Six Fundamentals of the Recreational Golf Swing
© 2014, 2016 by Bob Jones
In early 2012, I had two back surgeries to correct severe nerve compression. Among other changes in my life, I had to change the way I played golf or else give up the game. I could no longer swing the club in a way that put excessive strain on my back.
Starting in late 2012, and all through 2013, I experimented to find a swing that was efficient, and easy on my back. In spring of 2014, everything I was working on fell into place.
Where in 2013 I could barely play nine holes, I could now play eighteen and feel no ill effects. I began to hit the ball straighter than I ever had, and more often, and shoot lower scores. I found that even if I took a week off from swinging a golf club, I had only to review a few basic principles and my swing would be right back where it was.
I organized these changes into six fundamentals: two that govern the entire swing, and four that govern the swing at certain critical points. I believe these fundamentals will be as beneficial to you as they are to me. They are easy to learn and perform, and can be put into any recreational golfer’s swing.
None of these fundamentals are new. You can read about all of them in many other places. My contribution is to identify key swing principles that have a long history of success, and organize them into a coordinated, interactive set.
I make two assumptions about you, the reader of this guide. First, that your pre-swing fundamentals (grip, stance, posture, aim, ball position) are sound — especially your grip. If that’s not the case, please fix them, because you won’t get very far until you do. My earlier book, Better Recreational Golf, covers these matters in easy-to-understand detail.
Secondly, I assume you’ve had a few swing lessons and have a basic idea of what it is you’re doing, or at least trying to do. This is not a guide to building a swing from the ground up. The purpose of this guide is to take the swing you have and modify it in a positive way.
I made the descriptions of each fundamental brief. I felt the more words I used, the more different directions readers might take a simple idea. What I have done is give you enough of a start so that if you have an adaptive imagination and sufficient body awareness, you can interpret the text in the way it was intended. Any blank spots that remain for you may be considered as the starting point of your own exploration.
The golf swing is a complicated motion. There are more things to pay attention to than I present here. These, then, are not the only fundamentals. I am convinced, though, that if you master these six fundamentals, many of the swing problems you now have will be eliminated, and better golf will be yours.
Swing slowly enough so none of it “disappears”
[2023 update: I have realized that the rhythm of the golf swing is 1:1. The backswing and the forward swing back to the ball take equal amounts of time. The 3:1 rhythm discussed below is the resulting rhythm of the clubhead. When you practice your swing, practice swinging 1:1.]
Rhythm and tempo is the glue that holds your swing together. Nothing else makes sense until you get them right.
Rhythm is the relative duration of the different parts of the swing. The musical example below shows you the rhythm of the golf swing. It is the Blue Danube waltz, suggested for this purpose by Percy Boomer in his essential book, On Learning Golf.
The waltz, in a simplified version, begins with a pick-up note, which is the takeaway (T) in the golf swing. The next three ascending notes comprise the backswing (B). The fifth note represents impact (I). I completed the phrase to let it sound right.
It might seem that you have to rush to get the club down to the ball in such a short time. To the contrary, most recreational golfers get back to the ball before that fifth beat. You might actually have to slow down your swing to get your rhythm right.
Let the first movement down with your hands be gravity-fed. Then let that natural acceleration, accompanied by an unforced body turn, get the club moving at the requisite speed.
The tempo (swing speed) of your golf swing is its overall pace. You can swing faster or slower, but with the same rhythm. The optimum speed of your swing is as fast as you can make it while still maintaining a conscious awareness of the clubhead at all times. Swing only as fast as your mind can follow the whole thing. If there is a blank spot, when the clubhead mentally disappears, you’re swinging too fast.
Start practicing your rhythm first, accompanied by a metronome if you can. Set the metronome to 168 and swing to the beats, counting each tick as corresponding to one note of the music. Take the club away at the first tick, be at the finish of your backswing on the fourth tick, and hit the ball on the fifth tick. This is a slower tempo than you would play golf with, but it’s the right tempo to start with in learning to feel the 3:1 rhythm.
