll jerk your elbow too far ahead. If that happens, your forearm will end up tilted backward and you'll actually make it too hard to square the clubface. (Trust me on this one. It took me forever to track down this problem in my swing!) If you have a two-way miss, this problem can cause it: With the elbow too far forward, you'll push-slice, but if you try to fling your hands to overcome it, you'll pull-hook. The correct position isn't a power move; you shouldn't need a lot of effort to reach it.

Now -- and this is important -- once you get to this position, you don't need to fling your arms toward the ball. All you have to do is straighten your arms! Because of your elbow position, straightening your bent elbow will move your hands (and the club) ahead of your elbow. Try it and you'll see. I've been trying to think of something to which I could liken the motion, something that a lot of you would recognize, but I haven't been able to. Some have likened it to hitting a baseball with a bat; I find it reminds me more of swinging an axe.

Frankly, you may find that either one feels a bit too mechanical for you... and that's fine. Don't use them. Here's the key thought: Your bent elbow swings forward as it comes down, so it can swing past your hip, not bump up against it. It swings close to your hip, perhaps even brushes it as it goes past, but there should be NO substantial contact between them. As long as you follow that guideline, you should be able to get a more controllable swing going.

Watch out for that elbow position on the way down. It's a small thing, but it has a major effect on your ability to get the club on the correct path and to square the clubface.


  1. You should see if you can find a face on video of Rich Beem hitting a shot. He is the most exaggerated example of what you're talking about. I used to have a strap that was to be worn around the elbows to keep them synchronized and close together through the swing. Didn't use it much unless I was chicken winging it all over the place

  2. Yeah, the concept behind those straps is good... but it just feels so mechanical, doesn't it? I think the real trick is finding a balance between the extremely mechanical approach (like Hogan, or those straps) and not trying anything, in which case you don't develop any consistency.

    I think taking Penick's idea of "dropping" the elbow -- but dropping it forward instead of down to the side -- is one of the better compromises. It gets the forearm in that vertical position, out in front of the hip, without drastically affecting the rest of the downswing.

  3. The thing I didn't like about the strap was that it didn't adjust. They expected my arms to be the same distance apart as a 5 year old kid or a 750 pound guy twice as wide as me.

    Think we should take up a collection and send Tiger the Penick collection of "Little" books ? :-)

  4. Now that Tiger's meditating again, perhaps he can just ask Master Penick himself. After all, that's how Obi-Wan learned from Qui-Gon after he died. Tiger's the closest thing to a Jedi Master we golfers have.

    All he has to do now is avoid the dark side of the course... ;-)

  5. I've believe that the bendt elbow at impact is a reaction of the dominant right arm in the downswing. that forces the hips to clear out.

    my impact is getting better and better with that thought anyway.