The trophy cases of the likes of Nicklaus, Irwin, Miller, Stewart and Trevino are full of championship hardware, but all had swings that would now be considered old-fashioned. Yesterday’s players used a significant amount of lateral lower-body movement, which placed a lot of undue stress on the neck, hips and back. The great young players of today strive for a more stacked position at impact, which is both more efficient and much healthier for the body.
In recent years, there has been a significant shift in the technique used by the world’s best players, and it’s pretty easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for. In Jack Nicklaus’ heyday, great players like Tom Watson, Hale Irwin, Lee Trevino and even the Golden Bear himself had swings that featured a tremendous amount of leg drive through the hitting zone and a lot of upper-body hang-back. The signature look of this “old” swing was a big reverse-C finish, which had the player’s spine bent backward and the hips thrust forward.
Probably the biggest single element that contributed to the development of this swing style was the general theory that you had to keep your head down and behind the ball through impact, a technique that basically forced the player to hang back with his or her upper body. Another major contributor to the old swing was the lack of video technology. Obviously, video cameras existed, but the use of video analysis in swing theory was basically nonexistent. In addition, most teachers weren’t well schooled in bio-mechanics, and didn’t really understand how the human body is supposed to work.
In contrast, the modern swing, which evolved in large part through the use of video analysis and a solid understanding of bio-mechanics, features a more stacked position through impact, with the upper body aligned with the lower body. Today’s players employ much less leg drive and lateral slide, instead using a more rotational move that powers the club and arms by pivoting the hips and turning the body. The result is a more consistent swing that’s significantly easier on the body. If you’re interested in learning this motion, take a look at my student Ben Fox as he demonstrates it to near perfection.
Address The modern setup features a neutral eye line and level head position, meaning the head isn’t tilted away from the target at address. This position is critical to eventually creating a stacked position at impact, meaning the upper body is directly over the lower without much lateral shifting of the hips or lean-back of the spine. Along with a neutral head position is minimal spine tilt, with the right shoulder (for a right-handed golfer) only slightly lower than the left, and hands that grip the club more toward the middle of the torso rather than too far forward. Square or slightly flared feet (as opposed to Hogan’s square back foot and flared front) encourage a free turn of the body on both the backswing and forwardswing, instead of just on the downswing. In addition, slightly rounded shoulders and a head position that’s more directly over the ball removes the need to drop the head over the ball and round the shoulders during impact, which further simplifies the modern motion. Finally, modern players tend to favor a neutral or weak grip, which helps to keep the shoulders more level.
A straight, flat back that’s tilted at the hips places the head more directly over the impact zone, adding more leverage and power. Notice how the right knee is comfortably flexed at address—this must be maintained all the way through to the top.
Placing the majority of weight toward the toes at address is a must for an athletic move away from the ball. Keeping the head in a neutral position, and not allowing it to tilt toward the right shoulder, encourages a more rotational forwardswing.
Although your body weight will eventually move into your back heel at the top of the backswing, it should start more toward the toes. This way, your weight will be forced to shift properly, preventing a move toward the ball during the backswing. This common mistake prevents extension and saps power.
Toe It Up The key to developing a modern setup position is to focus on athleticism. Forget all you’ve learned about tucking in the right elbow, locking the right knee in position, tilting the right side down, forward pressing and the like. Many old-school setup positions were full of obvious adjustments that created tension and attempted to immobilize certain parts of the body. In contrast, the modern setup attempts to free up the body to allow the player to pivot aggressively on the backswing and forwardswing. A major difference in the modern setup and old setup is the distribution of weight in the feet. While many old-style players placed more weight toward their heels, the modern player places more weight toward the toes. This is critical to facilitating the proper pivot of the body on the backswing where the weight should work into the right heel. When the weight is incorrectly placed toward the heels, the tendency is to have the weight move toward the toes during the backswing. This mistake generally moves the body closer to the ball during the swing, minimizing extension and power through impact.Another important aspect of the modern setup is the angle of the upper body and head. Basically, you want to feel that your chest is over the ball, not straight up and down. To set this position, forget about keeping your chin up, and set your eyes and chest directly at the ball. In addition, be sure to avoid bending your head and neck toward your right shoulder. Although this feels like a natural move, allowing your right ear to get close to your right shoulder will promote a hang-back in the downswing. Instead, concentrate on a neutral head position, or one that slightly favors your left shoulder.
