Is the Golf Swing Flawed?

Have you ever felt that you are somehow lacking in your golf skills? In terms of ball-striking consistency, or your permanent slice, or your lack of distance? Well, you are in good company, for surely the best Tour players often feel that way, too. How must it feel to win an event one week then miss the cut the very next? Or rely on making many 30- to 50-foot putts to succeed in an important championship? Now, consider this very outside-the-box idea: perhaps it is not your fault. Perhaps it is the golf swing itself that is to blame. There is some proof to back up that statement as well, based on all of the sciences relevant to human movement.

Before we dive into the science, remember this: the typical downswing lasts about one-third or one-fourth of a second. That is not very much time at all. Now, to the science!

Motor Control is a science that studies how the brain works to control the muscles in order to move the body parts to produce a specific movement. A study of this subject tells us that the more complex a task, the more its performance can deteriorate under conditions of arousal (feeling pressure) or fatigue.

How complex a task is the golf swing? The complexity of any movement is judged by how many decisions need to be made to accomplish it, by the number of muscles involved, the coordination of the actions which form the entire movement and the precision and steadiness required.

When you think of all the muscles used to swing the club, the order they must go in and the external factors that can affect your shot (lie, wind, slope, etc.), the golf swing is a very complex task indeed, and therefore prone to poor performance, especially in uncomfortable situations.

golf science

Still not convinced about the sheer complexity of the golf swing? Here’s a direct quote from a research study titled “The effect of biological movement variability on the performance of the golf swing in high- and low-handicapped players” (Bradshaw et al., 2009), which states that, “…the timing and ‘feel’ of this skill can even appear to vanish overnight from novice and expert performers alike.” Quite a familiar feeling for us all!

Musculoskeletal Anatomy is a science that studies the structure and function of the human skeleton and how muscles move the different body parts at various joints. Studies of muscle activation during the downswing – using electromyography (EMG) – have shown that the powerful gluteus maximus muscles (aka your butt) are very active during the early downswing in order to straighten (extend) the trail hip. What does that signify? It shows that during a typical swing, the trail hip is flexed and must be extended before the hips are level and the trunk can begin to rotate, requiring two distinct muscle groups to be working.

Another important fact is what happens when a golfer is told to intentionally start the downswing with a powerful rotation. This movement might leave body weight back on the trail leg, causing the dreaded slice. It can cause other problems, too. Rotation is generated by the “core” muscles, which are able to rotate not just the pelvis but also the trail shoulder. As the trunk rotates, the shoulders are pulled around very quickly. The result? The trail shoulder moves forward and down, not only pulling the club “inside” the target line too early but also bending the trail elbow awkwardly, so  it cannot straighten out easily for impact. This can cause a lot of inconsistency of clubhead position at impact. The elbow is only able to straighten easily when it faces forward (not targetward) as when one makes a bicep curl.

Biomechanics research is able to describe movement and explain the forces that create it. Some studies have shown that both weight shift and body rotation are important for the creation of club speed for longer distance. It is also known that forearm rotation can improve club speed. In addition, it is known that when the lead shoulder and arm are at their maximal possible length at impact, they form a longer lever for greater club speed. This is why golfers are told to shift weight, rotate the trunk, rotate the forearms, and try to raise the lead-side shoulder and trunk in time for impact. That is a lot to do in only a quarter of a second!

Given all of this information, would you agree that a typical golf swing – or at least your own – is a very complex movement? Your challenge here is to consider what you might do about it … until next month, when we offer up some helpful ideas.