Few golfers have ever been more popular with their fellow pros – not to mention the public -- than Darren Clarke. The outpouring of heartfelt emotion after Clarke's improbable victory at the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St. George's was one of the game's most moving moments.
Clarke's popularity owes much to his affable personality (not to mention his legendary feats of celebration). But beneath the Northern Irishman's natural charm lies a remarkably gifted golfer. Through 2011, Clarke's 15 career wins featured a pair of World Golf Championships – including his pummeling of Tiger Woods in the 2000 Match Play finals – plus five appearances on the European Ryder Cup squad.
Clarke is a big guy, over 6'2” and 200 pounds. He uses this size as an advantage, especially his powerful midsection.
Clarke's signature: A very simple back-and-through motion driven by his core muscles (hips, torso and shoulders).
Who else does it: Tom Watson, Steve Stricker
Clarke's setup positions him for success. He's well balanced with a straight spine; his arms are well clear of his body and the right arm is relaxed, allowing it to fold easily on the backswing. Clarke moves his hips, torso, shoulders and arms in unison, rotating so the shoulders remain perpendicular to the spine at all times. While his upper body does travel a bit to the right (laterally), he doesn't raise or lower his head level significantly – the key to maintaining posture.
Clarke stays in sync coming down, his hips leading the way. You'll notice his head move laterally to the left; at impact, it's often farther left than it started at address. This produces the low ball flight that spurred Clarke to win the Open.
Why it works for Clarke: While he boasts very strong arms and hands, Clarke doesn't let them control his swing. By relying on his big muscles to guide the way, Clarke keeps things simple and compact – a huge aid to consistency.
How it can work for you: First, relax at address. Nothing restricts the swing like tension.
Grip the club just firmly enough to control it, and no harder.
The takeaway is critical to turning with the core muscles. Your left arm and shoulder make the first move back, dragging the club “low and slow” away from the ball; this is called a “one-piece takeaway.” Rather than snatching the club back with the wrists, practice maintaining the triangle formed by your arms and hands for the first several inches of the backswing.
With your arms and shoulders properly engaged, the torso and hips should naturally follow. Imagine rotating around your backbone, with the shoulders always perpendicular to the spine back and through.
Darren Clarke Core Muscles Power the Swing
Darren Clarke is a highly accomplished professional golfer on the world stage. He is a major champion, has played an important role in Ryder Cup victories, and has been an important figure in golf for a long period of time. With his relaxed and friendly nature on the course as well as off, Clarke has been a fan favorite throughout his career, and he continues to be that to this day. In his latest role, he will serve as Captain for the European Ryder Cup Team during the 2016 matches.
While there is a lot that the average amateur golfer can learn from just about any pro, Clarke sets a great example with his game in terms of the way he uses his core muscles to drive the club through the hitting area. Clarke is a powerful player, and he owes much of that power to the efficient way in which he uses his core. Where the majority of amateur golfers will just use their arms and hands to move the club back and through the shot, a top pro like Clarke understands that it is body rotation which is at the heart of the swing. If you can learn from his example and engage your core more effectively in your swing, you can take the next step in your golf journey.
It is no surprise that a pro with the kind of impressive track record that has been recorded by Clarke would use a core-powered swing. Swinging the club in this fashion helps players attain the kind of power that is needed to keep up at the highest level, and it is also a great way to swing consistently. Your core muscles will have an easier time repeating the same motion time after time than will the small muscles in your hands and arms, so expect to gain consistency if you learn how to make a swing that is driven by your core.
For many players, learning this kind of swing will be a major transition. As was mentioned above, it is common for the amateur golfer to swing with mostly arms and hands. If that sounds like you, expect the process of learning a core-driven golf swing to take some time and effort. However, all of that effort should be more than worth it in the end. Once you work through the learning curve and develop some confidence in this kind of swing, you should find that you are suddenly hitting more powerful shots which add yardage to every single club in your bag. As with everything else in golf, there will be some challenges along the way, and it is the players who are willing to stick with in that will reach their goals in the end.
All of the instruction included below is based on a right handed golfer. If you happen to play left handed, please be sure to reverse the directions as necessary.
The Advantages of Using Your Core
To most golfers, an arm-driven swing is what come naturally. Unfortunately, this isn't the most effective way to swing the club. When only your arms are involved in the backswing and downswing, you will always be limited in how much power you can create. Therefore, engaging your core in the swing should allow you to generate more swing speed in the downswing, and more distance overall on your shots. However, there are more advantages to this style of swing than just power. Consider the list of additional benefits below when trying to decide if you are going to work on adding core rotation to your golf swing technique.