In the past, many of the world’s best players, like Lee Trevino, utilized a setup position featuring a head that pointed well behind the ball (notice where the brim of Trevino’s cap is pointing) and a significant degree of spine tilt, with the right shoulder well below the left. In addition, the old setup tended to place more weight in the heels. All of these elements combined to promote a less-balanced position that often led to a reverse weight shift. Although Trevino is hitting a driver in the photo above, his right shoulder is still significantly lower than that of the modern swinger.
Top Many old-style swingers, like the late Payne Stewart, locked their right knee at the top of the swing and took the club well past parallel. Although this often gave the swing a long, flowing look, it required extraneous movement that made it difficult to manage for those who lacked world-class talent. Many amateurs take this a step further and allow their right hip to move laterally during the backswing while locking the rear leg, creating a nasty reverse pivot as illustrated in the picture at the bottom of the page (in red). In contrast, notice how Ben’s right knee remains flexed, his right hip and shoulder are rotated away from the ball with no lateral movement, which maintains the space between his knees. Unlike the old-style top that requires compensations in the transition, the modern position is ready to go.
To learn the sensation of a proper pivot on the backswing, flex your knees and place the palms of each hand on each knee. Keep your back straight and your head in a relatively neutral position. Then simply rotate your right hip pocket in a clockwise direction while maintaining your hand-knee connection. Turn, don’t sway.
Ben’s extremely compact and dynamic position at the top illustrates how athletic the golf swing can be. Many players in the past lifted the front heel, locked the back leg and swung the club past parallel. Conversely, the modern position at the top is strong, simple and without any slack.
During the takeaway and move to the top of the swing, the body should feel connected and synchronized. Keep your hands on your knees and turn back instead of swaying to help ingrain this feel.
Delivery To help instill the feeling of a proper transition and delivery position, try the following drill. Place your golf bag behind your rear end and assume your setup position. The bag should be just behind you, but not touching your body. At the top of the swing, the right portion of your butt should come into contact with the bag, and as you turn into delivery and impact, the left portion should immediately make contact, and maintain that contact through impact. Be sure to move your head along with your body, and rotate your hips instead of sliding them. The key here is to maintain the same distance from the ball all the way through the swing. If you do get closer to the ball, your arms won’t have room to extend. Notice how Ben’s left shoulder is closer to the target than is his left hip while his head is straight up and down over the ball. There’s no hang-back here, but rather a free-flowing rotation into the hitting zone. Remember, there’s a lot of power in the right side of your body—don’t leave it stuck behind the ball.
The old delivery style, as demonstrated by a young Hale Irwin to the right, featured a sliding of the knees and hips in a lateral direction, with the upper body and head stuck behind the ball. As a result, a lot of players like Irwin tended to hit high shots that hung in the air and didn’t have much penetration. A significant reason for this relatively weak position approaching impact was the old theory of keeping the head behind the ball. In contrast, note Ben’s stacked position approaching impact, with his upper body directly above his legs. Also, notice the position of his head—it’s not bent back behind the ball, but is clearly moving with his body.
Critical Drill A proper pivot is critical to executing a proper delivery. To learn the sensation of a proper pivot, try the bag drill and concentrate on keeping your body away from the ball all the way.
