The Key Downswing Move

by Stephen Altschuler on April 29, 2013

At the transition between the back and downswings there is a point in time and space that sets the tone for the coup de grace of the golf swing, namely impact–that vital moment when the hands lead the clubhead down and into the ball, compressing the ball, which leaps to an elliptical surge, tracing a trajectory, if hit true, like a mortar shell. The battlefield of golf. An explosion of energy, an expression of aggression without corresponding recoil. We shop at the market. We drive in traffic. We work at ordinary jobs in ordinary buildings with ordinary people who wish us ordinary good mornings, good nights, and good weekends. All pretty mild stuff. But impact in a golf swing? That’s bombastic. That’s hyperbolic. That’s sesquipedalian (just look it up). I don’t care if you’re Maude Frickert swinging at 60 mph (RIP Jonathan Winters). Impact is exciting.

I know most instructors teach that the downswing starts with the legs and hips, followed by the upper body and arms, but I have a different hit on it, based on observation and personal experimentation. Watch any slo mo, Peter Kostis analysis of a pro’s swing and you’ll see that the downswing starts with the hands and arms which lead the lower body into the impact zone. It’s a swing, after all, and what’s the most logical part of the body to lead a swing? The arms and hands. Leading is their natural function. The grosser lower body follows adding density and bulk to the equation. Witness Jack Nicklaus in his prime. In fact, the actual key that should start the downswing is driving the butt of the left hand downward toward the ball. That key downswing move is the signal for the body to begin to move its weight forward and clear the hips out of the way to allow the arms and hands to swing through. But most importantly, this move delays the hit, creating a greater angle of lag in the wrists. This delay, when approaching the impact area, is the harbinger of power. Witness Sergio Garcia, who is the king of lag.

So the swing thought/action is simply to pull the butt of the club downward toward the ball at a pace about the same as you would for your 7-iron. Your grip should, of course, be in your fingers, allowing the free movement of the hands and wrists in the downswing. As evolution has dictated, your mind expects the hands and arms to be in control of any swinging motion. Witness any chimpanzee. The nerve endings there are conditioned to react to an implement, in this case the golf club, that needs to be swung to fulfill its function, in this case propeling a golf ball a long way, accurately. Fingers are designed for fine, detailed work, like gripping, holding, and directing. The grosser body will follow the fingers. And the move conveniently and automatically tucks the right elbow into the right side of the body where it should be on the downswing. One less thing to think about in this complicated series of movements called the golf swing.

What about moving the body weight to the left side at the start of the downswing to prevent hitting the shot fat? Don’t you have to consciously do that with your hips first? In my estimation, the answer is no. The hands and hips start almost simultaneously as the downswing starts, moving naturally and easily forward. The more the wrists lag as you approach impact, the more time the hips have to move out of the way as the momentum of the swing proceeds. With the left foot firmly planted, the left side stiffens at impact, allowing you to “hit against a firm left side.” Braced as such, the hands and wrists can release and slam the club into the ball, keeping the head slightly behind the impact area. The firm left side (right side in a lefty) is a kind of ramrod to force the gunpowder (your wrists and hands) up tight against the projectile (the ball), and preventing misfiring. (By the way, as an aside, that’s the kind of reloading the Founding Fathers were referring to when they wrote the Second Amendment.)

The longer the club, the wider the stance, since controlling the swing is harder, the longer the implement. This will depend on your height though, as well. With all this swinging, golf truly is a balance sport, and a hand-eye coordination sport. The keystone in the above instruction is the head. With any movement, there is risk you will lose accuracy. Tiger Woods used to dip his head at the start of the downswing, and his driving would get him into trouble. When two-time U.S. Open champ Retief Goosen was a kid learning the game, his teacher would literally hold his head in place as he swung, to teach him what that felt like and how it could affect the results. The head is the axel: The hands and arms are the spokes: The body is the chassis.