If you don’t have a metronome, you can count evenly to yourself from 1 to 5. Again, 1 is the moment of takeaway, from there to 2 to 3 to 4 are the three parts of the backswing, and the fifth count is the one part of the downswing to impact.
Once you can swing with a consistent rhythm, find your personal tempo. Swing at different speeds, faster or slower, until you get to the one at which you can mentally track the clubhead from takeaway through impact, and at which you make consistent contact on the center of the clubface. That is your personal tempo.
When you’re playing, a sudden decline in the quality of your shotmaking is often nothing more than your swing getting too fast. Take a few practice swings to slow things down and get back into the Blue Danube rhythm. That should set things right again.
Swing the club with both hands
There is a school of thought that says you should swing the club with your body. Another one advocates swinging with your arms. Yet another says to swing the club with your hands. Each method has merit, and proponents of each method can point to success stories.
I believe you should swing a golf club with your hands, for four reasons. First, that is the part of your body closest to the clubhead, and thus most likely to be in control of it. Second, there is more brainpower devoted to moving the hand and fingers than to moving any other part of your body. You can take advantage of that by training your mind to control the clubhead, through your hands, to deliver a precise hit consistently.
Third, swinging with the hands prevents muscular tension from entering your body. When the body governs the swing, the shoulders, arms, and hands will get out of control unless they keep up, and that creates tension. If you swing with your arms, your hands similarly get more tense than they would just by holding on. Only when you swing with the extremity of your body, the hands, do you give yourself the chance to be as relaxed throughout the swing as you were at the start.
Fourth, I tried all three methods. My best shots, by far, are created when I swing the club with both of my hands. By that I mean two things. First, the movement of the hands leads the swing at all times, with other parts of the body responding to them. This does not mean the hands move first, then the body moves later. Just as a marching band follows the lead of the drum major though everyone moves together, the other pieces of the golf swing follow the lead of the hands without hesitation.
Second, you have a feeling that the hands work as one unit when holding onto the club and swinging it. The left hand and the right hand cease having separate identities, or separate roles. They are one.
How does this hands-driven swing work? Ernest Jones, its leading exponent, explained it in his book, Swing the Clubhead:
“The hands function in the action of stroking while the rest of the body responds wholly to the initiating action of swinging the clubhead with the hands and fingers.”
In practice, this means not to use the popular one-piece takeaway to start the swing. The hands take the club back, the arms with them, and the body starts turning only when it gets pulled around by the combined turning of the hands, arms, and shoulders. We’ll discuss how the hands function in the downswing when we get to Fundamental Four.
At impact, the important point is that you don’t hit with one hand or the other. You lead the clubhead into and through the ball with both hands acting as one unit.
The core of this principle is that the hands are a proxy for the clubhead. If you could cradle the clubhead in the palm of your right hand, you could place it perfectly anywhere you want. The golf swing asks you to make that same perfect placement with your hands holding onto a three-foot long extension of the clubhead while moving it at great speed. If you can imagine both hands moving as you wish the clubhead to, the clubhead will follow.
One final thought: do not allow this focus on your hands to let you fall into a habit of holding the club too tightly. A relaxed grip is sufficient.
Take the club straight back to control
This fundamental has to do with the backswing — the takeaway and its ending point.
When we swing a golf club, the arc of the swing is tilted relative to the ground. That means the path of the clubhead goes toward the target for only an instant, ideally when the clubhead meets the ball. It is not possible for the club to travel straight toward the target for an appreciable distance on either side of the ball. We can, however, think that the club does just that. This is called aiming your swing.
When you take your stance, you aim your body to the target (parallel to the ball-target line, actually). Then you take the club away from the ball. From there, in the first eighteen inches or so of the backswing, you aim your swing.