Impact Obviously, impact is the most important moment in the golf swing, as it determines the quality of both ballstriking and shot direction. Above, you’ll notice Johnny Miller’s classic old-style impact position, with his knees and left hip slid well past the golf ball and his head stuck behind it (not to mention the pants). If you drew a line from Miller’s left shoulder straight down to the ground, it would pass well inside his left leg. In stark contrast, notice how Ben’s upper body and legs are in line, with almost no lateral sliding of any kind. His left hip has rotated (compare the position of Ben’s belt buckle to Miller’s) and he has slung the club into impact by pivoting his body, not hitting with his arms. You’ll also notice that his head is moving with the rotation of his body, not holding it back. This movement of the head with the body and club (demonstrated by many of today’s modern players, including, most notably, Annika Sorenstam), not only frees up the release of the arms and club, but also allows the right side to turn into the golf ball without being impeded by the rest of the body. Unlocking the right side is a great source of power that you need to tap.
This position is the essence of the modern athletic swing. The reason Ben’s back is so nice and straight, and his body is so stacked at the moment of impact, is because he’s powering the club with his core, not his hands and arms. This type of motion is much more rotational than that used by players in Johnny Miller’s era and, as a result, features much less lateral movement. You can imagine how much easier this position is on your back.
Johnny Miller’s U.S. Open victory at Oakmont was legendary, but his impact position is definitely “old school.” His legs have outraced his body by sliding toward the target excessively, and his head has hung back. Miller was still able to make great contact because he got his hands and arms in a fantastic position through the hitting zone.
Impact Drill To improve the quality of your ballstriking, you need to ingrain the proper position at impact. To do so, assume your normal address position, then move the ball slightly forward and a little closer to your body than usual (see right). Once you’ve set up in this manner, simply concentrate on striking the ball with your body and head leading the club into the shot. The forward and slightly inside ball position will force you to get your upper body motivated to move forward and in a counterclockwise direction, which, in turn, will make hanging back impossible. Notice (at far right) how my body is stacked at impact, not bent back, with my right side firing into the ball. There’s no lateral slide here, just a lack of tension and strong, rotational power.
Release The modern release features no hang-back or tension whatsoever. Instead, it’s free-flowing and relaxed, yet extremely powerful. Because the release is a product of a solid pivot motion in which the body—not the arms and hands—power the club through impact, you should see a natural and full extension of the arms almost as if they have been thrown out uncontrollably by the power of the pivot.
In Ben’s photo, you’ll see that the right side of his body, including his right shoulder and lat, is on top of his lower body in a high, stretched position. His right shoulder is now closer to the target than is his left, which is made possible by his hips and core, which are rotated in a counterclockwise direction with no indication of lateral sliding. Basically, he has slung his arms and the club with his core strength instead of with the muscles in his arms and hands. His head is clearly moving with the swing, as indicated by the way his body is working over and into the finish instead of backward away from the target, as you can see in the picture of Nicklaus. The major key here is that there’s no backward bend of the spine and, as a result, there will be no reverse-C finish. The modern swing is more upright and less stressful on the body—a bonus for golfers both young and old.
The Golden Bear is arguably the greatest competitive golfer of all time, but now he has an artificial hip. Looking at his release position, it’s not hard to see why Nicklaus has back and hip problems—his head is stuck behind the ball, and his hips have slid laterally, placing a tremendous amount of stress on his body.
Release Drill To develop the proper release, take two irons and grip them together to form a weighted club. Assume your address position and place the clubheads on the ground, well behind your right foot. Using the pivot of your hips and the strength in your body’s core, drag the clubheads along the ground as you would a broom. When you approach the impact zone, use your core to heave your arms and clubs through impact and into the release and finish. Remember to keep turning your body in a counterclockwise direction all the way through.
PGA professional Brady Riggs teaches a number of top junior and aspiring professional players at Woodley Lakes GC in Van Nuys, Calif. Ben Fox is the 2006 Southwestern Amateur champion and currently plays golf for the University of Arizona. Photos shot at Tierra Rejada GC (www.tierrarejada.com) in Moorpark, Calif.