A great setup frees the body to make good golf swings.
THE ELKINGTON FAMILY lived on the Australian bush bank
managers circuit, moving from Penrith to Narrabri to
Goulburn to Wagga Wagga and to Wollongong. Ross Elkington’s
employers lent the money for farmers to plant their crops
and to build their barns and homes; Rob and Steve went to
school, held odd jobs, and played games. Steve worked a
paper route, wielded a cleaver in a slaughterhouse, and,
inevitably, worked as a caddie, greens mower, and shop
assistant at a golf course. Before golf took thorough
possession of his son’s leisure time, Ross remembers that
little Steve was exceedingly adept with a soccer ball and a
cricket bat. He played mid-on or silly mid-on on the cricket
pitch; the baseball equivalent is third base, playing in for
At age seventeen, Steve won the Australasian Amateur; at eighteen, he won the Doug Sanders World Junior. At this point a curious Saturday- morning ritual developed. The phone would ring at six a.m . and on the line would be an American with a soft voice and an evangelist’s style. “Hi, Elkie, Coach Williams,” the man would say. “You still hittin’ it great? Real good, real good. You know, we’re gonna have a great team next year, even though we lost Freddie Couples. Yeah, he turned pro. But we can build a real good team with you and Billy Ray Brown, real good, real good. Yes, we’d love to have you. Okay, Elkie, we’ll talk to you again soon.” (Dave Williams, the coach of a record sixteen NCAA championship teams, had introduced himself at the World Junior in Houston.) After months of this, Elkington stopped the trans- global wake-up calls the only way he could, by accepting a golf scholarship to the University of Houston—to the dismay of the folks at the University of Sydney (among others), who had offered him an art scholarship.
Elkington employed an expert caddie in the '96 Masters in his older brother, Robert. A Titleist golf equipment salesman and the father of four, Robert Elkington is one of the best amateur golfers in Australia.
“When I went to America, it shocked a lot of people,”
Elkington recalls. “Some viewed me as a traitor.” The
nation’s press bemoaned his departure, with headlines like
golfer in exile. “For my mother, my leaving was like her
child had gone off to war,” says Elkington. “Not that I took
it too well myself. I was homesick constantly.” As everyone
in the family understood, Steve would not be flying home on
weekends to do his laundry; the seventeen-hour Houston—Los
Angeles—Sydney flight cost about $3,000—no trifle on a bush
bank manager’s salary. In fact, during his four years at the
University of Houston, he returned to Australia just twice.
This led to several Dickensian scenes. There were the winter weekends when seemingly everyone had left the campus—except for two solitary figures, Elkington hitting practice balls on a field near Hofheinz Pavilion and a lithe, muscular young man running miles on a nearby track. Eventually, they introduced themselves: “Hi, Steve Elkington.” “Hi, Clyde Drexler.” Drexler would later star for Portland and Houston in the National Basketball Association.
One night during Christmas vacation, the loneliest few weeks for the expatriated Australian, Elkington returned from dinner to his empty dormitory, the metallic click of the closing door echoing behind him. He turned a corner and suddenly beheld an almost seven-foot-tall black man coming from the opposite direction. Both froze for a moment. “Hi, I’m Steve Elkington.” “Hello, Hakeem Olajuwon.” Olajuwon, Drexler’s basketball teammate from Nigeria, would also develop into one of the best players in college and professional basketball.
The fax machine became Elkington’s lifeline to home and hearth and to Alex Mercer. “One part of my reply to his swing questions or problems has always been the same,” Mercer says.
“‘Trust your swing,’ I’ll write in the fax, and underline it about six times.”
“When he went off to college was when he really got good,” observes Elkington’s brother Rob. Steve had beaten his older brother before, most memorably with a hole in one with a three iron on the final hole of the Wagga Wagga Country Club championship. But he’d never beaten Mercer. In the summer of ’82, at Royal Sydney Golf Club, it finally happened. And it was hard to tell if the student or the teacher was happier about it.
ALEX MERCER told me once that I’d spend half my time as a
golfer learning the fundamentals of the game, and the other
half of my time forgetting them.
He meant that after you’ve ingrained the basics, you need not continually relearn them. The basics should not remain entirely buried in the subconscious mind, however. I run through a little checklist before I hit a shot. It takes only a second or two, because practice and repetition have created a feeling of what is correct.
