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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Hitting VS Swinging

Clyde sent me a Tweet asking about resources for hitting rather than swinging. I recommended Jimmy Ballard and Ben Hogan, and I Tweeted links to two of my own posts that were six years apart:
A Relaxed Approach to Wrist Action (2011) and The Wall Slap Drill (2017). And it occurred to me that many of you might have similar questions:
  1. Just what is the difference between hitting and swinging?
  2. How can I tell which teachers teach which method?
  3. And how do I choose which is best for me?
A complete answer to the first question would require understanding the entire history of the golf swing! In fact, although I tend to draw a line between them based on the equipment, there were hitters even in the days of hickory shafts (Walter Hagen is a great example), and there have been swingers even since steel shafts became the norm (Ernie Els comes to mind). So trying to give you a complete answer -- especially in a blog post -- isn't very likely.

Still, I think I can give you enough info that you can answer that third question. So let's get on with it.

Question 1) The simplest way to define the two is in terms of the swing's length. A practical and easy-to-remember dividing line is a three-quarter swing, as defined by the position of hands on a clock face.
  • For a righthander, a 3/4 swing is a 10:30 swing -- that is, at the top of your backswing -- your lead arm points halfway between the 10 and the 11.
  • For a lefthander, a 3/4 swing is a 1:30 swing -- that is, at the top of your backswing -- your lead arm points halfway between the 1 and the 2.
A swing shorter than that is a hitter's swing, and longer than that is a swinger's swing.

Why is that my dividing line? Because it effectively explains many of the other differences:
  • Hitters focus on power because it takes a lot of effort to create clubhead speed in a short time. Swingers focus on rhythm because the longer swing length allows them to speed up more gradually.
  • Hitters use stiffer shafts because that's the only way to control the force needed to create speed quickly. Swingers use softer shafts because the shafts load more slowly, thus they need to respond under less force.
  • Hitters use leverage to load the stiffer shafts. Swingers use momentum from centrifugal (and centripetal) force to load the shafts.
  • Hitters use less hand and wrist action because they want to focus the force on the shaft itself. Swingers use more hand and wrist action because they use motion to control the force placed on the shaft.
  • Hitters tend to swing flatter, as a more rotary swing creates more leverage by using the hips and legs as the primary power source. Swingers tend to swing upright, as the swing arc is bigger and makes it easier to create a big shoulder turn, which uses the momentum of the club as the primary power source. Note that both swings use both power sources, but in different ways. Sam Snead, for example, knew both swings and was a long driver regardless of which one he used.
Now there are other differences as well, and many of them are specific to certain teaching methods. But as a general rule, the motions are the same -- it's the player's mindset that makes the difference. The player's mental approach determines, for example, whether he (or she) feels the takeaway as his hands and arms pushing the club away from the ball (that's a hitter) or his hands and arms being pulled away from the ball (that's a swinger). Because steel shafts have been the norm since the late 1920s, most of us tend to think like hitters...

Which is a shame, because we now have the technology to make shafts ideally suited to the swinging motion, which is much easier on the average player's body. (Snead said the hardest thing his generation ever had to do was change from hickory to steel shafts. It took Byron Nelson to figure out the primary techniques, over a period of years during the 1930s.) As it stands, true swinging is something of a lost art these days, so it's difficult for players to really have a choice.

Question 2) You can often tell which swing an instructor teaches simply by looking at the length of the swing he teaches. But the truth is that most teachers, even those using some form of the classic swing, tend to teach a hybrid swing that doesn't use the most effective moves of the classic swing. Most classic teaching is based on a book by Ernest Jones, which wasn't published until 1935, roughly eight years after steel shafts became the standard in club manufacture.

In other words, it's actually much easier to find a "hitting" teacher than a "swinging" teacher. Your best chance of finding a "swinging" teacher is to find instructors taught by the late Jim Flick or the late Manuel de la Torre. Bob Toski, who is still alive, also teaches more of a swinging technique, as does Pete Cowen. (At least, his teachings that I'm familiar with seem to be more classic.) I'm sure there are others, but those four are perhaps the best known.

