Turns out nice guys can finish first. Zach Johnson proves it with every PGA Tour win.
The unassuming pro from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, surprised many in golf by winning the 2007 Masters, then set out to show he was no one-hit wonder. Johnson has since cemented his status as one of the game's elite with nine career victories and counting, with a third Ryder Cup appearance in September 2012.
He'll never earn membership in the bomb-and-gouge brigade, but Johnson's accuracy and deadly – if unorthodox – putting method ensure a parade of top-10 finishes. Like his stroke, Johnson's swing looks a little different from the typical pro's. Break it down, though, and it's obvious why he's enjoyed so much success.
Johnson's signature: Strong rotation around the spine that compensates for a super-strong grip.
Who else does it: David Duval, Bernhard Langer
What it looks like: You won't see much lateral “slide” in Johnson's swing. Instead, he rotates around the axis of his spine, keeping the arms well in front of his body on the downswing, firing the right side through the ball, and finishing with his chest pointing well left of the target.
Why it works for Johnson: Johnson has one of the strongest grips on Tour, with the hands turned well to his right on the grip. The position is especially pronounced in his right hand.
Another noteworthy trait: At address, Johnson positions the ball off the club's toe rather than the center. (Ben Hogan used a similar tactic.) So-called “rotational” swingers tend to move slightly forward during the swing, so this actually centers the club for contact.
Johnson turns around his nicely angled spine, getting the club on plane quickly and wasting little if any motion re-routing it onto the plane coming down. As for that plane, it's one of the flattest on Tour – his left arm is almost parallel to the ground at the top, with the clubface pointing nearly straight up in an extremely closed position (common among strong grippers).
Note that despite his modest size, Johnson doesn't try to overpower the ball with a long backswing – in fact, he stops the club short of parallel. (Side note: While he generally ranks in the bottom third on Tour for driving distance, Johnson's average of about 280 yards is quite long for a man of 160 pounds.)
Johnson resembles Hogan in another key position: His right arm and the club form a straight line, pointing at the target, well beyond impact. In fact, his left arm doesn't begin folding until his hands reach chest height – highly unusual. This helps him keep the clubface square and prevents an over-rotation of the hands and forearms that often result from a strong grip.
Swinging into the finish, Johnson maintains his spine angle, with the right shoulder below the left and a pronounced tilt toward the target line – same as address.
How it can work for you: Check your grip position by addressing the ball and looking at your left hand (right hand if you're a lefty). If you can see at least 2 ½ knuckles, you've got a strong grip. If you struggle with a hook, this tip is for you.
First of all, you need good posture to enable a full, fluid turn around your spine. Watch this video for a simple setup method that puts you in great position, every time.
The key to developing good rotation is to limit lateral movement or sway on the backswing and follow-through. At the top, weight should be loaded onto your right leg, with pressure on the inside of the foot. The ball-under-foot drill can help you ingrain this motion.
Strive for a 90° shoulder turn, with your back facing the target at the end of the backswing, then rotate your right side through the shot and into the finish. Visualize Johnson's arm extension after impact and emulate his action.
How Zach Johnson's Body Rotation Makes a Strong Grip Work for Him
For the past decade, Zach Johnson has been one of the very best golfers in the world. He has totaled 26 career victories as a professional, including 11 on the PGA Tour. The highlight of his career to this point is taking home the Green Jacket at the 2007 Masters. Johnson is highly respected in the world of professional golf, and at just 39 years of age, it would seem that he has plenty of competitive years ahead.
Unlike many of the other players on the PGA Tour, Zach Johnson does not use raw power to attack a golf course. Instead, he uses impressive accuracy and consistency to position his ball properly from hole to hole. His Masters victory is noted for the incredible way he used his wedges to set up birdies on the par fives. Rather than going after the greens in two on the par fives like many of his playing competitors, Johnson would choose to lay up and hit a wedge to within birdie range.
With a driving average of less than 280 yards for the 2015 PGA Tour season, Johnson is proof that there is plenty of room on the Tour for players who don't overpower golf courses. Of course, to make up for his lack of power, Johnson has to be tremendously accurate off the tee – and he is. For the 2015 season, he ranks 21st in driving accuracy, which allows him to play accurate aggressive shots even if he is a little farther back in the fairway than his competitors.
One of the signature elements of Zach Johnson's swing is his strong grip. You only need to watch him hit one or two shots to notice the strong left hand position that he uses when he grips the golf club. He is able to make this strong grip work in his swing because of the excellent body rotation that he uses to move the club through the hitting area. There is very little manipulation of the club face through the shot, meaning that he is able to keep the club face square and hit the ball accurately at his target time and time again.
If you would like to emulate Zach Johnson and use a strong grip in your own game, it is crucial that you understand all of the other elements of the swing that need to be in place. If you were to simply switch to a stronger grip without altering the rest of your swing to match, the results would likely be disastrous. Successfully switching to a stronger grip requires careful planning so that you can bring together all of the various moving parts into one cohesive motion.
