Rory McIlroy was just one shot off the lead at the 2011 Masters when he reached the 10th hole on Sunday. He hit a hook with his driver that led to a triple-bogey 7, knocking him out of contention.
What happened to McIroy's normally silky-smooth swing on that ill-fated tee shot? In a word, he got “quick.”
“Quick” refers to the speed of the arms and hands relative to the rest of the body. When the arms and hands outpace the shoulders, hips and torso, we lose the proper sequence of motion on the downswing. The most common result is a shot that dives low and left, a la McIlroy's.
Other examples of improper sequencing include:
- Not starting your backswing with a “one-piece takeaway,” the synchronized movement of hands, arms and shoulders.
- Starting the downswing before completing a full shoulder turn.
- Triggering the downswing with the shoulders or arms, rather than the lower body.
You can swing fast with accuracy, as long as you stay in the proper sequence. So next time someone says your golf swing was quick, try to determine what got out of sequence. As always, practice is the key to improvement in this area; working with a weighted club is a great way to keep your tempo smooth and your sequence in-sync.
Proper Golf Swing Sequence
Even though your golf swing lasts just a couple of seconds, there is a lot of work to do in that time. Almost every part of your body has to play a role in the swing, from your legs providing stability and power to your hands accelerating the club through impact and everything in between. Not only do you need to make all of the right moves in order to deliver the club perfectly into the back of the ball, you also need to make these moves in the correct order. Only when you are able to sequence your swing properly time after time will you be able to achieve the level of consistency required to play great golf.
Why is the sequencing of your golf swing so important? It all has to do with the consistent acceleration of the club through impact. You don't want your swing to be fast during the backswing or early in the downswing - you want it to be fast at impact, when it matters most. In order to achieve great swing speed through the hitting area, you have to keep your mechanics in the proper order. Each part of the swing feeds the next, so having even one step out of place can ruin the entire process.
When you watch professional golfers on TV, you will likely notice how smooth and effortless their swings look. That appearance is a product of great sequencing. If everything in your golf swing happens in the right order at just the right time, you will be able to produce impressive power without undue effort. Pro golfers spend years and years mastering the sequencing in their swings, and the results are the beautiful motions you see every Sunday afternoon. While you probably aren't going to be able to invest years of practice into your game, you can improve your sequencing by making periodic trips to the driving range to work on this crucial aspect of the swing.
One of the great things about golf is the individuality that exists within the game. Every golf swing is unique, and even though many swings share common characteristics, no one will ever have your exact swing. However, even though the game provides room for personality and creativity, there isn't much wiggle room when it comes to sequencing. The correct sequence of events in the swing is the same for everyone, so you shouldn't try to invent your own path when it comes to how you organize your swing mechanics. The content below will lay out the correct sequence of events within the swing - it will then be up to you to replicate that sequence over and over again, first on the driving range and then out on the golf course.
All of the content below is based on a right handed golfer. If you play left handed, please reverse the directions as necessary.
Creating a Clear Picture
Having a clear picture in your mind of what you are trying to do during the golf swing is highly important. Many amateur golfers don't understand the value of having a clear picture in mind, so they skip that part of the process. It's not hard to see why this step is overlooked by many - after all, you hit the ball with your arms and legs and the rest of your body, not your head. However, it is your mind that is sending directions to your body throughout the swing, so you need to have a perfectly clear picture of what that swing will look like before it actually happens.
Visualization is particularly important when it comes to the sequencing of your swing. The swing happens far too quickly for you to think through it step-by-step as it happens, so you have to be well-prepared in advance of putting the club in motion. Once the club starts back away from the ball, there is no turning back. Have yourself prepared both physically and mentally so that you can make your entire swing with confidence and conviction.
To help you create a great picture to use prior to starting your swing, the following steps identify exactly how the swing should develop from start to finish.
- Club starts first. As you probably suspect, the club should be the first thing to go in motion away from the ball. Some golfers make the mistake of swaying to the right with their body as they start the swing, but this move will only serve to push you off balance. Allow the club head to slowly trace a path away from the ball that matches up with the target line you have selected for the shot. It will only take a split second before the rest of your body gets in on the action and begins to support the swing, but that club head movement should be the trigger that sets everything off.
