How the Fingers Keep the Clubface Square

Ben Hogan, in his book, Five Lessons, called the right thumb and forefinger “potential swing-wreckers.” He even recommended the average golfer practice swinging the club with these two fingers entirely off the handle.

For the advanced golfer, however, he said those fingers were “finesse fingers,” used “for touch in striking the ball.”

Unfortunately, Hogan did not tell us how these fingers could be used in the way advanced golfers use them. I guess he left that to me. So here goes.

The human brain devotes a lot of space to the use of the hands. A great deal of that space is devoted in turn to the thumb and forefinger of the dominant hand, which are used for fine manipulation of objects they hold. The brain can be taught to do amazing things with these fingers.

One of the things they can be taught to do is control the clubface during the golf swing. It works this way.

Press the thumb tip of your dominant hand lightly into the middle of the adjoining forefinger (photo). This is where the handle of the golf club fits into your grip.

Now pick up a golf club, and assume your grip, reproducing the light pressure of the thumb against the finger, but now with the handle in between. It feels to me like I am holding the club with only these two fingers, the rest of the grip being there just for support.

The trick now is to swing the club in such a way that when you return to impact, these two fingers are in the same orientation that they had at address.

You monitor this by feel. Rotate these two fingers slightly to the left. This is a different feeling in those fingers, of the clubface closing. If instead you turn these fingers lightly to the right, this is the feeling of an open clubface.

To make this concept a dynamic reality, make half swings over and over, concentrating on the feeling in the thumb and forefinger not changing at any time. Stop the club at impact periodically to make sure the clubface is staying square. Make longer swings only after you have a firm idea of what you are to do.

Very important point. All these fingers do is preserve the orientation of the clubface. If you try to do anything else with them, such as guide the club, or hit the ball, it’s curtains for that shot. You’ve fulfilled the Hogan prophecy.

There is more to hitting a straight shot than just this, such as swing plane and pivot, but this is one part that is easy to master. Practice this feeling until it becomes automatic and you don’t even notice that you’re doing it.

A Couple of Things

I didn’t post last Sunday, like I usually do, because I could’t think of anything to say. While not having anything to say doesn’t stop some people from saying it anyway, I’m not one of those.

I got out a golf book this morning and started reading through it to see if I could find some inspiration. Which I did. Here are a couple of things that crossed my mind.

1. When you start the club back away from the ball, do so slowly at first, and smoothly. Do not snatch it away. The reasons are, one, that if you take the club back too quickly, you can pull it off the desired plane. Then you have to get it back on plane sometime before you hit the ball, which complicates the swing unnecessarily. And if you aren’t aware that you’re off plane, well, good luck.

The other reason is that jerking the club away makes you reflexively tighten your grip. That puts tension in your swing from the very start which will only build as the swing progresses — something you do not want to happen.

2. Everybody has their own swing. It is based on your strength, your flexibility, your athleticism, your physique, and your basic conception of how to swing a stick to hit a ball. Because of these factors, there are things about your swing that are less than ideal but which you cannot change. These are not swing flaws, these are just you.

There are, however, mistakes you can be making that you don’t have to. They need to be corrected, and they can be. Your improvement will accelerate when you have figured out the difference between your natural tendencies and your plain old errors. Then you can fix what can be fixed and leave what cannot be fixed, alone.

Fear of the Ground

I don’t think many recreational golfers ever get over the hardest thing they had to do when they first took up the game — being able to hit the ball and only the ball.

The ball is so small, as is the tool you use to hit it. If the club meets the ball just a bit too high, you risk blading it. A bit too low and you hit the ground first.

It is this second miss that haunts us and stays with us for years. The ground is in the way and we’re afraid of hitting down there instead of the ball.

Unrecognized and unaddressed, this fear is what does the most to prevent recreational golfers from playing the good golf they are otherwise capable of.

Take this self test. At the range, take out your 6-iron and hit a ball that is sitting on a tee, maybe just a quarter inch above the mat. You’re likely thinking about how easy the ball will be to hit and how good the shot is going to be.

Now put a ball on the mat. If, when you address the ball, your thinking changes, if you think you have to hit the ball precisely right to get a good shot, you have the fear.

You’ve changed your thinking from, “Oh, boy, this is going to be a good shot,” to, “Oh, brother, I hope this works.”

To get over fear of the ground, practice without it. Tee up every ball when you practice full swings and pitches.

Don’t worry, this is not cheating. It’s teaching your unconscious mind that the ground isn’t there. Over time, you come to believe that, freeing yourself to take unfettered swings at the ball.

Swing Thoughts

When you’re standing over the ball, ready to take the club away, there’s something going through your head. What that is will either make your shot easier, or harder.

Imagine a playing partner standing beside you as you’re addressing the ball, giving you all sorts of little reminders. Swing smoothly. Let your weight shift. Swing through the ball. Nice finish.

How long would you put up with that? One time, tops. So there’s no reason to do that to yourself. The reminders you give yourself as you’re about to swing, or during your swing, are destructive. They divide your swing into parts, when it should be thought of as one whole movement.

Sometimes a technical swing thought can pay off, but unless you spend hours on the practice tee and play frequently they can be risky. Besides, that’s just not how the game is played. Cary Middlecoff quotes Ben Hogan:

Hogan was recently asked what specific thought went through his mind just before he started his swing. “All I think about is trying to knock the damn ball in the hole,” said Hogan.

“Oh,” said his questioner. “I thought maybe you used some sort of mental gimmick like starting the club back with your hands, or staying in the backswing plane, or something like that.”

“No,” said Hogan. “You have to work all that stuff out on the practice tee.”

So what do you think about? What should be going through your mind? It is the feeling of what you are about to do. Not what the technical points are, but what the swing feels like as a unified whole when all the technical points are performed correctly. That’s what to teach yourself on the practice tee.

When it’s time to play, take a practice swing that is rhythmic, graceful, flowing, and ends with a firm, stable finish, concentrating on what your swing as one movment feels like in its entirety. Then step up to the ball and duplicate that swing before your mind has a chance to go wandering off in another direction.

Your conscious mind is always looking for something to do. Make sure you give it the right task when it’s time to hit your golf ball.