Get Better - Backswing

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Videos In This Series:

Five Fundamentals: Steve Elkington Reveals the Secrets of the Best Swing in Golf

Steve and Lisa Elkington on holiday in Scotland.


DAVE WILLIAMS WAS right. The Steve Elkington years at the University of Houston were real good, real good. The Cougars won the NCAA Championship in 1984 and 1985, and Elkington, twice an All-American, won the Southwest Conference Championship twice. Elkington also prospered on a personal level. At a fraternity party, he met an attractive Houston native and elementary-education major named Lisa DiStefano. Their relationship solidified during a geography class they took together, and Steve and Lisa married in 1992.

Elkington returned to Australia and turned pro in the fall of 1985.

“A bloke named P.K.—Peter Kennedy—a mate of mine from my hometown and a member of Port Kembla Golf Club, volunteered to caddie for me in my first tournament as a professional down in Tasmania. I gave him the job,” Elkington recalls. “Our family has known P.K. forever. He’s a wharfie on the docks. Or, as you’d say in the States, P.K.’s a longshoreman. Just a wonderful guy, and as Australian as he can be.

“Back then, if I hit a bad shot, I hated myself. I’d go for holes and holes without speaking.

“P.K. didn’t take it long. ‘Just who the hell do you think you are?’ he said. ‘Every time we played golf, we had a great time. Now you’re trying to do this for a living and you’re acting like an idiot. If you don’t loosen up and play your game, you’re gonna go broke bloody fast and I’ll be walking in. And you’d better believe I’ll do it.’

“Well, I loosened up a little, and I made a hole in one. And won, of all things, five thousand dollars’ worth of blue jeans for it. But I didn’t win any money. In fact, I was so low on funds that after the ferry ride back to the mainland I couldn’t afford the tickets for us to ride back to Port Kembla on the train. We had to take the bus. Six hundred kilometers, and about thirty- five stops.”

P.K., the gap-toothed master of the waterfront, has a story of his own from Elkington’s professional debut in the 1985 Tasmanian Open.

“We were walking down the fairway and Steve asks me, ‘Did you play cowboys and Indians when you were a kid?’ And I wondered, What the hell kind of question is that? And I didn’t answer him right away.

“So he asks me again, ‘Did you play cowboys and Indians?’ I said, ‘Of course I did. Every kid does.’

“‘Not me,’ he says. ‘All I remember is hitting a golf ball.’ “When he won the PGA, he gave me a picture of himself holding the cup. On the picture he wrote ‘Cowboys and Indians was never my game.’ ”

UNTIL NOW, we haven’t used much of your supply of talent.

If you’ve got a good grip and setup, half the battle for a powerful, repeating golf swing is won. To a large extent, the club will find its own path.

Half the battle. The other half requires skill and coordination. The backswing represents your first opportunity to use your gift to swing and hit. Talent is required to coordinate the motion of the hands, arms, and body, each of which move on a different plane; there’s nothing level in a golf swing. You need skill and experience to decide which and how much of each of these three power sources to use.

My goal in this chapter and the next will be to explain how the power sources work together. I’ll discuss the philosophical underpinnings of my swing and look at what several specific body parts are doing, and describe the key constant in the backswing for every shot, regardless of the club or the distance.

The golfer’s body could be compared to the space shuttle. The shuttle launch vehicle is a big machine with three main components. The first and most powerful stage, the main booster rocket, is analogous to the golfer’s trunk. The secondary booster is the arms. At the top is the orbiter itself, which is the lightest and least powerful part but has the most maneuverability and importance. The shuttle is the wrists, of course.

Spaceships notwithstanding, I’m wary of dissection. Someone once observed that a golf swing is like a bubble, and if you take away any part of the whole, the bubble bursts. Furthermore, tempo and balance are more important than “correct positions.” I’ve tried to address this problem of emphasis through the inclusion of six flicker swing sequences. By flipping through the photographs, you should be able to sense the rhythm and timing of my swing. Please remember that my physical attributes are unique, as are yours, so don’t try to copy my swing too explicitly.

That said, some isolation of the parts of the whole in golf instruction is unavoidable and no doubt necessary. I believe you should know what your component parts do and how they relate to each other, in case something needs to be fixed. You should know your backswing as well as you know your grip and setup, so you can check it out in a second or less. When you throw a soft football pass to a child, you’re not thinking about where your right elbow is, or body rotation, are you? Of course not. So unless you’re an instructor breaking down a student’s swing, or you are working on your swing on the practice tee, focus on targets, not on the position of the left earlobe on the follow-through.