You can apply this key move to almost any club in the bag. Just position the ball more towards the middle of the stance, the shorter the club. It works for the driver down to the wedges. Putting is a game unto itself. Entire books have been written on it alone.

And, of course, there is the mind. I tried out my key downswing move a few years ago, had great success on the range, then flopped with it on the course the first time out. As often happens, I tried modifying the technique as I was playing and wound up getting into deeper and deeper trouble. The mind was looking for a way out of its misery. So instead of sticking with the method and letting it find its level during actual play, I grew impatient and started my infernal trial and error routine, which is a recipe for disaster as you’re playing. When the pros talk about “staying patient”, I think this is what they’re talking about. Stay with the swing thoughts and actions you last practiced on the range and don’t change them because of a few bad shots.

This technique of driving the butt of the left hand down toward the ball on the downswing may take a while to settle into the mind and body. You may hit a few fat shots until the body finds the right timing in its move forward. But practice it on the range for awhile. Get comfortable with it. Let your confidence grow so you begin to expect positive results. Then take it to the course and see if it holds up. If it does, great. Ride the wave. If it doesn’t, that’s OK too. Return to the range and make sure you’ve ingrained the sequences into your routine. It’s all grist for the game improvement mill, and part of the challenge of this great game.

 

Eyes and head in same position as address. I know: no ball. Just imagine it.

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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Joan King April 29, 2013 at 10:19 am

Good analysis of the downswing. I remember Joanne Gunderson Carner, “The Great Gundy” explaining this move to a few of us after dinner one night in the 1970′s in North Palm Beach, Florida. It was the first time we had seen the pull down of the left hand. Lag time wasn’t even in the golf vocabulary then. She didn’t need a term to describe her prodigious length, only the feeling.

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Stephen Altschuler April 29, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Thanks, Joan, for verification of my analysis. I remember Joanne Carner well, but didn’t know she advised this method for creating and maintaining lag, even before lag was ever talked about.
Really appreciate your comment.

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bread November 12, 2013 at 6:15 pm

You are right. If you watch ben hogan slow motion the arms go a split second before the hips. Then they clear. Same with adam scott and tiger. For me watching videos of these guys for years shows me they get their arms and club head out in front of body.

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Stephen Altschuler November 12, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Thanks for the vote of confidence, dear reader. I too have looked closely at golfers like the ones you mentioned and noticed what you’ve noticed: The arms do head downward a split second before the hips, something Louis Oosthuizen verified on Golf Channel recently. The hips do clear and the weight does shift to the front leg, allowing the club head to square at impact. The key is to keep the club on plane, which I’ll cover more fully in an upcoming post.
Keep me informed around your continuing observations and experiments.
By the way, I had a wonderful day of ball striking yesterday, using these ideas, culminating in a 77, along with my third hole-in-one! I just turned 68 a few days ago.
Cheers!

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Rob Wallace April 29, 2013 at 2:46 pm

The hands and arms never ever start the downswing. The downswing is a release to the coiling developed by the backswing, and in order for the downswing to enable acceleration through the hitting area, the uncoiling must begin with the feet- hips- torso. True, it does feel as though the butt of the club is swinging toward the ball on plane, but this is a reactionary feeling of the correct lower body release and should never initiate the downswing; if it does, then you’ve lost the correct uncoiling sequence, and you’ll probably come over the top.

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Stephen Altschuler April 29, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Well, I’ve got a former LPGA pro (see Joan King comment) that verifies what I’m suggesting is true, Rob. Watch slo mo videos of pros. The hands and arms start down slightly ahead of the lower body. This swing thought is much easier and more efficient than instructing the legs or hips to move first. You won’t come over the top if lag is maintained, and this method insures lag will be created and maintained. Since most amateurs slice their tee ball, I’m suggesting a better way to approach the downswing.
Thanks for your comment.