- Consistent strikes. This point was highlighted above, and is mentioned again here because it is so important to your game. A player like Darren Clarke is able to strike the ball so cleanly time after time in large part because he uses is core to guide the club through the hitting area. Sure, his hands are technically holding on to the club, but it is really that body rotation that is doing the bulk of the work. This allows the club to trace the same path into the ball over and over again, and it leads to great ball striking. If you are looking for increased confidence on the golf course, there is really nothing like the feeling of knowing that you are going to hit the ball clean each time to take the club back.
- Variable flights. One of the important skills that you will want to develop in your golf game is the ability to vary your ball flights as you move around the course. This is certainly important at the professional level, and it is relevant all the way down to amateur golf. Whether you need to keep the ball down to avoid the wind, or if you want to hit it high to stop it quick, having the ability to vary your shots is crucial to scoring. When you use a core-driven swing, you should find it easier to vary your ball flight than if you were swinging with your arms only. It will take some practice to learn how to vary your trajectories, but building that skill can pay off for you in a big way.
- Dealing with deeper grass. Golf would be an easy game if you only had to play your shots from perfect lies all day long. Of course, that will never be the case. Dealing with poor lies is just part of the game, and you are certain to find your ball in the long grass from time to time. When that happens, you will be glad you learned how to use your core in the swing. With the power that comes from using body rotation on your side, you should have an easier time forcing the club head through the grass and onto the back of the ball. It will always be best to keep your ball on the short grass whenever possible, but a core-driven swing is great for getting you back on track when you do happen to find the rough.
- Hold up under pressure. Do you have trouble hitting quality shots when you start to get nervous on the course? Every golfer experiences pressure from time to time, and it is the player who can do the best job of dealing with that pressure who will come out on top of a tournament, match, etc. One of the best things about golf is having the opportunity to compete against your friends and other people at your local club or course, so you want to make sure your swing can hold up during those competitions. By focusing the swing that you are making on your core instead of on your arms, you should be able to do a much better job of striking the ball when the pressure is on.
As you can see, there are plenty of benefits beyond power to using a golf swing that is driven by the core. Of course, that should be no surprise – after all, Darren Clarke has taken his own game to incredible heights using this kind of swing, and there are plenty of other pros in the same group. In the end, it really isn't a matter of if you should work on using your core in the swing, it is just a matter of how you are going to go about making that happen. The content that follows will help you take steps toward producing a great core-driven golf swing.
Setting Up to Use Your Core
If there is one single mistake that runs across the vast majority of amateur golfers, it is failing to pay enough attention to the address position. You can solve many of the problems in your golf swing simply by learning how to stand over the ball correctly at address, yet most golfers ignore this part of the game. While there certainly isn't anything fun about practicing your address position, refining this aspect of your technique will pay big dividends. Darren Clarke certainly has built a stance for himself that facilitates the kind of swing he wants to make, and you should do the same.
By and large, the fundamentals that relate to the address position are the same no matter what kind of swing you are trying to make. However, there are a few points that become particularly important when you wish to make a swing based on great core rotation. If you are working on a core-driven swing, make sure each of the following three elements are present in the address position that you use.
- Knee flex. This might be the single most important point in your stance. Without flexed knees, you are going to have a hard time remaining balanced and athletic in your backswing and downswing. You don't need to go into a deep squat or anything like that, but you certainly need to have at least a modest amount of flex before starting the swing. Think of your knees like the shock absorbers in your car – they are going to even out the 'ride' throughout the swing and allow your upper body to do its job properly. Of course, they can only do that if they are flexed, so start with some knee flex at address and maintain it throughout the swing.
- Back straight. Once your knees are flexed, the next step in the process is to make sure your back is straight and your chin is up. You have to make a great shoulder t@urn if you are going to engage your core, and that will only happen when your back is straight. A hunched over position is a problem for a number of reasons, but it is specifically an issue because it limits how much and how quickly you will be able to turn. When you stand over the ball, try to feel like you are sticking your backside out behind you while also keeping your chin up – doing those two things should lead to a flat back position.
- Hip tilt. While you don't want to bend over in your back to get down to the ball, you do have to bend over in some fashion in order to position yourself for the swing. This bending should occur in the hips. With your back straight, tilt your body out over the ball from your hips until you can reach the ball comfortably with the club head. It may take some practice to learn how to get into this position, so spend some time on the range (or even at home in front of the mirror) just working on building a good stance. Once you find a comfortable position, stick with it and you should find that it becomes second nature in relatively short order.
