Welcome to the gentleman's game of golf, where the breeze often carries a distant murmur of swear words, and expensive clubs suffer routine abuse. Since its inception sometime in the Middle Ages, golf has inspired obsession. Some players are lured by the refined aura of the sport, the sweeping links and velvety greens. Others are obsessed with golfing gear -- the latest drivers, spiked shoes and fancy putters. Still others simply enjoy driving around in the golf cart.
There's no denying that golf sings a siren's song. Too often, however, that song is soured by a wicked slice or a ball that plummets to its final resting place at the bottom of a water trap. "They call it golf because all the other four-letter words were taken," said championship golfer and course designer Ray Floyd.
Before you throw down your clubs in frustration or unleash a string of profanity that would make your mother blush, we offer 10 tips, from the most basic fundamentals to the golden rule of golf, that will help you save your sanity and improve your swing.
Neutral Hands: How to Hold a Golf Club, Part One
Any ham-fisted gorilla can grab a club and start whacking away at the ball. However, if your goal is to improve your swing, the first step is to pay attention to the way you hold your club.
Stand up, let your arms hang loosely at your sides and look at your hands. Notice how they are angled naturally -- you can easily see the knuckle on your index finger and part of the knuckle on your middle finger. By duplicating this "neutral hand position" when you grip your club, you'll more consistently and naturally square the clubface when you swing, increasing your chances of impacting the ball where you should, at the center of the club head.
Gently bring your top or lead hand (left for right-handers, right for left-handers) to the club and hold it lightly in place with your thumb pointing down. You should still be able to easily see the knuckles of your index and middle fingers. The "V" between your thumb and index finger should be pointing toward your rear shoulder -- not your chin. Now, place your bottom or trailing hand below your top hand, taking care to maintain its neutral position.
Get a Grip: How to Hold a Golf Club, Part Two
Now that you're holding your club with neutral hands, it's time to strengthen your grip by locking your hands together in one of three basic ways:
- Vardon grip: Probably the most popular and common golf grip, the Vardon or "overlapping" grip is achieved by fitting the pinkie finger of the trailing hand between the index and middle finger of the lead hand.
- Interlocking grip: The next most common grip works better for people with less powerful forearms, weak wrists or smaller hands. With this grip, the hands are literally locked together by curling the pinkie finger of the trailing hand around the index finger of the lead hand. The downside of this grip is that, with less finger pressure controlling the club, the handle can sometimes drift against the palms.
- Ten finger (baseball) grip: Beginners, players with joint pain and those with small hands sometimes find the ten finger grip the most comfortable. To achieve it, simply lock the pinkie finger of the trailing hand close against the index finger of the lead hand.
The perfect grip is key to improving your swing. A correct grip will help you impact the ball solidly on the club face. It will also give your wrists the proper hinge, which will improve your power [source: Lamanna]. All three grips have been used successfully by professional golfers. The grip that's right for you is usually the one you find most comfortable [source: Hughes].
Taking a Stance
The pros make a powerful, fluid swing look effortless. A beginner, on the other hand, can often find himself missing the ball entirely and, if he's really unfortunate, spinning himself around with such force that he winds up on the ground. To avoid this unfortunate comedy of errors, give proper consideration to your stance before you take a whack at the ball.
- Align thyself: Picture a set of railroad tracks running from the tee box to the green. Your body is aligned on the inside rail. Your ball is on the outside rail, which runs in a straight line from the tee box to the pin.
- Spread thy feet: Your feet should be shoulder width apart, with your weight balanced on the balls of your feet.
- Posture, please: Flex your knees slightly, bend at the hips and keep your spine straight. No slouching!
- Relax: Loosen your death grip on your club. You want to hold the club securely without squeezing too tightly. You also want to keep your body relaxed and not rigid.
The right stance, along with the right grip, sets you up for a great swing. The proper stance will keep you in balance as you swing and help you direct the ball where you want it to go [source: Lamanna].
Once you've spent time perfecting your grip and setting up your shot with the correct stance, you're ready to actually take a swing. By now the sheer number of physical things to keep in mind -- pointed thumbs, interlocked hands, foot distance, weight distribution and more -- probably has you reeling. Luckily, the mechanics of a solid two-part golf swing are pretty simple, in theory.
