Modern swing theory focuses largely on the backswing rotation of the shoulders relative to the hips. The Jim McClean, measures the difference (in degrees) between the shoulder turn and hip turn at the top of the swing. The higher one’s X-Factor, the more power is stored in the coiled torso to be unleashed on the downswing.
But it’s possible to achieve a solid backswing and still lose power on the downswing. If the shoulders over-rotate when starting down, the X-Factor diminishes too quickly, leaking much of your stored energy. This typically happens when the golfer casts the club from the top, initiating the downswing with the upper body instead of the lower body.
Here’s a great mental key to help you retain power until the last instant: Focus on keeping your shoulders closed on the way down. In a properly sequenced swing, the hips lead by rotating around to the left and clearing the way for the shoulders, arms and club. At impact, the hips should point left of target with the shoulders square to the target line.
The shoulders closed method is akin to a baseball player staying back and trying to drive a pitch to the opposite field. The effect is similar, too, as your swing will follow an inside-to-out path into the ball – necessary to generate maximum power and hit a draw (right-to-left shot for a right-hander).
While keeping the shoulders closed, it’s important that you still allow them to rotate freely. Otherwise, your arms will take over the downswing and throw everything out of whack.
Use Your Shoulders to Play Better Golf
The shoulders are one of the parts of the body that play an integral role in the success or failure of your golf swing. When you use your shoulders properly, they serve as an opportunity to create both power and consistency in your swing – and every golfer could use more of those two items. However, failing to take advantage of your shoulders means that you will be making a swing using mostly your arms, which can lead to a variety of problems. Learning how to properly control shoulder movement should be something that is high on every golfer’s list.
The main role of the shoulders during the golf swing is rotation. They can serve as the main engine of your golf swing – along with your hips – to turn the club back and through. Good golf swings are all about getting enough rotation to build speed and accelerate the club into impact. Golf is a rotational game, and your shoulders are a big part of how you can achieve that necessary rotation.
In addition to rotating back and through, your shoulders also help set the target line at address. By getting your golf shoulders at address into just the right position – which is parallel to the target line itself – you should have a far easier time starting your shots right at the target you have picked out. If you were to set up with your shoulders either open or closed to the target line, you will have to make some kind of adjustment later in the swing to compensate for that mistake. The fewer adjustments that need to be made in your swing, the better – so you will want to set up square right from the start.
Another reason that paying attention to your shoulders can benefit your swing is because they are relatively simple to move compared to your arms. If you pay more attention to your arms during the swing, your mind could become overwhelmed since there are so many different paths that they can take during the backswing and downswing. By keeping your mind trained on the motion of your shoulders, the swing suddenly seems more simple and easier to complete properly. Clearing your mind is always a good thing on the golf course, and a focus on shoulder rotation can help you accomplish just that.
More power is something that just about every golfer has on their wish list, and that wish can come true by simply unlocking the power of your shoulders within the swing. Most amateur players don’t use their shoulders to their full potential, and therefore are leaving yards locked inside their swing that are just waiting to be let out. Unleash your shoulders using the proper technique and the ball should start to fly like never before.
Please note that everything written below is based on a right handed golfer. Should you happen to play left handed, make sure that you reverse the instructions so that they apply correctly to your own swing.
The Two Important Squares
As you have probably noticed over the years, much of the discussion in the golf instruction world has to do with the concept of ‘square’. Being square is almost always a good thing in golf, because it gets you lined up in the right direction and can simplify your swing. Or, when talking about the club face at impact, it is actually what sends the ball toward the target. In other words, square is something you should always be striving to achieve.
As it relates to your shoulders, there are two squares that you should be looking for. The first is being square with your golf shoulders at address. This is the easy one, as you haven’t yet started your swing and there are no moving parts to coordinate. Being square with your shoulders at address means that they are parallel to the target line that you have picked out for the shot. Hopefully, your feet are set up properly on this line as well, so that everything is working together nicely. By putting in some practice time on learning how to build a good address position, you should be able to find square at address with your shoulders more often than not.
The other square to pay attention to occurs at impact. When the club returns to the ball during the downswing, your shoulders should return as close as possible to that square position that they started from during address. Since the club is moving quite quickly at this point, and your shoulders are rotating quickly toward the target, perfection is usually unattainable. However, you should be trying to have your shoulders return as close to square as possible to improve the quality of the impact you make with the ball.
