The golf swing’s a funny thing. Sometimes it’s racked with errors, yet somehow, at impact, everything is where it needs to be and the ball shoots off powerfully in the direction you intended. Other times, every shift, angle and hinge is perfect, yet a small misstep on the way to the ball results in shots that can only be described as horrific. In the first instance, Lady Luck is certainly on your side, but as we all know, she rarely hangs around for too long. And the fact that a single hiccup can bring your whole technique crashing down is, to put it bluntly, just the way golf is.
I’ve been teaching golf for over 50 years, and one of the most damaging errors I’ve seen consistently throughout this period of time is knee movement, specifically, a straightening of the right knee on the backswing. This seemingly innocent mistake gives the golfer almost zero chance of making a quality pass at the ball and fuels both flawed backswings and downswings. As you’ll soon learn, however, correctly managing right knee movement makes producing a fundamentally sound motion a fairly easy task. Truly, it’s a key ingredient to any good swing.
Knee Keys In
Everyone knows that the golf swing is both an around and up-and-down motion. Where the around part is considered, your right knee (left for left-handers) plays a critical role in that it serves as the hub around which your body turns both back and through. The only way it can successfully serve as this hub (and facilitate appropriate weight shift, as we’ll soon discuss) is if it remains flexed.
A flexed right knee throughout the backswing facilitates coil, the needed separation between the upper and lower body that creates potential energy that’s eventually released into the back of the golf ball. A flexed right knee braces the lower body, stopping its turn while allowing the upper body to perform its full rotation. Also, the flexed right knee affords the stability needed to transfer weight to your right side on the backswing and position it in your right hip at the top. Furthermore, the flexed knee position keeps the clubshaft on the appropriate backswing plane, established by the arrangement of your arms and club at address.
If and when the right knee flex is lost, as is the case with so many amateur swings, weight is thrown from the right side back to the left (reverse pivot). That’s a big no-no. Second, straightening the knee moves the backswing plane to the inside, which can lead to all kinds of downswing misery. Third, losing the right knee flex gives your lower body too much room to turn, in addition to allowing it to sway away from the ball on the backswing. As a result, you lose all of your coil. Potential energy is nil, and all you’re left with power-wise is what you can generate by moving your arms as fast as you can back down to the ball. It’s an unleveraged motion that’s both weak and inconsistent and certainly no part of a successful swing.
From the top, things can only get worse. With a straight right knee, the only way you can get back to the ball is to violently slide targetward, a flaw devoid of rotation and, more often than not, one from which most amateurs cannot recover. Second, as the club moves down, your inability to push off from a posted right leg will strand weight on the right side at impact. Expect weak, glancing blows and numerous topped shots. The strong, athletic properties that define a fundamentally sound golf swing are lost. Amazing what a single flaw can do, right?
Lock & Load
Properly using the right knee as a rotational hub and as a support to accept the backswing weight shift to the right side is as easy as, well, maintaining flex in that knee until the swing unwinds through impact. Sounds easy enough, yet you’d be surprised how difficult it is for some players to retain flex. One reason for this is poor positioning at setup. Too many amateurs begin with not enough knee flex and too much bend from the waist. The proper posture at address is one that’s athletic, or ready for action. From your static position at address, you should feel as if you could move in any direction without hesitation, like a linebacker in football ready to pounce toward all sides of the field.
As far as maintaining flex, I advise my students to preset a solid, bent right knee. This preset goes beyond simply flexing the knee and holding it there. At address, and without lifting your right foot, bend in your right knee slightly, like you’re trying to point your kneecap at the golf ball. It’s just a slight kick in to the right. You should feel some tension in your right knee and sense some tension running up your right quadriceps and through your right hip. That bit of tension in your right knee and hip will both limit your lower body rotation (thus increasing coil) as well as stabilize your backswing. At the top, the tension created at address by kicking in the right knee should still reside in your right side. Use that tension to shift your weight through to your left as you bring the club into impact and beyond.
Use of this technique has allowed many of my students to better sense the physics of weight shift. It demystifies the swing, making it as simple as moving the club to the top and then back to the ball. There are many ways to turn a good swing into a bad one. So, too, are methods to make a bad swing decent. Presetting the right knee is just one of those techniques.
Instruction veteran Marshall Smith teaches at Peoria Ridge GC in Miami, Okla. Wardrobe was provided by Straight Down Clothing (www.straightdown.com).