The downswing is a release of torque in the upper body, and of the resistance below.
PEARLS AND PARABLES fall from the lips of Jack Burke. “I’ve
seen guys who had perfect swings who couldn’t break
seventy-five,” the sage begins.
“Golf is a game, which is a simple fact, but one too many people forget. The people who perform the best are those who like to play, not the people who want to win. Everyone wants to win. Michael Jordan loves playing his game; Sam Snead would play you up and down the highway for fifty cents.”
To support his theory that play—not work—is the true measure of a man, Burke produces a three-page list of quotations he’s compiled on the subject. He’s an ex-Marine, ex-caddie, ex—professional jock, and he can quote everything from Aristotle to Zen. And he has Steve Elkington’s ear. Burke recalls Shakespeare: “If all the year were playing holidays, To sport would be as tedious as to work.” And the Bible: “The wisdom of a learned man cometh by opportunity of leisure: and he that hath little business shall become wise.” Don’t play too much; don’t work too much.
Elkington turned pro and played for a year in Europe, and Burke watched the young man from Wagga Wagga with interest. Would he develop the playfulness and serenity to complement his obvious competitiveness? Could he adjust during an important round? Could he accept golf’s randomness, its bad bounces, and the other guy holing a long putt?
Elkington’s talent was such that he qualified for the Tour on his second try and got his card on his twenty-fourth birthday in December 1986. Within three and a half years he was a winner on the Tour, and since 1990 he has averaged a victory a year in some of the biggest tournaments in golf.
The Lakes Golf Club, Sydney, Australia. Elk holds aloft the Stonehaven Cup after winning the 1992 Australian Open.
And the playfulness Burke talked about? In the final round
of the 1997 Players Championship—the “Fifth Major,” and a
tournament he’d won in 1991—Elkington was nursing a two-shot
lead on TPC Sawgrass, one of the scariest courses in golf.
As the TV cameras zoomed in and the pressure zoomed up,
Elkington played a twenty-yard hook from the middle of the
fourteenth fairway. With a nine iron. To eight feet. No
uptight mechanical man ever hit such a shot.
“I was 148 yards to a back-left pin, and I knew the ideal shot would be a low, drawing nine iron,” says Elkington in a matter-of-fact tone. “My game was in full flow. I wasn’t going to back out.” (He made the putt and went on to win by seven.)
He finished agonizingly close to the top in two majors in 1995, tying for fifth in the Masters and just two shots out of the playoff for the British Open. After both events he sat in Burke’s book-lined, old-leather office at Champions for the usual post-mortems. “You’ve just had close calls in two major championships and you’re expecting to hear some sympathy in his voice, but you know better. He’s happy for you, but he’s never going to let you be satisfied, certainly not with third place.
“Part of the reason we get on so well is that we’ve experienced the same things in golf in different eras. We’ve both had long journeys to get where we are today, and we’ve survived on fundamentals and toughness. And we’ve both won majors, something neither of us ever expected to achieve.”
Burke, no monologuist, insists on give-and-take. He gets it in spades from Elkington, who once observed from a podium that his caddie had made more money in the previous year than Burke had earned in prize money for his entire career. The old pro got a good laugh from that one. Burke analyzes Elkington’s game: “Steve has what I call ‘soft power,’ which is like the ballet dancer who can catch that woman who weighs 110 pounds and do it with grace. You don’t see anything stiff, calculated, or jerky in his swing. He has very long arms, so he can make a big circle that develops a lot of power. People call it effortless, but it’s a well-thought-out, well-contrived circle he makes.
“In college, he was too quick to hit a putt, too quick to hit a shot. People who do that make a lot of mistakes, but he’s slowed down a lot over the years, and has gotten a certain rhythm on the greens that you need to be good at putting. I may have had some influence on that. “But what I really like about Steve is that he’s a very perceptive person, and he’s always learning. He can curve the ball, play any shot that’s needed. He’s one of the few guys out there who really play the game.”
EVERYTHING I’VE SAID in this book is of equal importance. A
fundamentally correct golf swing is the result of a distinct
chain of events, and any weak link can destroy the whole.
Just as a sound setup is impossible without a good grip, the
principles of the backswing must be observed to make an
efficient and powerful downswing.
We’ve discussed the first three fundamentals: grip, setup, and backswing. With those building blocks in place, we can now examine what happens in the downswing, and why.
THROUGHOUT MY LIFE in golf, I’ve found that if I understood a particular move I could do it, that with practice I could incorporate it into my swing. And when I began to grasp the sequence of things, I could practice anything I wanted with concentration but no confusion, because I knew how everything fit.
With all the fundamentals of grip, posture, and backswing in place, the end of the swing sequence, the downswing, has a certain inevitability. (See photo, below.)
At the top of the backswing, the right knee has held its flex, the abdominal muscles have been shifted into the right rib cage until they can go no farther, the left shoulder is under the chin, and the center of the body is positioned well behind the ball. (See photo, page 67.)
From this position, the downswing begins. It has two parts.
The first part begins with the moment the backswing becomes
the downswing. This is called the transition.
This part of the swing is vitally important. I like to think of it as the timing portion of the swing. Everything’s wound up and ready to explode on the ball—but we need a bit of patience first.
Because the shoulders have to travel the farthest on the backswing—90 degrees, compared to 40 degrees for the hips and 20 degrees for the knees— they must be given a little head start in the unwinding process before we turn on the full jets.
That is why I pause my hips and knees slightly, allowing the shoulders to move more quickly than the hips or the torso. This is what I call getting into the stacked position, when shoulders, hips, and knees are all turned about the same amount.
