Thursday, July 01, 2010

SBST or Arcing Stroke?

Golfers always want to know WHETHER I teach a straight-back, straight-thru stroke OR an inside-square-inside "arcing" stroke. I think BOTH are wrong-headed and misleading. What the golfer needs is a "gun that shoots straight the right distance" every time wherever he aims the "gun", either defined as wherever the putter face ends up aiming at address or at least wherever the golfer's usual stroke action will roll the ball out of the setup (if along a line different than the putter face's aim).

The objective is NOT a straight-back and straight-thru (SBST) stroke OR an inside-square-inside (arcing) stroke. That's just what certain popular instructors claim is best. The fact is that the back stroke path and the forward stroke path don't really have to match up symmetrically. That's the flaw in the SBST teaching and ALSO in the inside-square-inside teaching.

The objective in putting is "to sink putts or get as close as possible as often as possible and to avoid turning two strokes into three or more." Pretty straight-forward, that, except for what it means for the sort of "stroke" that best promotes the objective. In my view, the stroke needs to comply with the realities of physics and the human body, and operate according to "know how" in the skilled player's mind. This last aspect is really a pre-requisite for avoiding streakiness in putting performance due to lack of understanding of what works and why, to allow for on-course self-diagnosis and immediate fixing of problems.

So, what does that mean for the stroke? It means that the forward stroke thru impact needs to always result in the ball leaving the golfer's setup in the same direction away from the feet, which is also ideally defined as rolling the ball the same line the putter face is aimed along according to the read and setup. The golfer needs to know where he aims the putter and also needs the ability to stroke balls wherever he has aimed the putter (or why bother aiming, or how else can he avoid bouts of sub-par putting streaks?). The putting stroke has to roll the ball wherever the putter face aims. Failing that, the stroke at least needs to always result in the ball leaving the setup stance along the same direction path every time even if the golfer does not really aim the putter face at address down the same line and/or does not know / care exactly where the putter face aims and instead aims his "usual stroke action" as a whole without specific reference to an exact putter face aim at address.

In physics, this means the movement of the putter head thru impact ought to be with the putter face square to the aim line at address when impact begins and remaining square until ball-putter contact ends and that the impact point on the putter face should be centered with the putter head center of mass, and that the path of the putter head's center of mass thru impact stays straight along the aim line while contact persists, and that this all be done with smooth rhythm and pace control without launching the ball excessively in the air or excessive skidding and hopping of the ball due to the stroke dynamics.

So the stroke needs to move the putter head squarely and online straight thru impact with a nice rhythmic action. And the golfer needs to have "know-how" about what this should be and how to do it with his body. The forward stroke is the movement that matters. The only requirement for the backstroke is: DON'T MAKE A STRAIGHT-THRU-IMPACT FORWARD STROKE MORE DIFFICULT THAN IT NEED BE.


Strokes that go straight back that cost the golfer lots of attention and training and mid-stroke concern about whether they are REALLY straight are sort of wasted energy and just cloud the mind with junk right when it needs to be clear. And the mind should have been clear about the forward-stroke action being the sole priority anyway before the start of the backstroke.

Strokes that arc to the inside thru impact MIGHT catch the back of the ball right at the magic moment when the putter face is square to the intended line, but what if the putter face continues to arc to the inside while ball-putter contact persists? So arcing strokes buy the golfer a peck of trouble for consistent setup and ball position and movement precision, and then require that the aim of the putter face be something at address other than the aim at the beginning of impact and something else again at the end of impact. Getting the ball to go wherever the putter face aims at address and arcing to the inside thru impact simply are at war with each other.

The usual justifications of one stroke sort versus the other are also flawed and confused. The SBST stroke says it makes good physics and renders ball position non-critical. Well, that justification justifies ONLY the forward stroke, but doesn't apply at all to justify the backstroke requirement that "only straight-back is acceptable". Is a straight-back backstroke really required in order to make the forward stroke roll the ball where the putter face aimed at address? No.