Building a good stance isn't necessarily a hard thing to do, but it does take some practice. It is extremely important, however, that you don't overlook this part of the process. If you take your stance for granted in favor of working on other things, you are going to have trouble reaching your goals. To use another car analogy, ignoring your stance would be like failing to put tires on your vehicle. You might have a great engine under the hood, but you aren't going anywhere without the rubber that actually meets the road.
Pitching Toward Success
One of the best ways to learn how to use your core to drive your golf swing is to hit pitch shots. To do this, you can either be on the driving range, or in the short game practice area at your local course, if there is enough space. While these pitch shots are only going to send the ball thirty or forty yards in the air, they will lay the ground work for the full swings that are to come. To use pitch shots to build your bigger swing, follow the steps below -
- Set aside ten golf balls or so, and take your sand wedge from the bag. The sand wedge is a great club for this drill, but you could certainly use another wedge if you so choose.
- To get started, stand over the ball and make sure your address position is fundamentally sound. You don't need to take as wide of a stance when pitching as you would when hitting a full shot, but the other fundamentals – such as knee flex and a flat back – should be in place. Also, you will want to pick a target for your shot so you can judge your performance accurately.
- At this point, there is something you should know about these pitch shots – you aren't going to use your hands or wrists at all. That's right – you are going to keep your hands completely out of these shots while hitting the ball by using shoulder and hip rotation exclusively. In a way, you could think of these swings as bigger versions of your putting stroke, only with some lower body movement added to the equation. By hitting the pitch shots without using your hands, you will be forced to engage your core in a meaningful way.
- In order to have success hitting pitch shots without your hands, you should be using your shoulders to control the backswing and your lower body to control the forward swing. Even when you do add your hands back in to the swing, that basic plan isn't going to change. It should be your shoulders that are responsible for turning away from the target, and it should be your hips and legs that are responsible for turning you forward through the shot.
- At first, you will likely struggle to make solid contact with these pitch shots. That's okay. Stick with it and focus solely on catching the ball cleanly as you turn through. Pretty soon, you should be able to get the ball up into the air with reasonable consistency. This method of pitching the ball is never going to be as good as one where you are using your hands, but that isn't the point. As long as you are learning what it feels like to move the club by using core rotation, you will be on the path to improvement.
- Hit as many of these pitch shots as you like during your practice session. When done with the drill, add your hand action back into the swing while still making sure you use your core to drive the swing.
Something small like a pitch shot might not seem like it could help your full swing, but the drill above is powerful. You will be amazed at how differently you think about your full swing just by completing a few reps of that drill. When you get back to hitting full shots with your long clubs – even your driver – you should notice improved movement in the core of your body thanks to the hands-free pitching drill.
One of the reasons that many amateur golfers use their hands and arms so actively in the golf swing is that they don't trust their body to make a mechanically correct golf swing. If you don't trust the swing you are making with your body, you will inevitably try to 'save' that swing with your hands. Needless to say, playing golf this way is less than ideal. A confident player like Darren Clarke stands over the ball knowing that he can trust the work he has put in to his game. Even if you never rise to that level of ability, you can still make it a personal goal to have full confidence in the swings that you make. In fact, if you are going to use a swing that is based on core rotation, you are going to have no choice but to develop trust in your swing.
As the club is coming down into the ball, there can be no room in your head for doubt. You have to be fully committed to the swing, and you have to be totally confident that it is going to lead to a good shot. Will you hit good shots every time? Of course not. However, you have to believe that you will, or your body will give up on the swing before it has a chance to succeed. Golfers who lack confidence rarely find the success they are looking for on the course, and that certainly applies to those using a core-focused golf swing.
You have to make an aggressive motion when you swing with your core, as your legs and torso have to fire into action right from the top of the swing – and they can't hesitate once from the top all the way through to the finish. If there is even a hint of hesitation in your swing, the timing of the shot will be destroyed. When confidence is lacking, you will find that you can't commit to that aggressive action with your legs and torso. Instead, you will move carefully through the swing, hitting weak shots that typically drift off line. As you go through the process of learning how to swing the club while using your core effectively, hit enough balls on the driving range so that you have the necessary confidence when you arrive on the first tee.
Darren Clarke is a great golfer, and he has compiled a career filled with many incredible accomplishments. While the average golfer is never going to know the thrill of winning a major championship or captaining a Ryder Cup team, there is still plenty to be learned from Clarke. If you aren't currently using your core very effectively in the golf swing, now is the time to get started. Using the content above, work on improving the way your core is used during the swing. Not only should you gain power from this pursuit, but your game as a whole should benefit in a number of other ways as well.