Unlike some sports, golf is often a game of opposites. One particular concept that gives golfers trouble is the idea that when the ball lies on the ground, you must hit down to make it go up.
Many golfers fall prey to the natural perception, thinking an upward motion is required to get the ball airborne. In actuality, the laws of physics dictate otherwise. The club's lofted face causes this counter-intuitive phenomenon. When you strike with a descending blow, friction causes the ball to spin backwards up the face and into the air.
Along with swing speed, compression of the golf ball is a key determinant of distance. Hitting down “traps” the ball against the turf, increasing compression and yardage.
Trying to hit an iron with a lifting motion can create a slew of problems, such as fat and thin shots. To practice making a downward blow, hit shots with a ball or similar object under your right (back) foot. This raises your right side and alters the angle of clubhead approach.
The only time an upward swing path is recommended is when hitting the driver from a tee.
Hit Down to Get the Ball Up
If there is one concept in all of golf that is harder for amateur players to learn than any other, it is this – to get the ball to go up, you must hit down. No matter how many times this simple saying is repeated, it seems that most golfers just don't get the message. Hitting down on the ball to make it go up might seem like a confusing concept, but it actually makes complete sense when you begin to understand the physics behind a golf shot. Since there are so many advantages to being able to hit the ball high out on the course, it will be well worth your time and effort to figure out exactly how to hit down through your shots.
It should be noted that this concept really only applies to your iron shots. When hitting your driver, or even your fairway metals, you want to sweep the ball off the ground without taking much of a divot. If hitting from a tee, for example, you should just be clipping the top of the tee as the club head zooms through impact. However, when playing iron shots, divots are going to be the goal. Hitting down through the ball is the only way to achieve a consistent and reliable trajectory on your iron shots because this method will provide you with the perfect balance of launch angle and backspin.
A big part of this portion of the game comes down to trust. You have to trust that your clubs are going to be able to get the ball up into the air, and you have to trust yourself to execute a quality swing. Trust is required all around the golf course, but it is specifically important when hitting down on the ball from a tight fairway lie. As you look down at the ball on the ground, it seems impossible that you could hit down on it and still have it climb into the sky. However, as you take your stance over the shot, your mind needs to be full of trust, expecting that result to occur.
Hitting down on the ball is important all the way down through the shortest clubs. In fact, when making full swings with your wedges, you should be hitting down on the ball significantly in order to maximize backspin. By contrast, shots that you hit with a three or four iron should only be struck with a slightly downward angle. As you gain experience with this concept, you will be able to dial in the right amount of downward hit for each of the clubs in your bag.
All of the instruction below is based on a right handed golfer. If you happen to play golf left handed, please reverse the directions as necessary.
Why It Works
As mentioned above, trust is a big part of this equation. When you don't trust the fact that the ball will climb into the air when you hit down at impact, you have no chance of executing this move correctly over and over again. To help you gain that necessary trust, it will be helpful to learn a little bit about why hitting down on the ball is so effective. By understanding the forces at work when the club contacts the ball, the concept of hitting down will no longer be such a mystery.
The three points below each highlight a unique part of the equation that will send your ball high into the air.
- Use the loft. Each of your irons has a set amount of loft built into the design of the club, and it is that loft that will enable you to get the ball into the air. While most golfers understand the concept of loft, they still don't trust that loft to do its job. Whether you are hitting a three iron with a little bit of loft, or a sand wedge with 55* or more, it is up to you to trust that loft to send the ball skyward.
- Compress the ball. At impact, the golf ball actually shrinks in size momentarily as your club face smashes into the back of the ball. In order to maximize that compression, you need to hit down aggressively. Compression is important because when the ball rebounds to its full size, it will rocket off the club face and fly through the air toward your target. Players who are able to compress the ball properly tend to have both power and accuracy in their games. If you were to lean back and try to lift the ball into the air, you would be severely limiting your ability to compress the ball. Think about 'covering' the ball by keeping your upper body over the ball at impact, enabling you to hit down through the shot with complete conviction.
