Some of the best golf swing advice that I’ve ever heard came from two former Stanford golfers (not named Tiger Woods). The first nugget came from a four time All-American named Joel Kribel. His other amateur accomplishments are too numerous to list. Kribel said that “whatever you’re working on, over exaggerate it.”
How often does a swing change feel weird? How often do you look at a video of yourself feeling as though you’ve made drastic changes only to see that it is fractionally different? As I was describing this phenomenon to one of my students (a physical therapist), she told me that the word I was looking for was “proprioception,” which is the sense of your body parts’ position. In my experience, changes are very difficult to make if you let your feelings slow you down. You must over exaggerate the changes.
The second bit of advice that I really love came from Casey Martin. Martin was on the 1994 NCAA Championship team at Stanford and also coached a National Championship team at the University of Oregon in 2016.
Martin suggested that instead of trying to make changes in your mechanics that will hopefully produce a desired ball flight; make changes to your ball flight that will elicit changes in your technique. In other words, if you’re hooking the ball, try to slice it. You might just hit it straight.
Drills are what I take away from both of these bits of advice. Drills should be the complete opposite of the problem and the exaggeration of the solution. For just about every swing fault, there are are plenty of drills that can bring about changes, quickly. A side benefit of doing drills is that the expectation of hitting a good shot goes away. When good shots happen, it’s a pleasant surprise. If a bad shot happens, you were doing a drill that was the opposite of what you were doing wrong. It wasn’t supposed to be easy.
A lesson in feel. When a young Billy Harmon complained to his father that his grip change didn’t “feel right,” Claude Harmon Sr. reminded his son that the golf club and the golf ball were inanimate objects, neither giving a damn how he felt.
Again, don’t let your feel slow you down. Your feelings will change. When you take a lesson, leave with a few drills to practice.
When I was a rookie on the PGA Tour, I was playing in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and saw Jeff Sluman practicing bunker shots. Standing 5'7 and 140 lb, Sluman had 6 PGA Tour victories to his name, plus the 1988 PGA Championship. He didn't make a career like that with his long game, that much was obvious. I couldn't help but watch him hit those shots from the sand. They were awe inspiring; extremely high with lots of backspin. They made a nipping sound that mine only made when I accidently hit too close to the ball. I approached him and told him that we had a mutual coach in Craig Harmon. I asked if he minded telling me how he was hitting those shots? He replied, “I just do the weakest grip ever and try to have lots of speed.” I was dumbfounded at how weak his grip looked. (Both hands rotated counter-clockwise). Sluman wasn’t the only great professional that I saw using a weak grip with his short game. Once I started looking for it, I found that it was happening all around me. It was obvious that I was at a major disadvantage without it.
Any high level amateur can hit a standard chip or pitch with low to medium trajectory. It is possible to become a scratch golfer without using a weak grip to hit the ball high, but not an elite player (with few exceptions). It’s easier than trying to make a strong grip work by all sorts of manipulations, such as moving the ball position too far forward, holding off the release, or opening the clubface at set up to the point where it might slide under the ball. I wish I could tell students that they can keep their same grip for every shot. It would be easier for them remember, but harder to play the game.
Elite players get up and down from the short side of the green. They can hit flop shots consistently. They are not “trapped” when they hit it in to a bunker. If anything, sand is a good lie. This is what I’m talking about when I suggest weakening the grip. The beauty of the weak grip is that you can let your hands go. The club naturally rotates open on the backswing, adding loft, and it doesn’t tend to close on the release, losing loft and digging. The club-face doesn’t have to be laid open at address. It can be much more square, allowing you aim straight instead of having the club-face open and pointed somewhere to the right. Shots wont gravitate towards the toe, they will strike the sweet spot, allowing for more consistent distance control.
To beginners and intermediate players, I definitely recommend weakening your grip in the sand. When it comes to flop shots, mess around with it, but consider a standard chip first. Play the percentages. To the single digit handicappers and higher level players, add the weak grip into your short game arsenal immediately. Over-exaggerate it. The types of shots that we encounter around the green are endless, therefore, we shouldn't be afraid to open the playbook, and vary our technique, starting with a weak grip.
When I use the word fundamental I hesitate, because I can easily think of a great player that is not doing it. However, I consider the grip to be the most important and fundamental technique that a golfer can learn. No single aspect of golf mechanics will add or reduce power, trajectory, curve, or a sense of touch more than the golfer’s grip.