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Chris August 6, 2013 at 2:50 am

I have to agree with Rob here. The great Ben Hogan said it starts with the hips, then the shoulders, then the arms and lastly the hands. IN THAT ORDER! If you start with the hands and arms and don’t rotate the body much you can still come from the inside. If you rotate the body as much as Hogan but start with the arms and hands first you are doomed to come over the top every single time. The first move is aggressive hip turn, they drag the shoulders through and you hold off the arms and hands until they are waist high. If you want to try and swing like the greatest ball striker of all time that is. It isn’t for everyone but that’s my 2 cents.

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Stephen Altschuler August 6, 2013 at 9:37 pm

You guys are probably right, at least for yourselves. And who can deny Hogan’s swing and record. But as I age, I got to thinking maybe it changes. Maybe my hips need a little help from some friends up top. Those hips are achier now than when I started this game. They don’t turn so easily. I can’t call my hip turn aggressive any more. But my hands and arms, I can still move them pretty well. So I’m trying something new that others seem to agree with. But I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. I’ll let you know.
Thanks so much for the comments, Chris.

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k January 5, 2014 at 2:38 pm

Chris, Hogan said no such thing. If you watch a video of Hogan, Tiger or any other great player from behind, you will see an almost simultaneous lateral shift, along with a pulling down of the back of the left hand into the ball. Trevino said that in fact is his key downswing thought–pull the back of the left hand into the ball as if he is trying to drag the knuckles of his left hand along the ground. That my friend is what Hogan calls supination. All you will do is come over the top if you spin your hips. immediately at the top of the backswing.

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Chris January 5, 2014 at 4:11 pm

Read hogans book and I think you will rebuke your statement. He clearly states it in his “5 fundamentals of golf”. Fact.

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Stephen Altschuler January 18, 2014 at 11:18 am

To Chris and K: Golf instruction is constantly evolving, and what’s clear to me is that there is no cookie cutter approach. You have to experiment with what works for your body and disposition. But, yes, there are some givens. And one is that the rotation of the hips can easily outpace the arms and hands on the downswing, creating an outside-in club head path. This can lead to a slice or pull. The hips do need to rotate and the hands do need to drop, but it all has to happen in the right sequence and pace. Experiment.
Thanks to both of you for commenting on this controversial subject.

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Steve January 24, 2014 at 9:09 am

All I can say about the downswing is that today’s top golf teachers are advocating starting the downswing with the hands/arms a split second before the hips/shoulders. The reason being is that the arms have the longest distance to travel from the top of the swing to the ball. As far as degree is concerned, your shoulders are at a 90 degree angle to the ground, your hips are ~60-65 degrees! The arms need to travel a greater distance to impact. If the hips are starting the downswing, the tendency is for the torso to get too far out in front of the arms/hands and will take the club off plane and result in pushes/blocks.

David Tabb June 26, 2013 at 12:12 pm

The debate over how to initiate the downswing will be never ending. I happen to agree with you for several reasons, particularly for the not overly talented geriatric player. But my preference is also more deep seated. I first encountered the “arm initiated” downswing with lessons at Leslie King’s golf studio in Knightbridge in ’85. (Check out King’s book! Master Key to Good Golf). More recently I’ve been tutored by one of the four last living students of Ernest Jones, Woody Wright at Lake Merced Golf Club in SF. He’s an extraordinary teacher who knows how to encourage a simple and repeatable swing. And finally, I would recommend reading Manuel de La Torre’s book, Understanding the Golf Swing, particularly the chapter on the forward swing which is as persuasive a case for initiating the downswing with the upper arms as I can imagine. As you probably are aware De la torre and his father were Jone’s students.

At any rate I encourage your Bay Area readers to check out Woody. I promise them lasting results. Having played for 60 years I am currently swinging the club with more assurance at 73 than ever before.

Cheers!

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Stephen Altschuler July 1, 2013 at 8:07 pm

Thanks, David. This is very helpful. The start of the forward swing is a bit of a mystery, made even more cryptic by the fact that something might work for awhile and then suddenly stop working. This is experienced by pros and amateurs alike, but particularly amateurs who don’t play much. I’ll look up Mr. Wright, providing he doesn’t charge an arm and a leg. I desperately need both for my swing.
I have de la Torre’s book, which is a classic.
All the best with your game.

