The Golf Downswing Explained

How do you build the perfect downswing? Much has been written on this topic. In this article I’ll cover my humble opinion and provide a few drills and thoughts to help you improve your downswing and golfing performance.

Understanding theory versus building a great downswing in practice

Providing more detail on the mechanics of the downswing rarely helps golfers at first, so I was concerned when writing this article. Overthinking the movements actually often stops a golfer achieving a fluid and dynamic downswing. Understanding what you need to do is an integral part of the learning process, but once you understand, you need to get back into swinging and hitting in a natural way.

To help you with this process, I’ve divided this article into sections. We’ll cover downswing aims, the downswing sequence and mechanics first and then move onto some drills and thoughts to help you create some great downswing mechanics without overthinking.

The aim of a great downswing

As the club reaches the top of the backswing it slows to 0mph. The role of the downswing is to accelerate the club head from 0mph to a high speed at impact and create the ideal launch conditions for hitting the golf ball to your intended target. A great downswing achieves the following:

  • Maximises/controls club head velocity
  • Centres the strike of the ball on the club face
  • Squares the club face through impact
  • Achieves a square-ish path through impact
  • Controls the loft of the club face at impact (dynamic loft)
  • Controls the angle of attack between the club head and ball

Breaking apart the downswing into simple parts is challenging. We’ll cover the downswing sequence and body dynamics first, as these are really important for developing club head speed and the kinetics required for a great strike.

We’ll then take a closer look at the arms, hands and club head – here we will discuss their affect on swing path and club face angle and how these relate to accuracy.

The downswing sequence – body dynamics

A common black hole for aspiring golfers is mastering the downswing sequence. Yes, great golfers tend to move roughly in the same way, but there is no magic sequence of step 1, step 2, step 3… Instead it is a very fluid motion through impact, until everything has unwound towards your target.

The video below shows a great golfer’s downswing. We placed markers across their body to build a model of how their skeleton moves. They also stood on force plates, this shows how much force they create against the ground through each foot.

What hopefully comes through from watching this video is a rough downswing sequence:

  1. A shift of weight to the front foot.
  2. A turn of the hips and chest towards the target.
  3. The arms and hands extending into impact and beyond.

If you can succeed in the first two aspects of this sequence, the hands and arms should passively follow. The fancy term for this chain of events is the kinematic sequence. We could discuss this all day long in a lot more detail, but if you’re reading this to optimise your own golf I have two key pieces of advice:

  1. Elite golfers show more of a weight shift and lower body movement, before the upper body and arms start to move down, but this is a general trend – no secrets or millisecond widows appear in the data.
  2. What you feel and what you do are two very different concepts. You will often have to exaggerate one feeling, just to feel ‘in-sync’. This is natural even for elite golfers.

How to start the downswing

This leads nicely onto the next common question – how do I start the downswing? Most new golfers use too much of their upper body and hands, and not enough of their lower body, so most golfers need to feel that they over-exaggerate their weight shift and lower body rotation. However, as golfers become more advanced, they often have the opposite issue – they slide and over-rotate the lower body. At this point the start of your downswing will need to feel as though you’re using all of your upper body and arms.

Fortunately, I have included a couple of drills later on in this article to help you develop the feeling of starting the downswing, whichever camp you fall into.

I think it’s also important to mention one final point relating to improving your downswing and golf game – in reality there is no real start to the downswing. For simplicity, we talk about the backswing and downswing as separate parts. However, when you are hitting the golf ball, remember it is one movement – a turn back and through.

Consider just practicing the acceleration phase when throwing, or just the upwards phase of a jump – you can’t perform these actions correctly without the previous phase. The same is true for the golf swing, part practice is useful at times, but remember the golf swing is a sequential action.

The arms, hands and club in the downswing

As we discussed above, body dynamics are key for generating speed and the forces required for a great impact position. You can view the arms, hands and club head as the dials that fine-tune how the club is delivering into impact. All are highly influential factors in creating your swing path and club face at impact, and as such, are key for producing accurate golf shots.

The hands and arms generally respond and follow your body action, due to the forces generated by the body. For this reason I would focus on improving your body action, before worrying about fine-tuning what your arms and hands do.

The image below shows elite players reaching the top of their backswing. As you can see, they exhibit many arm, hand and club variations. For this reason it is tricky to suggest a perfect way for your arms and hands to be positioned during the downswing.

The all have different pre-set positions that are relatively well optimised to deliver the club squarely back to the golf ball.

Perfect golf swing top players
Positions are not what all great golf swings have in common.

However, we can see that when nearly all elite golfers get the club halfway down (see the images below), the club head is running down their right forearm. We’ll discuss how to get here in a minute, but note how two of the best ball strikers in the world are not identical during their downswing.