- Lower body stays quiet. Once you have put the club in motion, your upper body should take control of turning the club back and away from the target. The backswing is not just your hands and arms, but also your shoulders and torso. A whole upper body turn to the right is the best way to get the club in position for an aggressive downswing. With that said, there is one area that should stay out of the early stages of the backswing altogether - your lower body. While the upper body turns back, it is the job of the lower body to remain stable and keep you on balance. In fact, some of the best golfers in the world are able to hold their lower body positioning all the way through the backswing until the club begins to change directions. You might not have the flexibility to pull that off, but keeping your legs stable as long as you can will do great things for both your power and consistency.
- A brief pause. As everything arrives at the top of the swing, there will need to be a short pause before you change directions and head back down toward the ball. That pause isn't optional - rather, it is necessary if you wish to make a downswing at all. In order for any object to change directions it has to stop first, and the club is going to need to stop in order to transition from backswing to downswing. The key at this moment is to allow your entire body to 'gather' and remain as balanced as possible. The downswing can be a rather aggressive, violent action, so you want to start that move by remaining as controlled as you can be at the top.
- Lower body goes first. This is where it usually goes wrong for the average golfer. Even if the backswing has been navigated correctly, it is still possible to throw off your sequencing if you rush your hands and arms down toward the ball. The first move you make from the top of the swing should be your lower body beginning to turn to the left. If you move your hands down first instead of your legs, you will be wasting potential power and you may even create a slice. Once everything stops and takes a brief pause at the top, initiate movement in your lower body and allow the rest of your swing to build from there.
- Club comes last. The final piece of the puzzle to move through the hitting area should be the club. Started by your legs, your body should gradually move past the ball piece by piece until the club finally whips through the hitting area and launches the ball into the sky. Again, this is a point that many average golfers get wrong. For most players, the club beats the rest of their body through the hitting area, which is why so many players lack power off the tee and from the fairway. Allow the club to lag behind the rest of your body and only make contact with the ball once you have gotten everything possible out of your rotation toward the target.
While it might seem easy enough to work through those five steps in your swing, those five steps will all take place within the span of a second or less. In the amount of time it took you to read that last sentence, the takeaway through the downswing will have been completed. Therefore, it is crucial that you have a perfectly clear picture in your mind of this process prior to attempting to hit a shot. There is not enough time to make adjustments or corrections as you go - get it right before the takeaway and then let it go.
Staying In Your Tempo
One of the big challenges that golfers face on the course is maintaining an even tempo from the first shot of the day to the last. It isn't particularly hard to get into a good rhythm on the driving range when there is nothing at stake, but the pressure that comes with playing on the course has a way of messing with your overall timing. Shots that were easy to execute on the range could quickly become problematic on the golf course. If you are going to lower your scores and reach your goals in this great game, you will need to learn how to manage your tempo under every circumstance that you may face.
There are two main ways that you can lose track of your tempo on the golf course - through nerves, and through excitement. While these are basically opposite emotions, they can both damage your golf swing and cause your sequencing to get out of line. Below is a quick review of what each of these forces can do to your swing.
- Nerves. When you face nerves on the golf course, the natural reaction is to get tentative and slow down the overall motion of your swing. Specifically, most golfers slow the club down through impact when they get nervous, hoping to control the flight of the ball better than when they make an aggressive swing. Of course, just the opposite will happen, and you will actually lose control of your shots if you slow the club down through the hitting area. The biggest key when you start to get nervous is to dig deep and find some confidence that you can call on to continue executing your mechanics in the face of the pressure. This is the time when it is important to have that clear picture in your head that was discussed in the previous section. Fight off the nerves by visualizing your swing sequence and then execute the precise motion that you pictured in your mind.
- Excitement. It is more fun to feel excited than nervous, but you still have to control this emotion if you want to play good golf. Being excited on the course is likely to have the opposite effect as when you are nervous. Instead of slowing down, you will speed up and your sequencing will be ruined. Usually, excitement will cause the hands to fire before they should, and your lower body won't have a chance to get through the hitting area prior to your club making contact with the ball. Although it seems counterintuitive, you need to calm yourself down prior to making your next swing when you feel that adrenaline start to flow. Getting pumped up might be a great way to improve your play on a football field, but it will only cause you problems in golf. If you would like to keep your tempo in check and your swing sequence under control for all 18 holes, it is best to not let yourself get too high. After all, there will be plenty of time to celebrate your great play after the round is over.
