Golf 101: The art and science of the swing

Kingston High School golfer Elle Sander demonstrates her swing Tuesday at White Horse Golf Course in Kingston.  - Brian J. Olson/Staff photo
Kingston High School golfer Elle Sander demonstrates her swing Tuesday at White Horse Golf Course in Kingston.
— image credit: Brian J. Olson/Staff photo

Kingston High School senior Elle Sander knows her golf swing is both unique and formulaic.

All the basic elements of her swing, just like the swing of any other golfer, are based on techniques developed through sports science and research.

But aside from the technical aspects, Sander incorporates movements that are natural and distinct to her.

“The interesting thing about a golf swing is that everybody has their own style,” she said.

Sander’s swing doesn’t stand out as more unique than anyone else’s. But over the years, she’s done what any good golfer does, by taking her coaches’ instructions and tweaking them to suit her body type.

With that said, there are some core elements that make up a proper stroke.

“Everybody’s unique, but there’s a reason why the really good golfers, most of their swings look pretty much the same,” Brian Bignold, Sander’s private coach, said.

Bignold, a former coach at North Kitsap High, owns the Kitsap Country Greens driving range in Kingston. He fell in love with the sport in junior high and has sung its praises ever since.

“To me, it’s like a religion,” he said.

Bignold lists a few technical elements that need to be present in a good swing. First is the stance. The shoulders, hips and feet should all be squared up with the ball. He calls his legs the posts of his “golf machine,” a term borrowed from golf instructor and author Homer Kelley.

“You want a good, stable foundation,” Bignold said.

While the legs provide stability, core muscles like the obliques, abs and buttocks provide power. Bignold likens the core muscles to a coil or rubber band, that wind up with the backswing and release to drive the ball.

Another component is the grip. Old timers taught that there was one way to hold the club: with the interlocking grip. By locking the index finger of the upper hand and the pinky of the lower hand, golfers assumed the grip was unbreakable. But for golfers with shorter arms, the lock is a painful stretch on the fingers at the top of the backswing.

So two more options developed. The overlapping grip places the lower hand’s pinky on top of the upper hand’s index finger, and the 10-finger grip separates the two hands, like holding a baseball bat. While many golfers — including Sander — still use the interlocking grip, the 10-finger has become popular, especially among beginners.

“We’re a country of, basically, baseball players,” Bignold said. “If you go to a 10-finger grip, you can actually get a bigger wrist-cock out of that.”

Sander points out that, no matter what your grip looks like, the arms should be properly aligned. At the bottom of the swing, the thumb and forefinger of the lower hand should create a ‘V’ that points toward the shoulder, and the ‘V’ of the upper hand should point at the player’s chin.

While the grip is a relatively small factor in the swing, a more important aspect is the player’s overall body mechanics. The most common swing is what Bignold calls a one-plane swing, which is like a baseball swing tipped forward. The club moves along a single plane from backswing to followthrough. The hips turn forward as the club strikes the ball in what Sander calls the “impact zone.” Sander likes to warm up by swinging the club baseball-style before teeing off.

In the old days, most players had a two-plane swing. They brought the club back and up high, then down, and kept the hips squared with the tee through the “impact zone.” The hips only turned forward in the followthrough, where the club moved forward and then up again. As the game evolved, more players adopted the one-plane swing, which has more of a natural feel to it.

“You can just turn into your right leg with the one-plane,” Bignold said. “A two-plane is more of a bump over, turn, turn, slide. ... Basically, at impact, those hips are much more squared to the ball.”

Some still prefer the two-plane swing, but it has mostly gone by the wayside. Where some golfers go wrong is by combining the two.

“If you mix the two, you’re screwed,” Bignold said. “Because, essentially, if I go up with the two-plane swing here, and then come down with the one-plane, then you get the ugly slice. You’re going to be outside the ball.”

Although the body mechanics are important, Bignold said many coaches fail in teaching golf because they force their athletes to imitate them exactly, without considering the athlete’s individual body type and strengths.

“Even though you want to be a golfing machine, the game is about adjustments,” Bignold said. “The great ones know that it’s a game that can never be perfected.”

Once the physical mechanics are adapted and honed, the most important aspect to remember is psychological.

“Golf is mostly mental,” Sander said. “If you hit a bad shot, it’s up to you to recover. You have to have some focus.”

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