The ball is under the left shoulder; the head is positioned well behind the ball.

Alex Mercer’s response to a question about my tempo is on point: “Most of the ingredients are easy to put a tag on,” he said. “Steve has athletic ability, fitness, and strength. But the primary ingredient is mental. Unless you’re absolutely sure of the parts of your technique, your mind won’t be able to let your rhythm and timing take over.”

Before we have a look at those parts, let’s jump backward (to the setup) for a moment. One simple rule must be followed: At address, with the ball comfortably inside your left heel, you must set the center of your body behind the ball.

The left shoulder is under the chin, and the right leg is braced. Ready to launch!

Why? So that when we turn the shoulder under the chin at the top of the backswing, we’ll be in the one and only powerful hitting position: with the head—or the center of the body—behind the ball.

Alex Mercer always taught me to think of the swing as a mirror image, from thumbs up to thumbs up.

Now to the wrists.

There’s a movement to eliminate the wrists from the modern swing and putting stroke, which is an example of the fads and trendiness in golf instruction that I’ve avoided all my life.

I think the wrists are as important as anything else in this book.

You need wrist action to hit a ball. What could be more natural? You use your wrists every day for a hundred small things, from threading a needle to typing on your computer to dealing cards. Although to some, wrist action seems undependable and difficult to time, the wrists are the key to touch and feel, and have been a part of every great golf swing.

So don’t take the wrists out; let’s learn what their role is so we aren’t afraid to use them.

The carpus joints between your forearms and hands should be so relaxed and free that you can move your club back and forth, with the thumbs trying to point to the sky in both directions. If you don’t have this freedom in the wrists, your grip is wrong.

The basic action of the wrists is the basic action of the swing: thumbs up to thumbs up.

Their entire range of motion isn’t really that great. At a point early in the backswing, try to point the thumbs skyward. Don’t delay; blend the wrist break with the backswing motion as the club goes back.

All three power sources start the backswing, each doing its job. The wrists’ function is to start to break.

As you can see from the swing sequences, the wrists cock straight up, never to the side. With a correct grip, up and down is the only way the wrists can go.

Every great player in history has cocked his wrists so that the right hand is underneath the club at the top of the backswing.

Now let’s talk about the arms and what they do.

The arms are the simplest part of the equation. They just follow the torso, with no independent movement of their own. Because the torso is bent from the waist at about a 30-degree angle, and because the arms hang straight down, the arms swing on an inclined plane. They always react to the chest, because they stay attached to the chest.

The arms have to swing across the body. The left arm has to go under your chin and across the chest. The right arm has to sit underneath the left, as if it were holding it up. Hold the right elbow in close to the torso; the closer you tuck the elbow into your side, the flatter your swing plane will be. The right arm has no independent movement.

Back and forth, from thumbs up to thumbs up. The arms swing as the wrists blend into the up-and-down motion.

As long as the arms make this basic movement, they don’t really have to hit certain positions.

Where should the hands be at the top? I’m not dogmatic about this either, as long as they’re somewhere between the right shoulder and the ear, and the thumbs are absolutely under the club. My swing plane has gotten flatter over the years—that is, my left arm is lower than it used to be, because I keep my right elbow closer to my rib cage.

How far should you take the club back? If you have a good grip, and break your wrists, and keep your arms attached to your torso, I don’t care how far back you take it. Unlike most swing students and teachers, I don’t think in terms of “parallel” or “past parallel.” That smacks of a frozen pose, a position. I think instead of using about 95 percent of my flexibility to get almost as far back as I can. The length of the swing is determined by your ability to turn your left shoulder under your chin.

Which leads us to the body, the main power source.

The club starts back, guided not by the arms, hands, or wrists, but by the body. Recall the point I made about the arms feeling connected to the chest. So when I turn my chest, the club goes back exactly where I want it to go— which is slightly inside the target line—because everything is connected to the turning shoulders.

The goal of the backswing is to slam the abdominal muscles into the rib cage. When you’ve done that, your backswing is finished. This is the key constant in the backswing. Perhaps “slam” is too violent a word; let’s instead say shift the abs back with force every time on a full shot. This action tells you quite definitely where your backswing ends, and it maximizes the power of your trunk.

