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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Classic VS Modern Swing: Telling the Difference Part 2

In yesterday's post I looked at why we're starting to see more classic-style swings succeed on Tour. Today I want to focus on what really differentiates a classic-style swing from a modern-style swing, and tomorrow we'll look at some swing videos and see how to tell which is which. I'll warn you upfront that this is a long post, but there's a whole lot of important stuff in it that I haven't seen anywhere else.

As I wrote yesterday, "There's a whole spectrum of swings with the classic swing at one end, the modern swing at the other, and various permutations in-between." That's why I'm using the terms classic-style and modern-style more than just classic and modern. But it's helpful to know what the "pure" versions are... and what they aren't.

At their simplest, pure classic swings are arm-powered and pure modern swings are leg-powered. That means that the primary power source in the classic swing is your arms, and the primary power source in the modern swing is your legs... but that can be misleading.

Although I've said it numerous times on this blog, I need to repeat it here: ALL swings are started with your lower body. It is physically impossible to start a swing -- ANY swing -- with your arms. Without explaining the physics yet again, your feet have to grip the ground (create friction) and your legs have to brace themselves (so they can use that friction to push against the ground) in order to start your upper body and arms swinging the club in the downswing. In essence, your lower body pulls your upper body into your downswing.
And just for clarity, an over-the-top swing is also started by your legs. It's just that your legs -- especially your trailing leg --  create the friction by pushing UP rather than around. That shoves your trailing shoulder up and out as your upper body starts the downswing.
The difference between classic leg drive and modern leg drive is one of degree. In the modern swing, it's a forceful purposeful push of the legs; in the classic swing, the legs just respond naturally, without conscious thought, to the effort of trying to swing the arms. Some teachers will describe leg action in the classic swing as "your legs simply move beneath you." But again, this can be somewhat misleading.

Because the pure modern swing tries to minimize hip turn on the backswing and the pure classic swing encourages a free hip turn on the backswing, a classic swing may actually have more leg movement than a modern swing although the legs aren't driving very hard at all. And let's add some more confusion about what the arms do as well -- most classic swing instructors really want you to minimize arm tension while Ben Hogan, the man who virtually invented the prototypical modern swing, said he wished he had three right hands when he hit the ball!

And once you begin considering all the possible variations of these two types of swings... how are you supposed to know what any given player is trying to do? Each of these swings, classic and modern, has a very different feel. Is there nothing in a player's swing that tells us whether the swing is more classic or more modern?

It took me a long time to sort it out, but yes, there IS a way to tell. That key movement is what we call separation.


Remember what I said earlier? ALL swings are started with your lower body.  That means that your lower body gets a little ahead of your upper body at the start of your downswing. (And your upper body catches up by the time you hit the ball.)

Separation is what we call that little "head start" your lower body gets at the start of the downswing. All swings (except over-the-top swings) have some separation in them because ALL swings are started with your lower body. The difference is that classic swings only have a little separation while modern swings can have quite a lot.
Again, for clarity, over-the-top swings don't use your legs properly. In a proper swing, the lower body PULLS the upper body toward the ball. An over-the-top swing PUSHES the upper body upward so the upper body actually gets ahead of the lower body.
Maybe this will help you understand: Try taking your address position and make sure both knees are flexed. From that position turn your shoulders 90 degrees, like they are at the top of your backswing. Now push up (straighten your knees) and try to turn your shoulders as if you were making a downswing.
Here's what will probably happen: Your trailing knee will straighten out while your lead knee stays bent and your lead foot ends up on its toes. Your hips will barely turn at all but your trailing shoulder will get most of the way to the "ball." That's an over-the-top move -- very bad for golf.
I can hear you saying, "Yes, yes, I understand. Modern swings create more separation than classic swings. I get it." NO YOU DON'T! That little difference represents two dramatically different ways of creating club head speed in a golf swing! And that is the key to understanding how the two differ.

In a pure classic swing, the separation is small and the upper body catches up to the lower body quickly. The purpose of the separation is simply to get the upper body moving. Club head speed (which is our goal with any swing) is created by the swinging motion of the arms. Although the analogy isn't exactly accurate, you can think of the club as a pendulum that gains extra speed from the arms.

In a pure modern swing, the separation is large and it takes most of the downswing for the upper body to catch up with the lower body. The separation itself is how power is generated; club head speed is created by closing the separation. The club is no longer a pendulum (a single large lever) but the end of a whip (effectively, a whole chain of tiny levers).

York barbell plates The classic swing and the modern swing represent two entirely different methods of creating club head speed, which is why instructors have traditionally said that you couldn't combine the two methods. But the truth is merely that you can't do both at once, and it takes a tremendous amount of strength to even attempt to use both of them in sequence -- something that was unimaginable not that long ago. Bear in mind that weight training was discouraged until Tiger began handing players their butts on a plate -- a plate being what weightlifters call those round metal donuts you put on a barbell to make them heavier!

Each method has its downside. While the pure classic swing is perhaps the simplest way to get good results (at least, now that we don't have to deal with the problems hickory itself created), it requires really good timing at the change of direction to create substantial power. And while the pure modern swing doesn't require quite so much timing to create power, it does require a lot of strength and coordination to deliver that power accurately to the ball. For example, when Tiger says he "got stuck," what he means is that his lower body moved too fast and created more separation than his upper body could catch up with.

And I'll add another problem I see with excessive separation. Although I can't prove it, I find it interesting that we have very few records of chronic back problems among golfers during "the age of hickory" while it seems that almost every modern player suffers from them. I'm not saying that classic swingers never have back problems. However, it does seem that the more separation we try to create, the more stress we put on our backs. Since our hips have to move ever farther ahead of our shoulders to create ever more separation in the modern swing, we end up twisting our backs at odd angles while we put even more force on them.

Because the "pure" versions of both swings each have their own problems, it's no surprise that inventive instructors have been creating new combinations of the two in hopes of minimizing the problems. That's what good instructors do. For example, my books Stop Coming Over-the-Top and HIT IT HARD! both teach what are basically modern swings BUT with the separation reduced to minimize the amount of coordination and strength required for good results as well as minimizing stress on your back. Those are things I felt were vital for weekend players who don't have a lot of time to practice and who can't risk having a bad back put them out of work.

Many of your favorite players will sacrifice anything to get 20 more yards or to hit 10% more greens in regulation. Others make sacrifices to minimize back pain just so they can play. Some want swings that don't require much practice because they want to spend their time doing more charity work. For these and a dozen other reasons, instructors create new swings specifically tailored to those players... and some of those swings find popularity with a number of other players as well. That leads to a large number of hybrid swings for us to sort through.

But at least we have some clues...


Tomorrow we'll look at some swing video and I'll show you how I sort them out. For now I'll just give you some of the criteria we'll use:
  • The amount of separation in the swing: Separation creates some telltale clues that I'll point out when we look at the video.
  • The player's swing coach: As I mentioned yesterday, players generally go to coaches who specialize in the type of swing they already have.
  • Nationality: This isn't a given, of course, but it's amazing how many of the classic swing coaches trained in Europe and how many of the modern swing coaches trained in America. Could it be an Old World mentality versus Ben Hogan's American-made swing? I don't know but it seems to be a real phenomenon.
  • Common problems: For example, Tiger's frequent "getting stuck" problem is a pretty clear indicator that he's using a modern swing.
Plus there are some other less-common clues. I'll show you tomorrow.

The barbell photo came from

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