Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Make A Dynamic Transition To Great Golf

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First, some swing thoughts from three golfing legends:


[…] Initiating the downswing with the hips is of such critical importance that many top-rung golfers, sensing that their timing will be better accommodated, start to turn their hips to the left a fraction of a second before the club reaches the top of the backswing. There’s nothing wrong with this. It amounts to a permissible personal modifcation and it underlines, if anything, the salient fact that under no conditions should the downswing be inaugurated by the hands

Ben Hogan, Five Lessons, The Modern Fundamentals of Golf

The very best players actually start forward with the lower body before the upper body has quite completed the backswing. The club is still moving back as the lower body moves toward the target, and the legs are well into the downswing by the time the upper body begins to work. But that sequence requires exquisite timing. I don’t recommend it to most players. I prefer to think about finishing the backswing, then starting down with the hips. It’s possible to move the lower body too fast on the downswing, in which case the arms never catch up or you overuse your shoulders, but I don’t see that happening much with weekend players. They usually need to think more about the lower body starting down.

[…] Golfers wonder when the hands and wrists should uncock. The hands and wrists cannot begin to release the club too early as long as your weight has shifted onto your left foot and your hips continue to turn. Don’t worry about unhinging the hands and wrists—centrifugal force causes that to happen naturally. It’s a result of retaining your left-side tension starting down. Most golfers stay over on the right foot too long, throw the right shoulder outward and hit from the top. Their shots lack both power and direction

Tom Watson, Getting Back To Basics

"The change of directions into the downswing is where a good swing is made. The whole feeling of the backswing was of turning the right side against the resistance of the left side and the right knee. Now the roles are reversed. The right shoulder is in a potentially destructive, dominant position. The feeling now is of setting up resistance in the right shoulder, leg, and foot and pulling against this resistance. Swinging against this resistance the club has a maximum chance of attacking the ball on the correct plane from the inside.

[…] Now for the feel of the change of directions. The whole plane of the left arm and club drops to bring the club down behind me. The feeling, shown here, is far more pronounced than what shows in the action pictures. The angle in the right wrist is still fully maintained back on itself, the right elbow drops into the side of the body and is kept well behind me. This gives the classic space seen between left arm and right elbow in almost every good player. This demonstrates the feeling of a true ‘late hit position’ – from which the club head is going to attack the ball very much from behind me and not down the line. From here I can really throw it out and deliver power with the right hand

Nick Faldo, Golf - The Winning Formula

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Tell it like it is, gentlemen. Or is it?

There they are, three historic passages (to be carefully reviewed) on the ‘change of directions’ or transition from backswing to downswing, from three of the greatest golfers in history. As a matter of fact, these men comprise my personal Top Three golf instructors, with Jack Nicklaus in Golf My Way running a close fourth. But as much as I admire these outstanding player/teachers, and despite the fact that—with their help—my handicap/index is rapidly approaching the '6 and Under' category, I'm afraid I can’t in good conscience say that I owe them any significant debt of gratitude, for three main reasons:

(1) I’ve already paid my golf dues in full: studying, journaling, and rehearsing their techniques in a period spanning more than 15 years on the practice range, not to mention hitting countless golf balls. I’ve served my time in hacker hell, in other words, from Texas to Tucson to Tonopah. Plus, I bought their books.

(2) I’m not sure any of these dudes really understands—in scientific terms—what it is they’re actually doing (except how to win majors, of course). Hogan never attended college, Nicklaus dropped out of Ohio State, and Faldo quit the University of Houston after only 10 weeks. I’d cut Watson some slack for his Stanford degree in Psychology, but c’mon Tommy… Psychology? The golf swing is pure Physics, for Hogan's sake.

(3) They’re all as rich as King Midas, and they can pay their own damn debts.

In case the reader is not already aware, the insidious problem with written (or verbal) golf instruction, is that you can read passages like those provided above ten thousand times, and then march straight out to the links and shoot a 65—for nine holes. You can literally comprehend the language, but unfortunately language evolved to facilitate communication between human brains, not to describe the sensations generated in your own body, and hence brain, during the golf swing. Language was designed by committee, in other words, no pun intended, and everybody knows how useless committees can be. Just watch C-SPAN for a week.

Moreover, I cannot count how many times I’ve practiced hard and ‘re-discovered’ something Hogan said, or Watson said, or Faldo said, only to LOSE IT, VANISHED, GONE—a day or two later. Just ask my Dad. Watson was right, Dad! It IS like dancing in a barrel! (Okay, it never got THAT crazy, but then again I wasn’t raised in redneck Kansas, and you get the point.) And at the risk of further exposing my pathetic practicing pathology in public, I’ll even admit to kissing the ground in joyful reverence—KISSING THE GROUND, MIND YOU—after hitting upon a swing key that resulted in me hitting upon numerous greens, for example. I wouldn’t even do a quick scan for fire ants or territory-marking dogs. (Homo sapiens, yes. Particularly females.) I'd just drop to my knees and… MMMwah! (Yuck! Patooie!)

Ahhh. The sweet memories of the long summer nights at Jimmy Clay G.C. in Austin, Texas. Now where was I.

Oh yes. Here we are. The DYNAMIC TRANSITION. (ALL CAPS are allowed after reading Hogan’s book, so stick it.) What is physically happening in the golf swing? How can Lilliputian Tim Clark possibly compete (and triumph!) against Brobdingnagian Ernie Els? From whence doth the prodigious power and ballerina balance of the PGA pros emanate…tith? (Sorry, Thor, but it’s not only from your sledgehammer Mjolnir, with its hot face, and it's definitely not from one-eyed Pappy Odin.) The power to drive a golf ball 300 yards stems from the ENERGY and MOMENTUM of the swing motion, my friends, and these scientific concepts have been understood by physicists dating back to Isaac Newton’s time. And that was centuries before Old Tom Morris chunked his first niblick. (Power is merely energy expended, or generated, per unit time, so let's clear up that simple relationship lickety-split.)