Most golfers are in turmoil over what mechanical thing to think about as they prepare to hit a shot. Head down, left arm straight, and so on. It seems the modern pre-shot prescription to break this mental gridlock goes something like this: You get behind the ball, take a few deep breaths, visualize a good shot, and walk in with a positive frame of mind. But I’ve never in my life seen a great player use this procedure, and it doesn’t seem to solve the basic question of aim.
A great player prepares to hit this way: He finds his target; selects his shot and picks a club to accomplish it; gets the club out and gets his grip established; then walks into address, always in motion. It’s a dance step.
And what is the accomplished player thinking about as he prepares to hit? His on e and only focus is the target: a side of the fairway, a specific part of the green, the flagstick, the bridge on the fifth hole, or the hillock on the fourteenth. Not deep breaths, not positive thinking; his visual and mental concentration on the target blocks out all else and begins the instant he chooses what to aim for. Having mastered the grip and his aim, his mind is free to think of golf’s real goal, the target—which frees his body to make good golf swings.
In short, the more conscious you are of aiming, the better you hit the ball. I know some pretty crafty golfers who play a somewhat homely fade on every shot. They may not have much versatility, but because they know how to aim, they’re hard to beat.
Many handicap players expend too much effort visualizing the shot. But unless you know and can put in place the setup and swing that will make the desired result happen, visualization is a fairy tale. My goal is to get you organized into such a good platform that very little psychologizing will be required. You’ll swing with great freedom and a certain serenity every time.
This most vital part of the golf swing should not be a great drain on your ability. Like the grip, the interrelated fundamentals of aim, alignment, and posture are basic skills that take only a small amount from your glass of talent.
Although they may seem static, aim, alignment, and posture actually require a good bit of movement. I’m in motion from the moment I take the club from my caddie until I finish my follow-through. You can’t just stand there!
Let’s go through this step by step, and you’ll see how aim, posture, and alignment connect like the skin on an apple.
You need not duplicate my routine to the letter, but it wouldn’t harm you if you did. My pre-shot procedure, like my swing, was built to be devoid of quirks. There’s nothing in it that’s not well thought out and built to last.
And please bear in mind that while the following may seem like a lot of detail, I actually play quite quickly. I recommend that you do, too. Generally speaking, every shot should present a decision between only two clubs, a five iron or a six, or a three iron and a four wood, for example. So select a club, and don’t attempt to untangle your emotions or sort out your problems as you prepare to hit. Just pick a target, make a decision, and get on with it!
This is the time to make the target as small as possible.
I take my grip, left hand first, and put it up in front of
me. I look to make sure I’ve put my left hand on the club
correctly before I put my right hand on it. Don’t take this
step for granted. I’ve been playing golf almost all my life,
and I still give my grip a little visual check before each
I find my target while standing behind the ball, and I think deeply about the target while I walk to the ball. Conversation stops. After all, you’re on the golf course for a reason, and that’s to play golf. Idle chats with opponents or friends have their place, but I enjoy thinking golf.
The target should be as small and specific as possible; without a precise aiming point, you can lose focus to a mechanical thought or to a worry about the result. If you don’t aim at anything, you’ll hit it every time.
Sport psychologist Bob Rotella once posed this question: What part of a blank dartboard would you aim at? If you painted a bull’s-eye in the center of the board, there’s no doubt you’d aim for that. The moral is: Find bull’s-eyes for every shot, and aim for them every time.
Familiarity definitely helps in aiming. You usually play better at your home course, because familiar targets create a bigger, more complete picture of the job at hand. Eventually, you want to get so competent at selecting targets and aiming at them that this crucial step is almost automatic.
My feeling at this moment, my attitude, is of being capable. Not confident, which implies a certain ebb and flow; everyone’s confidence goes up and down. My sense of being absolutely prepared, aware, and competent for the matter at hand is the best feeling in the world.
Think, look, and feel the shot.
I put my right hand on. You should take your grip before you
place the club behind the ball. If you settle your grip
after you’ve taken your stance, you’ll lose your focus on
the target, and probably line up incorrectly.
While still standing behind the ball, I take a little half-swing, my eyes on the target. I make sure I scuff the ground when I do this; like a baseball or cricket player pounding his bat before the ball arrives, or a basketball player bouncing the ball a few times before shooting a free throw, I’m orienting myself to Mother Earth.
I occasionally think of the club as a rifle at this point, aimed dead at my target, and with my feet parallel to the line to the target.
