While conducting a clinic a few years back, Tom Watson revealed a startling piece of information.

"I didn’t know how to swing a golf club," he said, "until 1992."

That would be nine years after Watson won the last of his eight major championships. He had already compiled 37 of his 39 career PGA Tour victories by that point as well. In other words, Watson had long since earned a place among golf’s all-time legends when he finally learned – to hear him tell it – how to swing.

Watson continued racking up wins on the Champions Tour, and nearly turned the game upside-down at the 2009 Open Championship before falling to Stewart Cink in a playoff.

So what secret did Watson discover at age 52? Read on.

Watson’s signature: He maintains the same spine angle (posture) from address to the follow-through.

Who else does it: Adam Scott, Darren Clarke

What it looks like

It’s really as simple as it sounds. With the spine angle set at address, Watson rotates his shoulders at a 90° angle to the spine -- back and through. Viewed looking toward the target, Watson’s posture wavers very little, up or down, during the swing. His shoulders turn rather than tilt, so he’s able to keep the club on plane with ease.

Why it works for Watson: During the same clinic, Watson explained that he’d spent his entire life emulating Jack Nicklaus: extremely high hands on the backswing, tons of leg drive down and through. Then, at the 1992 Heritage Classic, Watson "got tired of hitting the ball fat, and I got tired of hitting the ball out to the right. So I changed my golf swing right then and there."

The secret, he said, is keeping the shoulders perpendicular to the spine throughout the swing. "You can move your head off the ball, as long as you keep the spine angle in the same position," Watson said. "Where we get in trouble is when we bob up and down."

Watson never does.

How it can work for you: Try the drill Watson himself uses. First, to gain a feel for the idea of keeping the shoulders and spine aligned properly:

  • Standing upright, place a club across the shoulders, behind your neck, and hold it in place with the forearms or wrists.
  • Rotate the shoulders to the right (for righties), then left, remaining in an upright position. Repeat several times.
  • The club should stay parallel to the ground as you turn in each direction.
  • Next, transfer the same concept to your golf swing. After placing the club across the shoulders in the manner described above:

  • Assume your regular stance, bending at the hips.
  • Rotate back, then through, as though hitting a golf ball. Maintain the same shoulder level from setup to follow-through.

Practicing this drill while viewing a mirror to your right will tell you if you’re maintaining the spine angle on the backswing. Turn to put the mirror on your left to check your through-swing posture.

Doing multiple repetitions of this drill on a regular basis will ingrain the motion into your swing.

A Good Spine Angle is Crucial to Golf Success

A Good Spine Angle is Crucial to Golf Success

Do you know what spine angle refers to in the golf swing? If this is a term you are unfamiliar with – or maybe have heard but don’t know what it means – your game would benefit from educating yourself on this topic. Your spine angle during the golf swing is a key ingredient to hitting the ball not only straight, but farther as well. A proper golf swing will establish a good spine angle at address, and then maintain that spine angle in the downswing all the way through impact.

Spine angle can best be described as the tilt in your spine that you have during the swing. If you were standing straight up and down, that would be considered no spine tilt at all. If you were bent over so much that your spine was parallel to the ground, that would be 90* of golf spine tilt. Obviously, neither of those options are going to make for very good golf. There isn’t a single number that will apply to all golfers in terms of ideal golf spine tilt, but somewhere between 20* and 30* is a pretty good range that will cover most players.

The reason that spine angle is so important in the swing is that is connects all of the various moving parts that are playing a role in hitting the shot. By keeping your spine angle consistent, you will be making it much easier for the rest of your body to remain in a consistent position throughout that swing. So, when you return to the ball at impact after making a backswing and downswing, it should be far easier for the club to find solid contact right into the back of the ball. When you have the same spine angle at impact that you did at address, great ball striking becomes a far-easier task.

Unlike some areas of golf, where amateurs share the same common mistakes, spine angle is an element that sees mistakes made in both directions. Some golfers struggle with being too hunched over the ball at address, while others are too upright. Either way, these mistakes can lead to serious swing problems. Those who are too bent over the ball will usually have a hard time making a full shoulder turn in the backswing. On the other side of the coin, standing too upright will limit the ability of your lower body to engage in the swing and provide the power that you are looking for. Getting your golf spine tilt just right will enable you to both engage your lower body nicely and still make a full shoulder turn in the backswing.

There are two separate areas of this discussion that you will need to work on in your own game if you are going to improve – setting your spine angle at address, and maintaining spine angle in the downswing (and through impact). Starting with a good spine angle is important, but only if you are able to keep it throughout the swing. The instruction that follows will address both of these key areas. Please note that all instruction below is written based on a right handed golfer. If you play left handed, be sure to reverse those directions so that they apply correctly to your swing.