If they aren’t square, there are two options – you have golf shoulders closed at impact, or golf shoulders open at impact. Either way, you will be fighting some mechanical problems to try to hit quality shots from these positions. Let’s take a look at what causes each of these two positional mistakes, and what ball flight you can expect from each.
- Open at Impact. This is one that actually happens to better golfers quite frequently, and even professionals have to keep an eye on not letting themselves get into this position. When you have golf shoulders open at impact, it means that you are turning out of the way too quickly with your upper body – likely because your lower body didn’t do enough earlier in the downswing. When that happens, the club face will trail behind your shoulders and it usually won’t be able to catch up. The result is almost always a shot that flies way to the right of the target, and may come up short as well.
- Closed at Impact. With golf shoulders closed at impact you are lacking the necessary downswing rotation to build speed in the swing. This is an extremely common amateur mistake which starts during the transition phase of the swing. Instead of getting the downswing started with your lower body, you simply push the club down toward impact with movement of your arms alone. This might feel like the right thing to do at the time, but it leads to a swing that lacks power and will usually create one of two potential ball flights – a pull, or a pull slice. Either way, the ball flight will not be something you are happy with in the end.
As you should see by this point, the problem of not getting your shoulders square at impact is really a result of things that have gone wrong earlier in the swing. If you can clean up your mechanics throughout the backswing and downswing, it will suddenly be rather easy to land in a square shoulder position at impact.
Shoulders in the Backswing
Two phases of the golf swing get most of the attention when it comes to instruction – the backswing, and the downswing. While things like address and follow through remain important, it is really the backswing and downswing that will determine what kind of shots you are able to hit. With those two phases in mind, the shoulders play a bigger role in the backswing than they do the downswing. If you can get your shoulders to work properly while the club is going back, you will be well positioned for a great strike down into the ball.
The shoulders are what drives the club away from the ball during the backswing. A good golf shoulders backswing will be smooth and even, with a nice tempo taking the club up to the top of the swing. There is no need to rush this portion of the golf swing, which is a mistake that countless amateurs make. Take your time and allow the rotation of your golf shoulders backswing to build naturally. When you have stopped turning away from the ball, the reaction to start turning back toward impact should be automatic.
Paying attention to the plane of your shoulders in the backswing is something that should be on your radar as well. When you set up in your address position prior to a shot, there should be some tilt in your back as you bend over to address the ball. It is crucial that this tilt is maintained throughout the golf swing. Many players make the mistake of ‘standing up’ during the backswing and losing their tilt – when that happens, there is very little that can be done to save the swing. Holding your angle throughout both the backswing and downswing is vital to your success.
You can use the position of your shoulders to make sure you are properly keeping your angle. Try taking a practice backswing and pausing at the top of the swing. If you drew a line across both of your shoulders, where would it point? Would it be pointing down in the area of the ball, or would it be pointing far off into the distance? Ideally, you want to have enough angle in your swing that your shoulder plane is pointing down in the direction of the ball. It shouldn’t be pointing directly at the ball – that would be a little too steep of a plane for most golfers. Rather, it should be just a few feet out beyond the ball, but certainly not so flat that it just continues on into the distance. If you have trouble evaluating your shoulder plane for yourself, have a friend watch your swing from behind and let them tell you how you’re doing on this important point.
There is an easy way to fix the mistake of a flat shoulder plane, if that is something you are struggling with. As you start your backswing, try thinking about moving your left shoulder under the position of your chin. By keeping your head still and turning your shoulder under your chin, you can be sure that you are creating a nice downward plane in your shoulders during the backswing. Most golfers who fight the problem of standing up out of their posture in the backswing also move their head quite dramatically up and away from the target. Focus on head position and making sure your left shoulder gets under your chin – just that simple change can put your shoulders in the right position to make an excellent downswing.
Shoulders in the Downswing
With the backswing successfully navigated, all that’s left to do is send the club speeding down into the back of the ball for a powerful strike. At this point, the shoulders take a more passive role and allow the lower body to spring into action and do the work of rotating everything toward the target. The perfect golf shoulders downswing is one where the shoulders don’t actually do much at all except maintain their angle and hang on for the ride.
If you are like most average golfers, your shoulders are probably doing too much during the downswing in your current swing. Golf shoulders spinning out of the swing is a common problem because too many golfers try to use the shoulders themselves to get the downswing started. When this happens, the shoulders turn out of the way too quickly, leaving the club trailing far behind the swing. The result is usually a shot that sails high and to the right of the target. Golf shoulders spinning out is never a good thing, and it is almost always caused by a lack of lower body rotation during the transition of the swing.