Now listen here. The golf swing starts from rest. No energy at address, correct? Wrong. Is there any energy in Hunter Mahan's super-charged Chevy Nova, idling next to you at the stoplight? Of course there is. Plenty of energy waiting for the gas pedal to hit the floorboard. Likewise, there exists plenty of potential energy in the musculature of your body at address, or in proper Physics terms, potential work. No, I’m not talking about the daily 8-to-6 grind (or the 11-to-3 bump—including a 2-hour lunch—if you’re a banker, a member of Congress, or a corporate CEO). Pay attention please, because we’re talking Physics here. Force applied along a Path = Force multiplied by Distance = Work = Energy. For example, imagine a box of Titleists sitting at rest on a frictionless, icy surface. Apply 10 pounds of force with your hockey stick to accelerate the box through a distance of 1 foot and you've just added 10 foot-lbs of kinetic energy to the box, which now whizzes away at a constant velocity (the value of which can also be calculated, but we'll let the boys at Titleist do that, since they know exactly how much that box of balls weighs). In other words, you've expended 10 foot-lbs of your muscle energy (or 13.6 Joules) to perform 10 foot-lbs of 'work' on the box, which now has 10 foot-lbs of kinetic energy. Energy is always conserved, you see. Work has the same physical units as energy, because it IS energy, Noonan. The great mechanical engineer Gustave Coriolis first formulated the concept of mathematical work, which is probably why your head is spinning.

In the golf swing, energy is expended by muscular contraction to ‘reconfigure’ the limbs and joints of the body from their starting positions at address, to the ‘positions’ they achieve at the top of the backswing. I purposely single-quoted the word positions because there are no STATIC positions in the golf swing, other than the start, and the finish, and even these aren’t really static in the true Physics sense. It is the entire purpose of this article, in fact, to argue that the top of the backswing is a bi-directional dynamic state, not a complete stop, or even a pause. Those are mistaken perceptions from a naïve outsider’s point of view, and I guarantee you that no top-flight player thinks about pausing at the top of the backswing—not even a little bit.

So like a rotary Space Shuttle blasting off, we've now begun our backswing; we're exerting our muscles and expending metabolic energy to impart the kinetic energy of motion to our limbs, trunk, and club, thus accelerating them away from their address orientations in the hopes of achieving a dynamic, 'fully loaded' body configuration at the top. (I'll explain my definition of fully loaded in due time, and it has nothing to do with vodka and orange juice.) It's important to recognize that we're NOT 'coiling up' like a watch spring, contrary to what many golf teachers say, because the human body has no spring-like compliance to speak of. Instead, we've embarked on a 'multi-body' dynamics exercise, and thus we can invoke Galileo and observe that the parts of our body being moved have mass, or inertia, and even moments-of-inertia, the last being the concept of translational mass expressed in rotational terms. It requires energy to zoom the box of Titleists off in a straight line, and similarly it takes energy to swing your left arm around in an arc centered at the pivot formed by the left shoulder socket. Your left arm has a translational mass, in other words, which you could measure by cutting it off and placing it on a scale, something I don't recommend, but it also has a rotational inertia, which is a measure of its 'resistance' (a word Faldo and David Leadbetter employ literally to death) to being swung—more technically precise, accelerated—around the shoulder socket.

I know... now your head is really spinning. Never fear, dear reader, it only gets more complicated from here. Please regrip if you must, and hang on. You want to hit long, straight drives, don't you? Well okay then.

We’re currently suspended in motion, in mid-backswing as it were, like the Shuttle clearing its launch pad, and soon we'll be arriving at ‘the top’ of our backswing. It is a perfect time to revisit—and utterly refute—this ubiquitous (albeit sorely mistaken) backswing metaphor of ‘coiling-up’ and 'storing energy' like a torsional spring. If he didn't launch the metaphor originally, the genius Hogan certainly fell prey to this popular misunderstanding:

Some prominent golfers advocate taking a big turn with the hips. I don’t go along with this. If the hips are turned too far around, then you can create no tension in the muscles between the hips and the shoulders. A golfer wants to have this tension; he wants the mid-section of his body to be tightened up, for this tension is the key to the whole downswing. The downswing, you see, is initiated by turning the hips back to the left. When you have this stored-up tension in the muscles between the hips and the shoulders (and in the muscles of the thighs that work with the hips), you have something with which you can begin the downswing. (This tension will, in fact, automatically help you to pull you down into the ball.) As the hips turn back to the left, this turning motion increases their tension. IT IS THIS INCREASED TENSION THAT UNWINDS THE UPPER PART OF THE BODY. IT UNWINDS THE SHOULDERS,THE ARMS AND THE HANDS IN THAT ORDER, THE CORRECT ORDER. IT HELPS THE SWING SO MUCH IT MAKES IT ALMOST AUTOMATIC. Your shoulders, arms, and hands enter into the swing just when and as they should. They’re already loaded with the tension (and power) they’ve stored up. They’re all set to release it.”

I have nothing but immense respect for my #1 golfing hero Ben Hogan, but in this passage from his epochal book Five Lessons, he is simply incorrect. Lacking any formal education in Physics, Hogan did his best, dictating to Herbert Warren Wind manning the typewriter, and wound up intimately conveying his own imaginative personal feelings about the backswing, instead of an accurate portrayal of bio-mechanics. Sadly, due to the paperback's massive publishing success since 1957, I fear this false impression of what is actually happening in the golf swing has wasted the practice time of thousands, perhaps even millions of golf students. I sincerely hope I'm wrong; in any event, the good information in Hogan's masterpiece far, far outweighs the not-so-good. In my opinion, Hogan's timeless depiction of the 'swing-plane' concept in Five Lessons is what secures this book's—and The Hawk's—places in golf history.

As mentioned earlier, there is no 'stored-up tension' or reservoir of spring-like energy, in the muscles of the human body. Vertebrate muscles do not work like this, and they are NOT compliant in this fashion, to any degree worth talking about, in the golf swing. Let me restate this, because if I'm to refute the winner of 9 major tournaments, including four U.S. Opens and the Triple Crown in 1953, I want to be crystal clear about it.

Human limbs and muscles can certainly be placed into something resembling a state of 'axial tension', in engineering terms; just ask any atheist tortured in the Spanish Inquisition—at your next séance, for instance. And yes, golfers may certainly FEEL as if they're being tortured... er, stretched like a rubber band in the backswing. But there will be no energetic SNAP-BACK: no automatic RETURN or 'release' of any energy whatsoever—as there would be with a real tension spring or rubber band. There simply never was any 'stored-up' muscle-based energy at the top of Hogan's backswing, or for that matter any backswing, to begin with. And as we will discuss soon, there is absolutely nothing 'automatic' about the golf swing, particularly the release of energy, unless we're talking about the flexing behavior of the club shaft. The analogy of the human body wound-up like a coiled spring—was merely a fig-Newton of Hogan's brilliantly creative mind.