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David Tabb July 3, 2013 at 7:08 am

Good to hear from you. On rereading your downswing comment I’m reminded that that Woody also focuses on moving the butt of the club outward at the top of the downswing, He always suggests not to worry about coming over the top with the move and for some reason he is right. For me it is important that I take what feels like a 3/4 swing and that I focus on the rhythm of the swing which allows me to initiate the downswing motion without feeling I am jerking the club. Otherwise I do have the tendency of coming over the top. It also is important for me in getting this right that I check my alignment since I have a tendency to align right. When aligning parallel with the target the move will more often than not promote me hitting the ball straight, relatively high and in the sweet spot. There is hardly a nicer sound and feel than the pop/click of a ball hit squarely at impact with some reasonable compression.

Since I’ve always needed to live on a teacher’s salary be assured that Woody’s rates are affordable. Mention that I suggested you contact him. He usually has a two week backlog but is always responsive.

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Stephen Altschuler July 5, 2013 at 8:32 am

This is vital material, David, especially the bit on alignment, which I well remember on the range but not the course. Woody’s instruction on the butt of the club moving outward at the start of the forward swing is fascinating to me. I’ll definitely have to experiment with this (or see Woody). I’ve had a loop in my swing forever, which has bedeviled me, but this may be a conscious solution.
Again, thanks for your astute and helpful comments.

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David Tabb July 5, 2013 at 8:44 am

The way I have attempted to establish an allignment routine on the course is to first pick an intermediate target a couple feet in front of the ball a la Jack’s advice and then set the club squarely before setting my feet. All old fundamental stuff but so easy to forget.

Mark Baker July 25, 2013 at 12:09 am

Stephen,

This is a well written and fun to read article. I had great success hitting my driver by pulling the butt of the club toward the ball on my down swing at the range today. It was very long and consistent. I also tried this technique on my 5 iron and PW with the same results. I came across this article while searching if this was a proper move in the golf swing. The rest of my body works correctly as well with only two thoughts. 1. Pull butt of club toward ball. 2. Rotate body fast into ball after pulling butt toward ball. The body actually starts rotating as you start pulling the butt, but the explosion happens for me closer to impact now.

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Stephen Altschuler July 28, 2013 at 10:26 pm

Thanks very much, Mark. It’s good to know some of this stuff I write is working for some people. Golf is a big experiment, requiring trial and error. I just wish the errors would take more a back seat to the trials.
Continued success, and thanks for commenting.

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Piet Pompies September 2, 2013 at 12:25 am

Well here is my 2 cents,

I’ve gone for several lessons at different pro’s, but none of them was able to give me the correct trigger for the downswing, always the take away. I’ve perfected the take away but always seemed to cast, and hit with a fade that turns into a slice at times.

Up until the time that I changed to a different instructor, I’ve had 3 lessons so far with the new guy, 1 Grip, 2 Take away and 3 was the downswing, all 3 he left me with very simple concepts…… I was waiting in anticipation for the 3rd lesson as I was looking for this magic that creates the downswing and the draw……

At the start of my 3rd lesson he observed what I had practiced for a while and then simply said, at the top of your swing pull your left hand towards the ball…. within a matter of a couple of shots I was hitting a slight draw with my 7 iron into a wind (And we all know what a wind does with a fade)

That was the most simple and uncomplicated explanation I’ve ever received and it works!!!! The shot is difficult to trust as you are not “hitting” towards the ball any more(Feels like you are going to miss it) , but you just got to trust it…… the rest of the swing just falls into place…

I’ve heard of pulling down with your left hand, but never towards the ball!! and that’s the key that ensures you come from the inside and do not cast…..

I tell you what, for some one who HATED golf because of the slice, who was told by other instructors – you will always hit with a fade…..

