This golf article examines a signature, much-studied move by the greatest golf champion of all, Jack Nicklaus.
Unconventional move: The “flying right elbow”
Photo 1: At the top of the backswing, theres a wide separation between the right elbow and the golfers side, while the elbow points behind him rather than toward the ground. The clubface is slightly open (toe pointed downward), though this may be more pronounced in other golfers swings.
Photo 2: Looking face-on, notice how the right elbow bows outward instead of folding against the body on the backswing. Unless the golfer compensates by over-rotating the hands and arms, the clubface will be closed (toe pointed in front of the golfer) at the top. Also, note that the arms are lifting the club while the torso and hips fail to rotate sufficiently – a common cause of flying right elbow.
Why its a problem for amateurs: If your right elbow is out of place at the top, its difficult to get it into proper position – in front of the body – on the downswing. Youll either hit the ball to the right, or compensate by flipping the hands and sending shots left.
Flying right elbow can also cause a slice-inducing, over-the-top swing path.
How the greats get away with it: Nicklaus manages to drop his right elbow into proper position as he starts the downswing, nullifying the effects of his unusual backswing. His powerful body rotation pulls the arms through with perfect timing.
The cure: The best exercise for grounding a flying right elbow is the towel drill. Simply place a towel across your chest and under each armpit. Swing while holding it in place, with light pressure applied by keeping your elbows and biceps close to the body. Make sure you rotate the shoulders, torso and hips in unison, rather than swinging the arms only.
A left arm that bends on the backswing can cause flying right elbow, so try to keep the left arm straight (but not rigid) all the way to the top.
Playing Golf with a Flying Right Elbow Like One of the Greats
Today, most golf instructors will teach you to keep your right elbow in tight to your side while making a backswing. This will keep your arm more connected to your upper body, and make it easier to time your swing as you move through the hitting area. Also, keeping your right elbow in close to your side will help to eliminate the over the top motion that leads so many golfers into hitting a slice. If you watch any of the professional golf tournaments on TV, you are sure to notice plenty of players that use this style of swing.
However, keeping your right elbow in tight to your body is not the only way to swing the golf club. In fact, one of the greatest players of all time – Jack Nicklaus – played his entire career with a swing that allowed his right elbow to lift up and away from his body during the backswing. This kind of flying right elbow position is not as common as the alternative, but Nicklaus proved that it can be incredibly effective. No player has won more major titles than Jack Nicklaus, so obviously he found a method that worked beautifully for him.
It is important to understand that using a flying right elbow is not going to be the best choice for every golfer. There is a reason that most golfer teachers would encourage you to play with your right elbow down at the top of your swing – because that is generally an easier way to consistently strike the golf ball. Jack Nicklaus is an incredibly talented golfer who was able to make the flying right elbow style work for him, but your results may vary. With that said, if you need to make some changes to your swing and you fit the profile that will be laid out below, it may be an option worth pursuing.
Before you think about making any changes to your swing, it is always a good idea to know what your swing looks like at the moment. Ask a friend to record your swing on video during your next trip to the driving range. When you watch the recording, pay special attention to your right elbow when you reach the top of the backswing. What position is it in? Do you currently keep your elbow down, or do you already have a flying right elbow in your golf swing? It is crucial that you understand your current mechanics before you try to make any changes to them.
Please note that all of the instruction contained below is based on a right handed golfer. If you are a left handed player, be sure to reverse the directions as necessary.
Who Could Benefit from a Flying Right Elbow?
As mentioned above, you should probably stick with a compact right elbow position unless you have a good reason to make a change. After all, it is easier to hit the ball solidly when you keep your right elbow in tight to your side. Before you make the change to a flying right elbow, you need to be sure you have a good reason. Below are three golf swing problems that could potentially be fixed by allowing your right elbow to move up and away during the backswing.
- Poor shoulder turn. Some golfers are able to make a bigger shoulder rotation in the backswing than others. If you are a player who struggles to get a full turn away from the ball before you start your downswing, a flying right elbow could provide you with a longer swing – and more club head speed as a result. Players who lack the flexibility to make a big turn often struggle to hit the ball good distances simply because the arc of the swing is too short. The club doesn't have as much time as it needs to accelerate into the ball, and disappointing power in the result. When you let your right arm get away from your side, you will be adding to the length of your arm swing and therefore providing the opportunity for the club to accumulate more speed before impact.