All of the instruction below is based on a right handed golfer. If you happen to play left handed, be sure to reverse the directions as necessary.
Forming Your New Grip
It is important to put your hands on the club properly prior to hitting any shot, no matter what kind of grip you are going to use. In this case, you will need to know exactly how to form a strong grip on the club so that your hands are comfortable and secure before you start the swing. Many golfers incorrectly take their grip, and in turn they make the swing much more difficult than it needs to be.
In order to successfully form a strong grip position on the club, use the following tips.
- Position your left hand first. The left hand is more important than the right in terms of taking your grip, so it makes sense to add it to the club first. Pick up a club with your right hand holding onto the exposed part of the shaft below the grip. Hold the club out in front of you so that it is straight up and down (with the club head pointing up to the sky). Reach your left hand out and grab onto the grip at the end of the club. With your grip in place, let go with your right hand and lower the club down to the ground. Once you have set the club head on the ground, look at your left hand and count how many knuckles you can see on the back of your hand. If you can see three or more, you have already formed a strong grip. If you see two or less, turn your hand to the right until you can see at least three knuckles.
- Add your right hand to match. Once your left hand is in a strong position, you can add your right hand to complete the grip. Your right hand should feel comfortable on the grip, and the palms of your two hands should be facing each other. You can choose to interlock your hands (with the pinky of your right hand interlaced with the pointer finger of your left hand), or you can overlap them (with the pinky finger of your right hand placed on top of your left hand pointer finger). The style of grip that you use is a matter of personal preference, so try them both before you choose which one you like best.
- Strong doesn't mean tight. The word 'strong' refers to the position of your hands on the grip of the club – not to how tightly they are holding on to the grip. You always want to maintain a light grip pressure during your golf swing, regardless of the position of your hands. Of course, you need to make sure you are holding on tight enough to maintain control of the club, but your grip should still feel relaxed and comfortable. If you feel like you are squeezing all of the blood out of your hands while getting ready to hit a shot, relax your grip and start again.
Your grip needs to be technically sound, but it needs to be comfortable as well. Practice forming a strong grip using the tips above to become comfortable with holding onto the club in this manner. You can even take out a club while you are at home and practice taking your grip without making any swings. Some grip practice away from the course will go a long way toward making your more comfortable with this new grip when you show up at the driving range to hit some shots.
Setting the Stage during the Backswing
As is demonstrated in the swing of Zach Johnson, playing golf with a strong grip is all about body rotation. Failing to make a good rotation – both in the backswing and the forward swing – will lead to a variety of ball flight problems. A strong grip is only going to make you a better golfer if you are able to create good body rotation to match.
During the backswing, there are a couple of key components that you need to have in place. The first is a big shoulder turn. When using a strong grip, your hands should be quiet during the takeaway while your shoulders do the work of moving the club back away from the ball. Many golfers make the mistake of using their hands too much during the takeaway, which leads to problems later on in the swing. If you are committed to playing with a strong grip, you will need to focus on using a big shoulder turn to take the club from address up to the top of the backswing.
One of the best ways to facilitate a big shoulder turn is to take an athletic stance at address. An athletic stance is one where your knees are flexed and your back is straight, with a slight tilt from the hips allowing you to bend out over the ball. This posture will promote a big shoulder turn in your backswing. A poor posture – one where your knees are straight or your back is hunched over – will make it difficult to turn your shoulders properly. Try practicing your posture in front of a mirror at home until you are comfortable getting your body into this important athletic position.
The other important element to creating good body rotation in the backswing is balance. Having good balance is key for any golfer, but it is especially critical if you are going to play with a strong grip. You won't be able to make a full shoulder turn in your backswing if you are off balance, so focus on maintaining your weight distribution evenly between your feet. The biggest mistake that amateur golfers make at this point in the swing is to slide their weight to the right, and away from the target. Ideally, you don't want your weight moving at all in the backswing. The goal is to simply rotate by turning your shoulders away from the target while your center of gravity stays right in the middle of your stance. When you can do this successfully, you will find yourself in a great position from which to start the downswing.
So, the two keys to remember during the backswing are a big shoulder turn and great balance. Those might sound simple, but most golfers manage to get at least one of them wrong. In order to hit solid shots using a strong grip, you need to prepare yourself for an aggressive body rotation in the downswing – and that starts with a well-executed backswing. Practice reaching the top of your backswing with a nice shoulder turn and good balance and you will be well on your way to making the strong grip work for you.
Swinging Down Through the Ball
With your backswing completed, the time has come to begin turning your body toward the target to hit the shot. If you have done everything right up to this point, the downswing should be simple. You don't want to be trying to manipulate the club or altering your mechanics at the last moment – from the top of your backswing down to impact should be a simple, aggressive motion that leads to a quality shot.
If you watch a video of Zach Johnson swing, you will see a great example of this simplicity. There are no unnecessary movements in his swing. He uses his shoulder turn to get the club into a nice position at the top of the backswing, and then his legs engage in the downswing to rotate his body toward the target. The overall simplicity of his swing is certainly a big part of his success over the last decade on the PGA Tour. Because there are very few moving parts, there is very little that can go wrong. As long as he is able to maintain good balance and tempo during the swing, he will hit a quality shot more often than not.
