Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Golfing Zen #11 — The Physics Fundamentals

With this essay, we’ve arrived at the center-point for our discussion of the swing fundamentals. Co-incidentally, we are also at our farthest point from my stated objective of addressing the mental side of golf. But, it is difficult to completely separate the physical from the mental; if your mechanics are screwed up, it’s very difficult to keep your head pure.

In previous “fundamentals” discussions I’ve talked about the mental (a practiced routine, visualization, and a belief and trust in our ability to continue to improve) and the physical (balance, a forward weight drive, and the core muscles as the power source which translates to relaxation in the arms and hands).

Today’s essay addresses the “physics” fundamentals, certainly the most important fundamental.

The guide for our physics lesson is the golf ball itself. It’s important to accept two things about the golf ball.

  • It never lies. It always tells you the exact truth about how it was struck by the golf club.
  • It is never about you. It is never personal. The golf ball doesn’t know and doesn’t care anything about who was involved. It only reacts to the club-face.

There are only three physics rules, and they’re simple to understand.

  • Contact off of the “sweet spot” shortens distance and deflects direction or trajectory
  • The initial direction of the golf ball matches the path of the clubhead on contact.
  • The curve of the ball matches where the clubface is “looking,” relative to its path.

Sweet-Spot Contact:

The first question here is where your club’s “sweet spot” actually is: not necessarily where it would appear to be. To test you clubs, hold the shaft end in two fingers, letting the club hang free like a pendulum. Tap the clubface with a golf ball, looking for the spot at which there is no torque imparted to the club. You’ll feel the resonance when you find the right spot. You may find that the sweet spot — the center of gravity — is actually off-center towards the hosel of the club. If you’re surprised by what you find, you may want to mark your clubs in some way so that you have a reference point.

If you’re contacting the ball off-center, you’ll lose in two ways. Since you’re striking a glancing blow, energy will be lost and ball flight will be deflected (high contact equals high trajectory, off-center to the right produces ball flight to the right, etc.)

When you've isolated your club's sweet spot, then go to you local golf store and buy some face tape that will give you feed-back on your contact point. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll self-correct, once you pay attention. (Small Zen lesson… no charge!)

Initial Ball Flight:

When you have face contact in relative control, the second question is the initial path of your ball flight; does it start on-target, or does it start off left or right of target?

The details of the actual physics are more complicated, but the simplification that works well enough is that the initial flight of your ball mirrors the path of the club-head. For a right-hand golfer, if your club is coming toward the target line from the inside when it contacts the ball, that ball’s initial flight will be to the right of the target. Similarly, if your club-head is moving back towards the inside on contact, then your ball flight will be to the left.

Ball Flight Curvature:

This question — the curve of the ball — is also relatively simple. If your ball curves, it is solely because, on contact, the face of your club is looking in that direction — relative to its path. If your club is moving straight at the target but is “open” — looking to the right of the target, then the ball must curve to the right (a fade or slice for a right hander). Similarly, if your club is moving to the left of the target and is looking straight down its path of travel, you’ll get a shot that starts left and goes straight.

Making Corrections:

From the above you can see that there are nine possible ball flights: your ball can start at the target or off-target left or right, and it’s flight can curve left, right, or go straight. Once you understand the rules, your golf ball tells you precisely what your club head was doing on contact. Correction is simply — again — a matter of paying attention.

Work on your corrections in the order I’ve given here:

  • Work on sweet-spot contact first, because off-center contact will give off-target ball flight which you could confuse as an off-track swing path.
  • When you’re making (mostly) center-contact, work on the initial ball direction without concern for curvature, because off-target swing paths can cause the club-face to be mis-aligned.
  • After developing some consistency with contact and initial direction, then you can worry about any remaining draw or fade.

For more details on how to do the tuning, check the companion podcast.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Golfing Zen #10: The Physical Fundamentals

In a recent essay/podcast pair, I proposed the first segment of my golf fundamentals: true laws, not preferences or tendencies. They were the mental fundamentals:

  • A practiced and ingrained routine.
  • Visualization — going to the movies — as part of that routine. This includes visualization before the shot as well as a mental (but non-judging) play-back while the ball flies and then rolls to a stop at our next test that the Golf God is assigning.
  • A belief and trust in continued growth. (Stated equally as a refusal to accept our current level as our ultimate level.)

The topic today is the physical fundamentals, the in-swing laws. As above, they will be simple and few:


This, to me, is one of the great paradoxes of golf. How can you possibly expect to make a powerful and repeating swing, time after time, if you can’t maintain your balance? But, take a look around you, on the course or at the driving range. I think you’ll find a strong corollary: 60% of us have handicaps of 18 or higher, and that same percentage are falling over or backwards on every swing.


Of course, I’m referring to balance throughout the entire swing, but I can reduce that to balance at two key points. If you can be in-balance at the top of the backswing and at your finish, that will insure that you are in balance throughout; hit those two anchor points and all the rest will take care of itself.

Weight Transfer:

The balance requirement leads to a truth about weight transfer. If you were in balance at the top of the backswing and also at the finish, it must follow that your weight moved forward as you swung through.

And how could it be anything else? Look at any athletic motion where something (a baseball, football, shot-put, Frisbee, etc,) is propelled forward and you’ll see clearly that the thrower’s weight moves forward in order to propel the object: the weight moves first so that the object can then move. Yet, many instructors claim that the swing stays centered, and many of your friends (I’m sure) fall backwards as they finish.


Power Source:

Here lies a great debate. Does the body power the swing? Do the arms drive the swing with the body only responding? Hit with the hands! No, the hands are passive! On and on… you can search the literature and find any answer you want, someone that supports any position you can conceive.

