Every golfer wants to perfect their golf swing, and yet none of us are stupid. We all understand there is no such thing as the perfect golf swing in reality. So what are we actually after?
Maybe it’s the one perfect drive we hit last week. Or the four almost perfect holes we remember playing last year. We all want to know how we can hit incredible golf shots more often. Our quest tends to lead us back to slowing down a video of our golf swing and watching how we swing that lump of metal around our body.
Maybe we need a modern approach to understanding the perfect golf swing, because it seems like we’re lost. In this article we’ll apply modern theories of movement science and data analysis to re-assess the question – what is the perfect golf swing?
The perfect golf swing to maximise performance
The first point on this modern quest is to reassess our question. Our perfect golf swing should be one that maximises performance, not one that looks pretty.
As we can see from the images above, there are many ways we can build a great golf swing. We are not after perfect positions, instead we are after great performance. Specifically, a perfect golf swing should encompass the following performance metrics:
- High levels of shot accuracy.
- High levels of repeatability in shot outcome.
- Good ability to generate shot distance.
- Adaptability of ball flight trajectory.
- Keep us free from injury.
The interesting thing about this list, is that there is not one technical element. Nothing that suggests you need a perfect grip, or that your elbow should be in a set position as you enter the downswing. So why do we bang on about swing technique in our search for the perfect golf swing?
The perfect golf swing mechanics
I’ve lectured in biomechanics for six years, so don’t worry I’m not about to tell you swing mechanics don’t matter, they do. However, I do feel most people misunderstand the perfect golf swing based on our list above. Here are some key points when considering technique’s role in the perfect golf swing. I’ll warn you now, they start with the obvious, but stay tuned.
Impact is what counts
As the images of Tiger, Rory, Justin and Dustin above demonstrate, the golf ball doesn’t care about your top of backswing position. It only cares about what happens at impact. As we get closer to impact there is a narrower window within which the club can travel to create a ‘neutral/square impact’. For this reason you’ll see nearly all tour players technique look less varied once the club head is approaching impact.
The golf swing is sequential, what happens before does matter, but be far more critical of positions that occur closer to impact. These are the ones that give the clearest window into impact.
Forces move the golf ball, not swing positions
A great swing position by itself is an empty promise of a perfect golf swing. The reason I smile as I write this, is that I was one of those juniors turning pro who failed to understand this basic scientific fact.
I would spend hours in front of the pro shop window perfecting the shift of my body and club into my downswing. Only to step on the first tee and hook it 40 yards left.
Swing positions – the positions of the club head, the orientation of the club face, how rotated our hips are give us indications of what forces are being applied, and what forces can be applied in the next part of our swing. But it is the forces themselves that dictate ball launch and performance. I still don’t feel many golf pros explicitly understand this point. However, through experience they have an eye for what works.
What all great players have in common is their ability to control and replicate the forces they apply to the golf ball. Their swing technique is a mask that gives you a sneak peek into what is going on underneath the bonnet.
The perfect golf swing for humans
The next update we need in our approach for the perfect golf swing is to accept that we are humans, not robots. It is very obvious that there is a mechanically optimal movement for many golf shots. However this often doesn’t translate into the simplest movements for us to replicate. If you want a detailed break down, you can read this piece.
The key take home message is this – Simple, linear motions of the club head often require un-simple, complex rotations of many joints. We (if you’re a human reading this) find it far easier to reproduce simple body movements, than complex, multi-joint movements. There is a trade-off between a mechanically efficient club swing and one that is made up of movements that are easy for us to reproduce.
Humans don’t repeat
I have one last human factor to throw your way. Human’s aren’t designed to repeat. It appears our 206 joints and 700 odd muscles have evolved to provide great flexibility and adaptability in movement. Even when we set elite golfers the same shot over and over, they don’t repeat precisely the same swing or ball flight.
Instead they operate within a very small bandwidth, with some incredible control. A small tweak in swing path is catered for with a change to club face and visa versa, all to stabilise the result of where the ball finishes. I’ll show you a pretty picture to better explain this in the final section of this article.
With this in mind we need to reconsider variability in movement. Historically we would see changes in movement and ball flight launch as error. However, when we recategorise humans and problem solving machines, rather than robots, we need to re-asses how we measure changes in movement and ball flights. Changes in movements and ball flights can still lead to similarly accurate shot outcomes. We call this phenomena motor equivalence.
The perfect golf swing mechanics for all conditions
Last point before we look at an updated solution – The perfect golf swing isn’t one swing at all. Instead it is a family of solutions that we can pull out as we require a given permutation.
Golf is played under a varying set of constraints. No two shots are exactly the same. A sloped lie with the ball a couple of inches above our feet requires a different movement to squarely strike the golf ball, compared to a flat lie. A sloped lie also demands a different set of forces to keep our body balanced and upright. These changes are just the beginning. Before we bring in many other factors such as; changing clubs, different lies (rough, fairway, pine straw) and changing internal factors such as fatigue and flexibility over the course of a round.
From this viewpoint we can quickly understand why repeatedly hitting the same shot on the range over and over doesn’t necessarily transfer to golfing prowess on the course.
The perfect golf swing is not static. It is a dynamic entity that adapts to these varying constraints. The perfect golf swing mechanics actually have to adapt their shape and force production to stabilise the end point of where the ball finishes.
“The perfect golf swing – Repetition without repetition”
Hopefully that will make you think next time you step onto the golf range.