To mimic the beautiful simplicity of Zach Johnson downswing in your own game, try using the tips below –
- Turn from the ground up. While your shoulders were in charge of the backswing, it is your lower body that will take the lead during the downswing. As soon as the club arrives at the top of the swing, your lower body should be taking control of the motion and initiating the turn to the left. If you allow your upper body to be the first thing that moves toward the target, you will move the club 'over the top' and put yourself at risk of hitting a slice. The timing element of this part of the swing is critical – there should be a smooth transition from backswing to downswing. When done correctly, it won't even look like the club stops at the top of the swing.
- No looking back. Once your lower body has taken over the swing and started to turn to the left, there is no stopping or turning back. It is absolutely essential that you trust in your swing at this point. If you hesitate in the downswing – even for just a split-second – your body will fail to turn through the shot fast enough and you could hit a hook as a result. Your strong grip is going to put the club face in a 'closed' position throughout much of the swing, and that position can lead to a hook if you lack the necessary body rotation in the downswing. Keep turning hard to the left to hold the club face square to the target line as the club approaches impact.
- Eyes on the ball. This might sound like a rather simple tip, but it is very important to your success with this swing. By keeping your eyes on the ball all the way through impact, you will give your lower body the best possible chance to finish the swing and deliver a powerful blow into the back of the ball. If you were to lift your head up early in the downswing, it could actually cause your lower body to stop turning – leading to a pull or a hook. It is important to note that it is okay to allow your head to move slightly during the downswing, as long as your eyes continue to look at the ball. A little head movement is to be expected while you are turning your body so aggressively to the left. However, if you can maintain eye contact with the ball until after it is gone, you should be in good shape to hit an excellent shot.
The bottom line is that the downswing is all about commitment. You have to be committed to the shot that you are hitting, and you have to believe in the swing that you are making. When you play with a strong grip, you always run the risk of hitting a hook if you give up on your swing prior to making contact with the ball. Before each swing that you make during a round, focus your mind on the target and commit yourself to making a confident and aggressive swing. With the right mindset, and proper mechanics, you can hit quality shots all day long using a strong grip.
Using a Strong Grip on the Golf Course
Before you try using your new, stronger grip on the golf course, be sure to spend plenty of time on the practice range. Making a grip change is difficult, and it will take some time before you become comfortable with your new grip and swing – especially if you used to play with a weak grip. Take your time, hit plenty of balls on the driving range, and only schedule your next tee time once you are comfortable with the swing you have created.
Once that time has passed and you are ready to play your first round with the new grip, there are a few things you should know. The ball flights that you will be able to create with your stronger grip might be a little different than the ones you are used to. In order to get the most out of your game, you need to understand your limitations and know what kind of shots you can expect to hit.
Zach Johnson plays most of his shots with a right to left draw, and you should expect to do the same. A strong grip will promote a draw for almost every golfer, and that is certainly the case when you are correctly making a good body rotation in the backswing and downswing. If you are controlling the swing with an aggressive turn of your lower body in the downswing, you should fully expect to hit a draw for the majority of your shots. Of course, if you are going to be hitting a draw, you will need to adjust your aim accordingly. Pick targets that are slightly out to the right of where you want the ball to land, and trust your draw to curve the ball back to the left. Over time, you will get more and more comfortable with your draw as you gain experience. Eventually, you will know exactly how much draw to expect and you will hardly even have to think about it before hitting a shot.
Another ball flight factor to consider is the height of your shots. As a general rule, players with a strong grip are going to hit the ball a little lower than those using a weaker grip. You will be bringing the club in on a relatively flat plane, so the amount of backspin that you generate may be slightly lower than with your old swing. With that said, some players may experience a different outcome based on their specific swing mechanics. So, it is possible that you will find yourself hitting the ball rather high, even after switching to a stronger grip. The best thing you can do is to pay close attention to the height of your shots with every club in the bag over the first few rounds you play with the new swing. Take note of what the grip change has done to the height of your shots, and adjust accordingly.
As an added benefit, players with strong grips tend to be excellent out of the bunkers. A strong left hand grip position is great for accelerating the club through the sand and splashing the ball out onto the green. Before you play your first round, find a practice bunker and hit a few shots to see how the ball reacts to your new technique. Most likely, you will find it easier than ever to slide the club under the ball, even from difficult lies in the sand.
Zach Johnson is one of the best golfers in the world, and has been so for the last 10 years. He has reached his lofty status in the game by using a strong grip and an aggressive body rotation to move the club through the ball. This method, when executed correctly, is highly efficient and consistent.
Despite not being the longest hitter on Tour, Johnson has won the coveted Green Jacket and remains a force at the highest level of the game as he approaches his 40th birthday. While you probably won't win The Masters anytime soon, you can certainly learn plenty from the strong grip and powerful body rotation that Johnson has used to fuel his success.