Do you want visual proof? Dig out your golf tapes from a few years ago. The great Tiger Woods, whose magnificent backswing is perhaps the most athletic, fully loaded golf-move in history, occasionally just STOPPED COMPLETELY at the top, with nary a problem; he then simply dropped his arms to his sides, with a bit of a scowl on his handsome face perhaps, when he heard distracting cameras clicking in the gallery. If Tiger's muscles contained stored-up compliant (spring-like) energy, I dare say there would have already been several people maimed or killed at his PGA tour events, due to 180 mile-per-hour misfired Howitzer shots. I don't have Tiger's flexibility, but I can easily freeze at the top of my own backswing, and hold my pose without undue strain for an entire minute (or more!) if need be, and then merely relax comfortably back into a standing position, with no sudden 'release' of stored-up energy. I haven't had any 150 mph misfires, either (at least not due to 'automatic' muscular 'snap-back'). There simply ISN'T energy of this nature available at the top, folks. It's a myth.

And since we're presently nearing the top, let's take a moment and examine what kinds of energy ARE available—to generate power through impact.

I’ll begin this next section with a caveat. It is definitely possible to play golf sans backswing. One could stand over the ball, placing their body into a ‘static’ configuration that resembles a baseball batter or cricketeer, and simply have a rip at it. Sandy Lyle tried this technique for a while on the PGA Tour, in fact (without much success, it must be noted). I’ve experimented with it myself. So it is indeed possible, and any discussion of a dynamic transition would therefore be moot in such a case. Or would it? I’d wager that the Konica Minolta Bizhub Swing Vision camera (that Peter Kostis of CBS Golf employs) would reveal an altogether different picture, with considerable bi-directional dynamics in Lyle’s move back to the ball, including a ‘mini-transition’ weight shift to his front leg. A slow-motion look at Barry Bond’s swing, or any accomplished batsman, would verify this assertion. As the pitcher hurls the baseball towards home plate, a proficient batter prepares for it by ‘winding up’ his shoulders and arms (against the resistance of his knees and feet—but not like a spring, dude!) a bit further than they were before the pitch, in a move quite similar to a golf backswing. Everything else being equal, however, the absence of a backswing virtually guarantees less power in the strike, and very likely less directional control, for the vast majority of golfers, pro and amateur alike.

Why? The first, best answer is because of the dynamics of visco-elastic shaft loading and unloading. (I know, your brain is now visco-elastic jelly. Don’t worry, I’ll hopefully firm things up in a jiffy.) Another prime consideration would be the difficulty in avoiding an ‘over-the-top’ or ‘outside-in’ approach plane at impact; because a golf swing where the club fails to ‘drop down’ to a more inside or ‘flatter’ approach plane, caused by the dynamic reversal of directions, is prone to wildly careening banana slices and/or smother hooks. Let’s face it, a backswing-less golf swing IS essentially ‘hitting from the top’, and you need only pick up nearly any issue of Golf Digest Magazine, or another golf journal, to comprehend the problems with this common swing misery.

Yet another good answer would be the lack of consistent rhythm and balance inherent in a golf swing that starts from rest at the top. Baseball batters need to react to a given pitch, and hence don’t have the time to perform any sort of rhythmic backswing. In golf, the ball is always in basically the same place: motionless on the ground between your feet. I’ll surmise that the human body is capable of performing a backswing-less motion repeatably, with years of hard training perhaps, but without the dynamic pause or ‘lag’ produced by a dynamic transition, the human brain is simply overtaxed by the complexity and split-second timing of the required sequence of events. Hogan recognized this:

AFTER YOU HAVE INITIATED THE DOWNSWING WITH THE HIPS, YOU WANT TO THINK OF ONLY ONE THING: HITTING THE BALL.   […]   Consciously trying to control the face of the club at impact is folly. You cannot time such a delicate and devilish thing. It happens too fast, much too fast.”

If, as Hogan implies, there is capacity for only one thought during the downswing (HIT THE BALL, Noonan!), then a precise synchronization of the myriad components of the complex chain-of-events in the downswing—is simply too damn difficult, and occurs way too damn fast, for human brains to fathom. In a swing starting at the top, the golfer’s hands will immediately dominate and squeeze tightly, locking up the arms, and the right shoulder will come over-the-top instead of ‘underneath’, in a vain attempt to accelerate or ‘download’ the club to produce shaft speed at impact. A quick look back at Hogan’s original quote in this essay tells us that “...under no conditions should the downswing be inaugurated by the hands.” I agree wholeheartedly. It is folly. Watson agrees as well:

A lot of fairly good players try to start everything down together: feet, hips, arms, shoulders. I made the mistake of trying to do that myself for several years with no great success. If you start everything down together, there is a strong tendency to throw the clubhead at the ball with the right hand too soon, dissipating your power and not helping your accuracy, either. I converted to starting down with the lower body and became both longer and straighter.”

What Watson really means to say, in my opinion, is that he stopped pausing at the top, and began employing a truly dynamic, bi-directional transition in his swing. In fact, I would modify Hogan’s statement somewhat, by blending in a touch of Watson:

After you have initiated the DYNAMIC TRANSITION by retaining your left-side (and left arm) tension starting down, you want to think of only one thing: firing (or throwing the club with) your right arm (and right hand) through impact.

It may be golf apostasy, but I don’t much care for Ben’s hips-oriented downswing key, truth be told. I don’t believe it’s a very easy or 'natural' move for homo sapiens to understand, particularly when singled-out, in Hogan reductionist fashion, from the rest of the transition mechanics (except maybe for talented hicks like Byron Nelson or Stanford-grad Kansans raised on barrel-dancing). I believe it ultimately distracts a student's attention from firing the right side and making solid contact with the golf ball, and I don’t think very many people have developed, or can develop, an intuitive feel for the isolated motion of their hips, the way Hogan did, after literally decades of practice. The leg-action is a critical part of the deal, too, and many young players (and beginners) end up SHIFTING or SWAYING their hips and knees toward the target, much too far in advance of the progress of their upper bodies (rather than turning or swiveling them properly), and this results in loss of power, and pushed or ‘blocked’ shots to the right (for right-handers), in addition to the infamous ‘reverse-C’ finish position that puts a strain on so many lower backs.

