February 26, 2020: San Jose, CA.
Abstract: Grab a car floor mat, preferably a front seat mat. Hold it as you typically would at one of its corners, prepare to thwack the dirt off of it by find a vertical surface like a wall or one of those yellow hip-height gas station pilon/pole things that protect gasoline pumps from fender benders or, better yet, something that looks like a telephone pole …… the type of pole you might find, say, at a car wash next to the big vacuum machines ….. – and then start thwacking it like you’ve done all your life – and voila!! You too may realize my AHA moment! From this silicon valley golfer’s perspective you’re (I’m) performing every aspect of winding up (with no chicken wing), pausing at the top, transferring your weight with your hips and legs, and swinging thru with perfect timing to have the club head – i mean, the surface of the mat – smack the pole perpendicular for maximum dust jettisoning effect … and you’ve assimilated all those tips and tricks every golf instructor or YouTube video has been trying to explain to you but for some reason you could never translate to your real-time golf game. Phew – long run on sentence there – my bad.
Even your fingers will be grasping the mat in a manner that amazingly matches the ideal golf club grip (you know, like those holding-a-gun analogies or a baseball in preparation to pitch analogies or a skipping stone at lakeside analogy or pick any number of mental images) that requires the cocking of the forefinger and V-shaped pressing of your thumb’s plumpy base against the base of said forefinger and where middle, 3rd and pinky fingers curl and tuck in nicely behind the aforementioned duo. (Sidenote: The only other previous best analogy for me to conjure up a mental image up until now was holding a carving knife with a nice big chef’s handle … the thumb, fore finger and other fingers seemingly fall right into place without me having to see if my second knuckle is visible and all that other mechanical garble-dee-goop). It is the perfect analog, to my mind, for what you’re trying to accomplish with a golf club from a balanced position which, by the way, you also natural assume as you prepare for maximum dust-thwacking propulsion effect. So that’s the shorthand abstract of my AHA golf swing story. But wait – I know you. You enjoy my clever anecdotes, ramblings and digression – yes? no? No matter, the long form in all its glory follows. That’s how this golf Argonaut rolls. Happy visioning!
FULL NARRATIVE: I’m one of those people who needs to visually and mentally understand a concept before I can execute anything that is difficult to do especially when it comes to sports. This is especially true for my attempts at understanding what the golf swing is suppose to feel like.
For years I’ve struggled – even though I’ve improved – to develop a sense of fluidity with my golf swing like I have, say, for shooting a basketball three-pointer or pitching a baseball. I might not be a professional but I completely and conceptually understand the form, flow and function of every part of my body for these motions. And, more importantly, I can actually perform the proper sequence in good form too I might add. However, try as I might, this has escaped me in terms of the golf swing until now or rather until a few weeks ago when I was cleaning my car at the do-it-yourself car wash or more specifically while I was whacking the dust out of the car’s floor mats – that’s right, I found the answer I’ve been looking for low these past 5+ years while pounding out dust from a car’s floor mats – go figure. This! … after having contemplated any number of metaphors and similes and analogies and suggestions as to what the golf swing motion resembles ….. some of which are listed below.
Any number of visualizations have been offered via live instruction, books, magazines and TV shows. “The swing is similar to throwing a freebie, or like the set-up and bowling a bowling ball or cracking a whip or driving a top-spin cross-court backhand in tennis.” And the stance is all about setting up in a balanced way much like a weight lifter prepares to lift bar bells (back posture, posterior pushed back, arms hanging loosely in front, etc.). The motion is not dissimilar to the process of throwing a javelin or a discus or even sweeping the floor with a broom.
Over the years, I’ve spent considerable time trying to understand the fundamentals of the grip and the angle of my back and how to bend at the hips and not at the waist and all other such basics the lack of which everyone agrees conspire to complicate one’s golf swing. For the grip, I’ve finally agreed with Curtis Strange who I believe emphasized that you hold the club with your fingers which I’ve finally taken to mean that the middle fingers of my right hand have the most grip and my fore finger and thumb play a lesser role in terms of forcefulness. In time, I eventually came to the concept that my right hand should mimic holding a steak knife (if you cut a steak in the french way that requires switching the knife from the left to the right hand as you cut and then back to the left for eating) – or, for example, if you’re slicing a tomato or an onion with a butcher’s knife. Paying attention to how I hold the knife in these circumstances is very instructive – the middle fingers have the most command, the forefinger behaves like a cradling hook that guides and navigates action and the handle sits in the crux created where the base of the thumb meets the base of the forefinger of the hand exactly as golf instructors describe the “V” that should occur as the thumb presses up against the hand. Another example might be how a well trained drummer holds drum sticks or how one might hold a flat rock before preparing to skip it across the surface of a lake. You don’t drum a drum by holding drum sticks in the palm of your hand – how could you ever play Grateful Dead drum solos or master cool jazz music and cascading cymbals with that kind of a hold ….no, it’s all in the fingers, that’s where you get the power along with the flexibility and ease of movement.
