Straighten your Shots: Fix the Top of your Backswing

Dan Gold
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Proper Positions At The Top Of The Swing

Some things never change: the laws of physics, proper golf positions at the top of the swing, and the benefit of a coordinated setup. One benefit of a good setup is that it helps you to produce consistent swings.

Assuming you’ve set up correctly, for your set up positions to be consistent and to maintain consistency throughout your swing, you need to keep the left side of your body “ as well as your head, arms and clubface – aligned toward the target through impact.

This means that at the top of the swing, elements that require preservation on the way down must be preserved at the top as well.

Careful attention should be paid to the position of your head. Keep your eyes aligned at the far target line.

A common mistake occurs when golfers don’t properly manage the position of the left side of their body “ and their head, in particular.

As they swing the club back, they push the top of their head to the right while hunching the left shoulder. That posture transfers into the top of the downswing, as shown below.

This picture illustrates the poor posture of the golfer above. Not only is her posture to the right, but she has pulled her head down relative to the target line at the top of the swing.

The Correct Backswing Length

It was around that I started taking lessons from a friend who played golf weekly. … Through the years, I watched him and his nephews and their coach practice. And what we discovered was that the coach demonstrated a much longer back swing than the golfers used in competing for or shooting their best scores.

The coach and his students would have a very long back swing and a very short follow through or the opposite with the player having a shorter back swing than the follow through.

What did this reveal?

That it is okay to have an unbalanced back swing with the length of the back swing being different from the length of the follow through when trying to achieve that perfect balance.

So it is OK to have a very long back swing and a short follow through or a short back swing and a long follow through. It doesn’t matter, as long as both are balanced and you are not allowing yourself to go into a hitting area in your long back swing or to stretch fully forward with the follow through.

This is the secret to the perfect golf swing.

The Proper Club Direction at the Top

To hit accurate shots, you must set up with the proper direction of the club head at the top of the backswing.

Begin by taking your normal address position for your preferred shot.

Then, take your backswing while maintaining a normal weight forward balance.

Before I make my downswing, I want to get the club head back to the point that it’s about parallel to the ground.

I do this to check that the club head is in the proper position 90 degrees from the target line.

The direction of the club head is also pretty easy to check. Lie a club shaft on the ground in front of you and line up the top of the shaft with the top of your thigh.

Also line the shaft up with the target line and notice how the shaft is pointed at the target.

I want my club head pointed at the target at the top of the backswing, along the target line.

I want the club head on the same plane at the top of my backswing and the club head on the same plane at impact.

This will allow the club head to move along straight lines when I swing the club.

The tendency in many players is to have their club head pointed towards the ground when you’re at address, but also have the club head pointed at the ground at the top of the backswing.

Correct Hand Position at the Top

You can work on this in your swing with a golf video, or physically with a golf club.

Stand up, holding your arms out in front of you, as though you were holding a golf club.

Adjust your hands so that they are slightly forward with the club head.

Now grip the club, keeping it pointed straight at the ground.

Hold it at the end of your backswing, where you naturally would, then swing forward slowly and check the position of your hands.

When you bring the club to this position, you don’t want to see the club head lagging behind.

It should be slightly ahead of the hands. If your hands are too far forward, you will hit the ground behind the ball as it leaves the club face.

Arm Position at the Top

When your backswing begins, it’s extremely important to apply equal amounts of back torque to maintain fluid and consistent rotation. You do this by pulling your outside hand down and across your body as it moves across the target line, while allowing your inside hand to move upward and away from your body.

This creates a 90-degree angle between your arms and torso, originating at the top of the backswing. The moment your hands separate, this angle is gone.

If you’re able to maintain this angle, your clubhead will travel properly behind the ball and you’ll create a mild amount of clubhead acceleration on the downswing.

To maintain an arm-to-torso angle of 90 degrees at the top of the backswing, try to match the speed of your backswing to the speed of your forward swing. This will keep the angle open and your clubhead accelerating properly.

If you’re a beginner golfer, you’ll notice that keeping the arm-to-torso angle open isn’t easy. That’s because your wrist and fingers have a strong tendancy to activate, causing your arm to rotate like this:

Common Mistakes at the Top of the Swing

Whenever I ask a student about their swing, they almost always have a clear perception of what is wrong with their swing, but the solutions that they typically offer are not as conclusive. Why is this?

Well, there are a lot of common mistakes that golfers make at the top of their swings.

On the surface, correcting these mistakes can take some time (and talent) because each swing is slightly different. But, here are a few assumptions (backed up by physics) that help explain why these problems occur in the first place and how we can start to fix them.

Let’s start at the top! When we start the takeaway, we shift much of our weight onto our front side. As the club gets close to the shoulder, we shift much of the weight to our back side. But the shift doesn’t happen all at once.

There is a shift in weight from front to back with every swing.

Backswing Too Long

The backswing is the transition from address to the top of the swing. If your backswing is too long, not only will it timing be off, but it will also affect your follow-through.

Behind the golf ball, most players take too long to transition into their swing. While it may seem like a slow short backswing allows for more time on the downswing and hence more power, a slow backswing makes it difficult to line up your body properly before the impact.