I’ve tried this move for a week now, I’m hitting further, I have better ball sticking and I’m hitting a slight draw…….

Stephen Altschuler YOU ARE 100% RIGHT

To the rest of you, try it and enjoy it, we don’t have to overcomplicate it…

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Stephen Altschuler September 2, 2013 at 11:35 am

Thanks, Cullen. It’s good to get affirmation from someone who is trying out some of these theories. The move does keep you inside out, improves lag, and has you accelerating towards the ball. The only thing to be mindful of is weight shift. I’ve found a tendency to hit slightly behind the ball at times, cutting into the solidity of the hit. Accuracy is good at these times but distance is off. It’s just a matter of getting the weight over to the left early in the downswing, either by turning the hips or driving the legs/knees to the left as you pull the butt of the club down towards the ball. It’s a timing thing that requires practice.
Anyway, continued success to you.

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matt September 8, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Great post.. as usual! Your writing is so articulate and clear, keep it up!

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Stephen Altschuler September 11, 2013 at 9:45 pm

Thanks, Matt. That is music to a writer’s ears!

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Frederik October 26, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Hi Stephen,

I totally agree with you on your thoughts on swinging the hands down and toward the ball. I “figured” this move out on the range about two years ago and my shots really excelled straight away. However, after a while i started thinning and duffing quite a few of my shots. It was then I realised that hitting down the same degree with all clubs was not correc(for me at least) and my body started compensating. It raised up a little, I guess to make sure I hit the ball and not just the ground all the time which made me thin it a lot for a while. This especially happened with my longer clubs like 3-6 iron. What I now have figured out is that, yes I need to hit down with all clubs(including 3Wood and driver) but “adjust” my hand height at impact with all clubs. For instance i feel like i have my hands just over my left pocket with my 4iron at impact, and right above my knee with my Sand wedge. As soon as I really understood these subtle(but huge in result!!) differences, I started hitting ALL my irons and woods so much better it is crazy. Duffs and skins almost eliminated as a result.

Anyway, that is my take on the same subject. And YES, lag is very important.

Best of luck to you, and nice blog!

Best regards

Frederik, Norway

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Stephen Altschuler October 28, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Thank you for these insightful comments, Frederik. The range is a vast experimental laboratory, isn’t it? It seems you’ve discovered, for yourself, this holding off action of the hands at impact. It insures that you’ve compressed the ball properly, taking full advantage of the lag you’ve created. Now to do this with a wood, that’s new. I must try this out, since I’m struggling some with my woods at the moment. I would think woods would be harder to control at impact because of their increased length. Any more insights into how you pull this off with the driver and three wood would be appreciated.
Glad you like the blog.
Back in my youth in Pennsylvania, I played golf on frozen ground during winter. I could barely swing wearing three sweatshirts, but gosh did that ball roll on ice and frozen turf! Same in Norway?

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Merrick November 17, 2013 at 1:01 am

Thanks for the great golf tips, I really love all of them.

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Stephen Altschuler November 17, 2013 at 9:24 am

You’re quite welcome, Merrick. Am glad you’re enjoying and, hopefully, benefitting from them. Please spread the word about the blog.
Good golf to you, and thanks for your comments.

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Phil Heal February 15, 2014 at 5:27 am

I also agree with the dropping of the hands to initiate the downswing. I too have struggled for the 10 years i’ve been playing golf to sequence may swing, with thins, fats, poor distance etc.
Had my first leeson with a new instructor last week and suddenly had a light bulb moment during the lesson (why hadn’t previous instructors taught me these simple actions/swing thoughts before!).
Take the club back with your left arm and let wrists naturally hinge towards the end of the backswing, and then (this is the moment) drop the hands, wait a split second then “fire the right shoulder” through impact.
The dropping of the hands allows the hips to start clearing and the firing of the shoulder allows everything to go through impact together and allows for a natural, full finish.
As stated previously it feels as though the clubface will be nowhere near the ball but just trust it and centrifugal force will take care of the hit.
Hits are now solid, out the sweetspot and clubhead speed has increase so the ball now fizzes of the face.
Hope this helps, try it, it may be your answer to the mystery that is the golf swing!!