The perfect golf swing – a modern approach
So based on the above, what should we do? Is old fashioned golf coaching dead in the water? No. However, it does have some new caveats, some sparkly new bells and whistles we can apply. Hopefully this new approach can be bundled up with a good dose of common sense.
The perfect golf swing – Technique
Technique analysis is more important than ever. Once we understand that forces at impact are most important, we can redefine our thinking for golf coaching. Grip and posture will stay most important as they dictate the relationship between our club and body, and how forces are transferred.
We need to move away from just analysing club shaft and club face angles. Instead we need to understand club shaft and club face angles relative to our body positions and up-coming movements. It is this relationship that determines what forces are possible in the next sequence of our swing as we approach impact.
When we consider technique from this perspective it is easy to understand why you and I have very different perfect golf swings. For us to generate optimal forces at impact, we will look similar but not exactly the same. Rory’s incredible hip action would not work for Tiger. Dustin’s flexed left wrist and shut club face at the top would be a disaster for Justin Rose. These players have all got extremely close to finding their perfect golf swings.
They all have systems to consistently control and replicate their desired positions and forces at impact.
The perfect golf swing – modern tools
The use of video analysis is great, if we are mindful of the points outlined above. It will reman a key coaching tool for many years.
Most 3D biomechanical tools are actually less use than you imagine. Despite them producing very pretty pictures and lots of numbers, few are valid and reliable.
The exception to this rule is lab-based systems. Qualisys and Vicon are the only two systems I have come across that have small enough error values to tell you meaningful differences within and between sessions. The analysis shown below uses £200,000 of equipment and takes 90 minutes to set up. This is the approach we used with a few great golfers to assess changes in conditioning and swing mechanics. We can do some cool analysis, but it isn’t necessary unless you are trying to measure infinitesimal changes in technique.
Technique analysis for the modern approach requires many shots to be hit. Now that we understand humans are problem solving machines, not robots we need to change the analysis we use. We need to move away from an optimal solution. Instead, we need to observe many shots, collect data and then assess the family of solutions that a player uses.
The aim is to understand how variance in movement links to variance/error in shot outcome. A player may may have 2-3 swing permutations that are all really useful. Conversely, they may have 2-3 ways they hit wayward golf shots. Our aim is it refine the good solutions and eradicate the ones that lead to poor shot outcomes.
Remember, we are trying to find that individual’s optimum set of solutions. We aim to optimise performance, not swing positions.
Trackman plays a key role in this approach. When we look back to our list of perfect golf swing requirements (shot accuracy, repeatability, shot distance..) Launch monitors have us covered. They are unbiased and give us data that fits our performance needs.
Once a player hits many shots we can analyse their ball flight data like a true golfing nerd. Ready for this… even Trackman doesn’t use this approach currently…
Some stats tests can be used to explain how variance is ball flight factors are causing variance in shot outcome. We can then produce some plots to look at key ball flight parameters for all the players ‘good solutions’ and their ‘less good solutions’.
I write all of my code in a statistical program called ‘R’. Below is an example output for a tour pro. Sorry it is a tad rustic.
This pretty picture is a great way to understand our modern approach to the perfect golf swing. Even great pros vary how they hit the golf ball over 60 shots. However, this shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing.
Every shot finishing in the dark green canal represents a great golf swing (finished very close to the target). As the colour changes to blue or yellow we have ball flights that are less useful (finished further away from the target). The total size of this square represents a player’s total set of solutions for a given shot.
Every player I test has a slightly different picture. A unique finger print that sums up their quest for a perfect golf swing.
This really gets me excited, but then I am a massive geek. We no longer need to look at changes in ball flight as error. If a player has a small square and lots of green, we can be confident they are very consistent.
Another player may have a bigger square, but still have lots of green. They too are very consistent in their performance, but also have many great solutions and ways of hitting accurate golf shots. This is a very new approach to understand the perfect golf swing.
The perfect golf swing in practice
Last up, and maybe most important – how do we build our own perfect golf swing? Well if you’ve understand this article so far you should have a whole new way to think about your golf swing:
- We are aiming to optimise performance outcomes not swing positions.
- Controlling impact forces is the desired result of any technique.
- Variance in movement and ball flight is not necessarily error.
- Adaptability is useful. The perfect golf swing is a family of solutions.
Please still find a great coach to help you. Great coaches are worth their weight in gold (but I suppose I am biased). Their aim is to build a golf swing to optimise your performance outcomes.
Your technique should be refined to work within a set bandwidth – small levels of variations in how your body and club moves. They also need to coach you to be your own golf coach. You should leave a lessons with things feeling simple, and a compact understanding of your golf swing. If the ball is going left I need to… If the ball is heading right it is because of…
It is then down to you and the practice ground.
The last level of refinement, all of those subtle tweaks that give you a great family of solutions are developed through great practice.
Technique practice needs to be accompanied with skills games. These skills games are super important to play each week. They allow your body to solve tasks and optimise your swing within a bandwidth. As you progress so should the difficulty of these skills games.
This process will allow you to continually improve, refine and adapt your perfect golf swing. There are no secrets in this game, but you now have a load more information to help you on your quest for your perfect golf swing and great golf in the future.
I hope you’ve found this useful. If so, I would really appreciate you sharing it with the social buttons below or a friend. I really enjoy growing this blog and trying to help as many golfers as I can.