I continued to visualize other analogies for set-up and balance that included the way a tennis player prepares to launch himself towards the ball as it reaches its apex in the toss or how all athletes – football players when they set before the hiking of the ball or basketball players on defense or a tennis player preparing to receive a serve – they all establish a posture that maximizes the power of their core by having firm straight backs and balancing their weight with a wide stance so they can spring into action in any direction. Nobody bends at the waist. Each of these examples requires angles that incorporate firm control of the core and the hips. I also recall how some instructors talk about standing ‘at attention’ like a soldier – tall and straight, chest kinda out, stomach kinda in, head and eyes looking forward – and only then bending the knees and bending at the hips to reach a balanced but strong position to take action.
All this is well and good and has been informative. But then, after months of randomly visiting the topic as time permitted, I found myself at the car wash – the ones where you can hand wash your car in a bay and where there are several power tube vacuums and other accouterments for detailing your car. I had pulled out the floor mats and, as everyone does, I began whacking them against a metal pole to knock out the ground in dust – and the AHA! appeared literally out of thin air.
In order to have the mat strike the pole squarely face on I noticed that my body was doing all the things in the right fluid order that seemed right for a golf swing – especially how I gripped the mat with my fingers but most importantly how my wrists behaved. Everyone talks about how your wrists are supposed to roll over as you strike the ball – from the inside of the wrist looking like its facing the sky at the top of the back swing to it turning over and facing perpendicular to the ground as you follow through – in a sense this wrist motion mimics the power that is derived from similar action when pitching or swinging a baseball bat or throwing a football (perhaps not skyward vs. ground-ward but the wrist does follow a circular trajectory to end 180 degrees opposite from where it started) and demonstrates why it’s so hard for novices to have the power to throw anything well because they only use their arms and elbows but fail to get the right wrist action going.
But as I struck the mat against the pole – it was all so natural. I drifted the mat backwards, turned it as if towards the sky – in a nice slow leisurely fashion and then my body legs shoulders elbows and core all cooperated to gently shift and fluidly re-direct it towards the pole until at the last moment – THWACK – I hit the mat straight on, perpendicular to the ground with the face of the mat perfectly up/down. Had I continued the swing as if the pole didn’t exist, my wrist would have continued to roll until the mat faced the ground. It clearly faced skyward at the top of my ‘back swing.’
So now – finally – I have a concept and a visual that I understand wholly and believe in. Instead of all that other stuff like whipping the golf club by holding it upside down or pretending to use a horse whip or whatever – if I visualize trying to strike a floor mat downward at a golf ball – I have a sense of surety and comfort and faith that I am using the right fluid motion. It inherently makes sense to me.
I think that’s what the SKLZ golf hitting practice bag is also trying to impart but this analogy just strikes home for me in a more fundamental and natural way. It’s been 2 1/2 years since my daughter started college and my efforts at improving my golf game remain as erratic as they’ve ever been despite my belief that I’d have more time during this new chapter in my life and despite the fact that I can play all year round. And although I’ve developed a method of quickly converting her room into a practice chipping green while she’s away – the truth is I’ve spent the past couple years steadfastly stuck and focused understanding how to implement the fundamentals as they must apply to my body.
I now have an understanding of how to hold and swing the club. And I’ve done some others things along the way to reaching this epiphany. I’ve changed my grips to a size larger because I figured out I have long fingers compared to the size of my palms (math and ratios play such a large yet quiet role in so much of the fundamentals) and the standard grips didn’t allow me to use my fingers as optimally as I should. I’ve learned that I’ve been bent over way too much and that I have a fairly low center of gravity which means I can and should stand much more erect – kinda maybe like Fred Couples does maybe?. This is also due to the fact that my spine really curves frontwards a lot at the base near my hips so my arms still get sufficient clearance despite my erect stature. Even though the fundamentals are the same and ring true for all players and all sports, they can be and often are implemented in very custom fashion to suit the body and preference of the player. For example, I’m reminded of how the basics of a tennis serve are the same for all players and yet John McEnroe’s set-up was radically different from most players while Bjorn Borg had a classic set-up and yet they both were great servers.
So now I have a concept of how I’m suppose to handle the club, the club head and my wrists – which in turn informs my elbows, arms and horizontal motions backwards and forwards.
I just have to ‘Feel the Force’ of the floor mat thwacking the metal pole at the car wash and I’m on my way to entering a new chapter in my journey learning to play golf. And yes – that last sentence was a nod to the latest Star Wars movie in the wings. This last chapter marks the beginning of a new one for me.