The first move you make down toward the ball should be your lower body rotating to the left. This action sets into motion a chain of events that ends up with the club whipping through the hitting area after the rest of your body has already cleared the zone. Of course, your shoulders are going to be a part of this rotation process – but they shouldn’t be an active participant. Rather than consciously thinking about turning your shoulders toward the target, focus on your lower body and your shoulders (and arms) will have no choice but to follow along. This might seem like a minor difference but it will have a major impact on your swing. Lead with the legs and everything else can fall into place rather nicely.
Following are a few points related to the shoulders in the downswing that you should pay attention to when working on your technique.
- Feel the separation. One of the most powerful things you can feel in your golf swing is the separation between your hips and your shoulders during the transition. As your hips start to rotate toward the target, there should be a lag during which your shoulders are ‘hanging back’ and waiting to get started. When you are able to feel this separation you will know that you are building up power that can be unleashed later. Too many golfers get impatient with their swings and they bring the lower body and upper body forward at the same time. Don’t let that be you. Start with the legs and hips turning toward the target and make sure to get the necessary separation to maximize your club head speed.
- Keep the right shoulder down. Another common problem that many golfers share is the tendency to get their right shoulder moving higher through the downswing. This is a problem because it raises the level of the club, and leads to an outside-in path through the ball. If you are fighting with a slice in your current golf swing, there is a good chance that a high right shoulder is to blame. Much like the point made earlier regarding your left shoulder moving under your chin in the backswing, so to can you pay attention to getting your right shoulder under the chin as you swing down. You might feel like you are going to get more power by pushing that right shoulder through the shot, but that simply isn’t the case. Keep it down and trust your rotation to create the speed you need in your swing.
- Stay relaxed. Tension can kill otherwise good golf swings, and it often starts in the shoulders. Don’t let tight muscles in your shoulders ruin what would otherwise be an excellent golf swing. Before your swing even starts, take a deep breath and try to force out the tension from your shoulders and arms. It might help to shake out both arms quickly before getting into your stance and hitting the shot. If you think that muscle tension is a problem for you in your swing, try building a pre-shot routine that specifically addresses this issue and gives you a chance to take care of it prior to each shot. Nerves and pressure can certainly contribute to tension in your muscles, but it is nothing you can’t handle with a good plan and solid preparation.
Your golf shoulders downswing action should be mostly a result of what you have done earlier in the swing – specifically with your lower body. However, paying attention to the points above should help you stay in the right positions and strike the ball with power and precision.
Take Note of Your Follow-Through Position
Even though the ball is long gone by the time you reach the follow through, it can still tell you a lot about what has happened during the swing. Think of the follow through as evidence that you can use to prove something about your swing technique. Learning to read the evidence is one of the best ways to improve your game over time.
In this case, you want to pay attention to the shoulders and see where they end up when your swing is finished. Ideally, they will be fully rotated so that your chest is pointing directly at the target that you had picked out for the shot. If your chest is pointing to the right of your target, your shoulders have under-rotated during the downswing. Conversely, when your chest points to the left of the target, you have over-rotated somewhat during the follow through.
Of those two, it is under-rotation that we are worried about. Being over-rotated in the follow through isn’t much of a problem at all, especially if you are still on balance when the swing is finished. Under-rotation, however, is a sure sign that you aren’t getting everything that you can out of the swing. Most likely, your lower body isn’t working hard enough starting from the transition at the top of the backswing. Without the necessary lower body rotation to get your downswing started, the shoulders won’t get the momentum they need to be carried into a full finish. If you find that you are under-rotated during your finish, go back to the top of your swing and make sure that your lower body is doing everything it can to build speed in your downswing. Once you do this, the position of your shoulders at the finish of the swing should quickly be corrected.
The core of your body is really what does the most work in swinging the golf club, and your shoulders are a major part of that equation. The shoulders power the backswing, and the lower body powers the downswing. That might seem like an oversimplification to you, but it really doesn’t need to be much more complicated than that. Any golfer who just gets that part of the swing correct is going to be well on their way to hitting some excellent shots.
Working on the way you use your shoulders in the golf swing is an effort that can pay big dividends in terms of your performance on the course. However, those improvements might not be seen immediately. It can take time to adjust the way you use your shoulders and have it start to pay off through an improved ball flight. Stick with your efforts and spend plenty of time on the practice range to make your new swing mechanics feel as comfortable as possible.