Additionally, Hogan's assertion that the downswing will proceed automatically once the hips have been rotated is a patently false notion, and I'll also take this opportunity to chastise Tom Watson for his own false assertion that "In a good swing, release happens naturally, through centrifugal force." No, Dr. Watson, I'm afraid it simply does not. The right arm and hand accelerate the club into impact in a good swing, or at least up until a moment just prior to impact, where the (rear hand) fingers can then virtually 'let go' ala Vijay Singh's right hand, or southpaw Phil Mickelson's left hand. Bantam Ben had this part correct, with his famous comment in Five Lessons: "As far as applying power goes, I wish that I had THREE right hands!" As stipulated earlier, there is no AUTOMATIC (or natural) anything in the golf swing. There is absolutely no free lunch (or launch). What Watson may not have understood at the time of writing his book, is that any centrifugal force being generated near impact disappears immediately when the force being applied by the hands disappears. This tired expression called 'the release', whatever the intended meaning might be—and I'm here to tell you I don't much like the phrase because you won't find it in Physics, may indeed FEEL natural to Watson, but Isaac Newton said Force = Mass X Acceleration, and that means if you got no force, you got no acceleration. (And without acceleration, you got nothin'... at least in the sport of golf.)

The club doesn't 'free-wheel' through impact on its own merit; the clubhead transfers momentum to the ball because the club's own momentum is being GENERATED by the physically applied forces of the body, arms, and hands. I literally spent years trying to find a 'natural' wrist-release, or some type of magical, automatic uncocking of my wrists, until I finally realized that this is pure bollocks: you have to 'release' the club YOURSELF, by vigorously, consciously, and directly applying power with your arms and hands, either the right, the left, or both. (Golfers with only one (front side) arm can shoot par, too.) Henceforth, I'll stick with Watson's humorous expression "Kill the pig!" instead, because I know I'll be hitting hard with my right hand in that metaphorical barnyard scenario.

Well, we've digressed somewhat and gotten a little ahead of ourselves, so it's time to swing back to our backswing, which is now only a heartbeat away from the top.

To separate out the dynamics of the club shaft at this important juncture, in the hopes of avoiding unnecessary confusion, let’s do a Gedanken or thought experiment, and right before our backswing is complete we magically find ourselves Vardon gripping a Taylor Made R9 driver with an infinitely stiff shaft. Yes, the engineers at Fujikura finally did it—they invented a club shaft that simply does not flex (which is impossible, of course). Even Brock Lesnar couldn’t bend, torque, or load this sci-fi driver no matter how hard he tried. With this equipment change, we can greatly simplify the answer to our earlier question, regarding what kinds of energy are available at the top of a ‘fully loaded’ backswing. We’ve just finished busting the pop-cultural myth that the muscles in our body behave like springs, and therefore we can rule out any sort of ‘stored-up’ or compliant energy at the top. So what’s left over?

It’s easy, Spackler. At the top of this hypothetical backswing we have the same situation we had at address: we can exert our muscles to create energy in the form of work, to once again launch the Space Shuttle and impart kinetic energy to our trunk and limbs; this time starting from a completely different geometrical configuration, and get the whole shebang—including the rigid R9 driver—moving in the reverse direction back to the ball. What we’ve really accomplished in the backswing, in Physics terms, is to essentially re-position our body and limbs to engender a lengthy return path for creating more work, and thus kinetic energy, in the downswing, by once again applying forces with our muscles. Just picture Barry Bonds in your head, complete with rigid wooden Louisville slugger in his hands, and then picture the baseball sailing out of Candlestick park. Voila! The downswing bio-mechanics of golf. (Assuming an infinitely stiff club, to be precise, which a bat imitates quite well.)

Let’s recap. (And we're still gripping the imaginary rigid driver, mind you.) From address, our muscles perform metabolic work on our body parts, which have mass, in order to impart kinetic energy to them. To speed them on their way to the top, in other words. This kinetic energy is NOT STORED-UP in a spring-like Hoganesque coil; in fact it is lost or DAMPED OUT, by whatever muscles act to slow down or decelerate our trunk and limbs—a slender moment before reaching the top of our backswing. Let's get real here, folks: if there were no muscles slowing down (decelerating) your backswing motion, you'd quite literally fall over on your arse. So I’ll say it one more time for the viewers at home, and please read carefully people, because the following two statements encapsulate the main topic of this entire essay:

The trunk and limbs are accelerated by the backswing, until at some point just prior to reaching the top, we STOP applying muscular forces in the backswing direction and BEGIN applying a sequence of muscular forces in the OPPOSITE direction, which decelerates the trunk and limbs, reverses their direction, and begins accelerating them back towards the ball. This most important of golf moves is called the dynamic transition.

To illustrate what's happening in the change of directions with a simple model, imagine a rotary spinner, or compass-type needle, fabricated from thick, heavy plate steel. The spinner (shown here to the left) is mounted on a radial ball-bearing, sits upon a table top, and can be spun (with some effort!) in either direction by grasping the smooth red Teflon-coated knob and applying torque with your thumb and forefinger. Due to the heavy metal construction of the spinner, and the lack of a knurled gripping surface on its central knob, you find that it requires all of your hand strength to twist the spinner and get it rotating slowly clockwise from its starting position (pointing straight down the page), towards Point A. In fact, well before the spinner arrives at Point A, you're forced to let go due to your fingers slipping excessively. The mass times angular velocity, or angular momentum of the spinner, keeps it rotating slowly clockwise at a constant speed, even though you've now released your grip on the knob. This represents very well the backswing in golf.

Then, a moment or two before the arrow reaches Point A, which represents the top of the backswing, you re-grip the knob suddenly and twist as hard as you can in the opposite direction, initially feeling the knob slipping clockwise in your fingers due to the heavy spinner's considerable angular momentum, yet still applying a sufficiently strong reverse torque to decelerate the spinner, slow it down, switch its direction, and then cause it to begin rotating slowly counter-clockwise towards Point B. Reversing the momentum of the spinner in this fashion represents almost perfectly what the muscles of your torso and body must accomplish in the dynamic transition.

