Distance is a greatly desired word within the golfing world; everybody wants to hit the ball further. Understandably, it is very satisfying feeling to hit the ball a long way. However, when it comes at the expense of consistency and accuracy, it may need rethinking and reassessing. Often the ways in which power is sought after in the golf swing can generate more harm than good. Any attempt to gain extra distance through over exertion of the body, whether that is through tension, incorrect timing or excess body motion can in fact have the reverse effect.
‘I get as much fun as the next man from whaling the ball as hard as I can and catching it squarely on the button. But from sad experience I learned not to try this in a round that meant anything!’ – Bobby Jones
Understanding power in the golf swing
A relaxed state is potentially not the first thing that springs to a golfers mind when wanting to gain an extra 20 yards on their drive! However, achieving this both physiologically and psychologically can have a profoundly positive impact on your swing, distance and your game as a whole. The anxious mind is generally worrying about the undesired outcome and often brings with it a degree of tension. Learning to adopt a relaxed and focussed mind-set will, in turn, generate a more relaxed physiology and a greater opportunity for greater distance through a more relaxed and efficient body motion.
Physical tension with regards to generating distance can be a huge roadblock. Simply having the awareness of excessive tension is a big step forward. When the upper body is more relaxed it is also able to create a huge power source when it turns efficiently around a solid and stable lower body. This is key.
An efficient body, working from the ground upwards.
All rotary athletes, including the golfer, work from the ground upwards. The legs, gluteal muscles (buttocks) and core abdominal muscles are pivotal for balance as well as for power and stability. The upper body coiling efficiently around a stable base provides a powerful resistance between the two, which then uncoils into the downswing releasing effortless power. When attempting to generate power through excessive turning of the body, this resistance is lost.
From a stable set up, a relatively straight line is formed from your right foot, knee and hip (for a right handed golfer) during your backswing. If either the right hip or knee slides to the outside of the foot or the knee collapses inwards a power source is instantly lost. Power is also lost through a limited turn and of course the very common issue of an over ambitious turn. The hips need only turn approximately half the amount of the shoulders, (i.e. forty degrees hip turn to eighty degrees of shoulder turn) to enable the upper body to coil effectively around the lower body and produce the degree of hip and shoulder turn needed to release effortless power. Excessive movement in the backswing, by tilting, sliding or over-rotating reduces the stability in the lower body and resistance between the upper and lower body. It is the torque generated between the two that creates what is commonly known as the X factor.
One of the world’s long driving champion, Jason Sadlowski, creates a whopping 117 degrees of X factor; 49 degrees of hip turn and 166 degrees of shoulder turn. I am not suggesting that the average golfer try to match these kinds of figures. In fact, I would issue a warning of, ‘Please do not try that at home folks!’ However, it does highlight a key factor that plays a significant part in enabling him to hit the ball as far as he does – the separation between his hip turn and shoulder turn. Of course his athletic physique also allows him to achieve such figures. An over-ambitious turn where the hips attempt to turn equal amounts to the shoulders reduces this x factor stretch and power source.
Imagine firing a catapult. Tension is created when the elastic is pulled back from a stable base which is then released to launch the object into the distance. If the stable base followed the elastic or was disrupted in any way, very little resistance would be generated and there would be no platform upon which to release and launch the object. The upper and lower body work in exactly the same way during the golf swing when generating distance. Of course everybody is built differently and it is not necessary to create an extreme stretch, forcing the body unhealthily outside of its capabilities. Simply understanding the benefits of creating a stable lower body, combined with a sufficiently rotated yet relaxed upper body, and generating some separation between the two, will reap its rewards. Turning the body to an extreme, will not.
It is also worth noting that if physical limitations impede an over-ambitious turn, the body will find an alternative way to complete the backswing. It will find a cheating mechanism and the only alternative route now is for the spine and upper body to lift up into the backswing. Compensations will need to follow and consistency, amongst other things, will be lost. A golfer will find it very difficult to maximise club head speed without developing an efficient body motion and ensuring the body can physically support the increased forces.
Picture a boxer throwing a punch, the weight is transferred to the inside of the back foot from the ground upwards, whilst the hips remain relatively level. The lower body and legs are a big power source when used correctly. If we liken an unstable lower body to that of playing golf on ice you can see how the upper body would be forced to tighten and simply react in any which way it can to keep its balance. This is also what happens in the golf swing if the lower body becomes unstable. When the lower body acts as a stable base it allows the body levels to remain relatively constant, providing a much better chance of striking the ball in the same spot each time at impact.
