My post on The Key Move has generated more interest, worldwide, than anything I’ve ever written in this blog. It’s a simple move that gets the backswing off to a unified start and keeps the core and the arms together throughout the swing. But this post is just as critical and presents two elements of the swing that are basic to good golf. Who hasn’t heard the advise: “Keep your head down,” when learning the game? Well, my advise goes a step further: “Keep the head still.” And I mean rock still. Watch the pros: It is the one common element they all follow. For if the head moves at all between address and impact, the swing plane is compromised and critical power and accuracy lost. Of course, after impact, the head moves forward and up into the follow through naturally.
Watch Steve Stricker for a good example of how steady a head can and should be (see below). Watch Ken Duke, as well, who won his first tournament in 167 tries at the 2013 Travelers. Duke, 44, has one of the shortest backswings on Tour, probably to help him keep his head still as he ages. For with age, the head has a tendency to lurch forward on the downswing, dragging the body with it. The result is either an open club face, pushing the ball to the right, or a compensatory hit from the top, causing a pull to the left or a dreaded slice. A steady head keeps the body behind the ball through impact–a head that moves neither up, down, or sideways. With decreased flexibility as a result of age and lack of proper stretching exercises, a steady head gets harder and harder to maintain.
You can practice this at home, in front of a mirror, with or without a club. You can practice at the range, watching your shadow as you swing, or with a video camera, smartphone, or appropriate app. Or you can practice with a friend, or, better yet, an instructor, watching your head position and reporting on its course of travel. When Retief Goosen was a youngster his coach literally held his head in place as he swung.
Some good benchmarks are the left shoulder coming under and touching the chin at the top of the backswing. Of course attention to sight will tell you, too, if the head is moving off the ball on the backswing. Indicators on the downswing are harder to come by. For a long time, Tiger Woods was plagued with his head dipping at the start of his forward swing, causing inconsistency in his driving in particular. Natalie Gulbis does this as well, and her career, other than commercials and sexy photo shoots, has been less than remarkable.
I use my experience with meditation as my main indicator. Posture is important in any form of meditation, with straight back, still head, and attention to the breath being the main structural elements, all hopefully leading to a quiet mind. All of these can be applied to golf, as well. It’s fairly easy to assess movement of the head, given it’s the heaviest part of the body and is the headquarters for most of our senses. It does involve increasing your awareness and mindfulness of what’s going on with the head and its eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. As with meditation, the practice of yogic breathing can help calm the senses and steady the head. Yogic breathing, or Pranayama in Sanskrit, is different from the way most Westerners breathe. For when the breath goes in, the belly expands; and on the exhale, the belly deflates. It’s also known as abdominal breathing. When you get good at this, not only will your head stay more steady during golf shots but you will experience less tension and nervousness in the early part of your round, something common among many golfers, both amateurs and pros.
The other key fundamental that is essential to good, consistent golf, involves the grip. Arnold Palmer was said to have one of the great grips in golf, and if you’ve ever seen the The King swing a club in his prime you understand why a solid grip was essential. I saw him in person during those days and the man swung a club like John Henry did a hammer. Palmer looked like a helicopter at the top of his follow through, as the residual energy from his swing made his arms into rotor blades. He accomplished this by holding onto the part of the club which received the hands–the grip.
Sam Snead advised gripping the club like you would a baby bird, but I think he missed a key element. The last three fingers of the left hand (right hand for a lefty) must be gripped tighter than any of the other fingers of either hand. When you take your grip, you must first set those last three fingers firmly on the club to help maintain control of this fast moving, rather heavy implement of mass addiction. How firmly? You have to experiment through trial and error. The key indicator comes at impact–that point of contact between clubhead and ball. The force of the blow can cause you to let go slightly of the grip, resulting in a weak, woefully shortened shot, the kind that makes you want break the shaft in two. We’ve all been there. If that happens often, tighten those last three fingers. However, if they are too tight, ironically that can cause you to let go of the club at impact at well. You have to find the happy, successful medium.
I should mention too that impact is not the only indicator of a too-weak grip. At the top of the backswing, if the grip of those last three fingers is too loose, you risk letting the club inch past parallel. This encourages a regripping at the start of the downswing, and is the main cause of hitting from the top, thus losing all sorts of power and accuracy. In fact, Bobby Jones used to swing his hickory shafted clubs exactly that way, quite effectively. But that was the proper way to swing hickory, given its flexibility. With today’s graphite and steel, you need to hold on much more firmly.
So there it is. A steady head and a firm grip. Nothing monumental here. No splashy pictures and headlines on the covers of the major golf magazines. Just good, basic fundamentals. And when you return with your best score ever, you’ll realize the fun in fundamentals.