What specifically does an expert golfer do to slow the progress of his backswing, and eventually enable a complete reversal of momentum? In a right-handed swing, assuming the head is held fairly steady as an 'inertial' constraint of sorts, the braced right knee joint performs this function, enabled by the right thigh muscles and the traction of the right foot. William Ben Hogan even went so far as to call his braced right knee one of the ‘the secrets’ to his swing. I agree unequivocally: it is a fundamental key. Englishman and 3-time Master's champion Nick Faldo didn't waste any words on the subject in The Winning Formula:

"They [the knees] very definitely resist the turn. The right one stays still."

If the rotation of the right knee is not constrained, the golfer may lose his balance (and in extreme cases, possibly even wobble or stumble) due to the unchecked momentum of his trunk, arms, and club. Furthermore, some other means of slowing the backswing will still be required, which usually ends up being some twisted, amateurish configuration of the legs anyway, because even a straightened right leg can provide a sufficiently resistive counter-torque for slowing the pivot of the trunk, if the right foot is kept from rotating (which is why spiked shoes are spiffy). A straightened right knee at the top is a very common ailment of amateur swings, and although it isn’t impossible to play quality golf from this position, it is certainly more difficult. Watson agrees: “Most golfers stay over on the right foot too long, throw the right shoulder outward and hit from the top. Their shots lack both power and direction.”

I believe Hogan was also quoted as saying he “ran his right knee” at the ball to increase his power, but in Physics terms all this means is that Hogan was increasing or amplifying the constraining forces in his right knee joint—to accommodate the increased momentum of his trunk and arms caused by a faster, more powerful backswing. Ben was simply swinging harder, and therefore needed a correspondingly greater level of resistive counter-torque from his right knee joint, in reaction.

Constraining (or ‘fixing’) the rotation of the right knee, therefore, is a very proficient means of decelerating the backswing, because this action limits the rotation of the right hip socket, which in turn, ultimately limits the shoulder rotation—since the torso muscles attach directly to the pelvis. Some golfers have more flexible trunks than others, and champions like Tiger Woods and Ernie Els can achieve greater than 90° shoulder turns with considerably less hip rotation than most humans. (This type of move also requires superior isometric strength, it should be noted.) Since we’ve already shown 'stored-up' spring-like ‘coil’ energy to be a red herring, there is no real power advantage to be gained in limiting hip rotation, as Snead, Watson and the Golden Bear Jack Nicklaus (in their big-hip-turn heydays) demonstrated beautifully, but I’ll surmise that a restricted hip turn helps Tiger and Ernie maintain better stability and overall balance in their swings, since their legs can stay in constant positions very close to the ones adopted at address. A more stable foundation, in other words, for the dynamic and unfettered “barrel rotation” taking place immediately above.

But now the REAL fun begins. The resistive reaction torque of the right knee not only initiates a bio-mechanical chain-of-events which decelerates the backswing, it also serves to damp out the kinetic energy we worked so damn hard to generate in the first place! OR DOES IT? What shaft are we gripping… does anybody remember? That’s correct: the really stiff one. Some time ago, right near the top of our backswing, we magically swapped-in the infinitely rigid-shafted R9 driver. If we were to complete our backswing holding this sci-fi club, then yes:  virtually every significant bit of our hard-earned backswing kinetic energy will be LOST, or in engineering terms damped out, when the change of directions occurs. What a tremendous waste! How can we preserve some of this energy, so that we can later RELEASE it (and I’m using the word ‘release’ correctly here) to increase our clubhead speed, at or near impact? How can we truly store-up this kinetic energy at the top, and give our hero The Wee Ice Mon a physically genuine burst of spring-like energy in his downswing?

If we are effective in employing the dynamic transition, all it takes is another equipment change—back to the real-world Fujikura shaft we started with. It can be rated as R (regular), S (stiff), or XS (extra-stiff), because every real-world driver shaft flexes to some degree, and this distortion includes components of both beam-like bending, and angular, torsional deflection of the tip & clubhead (erroneously called ‘torque’ in the golf marketing world). Simply put, we let our dynamic reversal of directions BEND or LOAD the golf club at the top—due to the fact that the clubhead inertia is still traveling with speed in the backswing direction, and our body, arms, and hands are now traveling in the opposite or downswing direction. So now at the top, rather than totally damping out and losing our energy, we allow our dynamic transition to physically LOAD UP the club shaft with a sizeable fraction of the kinetic energy generated in our backswing. We'll physically convert kinetic energy from our backswing motion and store it up, temporarily at least, in the form of compliance or strain energy in the visco-elastic shaft. One can easily observe the deflected "arc" shape of club shafts in snapshots of PGA pros at the top of their swings, or in slow-motion video.

Yes, boys and girls, now we are cooking with gas. So if any of your golfing friends ever advises you to "swing easy", they’re either plumb ignorant, or they're not really your friends. You see, modern golf is a SPORT, not a game of sillybodkins, and it requires athleticism and muscular effort. The sweet swing of one Theodore Ernest Els seems syrupy and slow because the guy is 6-feet 3-inches of MASSIVE, and he's exerting considerable, disciplined effort to accelerate his rugby-player's body, in near-flawless synchronization, and still maintain his GQ posture—not because his nickname is 'The Big Easy'. (Because IT AIN'T EASY, Smails. A Space Shuttle launch appears to be slow because it is HUGE, but its velocity is nearly one hundred miles-per-hour as it clears the launch tower.) Likewise, Nick Faldo's musical tempo stems directly from his own 6-foot 3-inch frame and well-muscled limbs, and from the Newtonian mechanics of his nearly-perfect swing technique and dynamic transition; not because he reads Keats aloud in the evenings after dinner. Good swing Physics produces good swing tempo. Man cannot seduce Mother Nature with improvisational swing ditties, because (1) it's never open-mike night on the PGA Tour, and (2) Ma's bouncer Master Inertia will kick your butt every time.

In fact, if you have a handicap/index greater than fifteen, I'll surmise right now that your best, most pro-like swings are your fastest and hardest swings—if they have any semblance of a brisk 'back and forth' motion to them, at least in terms of their dynamics; even if they don't look or FEEL correct, and even if your shot ends up in somebody's swimming pool. C'mon, admit it:  the angry Mulligan you virtually slaughtered down the sprinkler line, after failing miserably in your Geoff Ogilvy imitation and hitting that worm-burner on the first try... felt pretty damn good, didn't it? The smooth-swinging ladies on the LPGA tour like Paula Creamer swing very aggressively—perhaps even more aggressively than YOU, Alice. But don’t fret. More Physics help is on the way.