I believe that all elite golfers are vigilant about maintaining their grips, constantly making small adjustments for desired ball flights and short game shots. As far as grip pressure goes, it should be light. Hold the club, don’t squeeze it. A light grip is crucial to learning timing, a powerful release, the loading and unloading of a club, which has flex for a reason. There aren’t a lot of constants when learning golf, but a light grip is one of them. Never squeeze the club! Whether it is an extra long drive that you desire, or to feel steady over a fast, five foot putt, a light grip is the ticket. Tiger Woods has said that when he really wants to crush a drive, he “holds the club lighter and takes it away slower.” He also said that his biggest breakthrough as a professional was when he spoke to Ben Crenshaw about his putting. Crenshaw suggested he significantly lighten his grip pressure. Crenshaw’s grip was so light that the putter was nearly falling out of his hands.
A proper grip is some form of a Vardon grip. Interlock, overlap and ten finger grips are your choices (although I’ve seen cross-handed work well!). Each of these three grip options have different benefits and acceptable in my book. A good instructor will look at your grip first, in every lesson. If the grip is proper, the club won’t shift around in the golfer's hands during the swing. The hands will tighten on their own during the downswing, like a knot, or a Chinese finger trap. Once the grip is in the correct position, the club-head is allowed to rotate fast and freely. It is not guaranteed that the club will be perfectly square at impact, but it sure increases that likelihood!
Every person's swing is different, based on variations in size, flexibility, athleticism etc. I look at a swing as a manifestation or symptom that is the result of root causes. The grip is the prime source. A swing makes compensations for the grip in good and bad ways. As a teacher, I’m not going to move onto anything in the swing unless the grip is proper and light.
I'm not a Zen Master, but I'd be really happy if you called me one. Let's get straight to the point, there are a lot of golf coaches that are confusing their students, leaving their stamp on them. Stack and tilt, the "A swing", pivot and turn, and so on. No thank you! These one size fits all types of instruction are pitfalls to be avoided. It's not golf, it's driving range snake oil. Here's a distinction for you; golfer vs. swinger. If you're doing any of these moves on the range, you look way more concerned with how to hit the ball than where to hit it.
Golfers are addicts. Believe me, I know. Let me guess, you had an epiphany? Did you get another swing fix today? I know what that's about. My brother got sick of me saying it when we were junior golfers. Now that I'm out of the professional game, I can tell you the longest lasting epiphanies. For example, I'm not Tiger Woods. I'd better learn to like my swing and get to work on my short game and mental game. That makes sense, because it makes dollars, and I'm Tom, not Tiger Woods.
For every great athlete that has accomplished things, there are tens of thousands that came up short. A huge number over analyzed, went away from what got them there, strayed from the fundamentals, forgot the objective, stopped having fun while playing a game. This is an epidemic. I'd like to be the coach who didn't wreck talent. If you're down in a hole, stop digging.
Ponder this. Less is more.
I teach at Golden Gate Park Golf Course, a par three golf course in San Francisco, Ca. I mainly teach beginners. The facility isn't intimidating for them. My students don't know much, if anything at all. They are coachable. Tabula rasa, if you will. Junior golfer's are blank slates, as well. It's perfect! They are empty cups, not overflowing with information. When I go to the Olympic Club, walking down a bustling driving range with fancy bags and thousands of dollars in clubs, alignment sticks on the ground, I see the squirrels running in golfer's heads. They barely have time to look up and say hello, or to enjoy their incredible surroundings. I'd be happy to teach these people, but I know I'd be untangling a web of ideas and trying to refocus them on hitting an actual target.
I could go on, but I'm going to leave it at this. Good luck if you are binge watching The Golf Channel, or subscribing to Golf Digest's "all access." Your cup shall runneth over.
Let's get back to the Zen thing (that’s what the masters call it).
Would you like to know the secret to golf? Me too. Here's an educated guess. The person who wins each week says it, literally every, single, time.
"I just tried to play one shot at a time the best that I could." -winning golfer
When I think of Zen, I think of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Phil Jackson, the Art of Mindfulness, balancing rocks on top of each other, raking a sand trap like a zen garden. One shot at a time is a mindset of presence. My former mentor, Coach Jim Sochor (look him up) told me to "just be." That's how he summed up Taoism. Sounds simple, if it weren't for those darn squirrels!
The next time you play golf, quit thinking about how to swing and focus on where you are going to hit your ball. Get your head out of the clouds and your feet back on the ground. How? Take a couple of mindful breaths. Inhale through your nose, count to four. Exhale as if out of a straw, count to four. Re-focus on your target with great intent, then let your natural swing flow. One swing thought. Balanced finish.
Next lesson. The Grip.