- On the backswing, pivot your shoulders toward your spine, shift your weight to the front of your back foot and hinge your front arm up into a 90-degree L-shape.
- On the downswing, release your arm in its L-shaped lever toward the target as you shift your weight to your front foot in one, smooth balanced motion.
Remember how Einstein's theory of special relativity made Newton's law of gravity seem quaint? To golf professionals, the idea that a swing consists of a simple back-and-down pendulum action is similarly facile. Entire books have been devoted to the golf swing. Professionals have debated every aspect of the golf swing -- from how much the back elbow should stiffen to how a golfer's weight should be distributed. Master a solid, basic swing before worrying too much about the dizzying array of variations available to you.
Feel the Beat
Rhythm and balance are essential for a good golf swing. Once you've spent some time on the basics, you can improve your swing even more by paying careful attention to your rhythm and balance.
Eric Johnson demonstrates some great drills that will help you improve the rhythm (and therefore the balance) of your swing in his video "Fairway Woods Swing Rhythm" on PGA.com:
- Count it Out: Your second grade "one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and" rhythm skills will serve you well with this exercise. Begin by repeating in a slow, steady rhythm "One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand." Once you've got a steady beat, practice swinging back on one and down on two. Simply counting through the rhythm of your swing will really help you become aware if you're rushing part of your swing.
- Two Balls: Place two golf balls on the ground one directly behind the other. Now, slip your iron between them and swing. If the back ball goes hurtling off into the far distance, you're rushing your swing. To improve your rhythm, practice until the back ball rolls just a few feet.
Many golfers live for those glorious moments they get to really smash a ball off the tee. There is a particular pleasing ping-flavored popping sound a ball makes when it contacts squarely with a masterfully swung driver. You can almost feel the humming in your teeth.
Unfortunately, for most players, these sorts of magnificent, powerful drives arrive at random. In order to cultivate a more consistent, power drive, PGA teaching professional Chris Czaja advocates practicing a simple drill that targets the backswing. Czaja says many players swing the club back behind the body rather than swinging the club up over the shoulder. To correct this tendency, place your leading arm (left for right-handers) behind the elbow of your trailing arm (right for left-handers) and swing your club back until the arm pivots at a 90-degree angle. At that point, pause and add the leading arm before following through with the swing. If done correctly, you should begin to add distance to your drive.
Power-driven tee shots and well-considered putts are the crown princes of a well-played game of golf. However, for a player who revels in the strategy of the game, the fairway is where all the action is. In the fairway, you get to practice many shots that, if properly executed, can redeem a lousy tee shot.
The dreaded rough, scourge of beginning golfers, has ensnared many a player. It's essential to modify your swing to navigate out of this tricky terrain. The tricks you'll learn through trial, error and practice will make your swing repertoire more flexible. First, choose your club wisely. You'll want one that will give you maximum loft, such as a nine-iron or a wedge.
Avoid hacking and chopping at the ball, which will gain you mere inches and guarantee you a bogey -- or worse -- on the hole. Instead, spread your feet wider and grip your club a bit more firmly than you normally would. This will help you power through the tough grass. Stand a bit closer to the ball than normal and swing the club so that the head hits the ball at a sharp angle. This cuts down on the amount of grass clogging the surface between the club and the ball and also, hopefully, chips the ball sharply up and out of the danger zone [source: Hoskison].
The sand trap is yet another fairway menace. Fickle and changeable, a soft, deep trap on your favorite course one week could morph into a shallow, wet creature after a day of high winds and rain. The lessons you learned maneuvering out of the rough will serve as a starting place for getting out of a sand trap. The stance, wider than normal, and the grip, firmer than usual, are the same. Your choice of club will also be similar; you'll want a club that will give you sufficient loft to clear the edge of the bunker.
If you are in a deep, soft, angled sand trap, feel free to bury your feet in the sand for balance and make sure the ball is at the head of your stance. Whack the sand under the ball, rather than trying to hit the ball itself. This will send a plume of sand -- and if you're lucky, the ball as well -- up into the air and over the bunker's edge.