- Too much draw. Keeping your right elbow in close is a great way to promote an inside-out swing path through the hitting area. For most players, this is good news, as the typical amateur golfers fights a slice to begin with. However, if you are getting into trouble because you put too much draw on the ball, using a high right elbow could help you come into impact on a better line. Getting the club away from your body a little bit at the top of the swing will reduce the amount of inside-out movement that you can achieve in the downswing. For example, Jack Nicklaus was famous for hitting a beautiful fade shot throughout his career. No doubt this was thanks, at least in some part, to the flying right elbow position that he used.
- Shorter stature. Unlike other sports such as football and basketball, height isn't particularly important in golf. You can look at the professional tours and see players of all different heights competing at the highest level. While being a little taller can help you generate a little extra power, it isn't nearly the advantage that it is in other sports. With that said, shorter players might stand to benefit from using a flying right elbow if only to help promote a downward strike into the ball. Hitting down through the ball is incredibly important in golf, but some shorter players struggle with that aspect of the game because they don't feel tall enough over the ball to create a downward angle. The high right elbow will elevate the club at the top of the backswing and give you more room to swing down aggressively into the shot.
The three problems above are all potential reasons for you to try the flying right elbow in your swing. If you feel like one or more of those points applies to you, this just might be a swing change that is worth experimenting with after all.
Take It for a Test Drive on the Range
As with anything else you do in golf, the process of integrating a high right elbow position into your swing should start on the driving range. When on the range, you can hit a high number of shots in a short period of time without having to worry about where they go or how they look. If the experiment with a flying right elbow in your swing doesn't end up working for you, all that will be lost is a little bit of practice time on the range.
For your first practice session with this new swing position, head to the range with a bucket of practice balls and at least a few clubs. To start, use one of your wedges to make some practice swings. At this point, you aren't going to be hitting any actual shots – just making rehearsal swings to learn the new position.
To help you find the correct position for your right arm, try the following drill. It is a variation on a classic golf drill that countless players have used over the years.
- Take your stance as you normally would before any wedge shot. Nothing about your stance should have changed just because you are going to a higher right elbow position in your backswing.
- Before starting your swing, place a golf glove under your right arm and trap it in place in your armpit. As your arms hang down to hold the club at address, the glove should be stuck under your arm.
- Start your backswing, and try to feel the sensation of allowing your right arm to drift up and away from your side. This should happen simultaneously to your shoulder turn rotating away from the target. It is important that you dont lose your shoulder turn while learning this new right arm position. Regardless of what position your right elbow finds at the top of the swing, it is still your shoulder rotation that will be responsible for most of your power.
- At the top of your backswing, you should feel the golf glove fall out from under your arm and drop to the ground. This will only happen if you have moved your right elbow up and away from your body. If you keep that right arm in tight, the glove will remain in place and you will know you have not reached a flying right elbow position.
- Repeat this drill over and over again until you can consistently cause the glove to drop at the top of the swing. Doing plenty of repetitions using this drill before you start to actually hit the ball will improve your chances of success as you move forward.
With the drill complete and your right arm successfully moving away from your body in the backswing, it is time to actually hit some golf balls. Keep using the same wedge that you were using during the drill, but go ahead and hit about 10 shots with it. Focus on remembering the feelings that you had during the drill and trying to replicate them into these swings. Don't worry too much about the quality of shots that you are hitting at this point – simply try to make solid contact as the rest of your body adjusts to this new swing technique.
Gradually work your way through the bag and hit longer and longer clubs until you reach the driver. Most likely, the success that you experience early on will decrease as the clubs get longer. Don't let that discourage you, however, as it is perfectly normal and to be expected. Longer clubs are harder to hit solidly, especially when making a swing change. You can plan on it taking at least two or three times as long for your swing change to pay off with your driver as compared to your wedges.
This kind of a swing change isn't going to be mastered in just one practice session. Try to visit the driving range as frequently as possible over the first few weeks until the changes begin to take hold and you don't have to think so much about your new technique. The amount of time that it will take to reach this point varies from golfer to golfer, but plan on at least a few practice sessions before you are comfortable enough to try your new swing out on the course.
After a few practice sessions, you may have a pretty good idea of whether or not this new right elbow position is going to be a successful change for your game. However, some players may find that they arent really sure if they should stick with the change even after several visits to the range. If that is the situation you find yourself in, consider the following points when trying to decide if the switch has been a success, or if you should go back to your old swing technique.