As the body efficiently coils around a stable lower base/body and the weight is placed on the inside of the trailing foot, power is effortlessly developed and is ready to be just as effortlessly released on the downswing. Every successful professional on tour ranging from Bubba Watson to Jim Furyk or Laura Davies may have very different styles but all have the same efficiently timed body sequence. Imagine a wave of energy working from the feet, to the core, up through the arms and into the club.
To appreciate the principle of ‘working from the ground upwards,’ picture doing a vertical jump in the air. The power begins from a big surge from the lower body, and energy is transferred up through the body and out through the tips of the hands. If you were to reverse that movement and create power from the upper body to jump high, very little energy would be produced.
This principle of working from the ground upwards applies in exactly the same way in reference to the golf swing. If power is created from the upper body alone, power, efficiency and certainly accuracy are greatly lost. Utilising the ground with a stable lower base is crucial, not only in rotating the body during the backswing, but also unwinding into the downswing and impact.
Another way golfers may try to create power to gain more distance is through excessive thrusting of the hips forwards and upwards at impact. This, however, leaves the club trailing behind the body and in turn creates less pressure on the ball. This can often happen when trying to swing faster and hit the ball harder. The golf swing is a combination of the hands, arms and body, if they become out of sync, power and accuracy are lost. Yes, the body must continue to turn through the shot, (Imagine the swinging chairs at the amusement park, the centre of the carousel must continue moving to ensure the chairs on the outside continue to move in an orderly fashion), however the arms must have a chance to catch up.
Develop the sensation of an efficient body motion with drills and exercises
Using body drills without a golf club can help to gain the feeling of a solid lower half. Leading tour coach, Pete Cowen, created a drill aptly named ‘The Spiral Staircase’ which promotes an efficient body motion whilst utilising ground forces. Here is how it works.
Create your normal posture position, cross your arms over in front of you or alternatively place a club begind your head, resting on your shoulders to open the chest a little more. From here rotate your torso into the backswing, feeling the weight work through (for a right handed golfer) the left foot into the right ankle, left ankle into the right shin, left shin into the right knee, left knee into the right thigh, left thigh into the right hip and so on. Create the sensation of winding the body against its closest ally, the ground. Almost imagine the body as a corkscrew, working from the ground upwards. Eliminate any lifting of the spine, where the shoulders become too flat, tilting or sliding to the side, or over tiltting the shoulders where they become too steep.Use a mirror to assist. From here, transition into the downswing, with the sensation of a small squat as you transfer weight from the right foot into the left ankle, right ankle into the left shin, right shin into the left knee and so as the body turns through the shot. Again no sliding or lifting is necessary, simply an unwinding of the body whilst utilising the ground forces. If you were to do the exercise against a wall, imagine your tail bone maintaining relatively the same distance from the wall throughout the swing until the ball has been struck. Turn through and complete to the follow through.
At times physical limitations may restrict the ability for this motion to happen naturally; hence, as mentioned earlier, compensations can creep in. This is where physical screenings and golf specific fitness professionals can assist to establish if there are any stability or mobility issues. If so, a programme of exercises may be suggested or alternatively a slightly less dynamic movement may be an option to work around any limitations found. There are times where it can simply be a motor learning skill that needs developing and there are exercises for this to help develop the correct feeling. Physically, the gluteal muscles and core abdominal muscles play a key role in stabilising the body not only during the posture but also throughout the swing, both during the backswing and downswing. The greater the stability of the lower body combined with mobility of the hips and upper body, the greater chance of achieving distance without excessive force. This is also where a golf specific training programme can very much reap its rewards.
In summary, a great aid to achieving increased distance is to unravel any misperceptions about what creates power and distance and understand the basic principles that will enable added yardage with greater ease. Unfortunately the ways in which we try to force distance, such as turning as much as possible, swinging as fast as our body permits, gripping the club for dear life, often create the opposite of the desired effect. Sheer strength, excess or pure muscle power, will not do the trick. This is why you may see a small-framed senior golfer or petite lady boom it down the fairway yet a 6ft power house pops it just a short distance ahead. Timing and efficiency are paramount, and when both are synchronised, greater pressure and in turn greater power can be employed – Powerless effort versus effortless power.