Master The Impact Zone

December 26, 2016

The swing of the average PGA Tour player bottoms out four inches in front of the ball,. The average swing bottom of a high-handicapper is an inch or so behind the ball. Considering the difference, it’s no wonder there are so many golfers who can’t meet their scoring goats. I wouldn’t even want to play if I couldn’t hit the bait solidly.

I believe a high-handicap golfer would reduce his or her average score by four strokes for every forward inch of improvement made on the swing bottom. In other words, if you want to break a scoring barrier, focus on improving your club’s position through the impact zone. This also applies to the short game.

If you’re trying to break 100, I can’t stress enough the importance of hitting crisp, accurate chip shots. It’s the ultimate stroke saver. During the Hawaiian Open in 1981, I was practicing chip shots with Hubert Green, who I think is the best chipper in the history of the game. Hubert took me to the cleaners that afternoon, but he also gave me one of the best chipping tips I ever received.

Hubert suggested I practice with a more lofted club for chips, such as a sand wedge instead of the traditional 8- or 9-iron I had been using. With the higher-lofted club, I could play the ball farther back in my stance and still get it airborne enough. This new ball position created an even more pronounced forward lean of the shaft at address and an even more downward angle of attack through impact–both crucial to hitting crisp chips.

As he explained to me, increasing the angle of descent into the ball allowed for greater consistency in chipping from all kinds of different lies because I would strike the ball higher on the clubface. I’m sure this tip can help you, too.

USE A WALL TO HIT SOLID PUTTS

In many ways, the flat left wrist at impact qualifies as golf’s master dynamic–even when putting. Here’s a little exercise that will let you sense what a flat left wrist at Impact feels like.

Take the back of your left hand and press It flushes against a wall. Notice how the back of the hand and forearm create a straight line? Now move your arm from the wait and take your normal putting grip, keeping this straight line with your left arm, the back of your left wrist and the putter shaft. Extend your arm directly In front of you so the shaft Is parallel to the ground, and you’ll see the straight-line configuration.

TRY CHIPPING CROSS-HANDED

Another way to hit solid chip shots is to focus on the left wrist’s position through impact. PGA Tour pro-Chris Couch chips cross-handed, with his left hand gripping the club lower than his right hand.

The reason he does this is to help ensure the left wrist remains flat through impact. Chris even chipped in on the final hole to win the 2006 Zurich Classic of New Orleans using this technique.

Most high-handicap players tend to scoop a chip into the air. The left wrist cups, and the right wrist bows. They actually should be in the opposite position through impact.

DON’T FEAR THE GROUND

I went to the range the other day with a friend, and I began taking practice swings, complete with divots. “What are you doing?” my friend asked. “I want to take a divot on my real swing, don’t I? So, why wouldn’t I take one with my practice swing?” I told him. You should, too.

To get used to hitting down through the ball, rehearse your real swing by taking a divot–in front of an imaginary ball–with your practice swing. Don’t forget to replace the divot.

To shoot in the 80s, you not only need a good short game, but you need to hit full shots with authority. Club lag–meaning the clubhead lags behind the hands through impact–plays a huge part in hitting solid shots.

At the age of 22, I led by seven shots through the fifth hole of the third round at the 1982 British Open. But then I drove the ball into the pot bunker on the sixth hole at Royal Troon and took three to get out. This led to my precipitous slide off the leader board.

What I remember is that the reason I found myself in the sand in the first place is that lag eluded me on my tee shot. I didn’t load the club well on the backswing, and the result was a pull hook into the bunker. That painful phrase, “He threw away the British Open,” had a double meaning for me. I really threw away my club lag.

My advice is that when you set your left wrist in the backswing, never let it unhinge on the way down–even the smallest amount. If you do, you will throw away your lag, and your impact with the ball will be weak.

LEARN LAG IN THE ROUGH

My childhood teacher, Ben Doyle, was once asked by a writer if my swing had too much tag. He countered, “Can you have too much love?”

Amateurs suffer from releasing the dub too soon in the downswing. At impact, the hands should be in front of the ball and the shaft should be leaning forward. One way to reinforce this feeling is to hit shots in the deep rough. As soon as the club contacts the grass, it will provide resistance white the hands and body continue turning. This is the impact feeling you want.

LOAD UP ON PITCH SHOTS

You might have heard the old golf cliche: “You don’t hit the ball with the backswing.” I disagree. Only when the club is properly loaded can we swing it more dynamically on the downswing and through impact to improve the strike.

You can team this by first mastering the pitch shot. Grab a wedge and toad the swing by hinging your left wrist as you start the club back. Once the wrist is set, forget about it. You don’t have to make it unhinge as you swing down. The swing’s force will do that naturally, and you’ll make better contact.