Without a ball in front of you, set up with the clubhead resting on the edge of your practice mat or atop an alignment stick. Take the club back so it runs straight along the edge of the mat, or along the stick, for about 1-1/2 feet.
Since your swing path is tilted, the clubhead does not pass vertically over the edge of the mat or the stick. It is actually following an inward-curving path. From where you see your swing, at the center of a tilted swing arc, the clubhead will appear to move straight down the line for this short distance. That appearance is what you’re aiming for.
The second part of this fundamental is taking the club back to control. If you were to hit a nail with a hammer, you would take the hammer back far enough to give the nail a good blow, but not so far that the hammer could not find the nail again. That’s taking the hammer back to control.
With a golf club, as with the hammer, take your hands back only to the farthest point where you feel you can find the ball again for a solid hit. By taking the club back beyond that point, the hands and the clubhead become lost. Swing the club back to where you feel this control point to be and start the club back down from there.
This fundamental can break down if you’re trying for extra distance by taking the club back farther than usual. Remember that the primary generator of distance is hitting the ball on the center of the clubface. If you need more distance for a particular shot, increase your tempo a tiny bit, while maintaining proper rhythm.
The right knee moves left
The goal of the downswing is for the body, hands, and clubshaft all to be moving in harmony toward the point of impact. The club and every part of the body come together from different places, traveling different distances, at different speeds, and in different directions, into a coordinated convergence that delivers the clubhead to the ball.
We achieve that convergence by synchronizing the movement of the club with the turning of the right hip, thigh, and knee.
The moment you start swinging your hands down from the top of the backswing, the right hip begins turning around toward the target. These two movements are connected; the hands drop and the right hip turns simultaneously.
The left hip moves out of the way so the club has a free path toward the ball. At about the time your hands reach hip height, imagine the club shaft and the outside of your right thigh are fused. When the shaft moves, the thigh moves with it.
When the club shaft gets connected to your turn in this way, your right knee will move freely toward the target, and will be at or even a bit past the ball at impact.
The name of this fundamental seems to stress the right knee, but that’s only to keep the phrase short. It’s actually the whole thing — the right hip turning, the club-thigh synchronization, and the right knee moving toward the target, all in concert with both hands swinging the club down.
Remember to carry your upper body with you when you make this turning motion. If you leave it behind, your lower body gets ahead and you can hit uncontrolled shots that go way right.
It would be easiest to start practicing the coordination of your right side with the club by hitting short pitches of about 50 yards. The shorter and slower swing makes it easier to learn the feeling of this coordinated movement. After you have mastered that movement with a wedge, moving up to a full swing will be fairly easy.
The hands lead the clubhead through impact
In 1967, an amateur golfer with a stunning record in local and regional competition, after taking up the game years earlier at age 38, published a book called, How to Hit a Golf Ball Straight. Author Ike Handy spent the entire book saying just one thing as often and in as many ways as he could: “the hands must pass the ball ahead of the clubhead.” That idea was not Handy’s discovery. He was the first, however, to be so explicit about it.
I say it this way: In the golf swing there is a race between your hands and the clubhead to get back to the ball first. Your hands always have to win that race.
When the hands win the race, the clubhead stays square, it stays in the proper trajectory, and it swings along the intended swing path. In a nutshell, it sets up the proper impact geometry. If the clubhead wins, all of this breaks down and a decent shot becomes a matter of chance.
Without a ball in front of you, take the club to the top of your backswing. (1) Swing down, very slowly, until your hands are at hip height. Do not disturb the angle between the club shaft and your left forearm. (2) Take the club back to the top, very slowly, and bring it down again, very slowly, to hip height. (3) Repeat a second time. (4) Take the club back to the top and swing down a little bit faster, but still in a controlled way, all the way through to the finish. You will find that your hands lead the clubhead into the spot where the ball lies. And, in accordance with Fundamental Two, neither hand by itself is in control of the hit. Both hands share that role equally.