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Stephen Altschuler February 16, 2014 at 11:06 am

I think you’ve got it right, Phil, and obviously it’s working for you. That’s the important thing. We golfers have different bodies and tempos and ages and history. Some depend more on timing, some on core strength, some on arm strength, some on keeping a clear mind and swinging away without a single swing thought. You’ve experimented with what’s right for you, which has led to a ball that “fizzes off the face.” That’s what all of us strive for.
Well done, and keep it going, man.

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Stephen Altschuler July 11, 2013 at 10:06 pm

I’ve tried this, David, and it works like a charm (as it did for Jack).
Thanks for the reminder.

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David Tabb July 12, 2013 at 5:35 pm

Let’s talk about the “key downswing move” once again. I had another lesson today and it wasn’t until I began to understand what “unfolding the right arm” at the beginning of the downswing meant that I began to feel that I disagree with you on one key point. This is really going to sound radical so bear with me. If I am facing you I begin the downswing by moving the butt of the club toward you and unfold my right arm toward you at the same time. This creates a swinging of the club. By “pulling the butt of the club down”, though this may seem like the natural direction toward impact, it’s my experience that I do have a tendency when doing this to get out of swing sequence and to come over the top. Moreover, for me consciously pulling the club down creates a hitting action rather than a swinging action. I apologize if this sounds a bit counter-intuitive, and as one once said about the golf swing (as with life) you learn better by doing than reading. This may be an example where too much reading can be a substitute for thought.

I’ll leave you with one more radical thought. Ernest Jones once told Sam Snead that the key to the swing was in the right hand, and Sam agreed. How about them apples.

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Stephen Altschuler July 14, 2013 at 10:29 am

Not sure I follow you on this one, David. I wouldn’t worry too much about the unfolding of the right arm. That will happen naturally if previous mechanics are right. Pulling the butt down insures you won’t come over the top and it keeps the lag intact. But even more important, as my present blog post indicates, is keeping a firm grip on the club with the last three fingers of the left hand. This prevents loosening the grip at the top which causes a regripping and the dreaded over the top move. A steady head prevents this as well.
In light of this, I would disagree with Jones and Snead and would say the key to the swing lies in the left hand and not the right. The right needs to be subdued, as Ben Hogan found out, curing his chronic hook, and going on to become a legend. Could it be that Snead never won an Open because his right hand was too dominant, affecting his accuracy off the tee at tight, Open courses.
Anyway, as always, thanks for your comments. I love these kinds of interchanges.

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David Tabb July 14, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Thanks for your reply. I’m not qualified to comment on the possible limitations of either Hogan or Snead. I would take the swing of either/and.

I’ll once again try your recommendation and see how it compares. To add fuel to the fire I’ve also been advised to loosen my left hand grip. I didn’t find this caused either the need to regrip or to come over the top.

For me it probably is critical that I don’t bring the club back any further than my chin on the backswing. And I do like and agree with your key move on the backswing.

Best.

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Stephen Altschuler July 15, 2013 at 9:48 am

I wouldn’t loosen the last three fingers of the left hand, David. I know everyone has individual requirements according to the needs of their bodies, but I think that advice is fairly sacrosanct. Of course, experimentation is in order. Not too tight. Not too loose. Find what’s right for you. Take a look at Vijay and Couples at impact. Their right hand almost comes off the club, but the left hand is holding on, in control. I heard Couples talk about this a short while ago.
Onward.

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Stephen Altschuler January 25, 2014 at 10:11 am

This is a great addition to this discussion, Steve. It adds mathematics to the rationale for starting the downswing just slightly before the hips and legs. It helps make sense of why the hands/arms must lead the lower body towards impact.
Thanks so much for your contribution.

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