Although now, we’ll be breathing mostly rarified air—in our continuing metaphorical crusade towards the Great Golfing Juju of the Mountain. So lend me your ears, fellow climbers. If you’ve succeeded in making a truly dynamic change-of-directions, and have thus loaded your Fujikura shaft to the brim with elastic strain energy, besides its more mundane purpose of colliding with the golf ball and sending it rocketing into space, the club itself can be of additional service to your golf swing, in the following two ways:

1) As an effective balancing rod, in the manner of a tightrope walker;

2) As a tactile, mental (or cognitive) ‘adhesive’ for connecting the separate pieces of the swing together, to the point where things can seem almost Hogan-AUTOMATIC.

Before setting sail on Item (1), we must first make another stop on digression island. If you hadn’t been snoozing during our voyage, you might have tripped me up on a rather cryptic statement I made some time ago, in reference to—what else—the dynamic transition:  “…without the dynamic pause or ‘lag’ produced by a dynamic transition, the human brain is simply overtaxed by the complexity and split-second timing of the required sequence of events [of the downswing].”
What exactly did I mean by the word lag? Golf Guru David Leadbetter, in the opening scene of a brilliant (1990 VHS) video collaboration (called Nick Faldo's Golf Course Vol 2) with then-student Nick Faldo, made some very relevant but even more cryptic statements (and after hundreds of viewings, I can recall them almost perfectly from memory):

Retain the lag... that's what I want to see, really retain that angle to create more body rotational speed... Very good, Nick. They're separating there, you're actually feeling almost like your upper body is in a position where you can hit it there, and centrifugal force is now more of a part of you hitting the golf ball. Good. You delayed the angle really well on that one... you can see how you sustained it, held it off there, and the resistance and the torque are far greater at this point in time.”

Wouldn’t you, dear reader, like to get a feeling that YOUR OWN upper body is in a position “where you can hit it”? Trust me friend, this is not just idle banter. Once achieved, dynamic lag will rock your golfing world. The word ‘lag’, of course, refers to a pause or brief period of elapsed time, or a slight delay if you will, in the midst of the otherwise breakneck pace of the swing. Lag is something that results naturally (yes NATURALLY, Watson) from the Physics of a proper dynamic transition. I'll now characterize the phenomenon in a couple of ways, beginning with Sir Faldo's swipe from earlier:

"The feeling now is of setting up resistance in the right shoulder, leg, and foot and pulling against this resistance. Swinging against this resistance the club has a maximum chance of attacking the ball on the correct plane from the inside."

Saint Nick may have indeed FELT 'resistance' in his right shoulder, but in describing the exact same transition move, Dr. Watson felt a retention of "left side tension", so let's insert some real Physics and see if we can't untangle Nick's personal Jabberwocky. As luck would have it, 2.5 years ago I wrote an article about Sam Snead covering this topic, and here is an excerpt:

"The whole idea in the backswing is to rotate your shoulders (placing your back to the target), and at the same time sweep your left arm back while keeping it supple and relaxed. As the forward swing begins, the extended left arm can then imitate the action of a rope or a cable, and effectively PULL on the handle of the club in “axial tension.” Instead of the candlestick depicted in this image, imagine you have swung a heavy sledge back to the top of the backswing position shown. Now, as you begin the forward swing with your hips and shoulders, the large inertial mass of the sledgehammer will pull on your left arm significantly, and you will be unable to contaminate the motion of the sledge with extraneous hand action. When your left arm experiences “passive” tension in this manner, it will naturally drop nearly straight down and remain close to your chest (as Watson observed), and the shaft of the sledgehammer will automatically drop down as well. No manipulative hand action whatsoever should occur… the hands are merely “hanging on”, and the right elbow and wrist remain cocked yet essentially "quiet."

Once your left arm and club have dropped down in this Snead-inspired transition move, you are in a position familiar to all of the greatest golf swings in history. The club is now on an inside path back to impact, and you can simply step forward and unload the tremendous power and leverage stored in your unfolding right arm and hand, and your right forefinger can guide and literally fling the clubhead through the ball, in an uninhibited, freewheeling release… like you are delivering a crushing sledgehammer blow to the undercarriage of an old car. You will also notice that, in order to allow the inertia of the heavy sledge to pull on your left arm during the transition, you will have to shift your weight solidly and confidently onto your left (or front) foot—which is precisely where your weight should be at impact. Don’t “pull” actively with your left arm… allow it to be pulled, in rope-like tension, by the inertia of the golf club, so that it drops down naturally and stays close to your chest

In clear Physics terms, what Faldo, Watson, and I are all feeling in the dynamic reversal-of-directions is the Galilean ‘resistance’ to acceleration or INERTIA of the upper body, arms, and club. Faldo feels a "resisting sensation" in his right shoulder and right side; Watson feels a "pulling sensation" in his left arm and left side. I concur with Watson, because the left arm is the flesh and bone ‘rope’ connected most immediately to the golf club, and the axial tension developed in the left arm is grounded by the corresponding reaction force of the left shoulder joint, and hence transferred to the large muscles of the upper left back—or left ‘side’. Faldo’s tactile experience is equally valid, because the right and left shoulders are part of a unitary ‘triangle’ formed by the human trunk and arms—like a big dog’s wagging TAIL, to use David Leadbetter’s clever simile. Just like apes (and that's no simile because we ARE apes, Noonan), we have two symmetrical sides to our bodies; however, thanks to our clavicle and sternum bones, Physics demands that both shoulders accelerate rotationally as a unit—unless of course, you're some kind of circus freak. In short, Faldo feels his right side lagging behind his left, and Watson feels his left side pulling away from his right. The human brain is the leader of a democratic 'body politic', after all, and every body part should have a voice.