This portion of the swing may be the most difficult to master, but it’s not particularly hard to understand.
During this first, critical part of the downswing, the club
has to go into free fall. The club looks and feels to be
falling straight down. The key is to get the feeling of
pushing your w eight straight down, into both feet. This
allows the shoulders to unwind a little bit, while balancing
you enough to make a powerful turn through the ball.
The shaft of the club is parallel to the ground and to the target line at this point, and is poised to deliver the blow. The wrists have held their position; they have not uncocked. Both feet are flat on the ground. The hips and knees are doing nothing. The left shoulder has turned enough to catch up with the other power sources. The spine is still tilted to the right, which gives you the inside path to hit the inside of the ball. (See photo, below.)
You’ve reached the stacked position, the second part of the
downswing. Now we can turn on the power. As the club head
approaches the ball, the left leg begins to straighten, and
the trunk clears to the left as fast as you want it to. This
unwinding of the torso squares up the club face and shoots
the club into the ball, not any independent movement of the
hands or the arms.
Please note that in the transition, when the club begins its
free fall, the abdominal muscles simultaneously start to
pull to the left. This will help to pull you around to the
finish. This use of the abs will also help you acquire good
And the legs? The right leg is moving in unison with the shifting of the abdominal muscles. The right foot rolls into the left side of the shoe, and is pulled up onto the big toe at the finish by the force of the unwind. The left leg is straightening.
After you’ve hit the ball, and the hips, abs, torso, and shoulder have turned the corner, the left leg continues to straighten.
Building your downswing in the way I’ve described will
require understanding, coordination, talent, and, above all,
A FEW BIG- PICTURE thoughts:
The downswing is a release of the torque in the upper body and of the resistance below. My downswing is tight, with no slack and just a touch of lateral movement. With practice, no particular thoughts will be required to make the return half of the swing, except for that familiar one of keeping your eye on the back of the ball.
As long as you maintain your focus on a spot on the back of
the ball, I don’t think you need to think at all about
keeping your head still. The eyes will keep your head behind
the ball in a little pocket I call the hitting zone. Think
about your eyes, in other words, not your head.
The secret to my swing, if there is one, is that it has no slack, no dipping. It’s a simple swing, with no forced movement. It’s one torso move, from the head to the legs. I have a feeling of being encased, as if I’m a spinning steel cylinder, anchored at both ends. Despite this book’s necessary isolation and dissection of the parts of the swing, it’s all one swing.
The downswing is a one-piece pulling sensation, with the pull supplied by the spinning torso and hips. The right foot must roll into impact, with only the inside of the shoe touching the ground.
Here’s a thought that may help on your downswing: Imagine the pent-up energy of the backswing as an agitated can of spray paint. You don’t want to release the pressure all at once and have the can’s contents spray all over.
If you were to check your swing on video, these are the reference points you would use.
LET’S REVIEW THE basics of the downswing:
In the 1957 classic instruction book Five Lessons, Ben Hogan
and artist Anthony Ravielli produced their famous image of
the swing plane as an imaginary plate of glass, resting on
the golfer’s shoulders as it leans on its edge from the
This is a useful image, because it provides a road map to help you swing back and through on the same path.
But there has been a good deal of confusion regarding the swing plane, because many instructors have presented it as a goal in itself, and the key to golf. It is neither. The target is and always will be the goal. The swing plane is a reference point, second in importance to the target line.
While I’m well known for my rhythm and tempo, these (and the back cover) photos illustrate that I hit the correct positions relative to both the swing plane and the target line. Take some time to examine these pictures so you will understand the meaning of the lines we golfers are always drawing in the air.
The shaft is parallel to the ground and parallel to the target line.
The left arm is parallel to the ground. The butt end of the club points to the target line.
The one and only time the shaft touches the plane line.
The left arm is parallel to the ground, and the butt end of the club points to the target line.
The shaft is parallel to the ground and parallel to the target line.
Impact. Notice that the hands and the shaft are much higher than they were at address.
The right arm is approximately parallel to the ground; the butt end of the club points to the target line.
The right arm is on the plane line.
TA classic photo, circa 1960, of John Joseph Burke, Jr. "I love this picture," says Elkington. "Look at Jack's eyes, and his head position, and his right shoe, and how the right arm is under the left. And check out the pack of Lucky Strikes in his back pocket."
We’ve learned that there are three power sources: the wrists, the arms, and the body. Here’s a fourth, the right foot. Use it when playing control shots, especially spinning wedge shots, when you need to take some of the body out of the shot.
Actually, the right foot in this case is less a power source than a governor, more a brake than an accelerator.
When I want to hit a low shot with a wedge, with lots of spin and precisely controlled distance, I don’t come up onto my right toe on the follow-through as I would for a normal full shot. This is because I don’t need the full thrust from my biggest power source, the body. Instead, I roll onto my right foot and ankle on the downswing, and I don’t permit the right heel to rise more than an inch or two at the finish. This restricts the hip turn, which in turn makes me cock my wrists up, which stops my arms from flying away.
Back in my college days, I was the worst wedge player there ever was. That’s what had me practicing every morning in the field at Hofheinz Pavilion. I thought that just by repetition I’d get better. But my problem wasn’t lack of effort; it was poor understanding of technique.
I never got the image of proper wedge play until I watched Lee Trevino in the Houston Open in about 1983. The lights really came on for me when I saw the way he controlled a variety of wedge shots by using a score of variations on the right foot governor.