When it comes to timing your backswing, your arms (that’s right, not your hips) should guide your transition from the address position to the top of the swing.

Depending on your backswing speed, it usually takes somewhere between 0.4 second to 0.8 second to transition into your backswing. If you use your hips, it will take longer, and if you go faster, it’ll take less time.

While you transition, you want to keep your wrists flat to prevent them from getting bent and twisted.

Also make sure not to lift your shoulders in your backswing. By maintaining the same angle of the arms and shoulders, you can add fast speed to your swing without letting your body guide your swing speed.

2. Club pointing Left or Right

Of Target:

You will see a number of relatively major things that will cause you to mis-hit shots left and right. But for the most part, many will fall into two main categories:

Either your body is blocking the club in the backswing. Or the club face is open versus the target to start with.

Let's take a look at both of these in further detail.

3. Back Of Hand Not Lined Up With Face

Here is an example of what happens:

Your hands may be in the proper position, but if your face is closed, you'll give the ball a steep angle of attack to deal with. When that happens, your hands and arms go to work doing unnecessary work to fix the problem. If this is a good golf swing try to pull the face open before the club head gets there.

Example: "Striker" building his iron game or ball striker without the club head slowing down when it "almost" gets there.

Some close eye-to-eye data:

On average, the tour players look at the ball a little over 4 times more than amateurs.

On average, the tour players look at the ball 2 seconds before starting their downswing.

The average amateur might take a second to look away after impact.

4. Front Arm Bent

Keeping your arm very bent at the top of your backswing has two big downsides. First, it reduces how much you can bring your arms back. Second, when you bend your arm too much it becomes harder to release the club at the top of your swing. That difficulty causes ball-flights that are too high in the air, or even worse, hitting the ground behind the ball. (PS- a swing plane that is too high makes it hard to make good contact with the ball in the short game as well as long game.)

So straightening out the front arm at the top of your swing is very beneficial. Like many great swing changes, it involves making a very big adjustment at the top of the swing and then letting the rest of the swing into a bit. If you let the rest of your swing take care of itself then you will let your hands and arms rotate into the correct position automatically, so it is critical to adjust your front arm at the top in the right direction. You want the arm to straighten. That happens when you rotate your shoulders, not your chin.

Here is the simple fix. Keep your eyes on the target and focus on rotating your shoulders away from the target, rather than rotating your chin toward the target.

5. Back Elbow Raised:

Stand with your feet together and your arms resting naturally in front of you. If your elbow is loose and raised above your shoulder, chances are your are swinging too hard. It will be extremely difficult to resist the temptation to use excess force and swing hard. This will help you have a much better grip on the size of swing you should be swinging and control it without losing power.

Drills to Improve your Swing at the Top

Your upper body movement is so rampant in golf that the top of your swing is perhaps the most important part of the swing. Most golfers, including most pros, struggle at the top and this is what separates the good from the great.

Whether you a fan of Sean Foley or not, he said in a TV interview that he concentrated on fixing Adam Scott’s top of swing, and this has significantly impacted Scott’s game.

If you are looking to drastically improve your game, you must work at the top of your swing. This will effectively correct the crappy swing you develop from practicing poor drills at the bottom to hit balls to those who are unfamiliar with the opposite sex. Try this drill to keep the club on track.

Start off by finding a large flat space that you can use to do this drill. Place a ball down about a foot in front of a marker so you can track your footwork. Take an address position with the ball at the center of your stance and your left foot up on the marker. Hold a 7 iron in the position you like most, whether hitting down on the ball or coming up on it.

Drill 1: Swing Video Face-On For Backswing Length

Take one swing on video from face-on looking at your backswing in your finish position. Before swinging, kneel in your set-up position and stick your butt back as far as possible.

Then always swing while keeping your butt in the same position. This will help you swing back the same length each time.

Drill 2: Mirror & Swing Video down-the-line for club shaft direction:

Drill 3: Glove under back armpit to keep back elbow down:

Experiment with this drill by placing your glove, arm, elbow and all under your back armpit. Practice lifting the club with a “hands only” backswing and coming into the top of your swing with your head and upper body.

Once the drill feels comfortable, try it on the course or range with your driver. You would be surprised at how much better the feel will be. It will allow you to sit taller, square up at the top and hold the club head higher.

I use this with my private lessons students and they find it a easy and beneficial drill. Give it a try.

Drill 4: Slow-Swing, Limit Backswing And Keeps Front Arm Straight:

There are times when I want to play slow around the greens, requiring me to limit my backswing to no more than my shoulders. I call these shots Slow-Swing shots.

I use Slow-Swing shots to:

  • a) control the distance of the shot,
  • b) control the ball-trajectory, and

C) control how much (or how little) spin I put on the ball.

On a Slow-Swing shot, you aren't required to use a normal top-of-backswing. Instead, I use a modified top-of-backswing that looks a lot like my downswing. On Slow-Swing shots, my arms stay firm with my shoulders during the backswing and allow my golf club to only go back a few inches.

The key element of the modified top-of-backswing on Slow-Swing shots is the arms need to remain FIRM with the shoulders.