Finding the Right Spine Angle

Finding the Right Spine Angle

As a golfer you should already know the importance of a good address position. What you might not know, however, is just how important your spine angle is to that address position. Most golfers pay attention to the position of their feet, their shoulders, and even their hands – but not so much their spine. If you can get your spine angle just right at address, it is going to make a huge difference in the quality of your ball striking and the consistency of your swing.

To work on getting your own spine angle set correctly at address, work through the following three step drill.

  • Stand straight up and down. You don’t want to start your golf swing standing straight up and down, but that is how you are going to start this drill. On the driving range, take a golf club in one hand and stand in position as if you were going to hit a shot down the range. However, instead of bending over from the waist, stay upright at this point. Make sure your feet are in the right position to build your stance, and your shoulders are parallel with your target line for the shot.
  • Add flex into your knees. The next step is to bend your knees and start to make your stance look and feel more athletic. A good way to think about this step is to imagine that you are starting to ‘sit down’ in a chair that isn’t actually there. Picture a chair being placed behind you and pretend that you are beginning to sit down into it. That should cause your backside to be stuck out behind you and your knees to be flexed – a perfect way to start your golf stance. The exact amount of knee flex that you want to have in your swing is going to depend on a number of factors, so just try to find a position that is comfortable and gives you a feeling of athleticism.
  • Form the angle. The last step is to actually create the spine angle that you need. To do so, first place the club behind the ball so that the sole is sitting flat on the ground. Then, bend forward from the waist slowly while keeping your back as straight as possible. This will probably cause you to stick your backside out behind you even further – which is a good thing. Continue to bend from the waist until you are able to comfortably reach the grip of your club with both hands while it is positioned behind the ball. This should be the perfect spine angle for you to start your swing. The most important thing that you remember at this point is to avoid hunching over or arching your back. You want to keep a straight position in your spine and do all of the bending from the waist.
  • Of course, you don’t want to have to go through this routine before every shot when you are actually playing golf. That is why it is so important to practice on the driving range as often as possible. Work on getting your address position – including your spine angle – exactly right before each shot you hit on the range. That way, when you head out onto the course, you should have no trouble getting into a perfect position prior to starting your swing.

    Staying in Your Stance on the Backswing

    Staying in Your Stance on the Backswing

    All the work you have just done to build a proper address position will be wasted if you give up your spine angle early on in the backswing. It is important that you pay attention to the position of your spine throughout the backswing and make sure that it is not moving up or down. You should be rotating to your right into order to complete the backswing, but that rotation shouldn’t affect your spine angle.

    As you work on your swing technique on the driving range, it will be helpful to have some keys in mind that relate to maintaining your spine angle. Following are three ideas that can help you accomplish that goal.

  • Rotate the left shoulder. Obviously, if you are rotating your left shoulder back away from the target, you are going to be rotating your right shoulder as well. However, from a mental standpoint, it can be helpful to focus on just one of your shoulders during the backswing – and the left one is the one you should pick. As long as you are going a good job of turning your left shoulder under your chin during the early part of the backswing, your spine angle should be remaining in position. The trouble can start when you lift your head up and away from the ball early in the backswing, because that will bring your spine up as well. Think about getting your left shoulder under your chin to keep your spine angle in place.
  • Don’t rush. A common amateur mistake is to rush through the backswing in a hurry to hit the shot. This can cause a number of problems, including forcing you out of your spine angle. The backswing should be slow and gradual, allowing your body to stay in position and on balance for the aggressive downswing to come. Focus on keeping a steady rhythm in the backswing and don’t allow your tempo to become faster when you move from the driving range to the course. There is no need to rush through the backswing at all – take your time and get your body into a perfect position at the top.
  • Control the length of your swing. Of all of the causes that lead to losing your spine angle in the backswing, a long swing might be the most common. Many golfers let the club continue on far past parallel in the backswing because they believe it will lead to more distance. That is unlikely, and it will only serve to pull you up and out of that spine angle that you worked so hard to establish. The backswing doesn’t need to be long in order to set up a powerful downswing – it only needs to be well-balanced and mechanically sound. If you notice that you begin to lose your spine angle at a certain point in the backswing, take that as a sign that your backswing should be considered complete at that spot. You won’t gain anything from forcing yourself to make a longer backswing but you could lose your spine angle, which will harm your ability to hit solid shots time after time.
  • The backswing sets the stage for a successful golf shot. If you lose your fundamentals during the backswing, your downswing will have very little chance of generating the kind of ball flight you desire. Pay attention to these three points when you are on the practice range and make sure that you maintain your spine angle all the way to the top of your swing so you are ready to strike when the club heads back toward the ball.

    Getting Down to Impact

    Getting Down to Impact

    At this point, we have worked on establishing a solid address position with a proper spine angle, as well as maintaining that angle throughout the backswing. Now, it is time to transition from backswing to downswing while making sure that spine angle stays intact and leads to a solid strike of the ball.