- Let the grooves work. If you take a close look at the club face of one of your irons, you will find a precisely carved set of grooves. These grooves are in place to help your club 'grip' the cover of the ball - thus creating backspin. It is important to have a high rate of backspin because that spin will work to lift the ball up into the sky as it travels toward the target. Without backspin, the ball would fly on an unpredictable path, much like a knuckleball in baseball. Most golfers think about backspin in terms of getting the ball to spin back on the greens, but there is more to it than that. In fact, that outcome is one of the less-important aspects of backspin. Far more important is the ability to hit the ball high in the air, and it all starts by hitting down through the shot so your grooves can do their job.
When you start to think about it, it becomes pretty obvious why you need to hit down on the ball at impact. By creating backspin and compressing the ball, you will be capable of hitting shots that simply can't be created when you try to scoop your iron shots off the turf.
Positioning Your Body to Hit Down
You aren't going to be able to hit down on the ball correctly if your body is out of position - it's just that simple. Many amateur golfers hit up on their irons not because they choose to, but because their body is in the wrong position to hit down through impact. It is well known that balance is a key to playing good golf, and having good balance is the first step toward positioning your body correctly when the club meets the ball. Poor balance will lead to poor body positioning, and you may hit up on your iron shots as a result.
The process of putting your body in the right position starts before the club ever reaches the top of the swing. Your golf swing should build on itself, one piece at a time. If you can make the right moves during the takeaway and backswing, for example, the downswing will have a great chance to be successful. Following are three tips that take place early in the swing (or before it starts) but will have a big impact on your ability to hit down on the ball.
- Control your right leg. The biggest mistake that you can make early in your golf swing is allowing your weight to drift to the right. When your weight gets stuck onto your right side, you will have difficulty recovering in time to create a quality impact position. The early stages of your backswing should be all about balance, and you can best accomplish that by paying attention to your right leg. Control the position of your right leg (keep it in place) and you can be sure that your weight isn't drifting too far to the right. Many amateurs make the mistake of letting the right knee move too far right in the backswing, leading to poor balance. You might feel like restricting the movement of your right knee will shorten your backswing, and it might - but that sacrifice will be worth the trade when you are able to hit down on the ball correctly.
- Proper ball position. Playing with the ball too far forward in your stance is a common mistake, and one that can make it difficult to hit down through the ball. While the perfect ball position will vary from player to player, you want to make sure the ball isn't so far forward that you can't easily reach it at impact. As a good rule of thumb, start by placing your wedges in the exact middle of your stance. As the clubs get longer, you can move the ball gradually forward, a little bit at a time. When you get to your long irons, the ball should still be to the right of your left foot, at least a couple of inches. If you let the ball get all the way up to your left foot at address, you will have too far to reach, and it will be almost impossible to hit down through the shot.
- Left shoulder down. A big part of your ability to hit down through the ball is connected to the position of your left shoulder in the swing. During the backswing, you want your left shoulder to move down and under your chin as you rotate. Many golfers make a backswing that is too flat with their left shoulder, meaning the shoulder just turns parallel to the ground instead of down and to the right. If you are trying to play from a high left shoulder position at the top of the backswing, you stand very little chance of hitting down through the ball successfully at impact. More likely, you will swipe weakly across the ball on a shallow swing plane. During the beginning stages of your backswing, focus on moving your left shoulder down and under your chin and hitting down on your iron shots will get much easier.
By setting the stage during the early parts of your swing, hitting down on the ball when impact rolls around will become possible. Each of the three points above is important to positioning yourself correctly, yet none of the three points are terribly complicated. Work on your right leg, ball position, and left shoulder individually before bringing it all together into a cohesive swing that sends your irons moving powerfully down through the ball and into the turf.
What to Expect from Your Ball Flight
If you are able to successfully make the transition from a shallow angle of attack to hitting down on the ball, you are going to notice some changes in your ball flight. While you will probably be able to spot these changes on the driving range, they are really going to present themselves on the golf course. There is bound to be a period of adjustment required before you start getting great results from your improved swing, but learning a little bit about what to expect should help to smooth your transition.
With that in mind, review the following three changes that you can expect to your ball flight when you begin hitting down on your iron shots.