How does lag fit into this bi-polar, two-party system? In my interpretation, lag is the time component of the 'pulling sensation' itself. In other words, during the change-of-directions, the Leadbetter 'tail' must be re-accelerated (in the downswing direction) essentially from rest, with the legs and torso initating this all-important reversal action, in a move Leadbetter calls 'separation', while the arms (and club) are still completing their backswing. The brain experiences this bi-directional motion as a momentary delay, or delicious dynamic pause, which physically occupies a brief moment in TIME... erm, Professor Hawking. (And that's REAL TIME, Bill Maher.) Your brain is saying "Hey... I know I'm moving in two directions at once, but it sure FEELS like I'm standing still!" Furthermore, and perhaps most amazingly, your eyes can now focus much more clearly on the ball, because now it's just sitting there, for Hogan's sake, all fat and juicy and motionless (and everything), whereas before it seemed to be a wildly moving target—due to your own wildly moving shoulder pivot, which (unless you've trained for it) screws horribly with your perception of relative body orientation, with respect to Ground Zero. I kid you not, Earth astronaut. The late Austin golf sage Harvey Penick may have been referring to address when he said "Take dead aim" at the ball, but I'm here to tell you the same situation exists during the dynamic transition, and that's when "taking dead aim" is vastly more useful. You literally feel almost like you're in a position "where you can hit it, there".

(Hooray! Now we don't have to watch you frozen over your next shot like a park statue. Just set up, make a good transition move, and HIT IT, Einstein. Hit it HARD.)

Why d'ya think you connected so solidly with that angry Mulligan? Because you (naïvely?) created shaft loading and dynamic LAG, D'Annunzio, with your vicious, Tiger-like dynamic transition, and (accidentally?) gave yourself that precious nugget of extra TIME: time for your blood-lusting peepers to FOCUS clearly on the ball, and target that dimpled white orb like the magnified head of a ten-penny nail you're about to hammer down; time where it almost seemed like your upper body was in a position where you could HIT IT, THERE. You effectively placed yourself into a state of dynamic balance, or Item (1), which is exactly where we were headed when we stopped off at digression island... remember matey? (Or were we climbing a mountain? I forget.)

The wind is up, so let's set sail. But before we weigh anchor, let's chart a slightly different course on this lag concept, and briefly hearken back to our simple 'heavy metal spinner' analogy. In this model, the lag occurs when you impulsively grasp the Teflon-coated knob for the 2nd time, and feel it slipping clockwise in your fingers. When it stops slipping, and the heavy spinner begins rotating in the counterclockwise direction, the lag period is over, the dynamic transition is complete, and the powerful right side can be fired at will... erm, Gridley. In truth, there is no actual 'slipping' during the application of our muscles in the dynamic transition, and my simple spinner model could be brought much closer to reality by adding a knurled gripping surface to the central knob. Now, for the first 'spin' or backswing phase, assume your fingers work so hard to accelerate the heavy spinner that they are simply forced to let go well before Point A is reached, due to plain old finger weariness. In other words, you give the knob your mightiest twist clockwise, and then release it abruptly when your fingers cannot bear the pain any longer. (Yes, at this moment you may grunt loudly like a weightlifter, if so desired.) The spinner is left slowly rotating towards Point A via its own angular momentum, at a constant angular velocity, until you once again snatch up the knob and apply counter-clockwise finger torque in the second (or downswing) phase. Instead of the knob now slipping in your grip, you find that the friction of its knurled texture allows the heavy spinner to TWIST YOUR poor fingers, or maybe even your whole hand, a bit further clockwise, quite literally against your weightlifter's will. You persevere however and maintain your hold (with perhaps beads of sweat forming on your brow), until you feel the knob slowing its clockwise rotation, and then (finally!) reversing its direction and accelerating counter-clockwise. The dynamic transition thus ends, and the spinner heads slowly for Point B. Right-wing Gridley then steps in to take his powerful turn at the wheel.

Our digression was not wasted, because here we are, just a short trip away from the ‘tightrope walker’ described back in Item (1). I’m sure everyone daffy enough to read a golf blog already recognizes how important balance is to the golf swing… but just what the heck IS balance? A weighty question indeed, so I'll try not to make light of it, and overlook the obvious gravity of the matter. One good approach might be to quiz the nearest tightrope walker, whose generous answer will surely be: balance means not falling off the rope, numbnuts. It's slightly more subtle for golf, because (1) it's quite impossible to fall off our fairway-covered planet, unless you're a member of the Flat Earth Society; and (2) if not falling down was the only criterion for a balanced swing, then Charles Barkley has absolutely mastered it.

Indeed we haven’t spoken much about gravity, despite some previous commentary about left arms “dropping down”—an inertial phenomenon having little (if any) relation to the apple that dropped down upon Newton's head. The left arm most certainly DOES NOT drop down because of gravity, and some teachers insist on obfuscating the issue even further by calling it "The Gravity Move" or worse "The Magic Move", which is plain nonsense, because once again there's nothing magic about anything in the golf swing. Galileo learned that Earth’s gravitational field accelerates all dropped objects (including ape left arms) at 32.2 feet per second per second, which may sound like a lot, but mere gravity will not empower you to punish a golf ball 300 yards onto the short grass. A quick Gedanken experiment may once again enlighten us, no pun(ishment) intended, because imagine holding your R9 driver high overhead, and then dropping it suddenly onto a teed-up golf ball. Not much collision power in that move, no matter what part of the club actually strikes the ball, and likewise there isn’t much energy to be gained from acceleration due to gravity in the golf swing—I don’t care how overweight you are. Barkley.

It won't help you win long drive contests, but gravity absolutely defines balance, and good balance can take you almost anywhere in the sport of golf. Picture if you can swinging a golf club on the moon, or on an asteroid with near-zero gees. Clearly you'd have a much wider range of possible motions, and could make some very funky, pirouette-like passes at the ball, while still keeping your feet underneath you—or possibly only one foot. To avoid an excruciatingly technical discussion, it may be helpful to picture your center-of-gravity or CG as a projected laser-spot upon the turf, which moves in perfect correspondence with your true CG's location, the only difference between them being the 'z-coordinate' or height off the ground. (The CG of a tall person is generally higher off the ground, and for a short person it is closer to ground level.) As a test, imagine raising your right arm to an outstretched, horizontal position:  your CG-laser-spot will shift a certain amount to starboard. If you keep your right arm horizontal and then raise your left, your CG will move back towards a more central position or origin—a location dictated entirely by your body's composition, geometry and posture. Now let's take this test to the lunatic fringe. Go ahead and flail your limbs about randomly, arms and legs both, and find every possible configuration of your body that results in losing your balance; a situation which could manifest itself as dropping to one knee, or being forced to use a hand for support, or in the extreme, losing your footing and tumbling onto your arse—while at the same time recording the precise position of your CG when the 'falls' occur. This 'locus' of points will trace some sort of irregularly-shaped closed curve around your feet, which we will call your 'balance zone'.