    There are two distinct ways in which the downswing can go wrong from a spine angle perspective. You can either dive down toward the ball while lowering the level of your head, or you can stand up out of the shot while trying to lift the ball into the air. Each of these mistakes can lead to negative results in terms of your ball flight, but they are very different in terms of how they should be fixed. We will start with the issue of diving down toward the ball. If this is a problem that you are experiencing in your swing, you likely hit a lot of fat shots and a lot of shots that wind up to the right of the target. The problem is that while you are moving your upper body down closer to the ball, you are simultaneously slowing down the rotation of your body. Therefore, you won’t get as much turn toward the target as you need to hit a good shot, and the club will usually contact the ground prior to hitting the ball.

    The most common cause of this mistake is having your weight too far out over your toes at the top of the swing. When this happens, you won’t have much choice except to dive down toward the ball because that is where your weight is taking you. To correct this problem, it is imperative that you achieve better balance at the top and keep your weight right in the middle of your feet. On the practice range, try stopping your swing at various points to see how your weight distribution feels. Where are you getting off track and drifting out onto your toes? Once you locate that point in the swing, you can work on correcting the issue and making sure you are well-balanced from start to finish. As long as you have good balance, the problem of diving down toward the ball should be a thing of the past.

    Unlike the previous problem, the matter of standing up early out of your shots is usually related to poor rhythm in the swing. Just like you don’t want to rush through your backswing, you also don’t want to rush through your downswing – the whole swing should build speed gradually and it should never look or feel rushed.

    In order to have a good spine angle at impact you need to keep your tempo all the way through and up into your finish position. When you rush from the top of the swing down to the ball, your arms simply won’t be able to keep up with the rest of your body. This is why it feels like you are ‘coming out’ of the shot – because your body has already turned toward the target while your arms and the club are lagging well behind. The result of this mistake is usually either a push to the right, or a quick hook to the left. Either way, you won’t be happy with the shot and your game will fall short of its potential.

    Fixing your tempo is a matter of controlling your mind during the swing. You need to convince yourself that there is no rush necessary in the golf swing and that you have plenty of time to move the club back and through the shot. This is far easier done on the practice range than it is on the actual golf course. For that reason, work on hitting balls on the driving range while focused only on tempo. One good way to do this is to try and hit some shots as short as you can with a full swing. For example, if you usually hit your 7-iron 150 yards, try hitting a full swing shot with that club that only flies 100 yards. To do so, you will need to use a very slow tempo and keep your rhythm nice and smooth. One you accomplish that feat, work your way back up to full speed while still remembering that feeling of an even tempo. Hopefully, that lesson will carry over onto the golf course and you can start to make better swings without standing up out of your spine angle.

    Other Important Points

    Other Important Points

    Using the information that has been included above, you should be able to improve the consistency of your spine angle – and the quality of your shots as a result. Following are a few more related points that need to be highlighted in order to complete the spine angle discussion.

  • It matters in the short game. While your short shots are not as technical as the full swing, your spine angle still plays an important role in chipping and putting. The chipping motion is just a miniature version of the full swing, so it stands to reason that you would want to pay attention to your spine angle just the same. When putting, holding a steady spine angle throughout your stroke is key to making contact in the middle of the putter face – which in turn helps you to start the ball on line and roll it the proper distance.
  • Flexibility helps. Golfers who have trouble holding their spine angle through the swing are often the same ones who have limited flexibility, especially in the lower body. When your legs are tight, you might not be able to maintain your stance for as long into the backswing, so your spine angle has to straighten out to compensate. Working on improving your whole body flexibility, and specifically the flexibility in your upper legs, can go a long way toward making it easier to hold your spine angle all the way through the swing.
  • Don’t become a robot. This last point can be a little confusing, but it needs to be mentioned. Everything that you have read above has pointed to the importance of maintaining your spine angle, and that is accurate – but you don’t want to become a robot and lose the natural athleticism of your swing at the same time. In other words, don’t become so obsessed with perfection in your spine angle that you start to make a swing which is too mechanical and lacks any feel for the club. There is a balance between controlling your spine angle and swinging like a robot – it should be your goal to stay somewhere in the middle. Don’t let your spine angle drift too far away from where it started at address, but also allow yourself to feel the swing and trust your natural ability.
  • If you were to take a formal golf lesson with a professional instructor, there is a good chance that lesson would include a discussion about spine angle. And it is for good reason. Your spine is at the center of a lot of what goes on in the golf swing, so controlling it will give you a far better chance at success. Just like everything else in golf, it all starts at address. Get your stance right, including a good spine angle, and so much of the rest of the swing should fall into place. Of course, working on this element of your swing on the practice range first is always best before going onto the course and testing it out. As long as you follow the instructions above and make the necessary changes, you should see a rather quick improvement in the quality of your ball striking thanks to a more reliable spine angle.