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.


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