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Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Straight Trailing Knee of the Legendary Hitters (Video)

This is a long one today because I'm actually reposting THREE different posts about the same topic -- the first from 2014, the second from 2016 and the third from 2019. Over the years I have gradually become a fan of straightening your trailing knee during your swing and these posts summarize that shift. When you stop learning, you stop growing!

But I've included all three simply because they focus on different benefits that come from this simple leg movement which we see during the swings of so many legends. Video footage of Arnie's swing is included in the first two posts, and you can see how much shoulder and hip turn he gets without his body moving forward or backward very much -- that is, his body stays very centered between his feet (no swaying) while he 'uses the ground' the way many players now do. He creates a lot of hip and shoulder turn this way.

In the first post from 2014, I compared Arnie's swing to Bubba's -- two power hitters getting their distance in very different ways but with some obvious similarities...

Did any of you see the 3-part series GC did on Arnold Palmer? It was pretty interesting, wasn't it? Many of you may not have realized just how much of a power hitter Arnie was in his heyday until you saw some of the old footage.

I'm sure many of you have also been wondering how to hit it "Bubba long." The fact is, Bubba has a big start on most of us since he's 6'3" tall. But Arnie was only 5'10" -- fairly average among men. Perhaps we might learn more by looking at the King's swing.

Here's a video from the Somax Performance Institute that analyzes Arnie's downswing when he was at the height of his powers. I'll admit upfront that while I find the analysis interesting and I suspect many of you will learn useful things from it... I'm not really using any of it. But this video provided a photo of the King at the top of his backswing, and that's what I needed for this post. So enjoy the video, then read on!

As I said, I'm focusing on the moment Arnie reaches the top of his backswing because I want you to see where many, maybe most of you are losing a whole lot of power. I want you to see a fundamental that should be part of every golf swing. In the next photo I've drawn a bright yellow line through Arnie's trailing knee at the top of his backswing:

position of Arnie's knee at top of backswing

Do you see where Arnie's trailing knee is? That line shows that his knee is still inside his trailing foot, not over it. And do you see where his trailing hip is? It's even more inside his trailing foot! Let me repeat that: Arnie's trailing hip is not OVER his trailing foot, nor is it OUTSIDE his trailing foot. It is well INSIDE his trailing foot!

Why is this? It's because he has braced his trailing knee so it doesn't move away from the target as he makes his backswing. And if you watch his swing in the video, you'll see that his knee never moves more toward his trailing foot than it is in this photo. This stability not only keeps him driving toward the target during his downswing, thus creating more power, but it stabilizes his swing plane so more of that power is applied accurately to the ball.

Now, in case you're curious, here's a photo of Bubba at the top of his backswing from a 2012 Golf Digest swing sequence. (This is photo #4, in case you want to know.) I've also drawn a bright yellow line through his trailing knee:

position of Bubba's knee at top of backswing

Why is Bubba's trailing knee OVER his trailing foot? There are two reasons:
  • Bubba's trailing knee is bent while Arnie's is straight. Although most instructors (and me too!) generally like for you to keep a little flex in your knees throughout your swing, that almost-straight trailing knee is pretty common in classic swings. (You can see it in Tommy Armour's How to Play Your Best Golf All of the Time, for example, and that was considered THE instructional guide before Hogan wrote Five Lessons.)
  • Bubba has turned his upper body -- and therefore his hips -- considerably more than Arnie has. Arnie looks like he has maybe 95-100 degrees of shoulder turn while Bubba easily has 110 degrees or more.
But notice that even with his body twisted so much that his trailing knee has moved over his foot, Bubba's trailing hip is STILL inside his trailing foot. Most of us mere humans won't get that much turn; if we get as much as Arnie, we'll be doing good!

This trailing knee position is a fundamental you should have in your golf swing. At worst, your trailing hip has to stay "between your feet" and not slide out over or past your trailing foot. If you want power, you've got to get in this powerful position.

If it helped Arnold Palmer drive the green on the 346-yard par-4 first hole in the final round of the 1960 US Open at Cherry Hills with a balata ball and a persimmon driver, it's got to help you get more distance.