Remember the feeling of live tension we talked about in the setup? The backswing is that live tension in motion.

Without moving laterally, the body turns from the waist on the backswing until it can turn no more. Want to hit the ball farther? A quick glance at the longest hitters on the PGA Tour reveals that they’re the players who most clearly max out on the turn on the backswing. In other words, they make the most use of the biggest power source—the body—and they move it the fastest.

Of course, it’s the unity of their arms, wrists, and body that produces their power, not just their turns. The key to a really go o d and efficient swing is that all three o f these things—wrists, arms, body—stop at the same time. You can feel what I feel in my backswing by taking a club and swinging it back. Break your wrists, swing your arms across your chest, turn your upper body to its limit—and stop. You’ll have to squeeze your abs to hold this position, even for a second. If you’ve turned correctly, you’re feeling the pent-up energy of torque, the power derived from twisting. You should also be feeling an irresistible urge to hit the hell out of the ball.

Finally, let’s examine the feet and legs.

All the things we’ve done upstairs don’t work unless you understand and apply a simple concept: the lever. A lever results from pressure applied at one point to a resisting force at another point. All the leverage you need is in the right knee.

One of the most important single things in my golf swing is that at the top of my backs wing, my right knee hasn’t moved a single inch from w here it was at address.

The right knee is the anchor to my entire swing. It gives me the stability to make a complete turn, stop, and return powerfully to the ball.

Keeping that knee frozen requires practice and discipline. It also calls for some strength, because the right leg must resist the abs shifting into the right rib cage. Keeping the right knee flexed and braced is not easy; people who say I have an “inactive” lower body don’t understand my swing. If you grasp the fundamental of leverage, you know that my inactive-appearing lower body is actually resisting just as much as it can.

I’ve never thought about the left leg in my whole life. From observation I know that as the shoulders turn, the left knee should move back, not up, until it is even with or just to the right of the ball. So the left knee has some movement to it, but far less than some people give it. I’m particularly opposed to lifting the left heel. While going up onto the big toe of the left foot during the backswing may increase the size of the stroke, the player with his heel down will hit more solid shots. My other objection to the high left heel is that it’s uncontrollable; few people can gauge how high to lift it each time, or where, exactly, the knee will point. Lifting the heel reduces leverage, and thus, power.

How much does the lower body turn on the backswing? About half as much as the upper body. But never try to add hip turn; if you resist with the right knee, the hips will take care of themselves.

The shoulders move 90 degrees into the center of the body, under the chin; the hips turn about 40; and the knees and lower body turn only about 20. The lower body is not inactive; it’s resistant, especially the right leg.

BEFORE WE REVIEW what happens in the back swing and put it all together, let’s recall two key points about the setup:

1. To ensure that the left shoulder turns under the chin, your nose and the center of the chest must be behind the ball at address, with the left shoulder high. In other words, the center of your body must be well behind the ball before you hit it. Behind is where all good shots come from.

2. The left shoulder is a substantial thing, big as a cantaloupe. So you must hold your head up sufficiently to allow the shoulder to pass under your chin.

Here are the main components of a good backswing:

  • set up with the head and center behind the ball

  • waggle with intent

  • be sure arms are attached to the chest

  • start to cock up the wrists

  • turn chest to the right

  • shift abs with force into the rib cage

Note my huge shoulder turn and braced right knee. Those two things will help you get an extra twenty.

When you can't go back any farther, welcome to the top of the backswing.

The first tee, final round, the 1995 PGA Championship, at Riviera Country Club, Los Angeles. As predicted by the perfect position of his club at the top, Elkington's three-wood shot finished in the middle of the fairway. He birdied the hole.


How About an Extra Twenty?

Experience has taught you how the three power sources are utilized for various clubs. Short irons require less body; longer irons, knock-downs, and control shots, more arms; and woods, more body. Here’s how to prepare to hit a really long shot:

The fundamental way to create more power in the backswing—and thus, a more powerful shot—is to simply add more tilt to your setup. Raise the left shoulder a little higher; move the ball up toward your left foot slightly, but still comfortably inside the left heel; and move your center back a little farther behind the ball.

And don’t forget the essence of the lever, resistance. The right knee must remain firm and flexed. This powerful position will allow you maximum shoulder turn, while minimizing the arm swing.