- Improved ball flight. Golf is all about the ball flight that you can produce with your swing, so the flying right elbow needs to have resulted in an improved ball flight in order to be worth your effort. Think about what kind of ball flight you would usually hit before the change, and compare that to what you are seeing now. Do you like the new flight better? Improvements could come in the form of straighter or longer shots, or even just a more-reliable draw or fade. One of the keys to watch for is how many wild shots you are hitting with your new swing. If the number of big misses that you produce has gone down since you made the change, that is a good sign that things are on the right track.
- Confidence. You want to feel confident with your golf swing during every round of golf that you play. While your performance is sure to come and go as it does for all golfers, confidence is something that you should feel all the time. You should be able to stand over the ball on the tee or in the fairway and expect to hit a good shot. Compare your level of confidence in your swing from before and after the right elbow change. If you are now a more-confident player when you step onto the first tee, that confidence is something that you shouldn't give away by going back to your old swing.
- Lower scores. This might be an obvious point, but it is worth mentioning because it should not be overlooked. After a period of time is spent practicing your new swing, you should head out to the course and play a few rounds. Compare these scores to the ones that you were shooting right before the swing change. If you have quickly lowered your scores, even by only a shot or two, there would be no reason to go back. However, if the scores you shoot in your first few rounds are significantly higher than you are used to, the flying right elbow technique may not be right for you.
Trust your instincts when it comes to deciding whether you should keep this new swing or revert back to your old one. Most of the time your gut feeling will be the right one, so don't doubt yourself and overthink the situation. If the new swing feels right and is giving you good results, run with it. If not, don't be afraid to go back to your previous swing technique and pick up where you left off.
Using a Flying Right Elbow to Play Your Best
If you have made it through all of the steps and are now using a flying right elbow swing on the course as a permanent part of your game, you need to know how to best put this new swing to work. The goal is to shoot the lowest score possible, and that will only happen when you fully understand how to use your swing to move the ball around the course.
The first thing you need to adjust to is your new ball flight. Making a swing change as significant as the position of your right elbow is sure to change your ball flight in one way or another. Most likely, your ball will have some degree of fade now that you are using a high right elbow in your swing. At the very least, you should have successfully reduce the amount of right to left spin you are putting on the ball. Either way, the new ball flight is going to require some adjustment in terms of the target lines that you pick for your shots. Pay careful attention to your ball flight during the first few rounds that you play and make quick adjustments to your aim until you are properly accounting for your new shot shape.
Another adjustment that needs to be made on the course is the tempo and timing of your swing. With a higher right elbow position comes a longer arm swing, meaning your tempo as a whole will be slightly slower than it was with your old swing. While you might not have much trouble making this adjustment on the practice range, it can be a whole different story when you play an actual round of golf. Nerves can cause a lot of problems on the course, including forcing you to speed up your tempo when you don't want to. Learn how to manage your nerves and complete your arm swing on each and every shot. Proper rhythm is key for every golfer, but it will be even more important for you now that you are using the flying right elbow technique.
One of the things that you cant prepare for on the practice range is how your new swing will react when hitting shots from poor lies in the rough. You aren't going to hit every fairway on the course regardless of how good you are, so playing quality shots from the rough is a required skill. The high right elbow position you now have in your swing means that you are going to be attacking the ball from a steeper angle than you were before.
In general, this is a great thing for playing from the rough. Your club will swing down steeply and miss most of the grass before smashing into the back of the ball. However, you may find that your shots now come out of the rough on a lower trajectory and with very little spin. Be careful not to use too much club from the rough at first, or you may end up overshooting your targets. It will take some time for you to gain experience using your new swing out of the rough before you can properly judge the ball flight and pick the perfect club for the shot.
Jack Nicklaus may be the single greatest golfer of all time, so you certainly shouldn't expect to start performing at his level any time soon. With that said, there is a chance that mimicking his flying right elbow position in the backswing could do your game a lot of good. Should you decide to give it a try for yourself, make sure you follow the instruction contained above and have plenty of patience during the process. There are likely to be ups and downs along the way, and only a patient golfer will be able to see it through all the way to the finish. If you see your performance on the range and on the course start to improve gradually, that should be all the motivation you need to stick with it and make this a permanent feature of your game. The great Jack Nicklaus used the flying right elbow position to incredible success, and hopefully you will be able to experience your own moments of success by using it as well.