Now we have something with which we can attempt to define balance in golf. I propose "good balance" in the golf swing implies consistency within the balance zone:  consistency manifested as either a consistent (or repeating) swing motion, which implies a consistent pattern of motion for the CG spot, or as consistently solid ball-striking. The difference can be explained as follows. It is fully possible to have a consistent, repeatable, well-balanced swing motion, and be a poor ball-striker—in terms of distance certainly, and perhaps even direction. It is also possible to have a large degree of variation from swing to swing, and be a very solid ball-striker, with good power, a little less directional control, and maybe a stray 'skanker' here and there. People who spend lots of time practicing poor technique, merely ingraining their faults, fall into the first category, while baseball players, tennis players, and/or other athletes with superior hand-eye coordination usually fall into the second. Both cases have good balance... that is my assertion here. The other extremes are thus:  poor balance coupled with poor ball-striking (i.e. rank beginners), and the PGA Tour professionals (great balance + great ball-striking). Good ball-striking matching-up with poor balance rarely if ever occurs in golf, and if it does, it's called LUCK.

So where does this working man's definition of balance leave us? Nowhere really, because although Mikhail Baryshnikov is a superb athlete ‘blessed’ with extraordinary balance, his legendary ballet skills do not necessarily extend automatically to the golf swing. Mikhail would have to PRACTICE, just like all of us, and practice hard, with some knowledge of proper swing technique to boot, if he desired to shoot par, on virtually any golf course. The subject of balance is a difficult one analytically, because it involves the complexities of visual perception, the inner ear, and of course the vagaries of the human brain. The best I can offer is to say that I’ve found certain moves in golf to be less prone to balancing errors than others, and they are generally the simpler moves requiring the least energy (and thought) to accomplish. Expressed more precisely, less movement of the CG-spot during the golf swing seems judicious, but I'm sure there are numerous exceptions. As Hogan might have said:  you have to dig your own secrets for good balance out of the dirt.

At the risk of sounding like a broken Victrola, one very good move for reducing errors in balance is the dynamic transition itself, because when the reverse-of-directions occurs, the backswing-directed momentum of your arms and the club can actually help to stabilize you inertially, at a critical juncture. Earlier I drew a parallel with a tightrope walker's balancing rod, which admittedly is a touch off-key. But if you can experiment with different backswing accelerations or tempos, and find the one that gets your club shaft loaded up adequately with strain energy in your transition, you will find that it is significantly easier to 'lean on' or 'pull against' the club at the top, which serves to 'unweight' or free up your legs and lower body, allowing you to re-position them more swiftly and easily, which results in more consistent 'separation' and balance, in preparation for impact. I'm quite certain this is what Ben Hogan was attempting to convey with his advice from earlier, regarding the hips initiating the downswing:

Same thing with the hips. The greater the tension, the faster you can move them. The faster the hips move, the better. They can’t go too fast."

The "tension" Hogan refers to here is surely the Faldo-esque 'resistance' he FELT in his torso due to his extremely dynamic transition, which inertially stabilized his gymnast-like upper body, and allowed him to 'spin' his hips around to the left, virtually unhindered, well in advance of impact.

Phew! It's tough not to be imprecise when talking about something as complex as human balance. Now, however, we can finally sail on swiftly to Item (2), and briefly discuss how loading up the club shaft in a good dynamic transition can help you connect the separate pieces of your swing together, into one continuous motion.

The key to a consistent, dynamically powerful, fully-integrated golf swing, is to FEEL as if you are maintaining the loading in the club shaft, starting with the dynamic transition—all the way through impact. This visceral feeling in your hands, arms, and body, practically guarantees that you are ACCELERATING the clubhead, because acceleration in your swing is required to retain the flex or strain energy in any elastic club shaft. This is also why it is absolutely critical to get your clubs fitted by a professional, for not only length and lie angles, but for shaft stiffness. Standard practice for prescribing shaft stiffness at most golf shops seems to be based rather loosely on measuring clubhead speed through impact, which in many cases may yield the wrong prescription. You will need to swing faster to keep a stiffer shaft loaded adequately, but in my opinion the backswing and transition accelerations should also play a major role in the decision. The best method is simply to try the clubs out on the driving range, and during your (dynamic!) change-of-directions, try and pay particular attention to the feeling of the shaft literally bending in your hands. If it seems too difficult to remain balanced and in good posture with stiff shafts, then take the clubs back and try more flexible shafts. No human ape should have much of a problem maintaining the flex in rubber shafts, for instance, and I heartily encourage moving to women's or even children's shafts if men's stiffnesses seem too difficult to load. There is no shame whatsoever in this approach, because believe it or not, the more flexible shafts may result in longer, straighter shots, and a far better golf swing. David Leadbetter may have said "Retain the lag" in his instructions to Nick Faldo, but I'll amend his statement somewhat and advise you to RETAIN THE LOAD—in your hands, arms, body, and club shaft, beginning with the dynamic transition, all the way through impact to the finish. Please click on the video below, and this author will attempt to demonstrate:


Before concluding this post, I'd like to encourage all readers to practice hard and keep climbing their personal golf mountains, because as Hogan said the secrets are most definitely in the dirt—like buried treasure. Listed below are some of the books and videos that have helped me in my own golf journey:

Five Lessons, The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, by Ben Hogan
Getting Back To Basics, by Tom Watson
Golf: The Winning Formula, by Nick Faldo
A Swing For Life, by Nick Faldo
Golf My Way, by Jack Nicklaus
Faults and Fixes, by David Leadbetter
The Golf Swing, by David Leadbetter
Advanced Golf, by Greg Norman
Little Red Book, by Harvey Penick

Faldo's Fixes, by Nick Faldo
Nick Faldo's Golf Course Vol 1, by Nick Faldo
Nick Faldo's Golf Course Vol 2, by Nick Faldo
Golf With Al Geiberger, by Sybervision

*   *   *   *   *
Alright then... take it away, Doctor Watson:

I hope you take this image and the other instruction that follows and practice it diligently to make your swing the best it can be. You will enjoy this captivating game to the fullest. And on a few lustrous days you will hit solid shot after solid shot and probably feel as if you've discovered the theory of relativity.”

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