A cardinal rule of iron play is to hit the ball first, the ground second. The divot, if you take one, starts in front of where the ball was, not behind it or underneath it. I know of no way this can happen other than for the hands to be leading the clubhead at impact.
In terms of technique, this fundamental is probably the most important one for you to incorporate into your swing. However, because we want to hit the ball, and this movement doesn’t feel at all like hitting, it is the most difficult fundamental to trust, and thus to master. The guiding concept of the throughswing is that the club flows through the ball. There is no sense at all of hitting.
Work hard on this one. Reminding yourself to swing with both hands (Fundamental Two) helps considerably.
Swing straight through the ball toward the target
This fundamental can be seen as a continuation of Fundamental Three. Both concern aiming your swing. Starting straight back pre-defines the swing path. Now you need to be swinging along that path as the clubhead meets the ball.
Bring this idea into your swing just like you aimed your takeaway earlier. The shiny topline of an iron, or the head of your driver, traces out a blurred image you can easily see when you swing the club through impact. Your goal is to swing so that blurred image chases down the edge of the mat, or over an alignment stick, for about a foot after it has swung through the spot where a ball would sit. (Just as in the takeaway, the clubhead does not actually go straight for this distance, it only appears to from your offset point of view.) If it doesn’t, swing again with that goal in mind and you should get it right away.
It might seem like this movement isn’t a fundamental at all, but merely a check on everything that has already happened. In a sense that’s right, but there is a good reason why what happens after impact gets elevated to the status of a fundamental.
Where the club goes after the ball was hit depends on where it was going beforehand. Once the clubhead enters the hitting area, its path has been set and cannot be altered. The only way for the clubhead to travel along the right path after impact is for it to have been headed that way before impact.
You cannot establish this direction in your mind too early. If you would like to call this one Fundamental 2.5, to put it in sequence even before Fundamental Three (takeaway) go right ahead.
If you wait until the club is about to come into the ball to take care of this swing path alignment, you would most likely end up trying to push the clubhead through the ball with your right hand, causing the complete breakdown of Fundamentals Four and Five.
The six fundamentals in order of performance are shown below. Fundamentals One and Two operate throughout the swing, but their effect is most prominently applied where shown.
• Take the club back on the correct line and back only to your control point (3).
• Start the downswing with the proper swing rhythm at the tempo that suits you (1).
• Get your body turning and your weight moving left, evidenced by the movement of your right knee (4).
• Bring the clubhead into the impact zone with both hands working as one unit (2).
• Ensure your hands pass the ball before the clubhead makes contact (5).
• Continue swinging the club toward the target following impact (6).
Learning and Applying the Fundamentals
By giving each of the six fundamentals proper attention, they will merge into an effortless, efficient swing with surprising clubhead speed and power.
Practice the fundamentals by swinging a club without a ball in front of you. The ball will distract you from the feeling you are trying to learn as you practice a particular fundamental.
Practice one fundamental at a time in the order I presented them to you. That order is deliberate. The successful execution of any one fundamental depends on the mastery of the ones that came before it.
Accept the fact that it will take time to install these fundamentals into your swing so they become automatic. It took me over a year for them all to become a consistent habit, and I still review them constantly.
On the practice tee, take lots of practice swings between each ball you hit. Work deliberately on the fundamentals step by step to make them flow together into one unified swing feeling. Then hit one ball with that feeling still in your mind. Before you hit the next ball, do the same thing all over again. This kind of practice teaches you what a complete swing feels like, and to use that feeling when you play. Practicing as deliberately as this takes discipline, but it pays off.
I cannot emphasize enough, whether in practice or in play, never to be thinking of any particular fundamental, or any other mechanical principle, when you swing the club at a ball. Those are tools designed to organize the way you build your swing. You play golf with the swing you built, not with what you used to build it. The more you can swing at a golf ball in this way, the better off you will be.
Play well, and have fun.