While a swing thought at this stage is entirely appropriate, don’t clutter your mind by getting into these big, full practice swings. The effort to make a perfect practice swing simply isn’t worth it; even if you make a perfect practice swing, what have you got? And how many times have you hit a bad shot simply because you couldn’t get the right feel in your rehearsal?
Furthermore, Ben Hogan once told me that practice swings are a waste of time and energy. I haven’t taken another one since!
I approach the ball obliquely, my eyes still burning into
the target, with my right shoulder quite obviously dropped
several inches lower than my left. The tilted walk to the
ball has two purposes: First, since the right hand is below
the left on the grip, the right shoulder has to be lower.
Second, this posture pre-sets the impact position, in which
the left shoulder is up.
This procedure is so simple and so important, yet so seldom followed by most golfers. If you wish to improve, you must make it a part of your routine.
I consider this posture to be important enough that I sometimes find myself unconsciously practicing it while standing at home, or in the locker room, or while waiting for a plane. I must look as though I have a stitch in my side.
Three things happen simultaneously when I get to the ball: I swivel my head from the target back to the ball;
I sole my club behind the ball square to the line I’ve chosen; and I step up a little too close to the ball with my right foot.
The right foot placement is experimental at this point; in a
few seconds I’ll set my left foot, then adjust the right so
that I have the ball position and distance from the ball I
want. You always want to come in a little too close, then
back off, because we all know once you stand too far away
you never move back in; it just doesn’t seem to be human
nature. But the main point is that you must commit your club
to the line before you commit your feet.
I’ve never had any success at aiming at a piece of grass or whatever just in front of the ball. I prefer to look out at the actual target.
Notice that my eyes are still involved with the target; the club has not yet been soled.
I set the left foot, then adjust my right foot. When I met
Ken Venturi for the first time, he told me I must be a good
golfer because I walk like a duck! And in fact I’ve always
felt that the golfer’s feet should be like a duck’s, splayed
out at ten minutes to two o’clock. Left foot at the ten,
right foot at the two. Ten minutes to two allows your hips
their full range of motion.
Try turning your feet in, and you’ll find that the freedom
of movement in the hip joints is reduced.
As you might expect, I vary the width of my stance all the time. My feet are at their greatest distance apart, with the inside of my insteps directly under my shoulders, when I hit a driver. I take a smaller stance with the shorter clubs.
I have never believed there is one ball position in golf. In fact, given all the game’s variables, I don’t know if any two are ever exactly the same! Rarely are two lies or two situations identical; you get to hit a particular shot in golf only once. Ball placement calls for an ability to adapt and is an opportunity to be creative, which is the greatest part of our game.
For example, a seven iron shot over water might make you want to put the ball back in your stance a little, to ensure clean contact. The ball may fly lower, but it will probably be dry. In the opposite case, when you want a high shot out of rough or to clear a tree, you’ll play the ball way forward, even opposite the left toe.
Most of the time, my stance is slightly open. That is, my left foot is open to the target line, but my knees and shoulders are square to it. An open stance gives the hips a little head start on the downswing and provides a feeling of being “pre-torqued,” like a cocked fist or a pistol with the hammer back.
Jack Burke always says, “Your arms should hang like an elephant’s trunk” —meaning relaxed, and straight down. I stand fairly close to the ball; I work in a small space. My arms hang naturally. And while my left arm is firm (and the right quite soft), I’m not trying to extend my arms before or during my swing.
The average golfer, on the other hand, stands too far from the ball, his arms outstretched. You can see this vividly with the driver. How often do you see players who are out to hit a hard one creep back farther and farther from the ball and extend their arms until the elbows lock? Perhaps it’s a natural instinct, but it doesn’t work, because it’s moving away from the main power source.
Three things create power in the golf swing: the wrists, the arms, and the body. The body is the most powerful. The closer your arms are to the body, the closer they are to the power source of the golf swing. The key to long shots is not in the hands, arms, or legs, but in the trunk of the body. We’ll talk more about this in subsequent chapters, but an awareness of this principle is vital in the setup. You must stay close to your power source.
Here’s a way to monitor your distance from the ball: Take your address, then simply drop the club. Stay in your stance, and look behind you; if about half the grip extends beyond your heels, you are close enough to the ball. If much less than half the grip protrudes, you’re too far away.
Now I’m ready to adjust my body.
Good posture over the ball is as important as anything we do. It feels great to slouch on a couch, but eventually it will be bad for your back. I feel the same way about my setup. A relaxed position is tempting, but bad for golf.
