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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Those Amazing Relaxed Swings

Ernie Els. Ai Miyazato. Vijay Singh. Fred Couples. Se Ri Pak. You can probably think of others -- golfers with syrupy-smooth swings. They pound the ball down the fairway, but they look as if they were just pitching the ball from 50 yards out.

Dexter Francois, who writes the Golf Tips & Quips blog and refers to me as his virtual coach, has been looking for some keys to developing one of those deceptively powerful swings. You would think it's simply a matter of swing speed... and you could be excused for that misconception since tempo is most often described that way. Dex is trying to sort through some of that stuff, so I told him I'd try to do some posts on tempo.

Let's see if we can find any useful facts that we can use as a starting point.

I have a book called Tour Tempo by John Novosel that comes with a CD to help you learn the three most common swing speeds used by successful pro golfers throughout golf history. His book begins with the famous quote from Bobby Jones, "No one ever swung a golf club too slowly," and then reveals his conclusion that most weekend players -- even the good ones -- actually do swing too slowly. He suggests working with the CD until you find the most comfortable tempo for you, then working to incorporate it into your game.

If you happen to read Novosel's book or just look up some of his findings on the Net, you'll find he has some weird numbers to describe swing speeds. For example, Fred Couples has a 25/7 tempo, while Annika Sorenstam had a 20/7 and Bobby Jones was a 26/9. These are simply counts of how many frames of videotape elapse during the swing; Freddie's backswing takes 25 frames and his downswing takes 7. It's very straightforward... it just looks odd.

The CD helped me during a tough time when I completely lost my swing, although ultimately I found I needed more mechanical knowledge to maintain a good tempo. Here's our First Useful Fact: Unless you understand how a swing with good tempo works, you'll find it difficult to keep it. Tempo is not just about rhythm; it's about the mechanics of your swing. If you make the right moves during your swing, in the right sequence, you'll tend to keep a good tempo.

Novosel provides us with a couple of other useful facts:
  • Second Useful Fact: The best players seem to have a backswing-to-downswing ratio of 3:1. In other words, the backswing takes about three times as long as the downswing. This may surprise a lot of you, who knew the downswing was faster but didn't think it was that much faster. Many teachers suggest saying a phrase like tick (start backswing) tock (start downswing) while you hit the ball. Of course, you generally hit the ball before you finish the tock, which can make this a bit difficult to repeat consistently. I suspect most people would expect the downswing to be twice as fast as the downswing.
  • Third Useful Fact: Swing tempo does NOT necessarily match temperament. The common wisdom is that slow, deliberate players have slower tempo swings. Novosel found that to be false. The most glaring example? Notoriously-slow Bernhard Langer had one of the fastest swings he checked. Most pro swings tend to be between .93 and 1.20 seconds; Langer times out at .933 -- only .003 seconds faster than the short fast swing of Nick Price!
Someone else who can help us here is Jim Flick. Some of you may remember a post I did over a year ago called "Could Bobby Jones Have ‘Cut It’ Against Today’s Pros?" In that post I referred to some info Flick put in his book On Golf about research done by a Dr. David Williams using some video to determine just how much clubhead speed Bobby Jones created. I'm going to quote a few paragraphs from that book, then pick out some more useful facts:
The tape shows Jones hitting with his driver 250 to 260 yards. Williams, focusing on the speed of Jones's swing, calculated that from the top of his backswing to the point of contact with his ball Jones's hands and arms were accelerating at a rate of just over thirty-four feet per second per second.

What makes that interesting is that if you were to extend your arm and drop a golf ball, its acceleration rate as it fell to Mother Earth would be just over thirty-two feet per second per second. See where I'm going with this? It means that in the beautiful golf swing that propelled a ball 260 yards with a hickory-shafted driver, the great Bobby Jones did only a little more than let his arms fall out of the sky.

Bobby Jones depended on gravity to build his golf swing.

No, I'm not telling you that if next Saturday you stand up on the first tee, announce, "I'm going to do the 'gravity swing,'" and drop your arms, your ball will go 260 yards. You must have a hinge, and you have to tap into centrifugal force.

Jones did have a hinge--a couple of them--and he did make great use of centrifugal force. But he didn't exactly jump out of his shoes trying to slug the ball; his hands and arms were accelerating at a rate only slightly faster than gravity's pull. And yet at impact his club head was traveling at 165 feet per second per second--or 113 miles an hour (page 54).
So what useful facts can we draw from Flick's observations?
  • Fourth Useful Fact: Hand speed and clubhead speed are not the same thing. Although Jones's hands were moving only slightly faster than if they were falling, the clubhead was traveling much faster. His hands traveled at 34 ft/sec², but the clubhead traveled at 165 ft/sec². That's about five times faster! Obviously, the mechanics of your swing play a big part in your tempo.
  • Fifth Useful Fact: The "tempo-related" mechanics of your swing can be reduced to a couple of hinges controlled by centrifugal force. The two hinges (as Flick calls them) are your wrists and your shoulder joints. Clubhead speed is created by keeping those two hinges as relaxed as you can, and allowing a downswing slightly faster than gravity would naturally cause to exert centrifugal force on them. Just for the record, this isn't a complex mechanical motion.
Now, taking all of this together, I'm going to give you a quick explanation of how the experts say we create one of those syrupy-smooth swings:
If we keep our wrists relaxed when we swing to the top of the backswing, and then we speed up our hands enough to make the downswing roughly three times faster than the backswing but only just faster than the pull of gravity, the mechanics of our swing will create a swing tempo with enough centrifugal force to generate some seriously fast clubhead speed.
Well, that's clear as mud, isn't it? Let me put it in plain English for you:
The key to a relaxed but powerful swing tempo is making a proper change of direction at the top of your backswing.
There! That's better, isn't it? The change of direction is probably the most crucial part of your swing, because it can totally destroy all the good work you did getting to the top of your backswing... or it can save an otherwise ugly backswing by putting the downswing on track. And all of that mumbo-jumbo in the "expert" explanation is actually useful when viewed from this simpler perspective.

Tomorrow I'll focus on that change of direction.


  1. I've had the Tour Tempo CD fo a while - much easier to rip the files and put them on an MP3 player (I think newer printings of the book have digital files instead of a CD.

    There is also a small, programmable device that does the same thing, but they broke down a bunch of pro's tempos so you can find the one that matches you and program it in. Unfortunately, I can't find it. (grrrr)

  2. I think change of direction is what I am struggling with most right now. I can get to the top of the swing just fine with the one-piece takeaway, but a bit of indecision creeps in sometimes as I transition. Sometimes I'm right on. Other times it is just plain ugly.

  3. Hang in there, Dex! Just keep following the posts and ask questions as you need to -- we'll get it figured out.

    Court, obviously I think those "rhythm tracks" are useful. I'm just afraid we're getting too hung up on finding the "precise" rhythm. The nice thing about Tour Tempo is the limited number of rhythms. In a one-second swing, just how picky do we need to get, anyway? If you can just get close, I think your natural rhythm takes over anyway.