Yet this question has been clearly answered, and answered many years ago. There have been any number of engineering studies that look at the amount of energy required to propel a golf ball over a competitive distance, taking into account the aerodynamics of the ball. Once you have that, it is well known how much energy a pound of pure muscle can generate. Hence, you know the pounds of muscle that must be involved in powering the ball. Answers vary a bit from study to study, but here is the range:

28 to 32 pounds of pure muscle

Think about that. We’re talking pure muscle, not bones, ligaments, skin, nor fat… only muscle. If you want a visual picture, imagine sitting at a fine restaurant and being served 30 of their biggest steaks, all in one big pile.


It should be obvious that you won’t accumulate those 30 pounds by means of your arms and your hands. The only way to involve that amount is through the big muscles of your thighs, gluts, abs, and back.

This leads to a fundamental, and also to an opposing corollary:

  • The swing is powered by the big muscles of the torso (or in today’s popular term, the core.)

    — and —

  • The arms and hands remain relaxed and only transmit the power.

The arm/hand role as a relaxed power transmitter is a key concept. The mechanics of the swing can be simplified to a rotating core that carries a two-lever hitting device, with those two levers being the lead arm and the club shaft. The two levers move fastest when they swing free, the arm from the shoulder and the shaft from the free-swinging hinge of the wrist. It is a proven fact, by both physics formulae and by high-speed photography, that any effort to apply active force to the hinging action only causes speed at the wrong time and/or an actual slowing of the overall motion.

So, we’ve now laid down the laws of the physical swing:

  • A balanced swing throughout, but specifically at two points:

    • Point A: the top of the backswing
    • Point B: the finish position

  • Weight movement forward as the swing goes from A to B

  • Complete relaxation of arms and hands, which only transmit power provided by the legs, butt, abs, and back. The forward swing is from the ground up and from the inside out.

The only thing left unsaid might be the actual position at those two key points: A and B. I hope you want more on that, as you’ll find it on my companion podcast.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Golfing Zen #9 — Why Bother?

In the last essay/podcast pairing, I identified a faith or trust in our own ability to continue our development and growth as one of my prime golf fundamentals. I took that position because the only alternative is to accept that we are ultimately only what we are now. “I’m a 15-handicap… that’s what I’ve been, and that’s what I’m going to continue to be.”

How sad, if that is your choice! That means your real choice is to compete by means of your handicap while your day-to-day scores oscillate back and forth around your nominal average ability. My contention is, if that is your choice, then you might just as well flip a coin within the comfort of your home and mail in your result. My question: What’s the point? Why bother?

But that raises a better question. If we do hold to our faith and trust, if we don’t accept our current level as our final level, if we continue to believe… the question is equally valid: Why do we bother?

The answer lies on the other side of my beliefs about competition, and about handicaps.


I think we can agree that handicaps are nothing more than an artificial crutch that allows us to participate in pseudo-competition. “You’re better than me, so let’s compare handicaps and figure out the holes where you’re going to give me extra strokes.”

That may be semi-logical in the short term, but becomes ludicrous when we take pleasure in our handicap or when we do things to artificially inflate our handicap. (Of course, it’s equally absurd to lie our way into a lower handicap, to which we can not play!) Why would we be happy that we’ve gone through a bad patch, have seen our handicap go up, and are now mopping up on our friends? In either case, handicap true or artificial, what possible real pleasure can we take in defeating someone, only because they were forced to give us extra strokes? Why do we delude ourselves when we're really only submitting to the random variations in your game and mine? What is the point?

Let me tell you how the Japanese handle the question. There, when you join a new club, you play in your first tournament without a handicap and with a member of the handicap committee. That member observes your play, consults with other committee members, and arbitrarily assigns you a handicap. “Smith-san, you will be a 12.” No questions, no debate, no complicated mathematics: you are now a 12… case closed!

Further, from that point forward, your handicap can never go up. But, at any time, the committee can observe your current level of play and lower your handicap to a new maximum. Again, no calculations and no appeal. (There is the special case of someone who has become old and has developed a physical infirmity. An appeal is technically allowed, but no one ever loses face by applying.) When I tell my Japanese friends about our complicated formulas they don’t understand the concept, and they are mystified as to why we would enjoy — or even accept — a higher handicap.


If we reject the idea of an artificial handicap, then the next question is about competition itself. Unless you and I happen to be equally matched, what is the point? Why bother?

And there lies my exact point: when we move past the handicap crutch and shift into belief and trust in our growth, we see, with clarity, a new and better view…

Golf is not about competition: There is no aspect of competition in my round with you. I don’t attack, you don’t defend, we don’t obstruct each other in any way. In fact, the reverse is true; if I don’t allow myself to be foolishly intimidated, then the better and smoother you play, the better I’ll play.

So… Why Bother?

A good source for the answer is Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugene Herigel. It’s a little book, has been around for decades, and describes Herigel’s five-year stay in Japan where he studied archery with a Zen Master.

Within Zen study, many use common art or sport activities (flower arranging, the tea ceremony, calligraphy, archery) as a platform for break-through. Through concentrated practice they see that quieting their active and judging conscious mind then allows the great “IT” to perform the activity through them in a way that they can not do on their own. Their practice shifts from trying hard to get better (to “win”), but to instead get out of the way and allow IT to enter.

So there’s my “why bother” answer: to use my time on the course to learn, to shut up, to get out of my own way, to trust, to ask the great IT, to connect, to feel IT within me.

Read Herigel’s book. You’ll understand.

(But what am I saying? Am I suggesting you forget handicaps, not play in the club championship? You'll want to check my next podcast for much more on this important subject)