Perfect golf swing pre impact
Most golfers exhibit similar positions as we get closer to impact, but not identical. However, two different positions could produce almost identical forces at impact.

They may look similar, but if we were to analyse both players in depth we would see 10-15 degrees difference in hip rotation and possibly ~30 degrees difference in shoulder rotation. What these two golfer have in common is:

  1. The club is poised in a great position to travel into impact squarely and with a square club face.
  2. Their bodies are orientated in a way where they can keep unwinding, whilst staying balanced.

Your perfect downswing should focus on these two objectives above, rather than a degree-perfect static downswing position. The positions are different for Rory and Tiger, and they sure will be different again for you and I.

The golf downswing plane

We often refer to how the arms and club head move as the downswing plane. ‘Plane’ is a poor choice of word, as it suggests one, flat line. In fact, the downswing is more of a path. We can track the path of the arms, hands or club head – they all do a similar thing.

Below I’ve drawn a line up the club shaft at set-up. During the backswing the club moves along this line, before it moves up to the top of backswing position (bottom left image). As we begin the downswing, the club head falls back down and tracks along this line into impact (bottom images left to right).

the golf downswing plane explained. Note how the arms, hands and club head fall towards the red line as the player moves through their downswing.

Great body mechanics (unwinding) are the one true key to this movement. If performed correctly, the arms get dragged along and tend to fold correctly into the position you see above.

Because most golfers begin with poor posture, and as a result, struggle with turning their body back and through during their swing, they compensate by flailing their arms at the golf ball during the downswing – the dreaded casting action and out-to-in swing path. No fancy golf training aid will cure this issue – you’ll need to improve your set-up and body mechanics first.

Improving your golf downswing plane

Now, I don’t think I can turn everyone reading this article into a ball striker like Rory McIlroy. Nonetheless, here’s some good general advice for you:

If your club head is entering impact from outside/above the red line above, you are likely to create an out-to-in club head path through impact (pulls, fades and slices depending on your club face angle). To improve your swing path, use the following points during your downswing:

  • Feel more weight shift and lower body rotation.
  • Feel as though your right elbow stays close to your side.
  • Feel you keep your club head pointing behind you during your downswing.

If your club head is entering impact inside/below the red line above, you are likely to create an in-to-out club head path through impact (pushes, draws, hooks depending on your club face angle). To improve your swing path, use the following cues during your downswing:

  • Feel your lower body is static/doesn’t unwind.
  • Feel you only turn your chest as you start down and move through.
  • Feel you keep the club head pointing to the sky during your downswing.

Golf downswing drills

Now you have the general gist of the downswing, let’s look at some great ways to develop yours without getting too technical. Golf swing drills are great for this approach, as they change the constraints of your practice to give you feedback on a specific movement.

Downswing drill – stay connected

The following drill can be extremely useful. By keeping a towel under your arms, you are forced to use your body to rotate back and through. This is a great drill if you tend to slide your body rather than rotate, or if your arms tend to get disconnected from your torso during your downswing.

Start small with a 50-yard pitch shot and slowly work your way up to a 3/4 swing with a 6-iron.

Downswing drill – step drill

Next, we have a great drill for learning how to shift your weight during your downswing. The video below provides a great overview of how to perform this drill. You can progress to hitting a golf ball with a mid-iron using this drill, but proceed with caution – it isn’t easy. This drill is also useful if you tend to slide, rather than shifting your weight and creating a firm front leg to rotate around.

Downswing drills for club face control

Last up, I would like to direct you to another article on club face control during your downswing. This article on golf swing drills includes videos from Justin Rose and Tommy Fleetwood. Both videos are useful, but Tommy’s drill and discussion will provide some great insight into how the elite players square up their club face during their downswing and into impact.

Golf downswing summary

The aim of a great downswing is to get the club to impact at speed and with a square path and club face. There are no magic secrets that work for every golfer, but where your club is positioned half-way down is a pretty good indicator of what is to follow.

I hope you have found this article of use. I spent a long time deciding how to approach this topic. I could have included far more biomechanics, but I truly feel the focus on the points above will progress your golf more than anything else.

If you have a downswing question, leave it in the comments below and I shall add a Q&A section to this article. Also, if you would like a free article like this emailed to you every Monday, come join the Golf Insider weekly post.

Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider

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A PGA golf professional, with a PhD in Biomedical Science and MSc in Sports Biomechanics & Psychology. I currently spend my time lecturing part-time at Leeds Beckett University and working with elite athletes. In my spare time I build Golf Insider UK.

2 thoughts on “The Golf Downswing Explained”

    • Hi Don,

      Yes it can be very useful. It depends what aspect you’re working on. The pump drill will be great for getting the feeling of the first move, but you’ll have to use some whole practice to get all body parts syncing up and timing the movement.

      I hope that helps.

      Will

      Reply

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