The best emotional state in which to play golf is a neutral one. Not too high, not too low. You don't want to be frustrated and angry on the course, but you don't want to be giddy either. Any kind of extreme emotion in any direction is going to cause trouble with the rhythm of your swing, and it can be hard to get that rhythm back once it goes away. It may take some time to learn how to control your emotions properly on the course, but you will have a valuable asset in your game once you master this skill.
The Concept of Accumulating Speed
Your whole golf swing doesn't need to be fast. In fact, it will likely perform better if the only fast part of the swing is the moment when the club contacts the ball. In an effort to hit the ball as far as possible, many golfers start to swing the club fast as soon as the swing gets in motion. Of course, this can cause all sorts of problems. Not only is it hard to control a swing that moves fast from start to finish, but it also can be difficult to maintain correct sequencing when you are flying through the backswing and downswing. As hard as it might be to believe, a slow swing that accelerates at the right time can be just as powerful - or even more powerful - as a swing which is quick from start to finish.
The best way to visualize this concept is to watch the swing of Fred Couples. Even if you didn't know much about golf, it would be easy to see that Couples uses a beautifully smooth tempo to hit the golf ball. He certainly doesn't appear to be in a rush as it lifts the club up over his head and reroutes it back down toward the ball. In large part thanks to his incredibly smooth swing, Couples has a Green Jacket hanging in his closet.
So does that mean that Couples played a game based only on accuracy while he lagged behind the other Tour players in terms of distance? Hardly. After all, the call him 'Boom Boom' for a reason. Thanks to that slow and fluid swing, Couples was one of the most powerful players on Tour during his prime. Freddy could launch drives down the fairway with even the biggest of hitters, all while looking like he was out for a stroll in the park. Couples was able to hit the ball so far using his smooth swing because he efficiently accumulated power from the takeaway all the way up through impact.
While you aren't going to be able to successfully copy the swing of Fred Couples, you can certainly learn from his example. Couples was able to use a slow and smooth tempo while still being among the biggest hitters in the game. All golfers love to smash the ball down the fairway, but you don't have to rush through your swing and ruin your sequencing to do that. In fact, if you are willing to take your time and focus on getting the sequence of your swing exactly right, you will likely pick up distance in the long run.
Ignore Sequencing in the Short Game
Everything that you learn about sequencing in the golf swing can pretty much be thrown out the window when it comes to the short game. When playing shots from around the green (or on the green), you only really need to worry about moving the club. Short game shots don't require the same kind of power development that you need on your long shots, so the majority of your body can stay still while you swing back and through with your hands and arms.
While sequencing is not important, tempo remains very important on short shots. If your tempo is faulty in your long game, it is likely to be bad in your short game as well. One of the biggest benefits of working on your long game tempo is the positive effects that the work can have on your short game. Specifically, your speed control should dramatically improve when you are able to apply an even tempo to your putts and chip shots. The short game is notorious for being affected by pressure, and it is really your tempo that will be able to help you fight off those nerves and still produce quality shots. Whether you are facing a tricky four foot putt or a long pitch across the green, knowing you can count on your tempo is a great feeling.
One other area of your long game that does translate into the short game is the importance of visualization. Even though you aren't thinking about how to sequence your short game swings, you still can benefit greatly from picturing those swings before you make them. Try standing behind the ball while you picture the perfect swing to deal with the shot at hand. Once you have a clear picture of what your swing and shot will look like, walk up to the ball and replicate that picture. Using visualization in both your long game and short game will help you to strengthen that skill, and you will only get better and better at it as time goes by. Before long, you will probably be picturing your shots automatically as you walk up to the ball, and your game will be better as a result.
Sequencing in the golf swing isn't all that complicated, but it is very important. Understanding some of the basics - like the fact that your lower body needs to start the downswing - will help you take big steps forward with your game. Getting your sequencing right isn't something that you are going to be able to do in just a trip or two to the driving range. You should expect to invest some significant practice time to improve your sequencing, especially if you need to fix the transition move from backswing to downswing. However, that investment of time should be well worth it when you start to see improved performance and consistency out on the course.