REHEARSE IMPACT

I know a tot of golfers who hit it great on the range and then struggle on the course. One of the reasons is that on the range you get feedback from one shot and can immediately try it again with an adjustment. On the course, you don’t have that luxury. So one way to remind yourself of what you’re trying to achieve is to rehearse the proper impact position.

During your next round, address the ball normally, but before you swing, get into the proper impact position (weight on the front foot, shaft leaning forward, head behind the ball). Once you do this, go back to address and then hit your shot, trying to get back to that same impact position.

I covered the 2005 Shell Houston Open at Redstone Golf Club for CBS Sports. Vijay Singh was in the final group the last two days (what else is new?), and I spent some time with him on the driving range.

I watched Vijay practice hitting drivers off the deck. At the time, he played a large (425 cubic-centimeter) driver, and as he positioned the club behind the ball, the center of the ball lined up with the second groove from the bottom on his clubface. The sweet spot on his club was the fourth groove, yet Vijay was still hitting high-flying shots about 280 yards.

He could do this only because he had good dynamics and a forward swing bottom. If his swing bottom was any farther back, he wouldn’t have been able to hit this shot. Vijay uses this drill specifically because it hones a swing that bottoms out in front of the ball.

I recommend that you give this practice drill a try. It will take some time to get used to, but it’s a great drill for a golfer trying to break 80.

FEEL IT ON THE ‘TRIGGER FINGER’

One of the most overlooked fundamentals of the golf swing is the point of pressure created by the club resting against and across the middle joint of the right-hand forefinger. This pressure point transforms that finger Into the “trigger finger,” meaning it plays a major role in the loading of the club on the backswing and the lagging of it on the downswing.

Where the grip falls across that finger is where we feel the lag of the club. To use this effectively, lay the handle diagonally across the middle joint of the trigger finger. During the swing, you want to feel the club’s weight in that spot the entire time.

HIT YOUR DRIVES ON THE DOWNSWING

I’m blown away that so many reputable golf teachers instruct their students to strike the driver on the upswing.

Regardless of whether a ball is on a tee or on the ground, the swing bottom must consistently be four inches in front of the ball. And swinging slightly down on the bail with the driver goes a long way toward ensuring that.

It also helps keep the left wrist flat at impact, because as soon as the club begins to swing up, there is a tendency for the left wrist to break down and hinge upward.

TRY HOMER’S AIMING-POINT CONCEPT

Homer Kelley’s The Golfing Machine was the book that most influenced my game, and Ben Doyle taught me the book’s aiming-point concept. It works like this: Draw an imaginary line from your hands at the top of the backswing to a point a foot or so in front of the bait along the target line. As the backswing transitions to the downswing, the goal is to have your hands pass over that mark in front of the bah before the dub head does. Just a swing or two using this technique will move your divots forward and make your impact more solid.

At the Memorial Tournament one year, I was paired with Jack Nicklaus and fellow tour player Greg Powers. There was a rain delay, and when we got back to the ninth tee to resume play, Greg was hitting old balls into the woods. (That was allowed back then.) I asked him what he was doing and he said, “You see that Vin the tree? I’m trying to hit balls through the branches. So far I’m 0-for-5.” Seeking a challenge, I joined him but also went 0-for-5.

Then Jack walked up. He asked what we were doing, and when we told him, he yelled to his caddie, “Angelo, give me a ball.” His first shot went right through the middle, and we all laughed!

Jack said that game reminded him of a drill he once discovered. In looking at a spot in front of the ball for alignment, Jack found he was getting more accurate because he also was starting his ball flight on the same line. It’s a great drill to try.

BALL POSITION IMPROVES IMPACT AND FLIGHT

To improve impact and straighten your shots, here’s how to use the intermediate-target drift Jack talked about. Pick a spot on your target line that’s about 10 yards in front of the ball. Have someone watch to see if your bait passes over that spot. If it goes right of it, your bait position might be too far back in your stance. If it goes left of the intermediate target, then your ball position might be too far forward. There’s only one position in the swing where the clubface is square to the target line.

PERFECTING PITCHES

There’s a difference between the finish and follow-through positions, and understanding that will make you hit better pitch shots. A pitch swing should end at the follow-through position, defined as the point past impact before either the left elbow or both elbows bend. The finish occurs when the club’s through-swing momentum ends naturally.

On most pitches, you shouldn’t swing to a finish position because the ball will fly too far. You also cannot decelerate to reduce the distance, because you’ll likely hit It fat or thin. But by swinging to the follow-through position, you can stilt accelerate through impact and regulate distance.