- More distance. This is great news for any golfer – hitting down on the ball aggressively is almost certain to provide you with more distance. The connection between the club face and the ball will be more effective, meaning more of your power is going to be transferred to the shot itself. Also, since you will be gaining backspin as a result of hitting down on the ball, the shot should hang in the air longer, allowing it to cover more total distance. While distance is never going to be as important as accuracy in golf, it certainly is nice to have a few extra yards at your disposal.
- Lower launch, higher flight. Hitting down on the ball is the right way to hit high iron shots, but the ball flight will actually start out lower than if you had hit up on the shot. When you hit down on the ball, you will be flattening the launch angle, meaning the ball will be closer to the ground in the first few feet of flight. However, as the ball continues to travel, the extra backspin that was passed to the shot will kick in and cause the ball to rise into the air. It might take a little bit of time to get used to this slightly lower launch, especially when you are trying to figure out if you can get over or under a specific obstacle. During your first few rounds with this improved swing, watch your ball flights carefully so you can get comfortable with the trajectory that you are now using.
- Better performance from bad lies. One of the biggest advantages of hitting down on the ball is the ability to play quality shots from poor lies. When you try to sweep the ball off the ground with your irons, you are totally dependent on drawing a good lie. A bad lie where the ball is sitting down in the grass is a nightmare for someone with a shallow swing, but you should be able to handle this situation with ease now that you are hitting down through impact. One word of caution: when playing from medium length rough, there is a very good chance you will hit a 'flyer' that carries well beyond your target. A flyer is a shot that comes out of the rough with very little spin, so instead of stopping somewhere near the target, it will often carry 30 or 40 yards too far. While you always want to make aggressive and confident swings, be sure to keep the possibility of a flyer in the back of your mind.
Anytime you make a change to the way you swing the golf club, you are going to change the ball flight that results. Hitting the ball higher by hitting down on your irons is a great opportunity to reach more pins, but there is more to the game than that. Learn the ins and outs of your new ball flights so you can deploy them at just the right time.
Hitting Down in the Short Game
Hitting down on the ball is not just for the full swing. Some of your short game shots – but not all – will require you to hit down on the ball at impact. If you are like most golfers, you ignore your short game most of the time, just hoping it will magically get better while you spend time on the range hitting hundreds of balls. Of course, that plan is never going to work. Improving your short game takes time and effort, and learning how to hit down on some of your short shots is a great step in the right direction.
When hitting a basic chip shot from the side of the green, you want to hit down slightly and take just a tiny divot. Since you aren't making a full swing you won't see a big piece of turf coming up out of the ground, but you do want to see evidence on the ground that your club hit the turf after the ball. Practice hitting a series of five or ten chip shots in the practice area and make sure your club head hits the ground on each and every one. Even without changing any other part of your technique, you can quickly begin to chip better by committing to hit down on the ball.
Another shot that you should hit down on is the pitch and run from the deep rough. A steep angle of attack is always helpful when playing any kind of shot from deep grass because you will miss some of the blades of grass on the way into the ball, meaning you will get a cleaner strike. Playing any shot from deep rough is challenging, but a downward angle into the ball will give you your best chance at success.
One shot that don't want to hit down on is a flop shot. When you find your ball short sided near the flag and you are required to hit a high pitch, the flop shot is in order. A flop shot can be dangerous because of the many ways that it can go wrong, but it can also be the perfect tool for certain situations. Remember the point above about hitting down on the ball leading to a lower launch angle? That is exactly the reason why you don't want to hit down on a flop shot. The whole idea of a flop shot is to hit the ball as high as possible as quick as possible, and hitting down will only be counterproductive to that objective.
When you learn how to hit down on your short game shots, you will be amazed and just how many different options are available to you around the green. As you hit down harder and harder, your spin rate will continue to rise. With that additional spin on your ball, you should be able to hit chip shots toward pins that would have been inaccessible to you at one point. Practice taking a tiny divot after your chip shots and pitch shots and you will be able to create a number of new options in your short game.
It is hard to find a good golfer who doesn't hit down nicely when swinging an iron. Most poor golfers try to help the ball into the air, while better golfers know they don't need to take that step. Simply by covering each shot and hitting down aggressively into the turf, you can hit quality shots that travel farther and stop faster. Golf is a game of opposites in many ways, and this is certainly the biggest one of them all – you must hit down if you want the ball to go up.