In the next post from 2016, right after Arnie's death, I focused on how he had very little lateral movement (no swaying) while still creating a lot of up-and-down movement (using the ground)...

We're all still a bit shocked at Arnie's passing so I thought I'd just post some footage of his early golf swing today. You'll see Arnie during a GC golf broadcast, along with Rich Lerner and Nick Faldo. Unfortunately this video cuts off some of what Arnie said near the end. (You do hear him mention "keeping his head still." I'll have more on that in a moment.)

In keeping with what I've been posting about using your hands more in your swing, please note that Arnold Palmer -- who was one of the longest drivers of his day -- used his arms and hands quite a bit at impact. (I should note that, while "keeping your head still" is generally bad advice with a modern swing, I've noted in my classic swing study that my head does feel more steady when I use my arms and hands more -- the key word here being "feel". You can see that Arnie's head swivels quite a bit during his swing.)

If you start watching at around the :55 second mark, you'll see his swing in slo-mo against the grid below. And if you watch the line that goes down just behind his lead hip, you'll see that he doesn't have the dramatic forward hip drive that so many instructors teach. Yet he still gets fully onto his lead side.

That's because he doesn't drive toward the target, but rather keeps his lead knee bent when he starts his downswing and PUSHES UP to create the power at impact. This is how Sam Snead did it as well, and it's much easier on your back than a forward shift. That move also encourages more arm and hand action.

Arnie's swing may have been homegrown but it was much simpler than most swings taught these days. We'll be learning from the King for years to come.

Finally, this post from earlier this year focused on the number of legends who used this 'straightening' technique and how medical science has actually found that it minimizes back problems...

There's a fairly long article over at about whether you should straighten your trail knee during your backswing or not. As you can see from the photos below, both Palmer and Nicklaus did it.

Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus at top of backswing

In fact, the article shows photos of 14 different players who won 44 majors making this very move -- including not only Palmer and Nicklaus but also Snead, Player, Hogan, Trevino and Watson among their number. So why have we been taught to keep flex in both knees during our backswing when so many of the greats have not?

Instructor Bob Grissett says it's because we erroneously believed a theory that said hip turn should be restricted during the backswing. He says it is the single most damaging idea in golf instruction ever.

One reason I'm pointing this out is because he says this is a major cause for back problems in the golf swing. He writes:
An article published in February 2019 by Michelle Roberts, health editor for BBC News online, warns of how this restricted type of golf swing could play havoc with your back and put extra strain on your spine, according to U.S. doctors at the Barrow Neurological Institute.
Dr Walker [from Barrow] said: “We believe Tiger Woods’s experience with spinal disease highlights a real and under-recognized issue among modern era golfers. Tiger was using the mechanics of the modern day swing and that places a tremendous amount of strain on the back. It’s still a theory but we are starting to see the late stages of this in some of our patients. We are seeing younger and younger elite level golfers with degeneration in their lower back.”
He said any golfer, elite or not, who experienced pain should seek expert help.
The right knee extending and the left leg flexing forward on the backswing gives the hips freedom to turn by creating “hip slants.” Another benefit of the back-leg extending is that it helps you maintain your inclination toward the ball established at address.
For those of you interested in reading the entire article, here's the link to it at It has many illustrations to make the explanations clearer.

But the point of this post is that if you want to avoid back pain, you should start by allowing your hips to turn freely in your backswing. I learned long ago that just turning your trail foot outward rather than keeping it perpendicular to your toe line allows you to turn your hips more and it takes a lot of stress off your back. That's something that many instructors have recommended to older players for a long time.

Ironically, it also tends to encourage a straightening of your trail knee as your hips turn. Who knew?

Well, now you do. Live and learn!

So I've become a convert to the 'straighten your trail knee' method of swinging because it has so many advantages and so few liabilities. When you consider how simple, how natural and how physically EASY it is to do, and how it can make you more flexible in your swing so you have less back trouble, it has become one of my recommended swing fundamentals.

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