By Mark Harman USGTF Course Director, Ridgeland, South Carolina
When I’m not executing my duties for the USGTF, I spend my time teaching this great game that we all love. The other day, a student came to me, saying he was hitting his driver all over the lot, but he especially struggled with a slice. It didn’t take but one swing to easily see what his problem was: He was slicing the ball because he had a very strong grip.
Wait a minute, you might say. What do you mean he was slicing because he had a strong grip? Everyone knows a strong grip leads to hooking the ball!
In most cases that would be true. But there are those golfers who use strong grips and almost never hook or draw the ball, and struggle with slicing. These players tend to be good athletes with decent motions. They can kinesthetically sense that any sort of release with the grip they have could lead to a drastic hook, so they have learned to block their release and prevent the ball from hooking, or even drawing.
Examples in professional that come quickly to mind would be David Duval and Paul Azinger. Both employed a very strong grip with closed clubfaces at the top of their backswings. And interestingly, both faded the ball. They used a fast body rotation throughout the forward swing and a holding off of the release to do so, because a normal release would result in a severe hook. Even a nominal release would result in timing issues, so a fade works best with extremely strong grips.
Players like Duval and Azinger were talented enough, and put enough practice in, that they were able to reach the pinnacle of the game as major champions. But my recent student, while a good athlete, was of course nowhere in their league. While he had enough kinesthetic intelligence to hold off his release to prevent a hook, occasionally he couldn’t hold the release off, and a drastic hook would result. The cure was to give him a neutral grip and get him to release the club fearlessly. He did hit a number of good shots, but I stressed that the changes I was asking him to make were not quick fixes, and would take several weeks, if not months, before he saw some consistency.
That led me to thinking about other teaching paradoxes. Here’s a brief list:
A faster backswing is better than a slow one.
We often hear our students say they “swung too fast.” As noted teacher Hank Haney likes to point out when he hears this, “What? You want to hit the ball shorter?” But often the student is referring to his backswing. And a lot of teachers buy into the “slower backswing is better” school of thought. Infact, studies show that most amateurs actually swing back slower than do the pros, and often considerably slower. A faster backswing has more stability than a slow one – think of a gyroscope. The swing should not be jerked back in order to become faster, but a smooth, quicker backswing can help many players.
A closed stance can lead to slicing.
When I first started teaching, I believed that slicers inevitably had an open stance in order to compensate for their slice. I was also taught that an open stance promoted a swing path to the left of the intended target line for a right-handed player. You also saw this belief printed in the pages of all the golf magazines.
However, when I started teaching, I quickly noted that about half of my slicing students had a closed stance. These golfers often have great backswings as they follow their stance line, but they re-route the club in an over-the-top move to start the downswing. The result is that while they are now swinging towards the target, as they should and as they are attempting to do, they are also swinging outside-in in relation to their alignment. Thus, a slice is born.
In the same family of alignment errors, you also will see some good golfers fight a hook from an open stance because they are swinging towards the target, resulting in an inside-out swing path through impact.
Better mechanics may lead to poorer results.
Golfers with certain swing errors may have their compensations grooved so deeply that fixing the main fault may make them worse, because they are unable to rid themselves of these deeply-embedded compensations. This can be a real problem for the teacher, but one way I’ve found my way around it is to observe what they do on a good shot vs. what they do on a bad shot, and reinforce the behavior that produced the good shot.
A longer club may produce shorter shots.
In the early 1990s, I saw an article that said if a golfer could not hit their driver more than 150 yards, they would actually hit the ball farther if they used a 3-wood. Although I had a hard time believing this, I reasoned then that if this indeed was true, it must be because the golfer didn’t hit the ball hard enough to let the aerodynamics of the ball kick in. With today’s knowledge gleaned from launch monitors and a better understanding of the science behind this, we can see that my rudimentary explanation back then is actually pretty sound today.
I learned in my college physics classes that a projectile launched at 45° would produce the greatest distance. But in golf, when we introduce the concept of lift due to a spinning ball, the optimal launch angle for maximum distance depends on the ball’s initial velocity and amount of spin. In general, a golfer with lower ball speed will need to launch the ball fairly high to achieve maximum distance, while a golfer with faster ball speed will likely need to launch it somewhat lower.
So when your short-hitting students say they hit their 7-iron farther than they hit their 5-iron, believe them. No amount of instruction will overcome this fact of physics. They can probably benefit from adding hybrid clubs to their bag, clubs with lower and deeper centers of gravity, to help them launch the ball higher. A 3-wood may be virtually useless off the ground, so a 5-, 7-, or even a 9-wood can be a better option.
In conclusion, we can see that not all golf instruction tenets are cut and dry. Conventional wisdom can only take us so far, and when it doesn’t apply, we have to have the knowledge and be creative enough to handle the curve balls that some students will throw in our direction.