Question 3) Look at your body type and your physical attributes and limitations. These are your best guide. As a general rule, hitters tend to be stocky and less flexible while swingers tend to be thin and flexible. Many pros have back pain because they try to combine the two, creating a huge arc while creating a lot of leverage. Lower backs simply aren't built to handle that kind of stress, especially when you spend hours each day lifting cars and then more hours pumping all that added strength through your lower back on the range.

So here's what I'd recommend for you aspiring hitters out there:

The 3/4 swing puts you in a stronger position to create leverage without straining your back. Making a 90° shoulder coil is the MAXIMUM you want to create; something around 80° is safer. From that position, you can unleash almost as hard as you want without overstressing your back muscles. Just give yourself enough time to finish your backswing. While I hesitate recommending a pause like Hideki Matsuyama has, I'd rather see that than a jerky change of direction since that will hurt your back and also mess up your accuracy.

As for you slim flexible folks who also want to hit the ball, just be aware that you'll need to put in some gym work, especially for your forearms and shoulders. You'd be better to use a hybrid swing like Bubba Watson, who goes very upright and pulls down with high hands rather than around with low hands. That will put less stress on your back. Note that as hard as Bubba swings, we've not heard of him having any chronic back problems.

So there you go. I hope that gives you all some idea how to tell the two swings apart and get the kind of instruction you want. But remember that you can learn from almost any teacher, as long as you understand what kind of swing they're teaching.


  1. Mike, can you speak more on the swinger preference and feeling the club pull the hands back. I've been taking lessons from a student of Manuel, and he says 'use the hands to take the clubhead back, then swing the entire club forward.' Also, any youtubes on good swinging motions?

    1. Sounds like a post, Dana. Look for something in a day or so.

  2. Very helpful Mike. I've struggled between both techniques - never really knowing which approach is correct. Historically I've been a hitter, but lately I've switched to more of a swinging motion. Years ago, a friend of mine said to "pull the club down like it's a string on a balloon." It wasn't until recently I began to apply the concept. In my case, it made for much easier golf. I experienced the following benefits:
    1. Easy power, ball will often sizzle off the club.
    2. MUCH easier on the back!
    3. Helps with weight transfer onto the left side; you're never 'staying back' to "hit" the ball.
    4. Hands naturally stay in front of the club head; causing better, more consistent contact in all turf conditions.
    6. Easier to hit down / trap ball (with irons)
    7. Better accuracy
    8. Easier on the back
    9. Easier on the back
    10. Easier on the back!!!

    Unfortunately, there is very little golf instruction that explains how to actually 'power' a golf club - and I've been puzzled by it for years. So much golf instruction starts with stance, grip, posture, distance from the ball, ball position, head position, spine angle... and then once thats all correct, one simply has to "swing". Well, what does "swing" actually mean? I'm aware of 4 different ways to "swing" (i.e. 'power') a golf club.

    Your post is a very insightful, and this concept should be one of the first golf lessons taught by instructors. Because swinging is not intuitive, hitting is. But in my case, learning to 'swing' has been a game changer.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I don't know that one method is more correct than the other, but I think swinging is easier on your body and gives you more bang for your buck.

  3. Just found this post...
    Would you consider Jimmy Ballards method of moving the golf club swinging or hitting?

    1. As I said in the post, there are a lot of variables to consider. But if I was forced to choose, I think I'd consider Ballard's approach (and Hogan's as well) as hitting, although you can certainly use a lot of the basic concepts he teaches in a swinging approach.

      The main reason I'd say he teaches hitting is how how hard he uses the legs in the swing. Although a swinging motion certainly uses the legs, I think the legs are more relaxed and don't drive as hard when you 'swing'.

    2. Thanks for your response. Really enjoy your insight and the way you communicate. Just started Ruthless Putting and look forward to all your writings..

    3. Thanks for the kind words, Chuck. And have a good Thanksgiving!