On the other hand, if the trap is filled with a shallow layer of wet sand, there is no need to dig up so much sand to get the ball out. Strike into the sand a couple inches before the ball as you would on a soft bunker, but instead of scooping up sand, try to hit the ball square on, more like a normal shot.
Closing the Deal
You've finally made it to the green, and the hole is a mere few feet away. Now, you just need to get the ball there.
Start by adjusting your grip. You no longer need the interlocking grip you use to drive. Instead, place your thumbs and index fingers on the shaft of your club so that you can better sense the conditions of your swing. Next, adjust your stance. Stand closer to the ball than you do for a drive. Instead of distributing your weight evenly, you'll want most of your weight, about seventy-five percent, on your forward foot. Finally, keeping your arms straight and parallel to each other, control your swing with small shoulder movements.
PGA professional Joe Beck recommends two drills to improve your putting game. In both instances, determine how hard you'll need to hit the ball and how to adjust for any breaks or elevation changes in the lay of the land before you take your shot.
- Practice long: In turn, putt three balls toward a hole that is at least 25 feet (7.62 meters) away. As you swing, keep your eyes on the hole, not the ball. This helps you focus on the target and learn to judge distance.
- Practice short: Putt three balls toward a hole that is no more than 6 feet (1.8 meters) away. Instead of looking at the target, keep your eyes on the ball and listen for it to fall into the hole. This teaches you to trust your instincts.
After several years of regular playing, practice and possibly professional instruction, you'll very likely have developed a personal swing style. At this advanced stage in your golfing life, you'll always be on the hunt for ways to improve. It's easy to fall prey to nitpicking and head games. You might notice yourself swearing in the tee box when you hit an imperfect drive, rather than soaking in the sunshine, birdsong and camaraderie of the course.
When you realize you've become your own worst enemy, remember the golden rule of golf: relax.
It's possible to focus so much on your technique that you psyche yourself out and ruin your entire game. Many of the greats, such as Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, had unconventional swing styles. Bobby Jones turned his lower body too much, lifted his left foot too high, and came down too quickly on the backswing [source: Jensen]. It worked for him. Maybe your personal swing style has something to teach you, too.
Pro golfer Ken Venturi said, "After you get the basics down, it's all mental." To avoid being intimidated by the course, the competition or your own weaknesses, relax your mind, listen to your body and remember to enjoy the game.
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Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Beck, Joe. "Basics of Putting." PGA.com. (March 22, 2010)http://www.pga.com/2008/instruction/putting/01/12/putting_basics/index.html
- "Bunker Shot Tips: How to Hit Out of the Sand in Any Situation." GolfingValley.com. (March 22, 2010)http://www.golfingvalley.com/beginner-tips/bunker.html
- Chamblee, Brandel. "New Generation of Tour Stars Should Focus More On Instincts and Less On Video." Golf.com. March 17, 2010. (March 22, 2010)http://www.golf.com/golf/tours_news/article/0,28136,1972227,00.html
- Czaja, Chris. "Improving the Backswing." PGA.com. Online video clip. No publication date. (March 22, 2010)http://www.pga.com/instruction/
- "History of Golf." Golfing-Scotland.com. (March 22, 2010)http://www.golfing-scotland.com/history.asp
- Hoskison, Josh. "How to Hit a Golf Ball Out of Thick Rough." Suite101.com. July 7, 2009. (March 22, 2010)http://how-to-play-golf.suite101.com/article.cfm/how_to_hit_the_golf_ball_out_of_thick_rough
- Hughes, John. "Get a Grip." PGA.Com. (March 22, 2010)http://www.pga.com/2008/instruction/fundamentals/01/12/grip_hughes/index.html
- Jensen, Randy. "Analysis of Bobby Jones Golf Swing." Hickorygolfers.com. (March 22, 2010)http://www.hickorygolfers.com/swings/bobbyjones/index.htm
- Johnson, Eric. "Fairway Woods Swing Rhythm." PGA.com. Online video clip. (March 22, 2010)http://www.pga.com/instruction/irons_and_hybrids/
- Lamanna, Michael. "Tip of the Week." (March 22.10)http://lamannagolf.com/Tip.aspx