Chapter 2 from, "Golf is dying: Is modern golf instruction the cure, or the culprit?"
-Ron Sisson @ Learn the Real Swing
If you really think about it, the task of hitting a golf ball hundreds of yards in a relatively accurate direction has some requirements that are quite insane. From its starting position at address to its settling at the swing's conclusion, the clubhead will have travelled some 30 or more feet. Depending on who is swinging the club, it will have reached a peak of speed at impact somewhere between 70 and over 120 miles per hour.
Relative to the straight target line, the sweet spot of the clubface will have moved in a curving arc, either curving toward the target line on the downswing or away from it after impact, only briefly touching the target line for a brief millisecond at impact. During the forward swing, the clubface will have gone from facing 90 or more degrees open to the intended target to 90 or more degrees closed after impact in about 6 tenths of a second.
Impact with the ball has three phases: Initial impact (the exact nano second when the clubface just barely touches the outer surface of the golf ball), Compression (the ball flattening against the club face due to the force of the impact) and separation (the exact nano second when the ball leaves the club face). These phases of impact occur over a distance of 6/10th of an inch – which means that the ball and the club face are in contact with each other for just more than 1/2 an inch. For the shot to be directionally accurate, at initial impact the clubface would have to have been fractionally open, then rotate to perfectly square or very close to it at the height of the compression phase of impact – just 1 degree open or closed will send the ball some 20 yards wide of the intended target. Then, the club face will begin closing as the impact phase concludes with the ball separating from the club face. And the 'pièce de résistance' of insaneness:
While all of the above is happening, at impact the ball must be struck to within 1/16th of an inch accurate of the the center of the clubface or better – presuming you want those nice shots that make golf fun. [For a “real world” perspective of what a 16th of an inch is, take a nickel, turn it sideways and look at the thin edge of it. That’s a 16th of an inch.] If you do strike the ball off the center of the clubface, you are just 1/4 of an inch away from "sort of okay" shots, 1/2 an inch away from "bad" shots, and a mere 3/4ths of an inch away from "terrible" shots.
A tiny percentage of the golfing population – the tour and club pros and high level amateurs – can accomplish the above with a remarkable degree of skill and consistency. In stark contrast, the vast majority* of golfers and would-be golfers flail away, with the satisfying 'click' of solid contact and precise, penetrating ball flight occurring only once or twice in a round of golf, usually on the last hole to lure them back for more torture! [*According to National Golf Foundation statistics, the average golf score is currently 100 and has been for decades, with only 22 percent of golfers ever able to score below 90.]
The million dollar question is, "How do they do it? – How do those elite golfers hit the ball so accurately and consistently in the middle of the clubface, with relatively consistent control of the direction of their shots as well?" How does the golf swing really work and what do those striving to learn the game have to do to develop the skills that elite players display with such ease and grace?
Since the game's very beginning, golfers and golf teachers have attempted to answer these questions. The result has been literally millions of written words and tens of thousands of hours of video and television instruction. In golf's modern era, and especially in the last 10 years, advances in technology have enabled us to look even more closely at what elite golfers are doing when they swing.
Our knowledge of the physics of what really happens when a golf club meets a golf ball has taken a quantum leap forward due to super slow motion videography and radar ball tracking technology such as the TrackMan. [For example, "new" ball flight laws – where the major role for the ball’s initial starting direction on curving shots has shifted from the swing path to the clubface's angle relative to the swing path at impact – are gradually being adopted into modern golf teaching. But that's a completely different topic that others have covered in detail. For those who are interested, google “new ball flight laws Trackman.”]
As a result of these technological advances, teaching the golf swing has taken on more of a "scientific" approach, delving deeply into the bio-mechanics of the golf swing in great detail using super slow motion video and 3D 'Terminator-' styled computer modeling. With these technologies, we can pinpoint and then show golfers their swing flaws from every possible angle and in much greater detail than ever before. And yet, as noted above, average scoring in golf has seen little or no improvement for decades.
So, why are golfers as a whole not improving? And why is there such a huge difference between the skills of elite golfers in comparison to average golfers? I believe the answer to these questions lies in the answer to another question: Does what we currently believe about how a human being becomes highly skilled at striking a golf ball – and the teaching methods that have developed around these beliefs – match up with scientifically verifiable reality? In other words, does the paradigm of modern golf swing instructional theory stand up to scientific scrutiny, as well as common sense logical deductive reasoning?
Let's take a closer look at the concept of a paradigm and how it applies in the context of modern golf instruction:
So how does a paradigm develop? Any observable action or phenomenon will have an underlying explanation that corresponds with reality, meaning the actual cause of the action or phenomenon. The scientific hypotheses developed to explain a particular phenomenon give rise to theories that are purported to be an accurate explanation of that phenomenon. If the theory seems to make the most sense based on our current understanding of available evidence and is widely accepted as correct, it becomes the accepted worldview or paradigm for that phenomenon.
It should be noted that the acceptance of a paradigm – even overwhelming, universal acceptance – does not necessarily make it scientifically correct: Ultimately, something either is correct or it isn't. For example, the earth was once thought to be flat. Over time, a new theory – that the earth was not flat but spherical – began to challenge the accepted paradigm. Both paradigms were just theories – albeit one more plausible than the other – until humankind was able to observe the earth from a distance in space. Then, with new concrete evidence, the 'flat earth' theory was proven to be incorrect and the 'spherical earth' theory changed from 'theory' to 'undeniable fact.'
With regard to the phenomenon of a human being striking a golf ball with a full swing motion, there is a widely accepted paradigm consisting of a series of underlying theories and assumptions that exists in the minds of virtually all golfers, and especially in the minds of those who teach golf professionally. This paradigm could be outlined as follows:
"The bio-mechanical movements and positions of the body during the act of striking a golf ball cause the movements of the club. The movements and positions of the bodies of elite golfers (touring and club professionals and high level amateurs) are so similar as to be almost identical and universal – i.e. the bio-mechanically correct swing.
Therefore, their skill of consistently striking powerful and accurate golf shots is a result of their ability to move their bodies through these series of correct positions and movements with a high degree of accuracy and repeatability. Hence, for beginning and average golfers to strike powerful and accurate golf shots like elite golfers do, they must make sure that their pre-swing fundamentals; grip, posture, ball position, etc. – and in- swing "fundamentals" – too many rules regarding the "correct" in-swing bio-mechanics to list here without writing a very large book – resemble, as closely as possible, those of elite golfers. Poorly struck and/or misdirected shots are the result of bio-mechanical flaws or mistakes in pre-swing and/or in-swing mechanics. And, unless they spend countless hours retraining their bodies and "muscle memory" to set up and swing in a "bio-mechanically correct" fashion like elite golfers do, beginning and average golfers are doomed to golfing mediocrity."
This paradigm – that the body moves the club and 'correct' body movements and positions will create "good" shots and 'incorrect' body movements and positions will cause "bad" shots – is so pervasive, so universally accepted as being true, that no one ever questions it and virtually all of modern golf instruction is based on it.
On its surface, the paradigm seems to make good "common sense" based on the observable evidence of modern slow motion video. But is the paradigm actually true? Is it in reality scientifically valid? Or, is it possible that, like the true nature of the earth's shape, the reality of things may not be as they appear to be?
For any scientific theory and the paradigms that form around it to be valid from a scientific viewpoint, the observable evidence of the theory must consistently support it with very few anomalies or contradictory evidence. If there are significant anomalies and an abundance of evidence that contradicts the paradigm, then the theories underlying the paradigm must be revised or rejected and new theories must be explored that may lead to a new and better understanding and, ultimately, a new paradigm.