With my feet now set, I bend from the waist to reach the ball and stick my butt out.
I straighten my elbows, then relax them again once or twice. Most observers assume I’m just loosening up, or getting my shirtsleeves out of the way. But what I’m really doing is getting the feeling of attachment of my upper arms to the top of my chest. I’m connecting my arms to the main power source as positively as I can. I want this connection between my arms and my chest because I don’t want the arms to work independently; I want them to do what the chest is doing.
Then I tighten the muscles in my abdomen and rear end. I haven’t shared this point with many people—call it Elkington’s Secret—but it’s vital to my setup and to my attitude about how to hit a ball. By contracting these large muscle groups, there’s a live tension in my body that gives me the sensation of being wrapped in, tight. The feeling you want is the one you get when you invite a small child to give you a punch in the stomach and you tighten up.
I look at the target a final time and check my aim. The target should appear slightly to the right of where my mind’s eye had been picturing it, definitely not to the left. Why? Because I want to make an aggressive, athletic swing; I want the feeling of swinging out toward my target. The golf swing is under-and-up, and the follow-through is high, toward the target, not under the left shoulder.
Finally, just before I hit the ball, I waggle. Ideally, this little preparatory movement of the club should be on the same path as the backswing. The point of the waggle isn’t rehearsal, however; it’s staying in motion. I also move some of the weight in my right foot slightly (and imperceptibly) forward, toward the ball. Then the weight comes right back to the center of the foot. That’s basically my forward press, the last thing that happens before I start my backswing. Alex Mercer says I waggle “with intent,” that I give every impression of being ready to make a strong swing at my target.
The details of the waggle will vary from player to player. But you need to have some kind of movement.
A stick-figure image of how you should look before you hit
the ball would be erect and angular. The head is up; give me
enough room between your shoulder and your chest for your
left shoulder to fit in! The shoulder should turn under the
chin at the top of the backswing; Hogan’s shirts would fray
and rip at that point from repeated contact (chin-shoulder
contact can be a useful swing thought and can provide a
physical reminder of where your backswing should go).
The knees are bent slightly.
The arms hang straight down, with the elbows in front of the chest, not beside it.
There is a slight bend forward at the waist.
Weight is neither toward the toes or the heels, nor more on the right foot or the left, but central, balanced.
The left shoulder is higher than the right.
The spine is straight, the chest is out, and the butt juts out. If you stand in this position for a while, you will feel some fatigue through the back, hams, and thighs.
Some people might feel awkward in this setup, just as they may feel uncomfortable at first when they grip the club correctly. This feeling won’t last. The improvement in your shots will provide a relaxing balm.
There is only one way to make this improvement permanent:
practice. Practice your grip, posture, aim, and alignment
until you’ve memorized them and made them a natural part of
your routine; then you can “forget” them, and get on with
the pleasurable business of hitting strong golf shots,
straight at your target.
FOR THE ADVANCED PLAYER
To me, one of the basic appeals of golf is its naturalness, its lack of regimentation, which gives endless chances for creativity. Unlike baseball, tennis, or football, our field is not level, there are no grids and usually no boundary lines. You’re just one person in the middle of 300 acres.
But our vast and endlessly varied playing field leads inevitably to difficulty with aiming. I practice with aim lines and occasionally a competent observer, and get myself dead square. But a month later, I end up too open, with the club too far forward (I never get too closed). The point is, even the best players in the world are constantly adapting.
As the late Jimmy Demaret told me a few months before he died, this difficulty often has a silver lining. Demaret played from a narrow, open stance, and eventually he’d get too narrow and open and start slicing. Then he’d overcorrect, close his setup too much, and start hooking. But in the transition periods between those extremes, he’d play his best golf.
Monitor what your tendencies are, so you can recognize the transition periods. Probably you already know your faults: So many players will say “I’ve done the same three things wrong my whole life.”
The intervals when you’re trying to fix something can even happen during your round. Recognize that balls going too far left or too far right are usually the result of an out-of-kilter setup. Be willing to adapt. Then learn how and what to adjust, the way I’ve learned, the way every good player has learned: through practice.
Elkington's bag man, Gypsy Joe Grillo, helps his boss line one up. A friend since he joined the tour in 1987, Grillo has caddied Elkington to half of his wins on the Tour. "Gypsy has an up personality and is a virtuoso caddie. He's as good at his job as I am at mine," says Elkington. "With all the time we spend together, he knows me better than anyone— except my wife."