During the past U.S. Open on the Fox Television broadcast, Curtis Strange remarked that a lot of emphasis was placed on swing positions and movements, but little was placed on rhythm and tempo.
Strange had a point. It seems instruction these days has become so technical, so mechanical, that the artistic part of the swing has been lost in the maze of science.
Sam Snead once said that he imagined waltz music inside his head in order to get his rhythm right. If we told our students today to imagine this, we would probably get blank stares in this age of hip-hop and rap music. There are ways to get some rhythm, timing and tempo going in our students’ swings, but first we must define what each is in the scheme of the golf swing.
Rhythm is the combining of the different parts of the swing into the correct speeds. For example, if someone has a very slow backswing followed by a very fast downswing, the correct rhythm of the swing has been lost. The different parts of the swing should have some coherent relationship to each other in terms of the speed of movement.
Timing is the execution of the swing movements in the proper sequence. One of the biggest timing errors occurs when the arms and hands start the downswing before the lower body does. In the broadest sense, the upper body winds up the lower body on the backswing and the lower body unwinds the upper body on the downswing.
Getting this sequence wrong introduces a timing mistake that makes consistency difficult to achieve.
Tempo is the overall speed of the swing. We see faster tempos in the swings of Zach Johnson and Michelle Wie, and slower tempos occur in the swings of Ernie Els and Woody Austin.
A misconception that is thankfully dying out is that a golfer can never swing too slowly on the backswing. The problem with a slow backswing is that it requires a somewhat slow forward swing to have proper rhythm, and slow forward swings cost us distance. This might be okay for pitch shots and putts, but for full shots, some speed is required. In the case of Els, we mentioned he has a slower tempo, but it’s not slow. The size of his arc, due to his stature as a big man, allows him to swing a touch slower than a smaller golfer.
Another problem with a backswing that is too slow is that it lends itself to some instability in the movement of the club itself. Think of a gyroscope, or turning wheels on a bicycle. The faster they go, the more stability they have. It’s also a misconception that amateur golfers swing back slower than pros. Numerous studies confirm that professional golfers take less time to complete their backswings than do the average amateur. In this day and age of the long ball, golfers better be generating some clubhead speed if they want to be able to compete.
We defined rhythm for golf, but what constitutes proper rhythm? John Novosel, in his book Tour Tempo, states that professional golfers swing with a 3-to-1 time ratio when it comes to the backswing and downswing (to impact). He has found that the closer a golfer comes to this ratio, no matter the overall tempo, the better the golfer is likely to play.
As mentioned earlier, transition represents the biggest challenge in terms of timing. One of the best drills to teach the proper timing of the transition is the step drill. From a normal setup position, the golfer places his forward foot (left foot for a right-handed golfer) against his back foot and then begins the swing. As the club is reaching the completion of its backswing journey, the golfer steps with his forward foot back into a normal position, representing the correct timing of the lower body movement. Done correctly, the arms and hands will remain somewhat passive until just before reaching the hips, at which point the momentum allows the golfer to activate the hands and arms through impact with great force. Ben Hogan wrote that at this stage of the swing he wished he had three right hands to apply the power.
The great Snead used waltz music to hone his rhythm and tempo, and some modern-day golfers also listen to music on the range to achieve the same purpose. Another tool that can be used effectively is a metronome, which can easily be found online and used with a smartphone.
Golfers who are swinging well should take great care to note the rhythm, timing and tempo of their present swing and commit it to memory. Often it is not swing positions that go awry when our games go off; it is one of these three aspects that are frequently given short shrift by both teachers and students alike. Give your students a lesson in proper rhythm, timing and tempo, and the sound of their solidly-struck shots is sure to be music to their ears.
Rhythm …combining of the different parts of the swing into the correct speeds. Timing…the execution of the swing movements in the proper sequence. Tempo…the overall speed of the swing.