The arcing stroke says that making a SBST stroke is unnatural and requires manipulation of the wrists and hands and that since the shaft lies on an angle out of vertical that the stroke has to swing along a circle around the feet like the full swing. That's biomechanically erroneous and confuses the power game thru the air with the precision game of line and distance along the green.

Putting is LINE ACCURACY with good rhythm controlling pace and distance, not power. The full swing requires hip rotation and shoulder rotation FOR POWER, but it also underlies the common statement that "the straight shot in golf is the rarest and most difficult to perform".

As a matter of physics, a putting stroke that has the arms and hands and putter swinging forward with the base of the body steady will NOT "swing itself" to the inside thru impact. Instead, the stroke path will simply and naturally follow the "aim of the frame" of the chest and shoulders atop the steady lower body. If there is any shoulder rotation in the backstroke, the re-rotation back to square (re-seating atop the stable hips back to the address alignment) is natural, but does not naturally continue past square to closing thru and beyond impact. There is nothing in biomechanics or physics that arcs a putter to the inside thru and past impact other than the golfer's pulling the putter out of its natural trajectory straight along with the "aim of the frame". That's Physics 101, called Newtonian motion (an object undergoing motion due to any force will travel in a straight line unless and until another force changes its path). A forward stroke that "pulls the putter inside along an arc thru impact" is not "natural" but is simply the result of what the golfer choses to do with his shoulders and arms.

If the putter itself is trying to swing straight along the "aim of the frame" thru impact, and is allowed to do so, then the putter face will naturally stay square and move straight down the line slightly rising past impact. If the putter head does this and nothing changes in the shape of the hands and arms, the putter head's vertical rising above the aim line will NECESSARILY require that the lead shoulder rock vertically up thru impact. The Newtonian physics will teach the golfer what the body should do if he stands still and "lets the putter head do the work" in the forward stroke. Then, if the golfer later chooses to power the putter thru impact, why would he do so by moving the lead shoulder any other way? In the arcing stroke dogma, a shoulder that rises vertically thru impact is bad form, and should be replaced by a shoulder rotating to the inside horizontally thru impact. But that is a pull. Ben Crenshaw does not "pull" his strokes, and his slead shoulder always rises vertically thru impact. It's natural.


That means no matter what you think you should have done for the backstroke, just deal with the facts.

[If you want to train to minimize these problems, then I teach that the golfer should square up the chest and shoulders (parallel to the aim of the putter face) at address, set a minimum grip muscle tone to weld the putter face orientation to the chest/shoulders so only the body action matters or determines square / online impact, anchor the lead hip and throat before starting the backstroke, then start the backstroke not with the rear hand dragging the putter head back from the ball but with the lead shoulder working thru a stable body-shape to shove the putter head back and very slightly up from the ball beneath a stable throat, allow no more than mild twisting of the chest/shoulders to the inside above stable hips, and then retrace the tension between the hips and shoulders in the gut muscles and tissue back to square before impact, and once square, stay there as the putter head move the hands and arms and body straight down the line thru impact 2-3 inches and that's it. But even f you don't do what you trained to do, skill resides in accepting what you've got going and dealing effectively with it.]

Okay, so let's look at the possibilities so we can know what's good and bad and what to do about it either way.


All three main sorts of backstrokes can cause problems for the forward stroke, so let's delve a bit into this.


A stroke that sends the putter head away across the aim / start line in the backstroke creates a need to re-route the putter head BEFORE the thru-stroke, otherwise you get a cut-stroke path with a face-open manipulation that might go reasonably where intended or a pull-stroke path with no manipulation that is a dead pull to the inside. how best to get the re-routing done? Allow the armpits to sink back closer to the chest before starting the forward stroke. What occurs whenever the putter head goes away across the line into a loop pattern is the elbows hinge at the takeaway and the rear arms pit opens slightly in the backstroke, but also the elbows move slightly farther from the body / chest and this angles the upper arms at the armpits forward off the sides. The recovery move before starting the forward thru-stroke is to allow the upper arms to sink back to the sides, with the elbows re-routing slightly closer back to the chest. This done, don't worry about the loop anymore -- just swing forward with the hands not drifting farther from or closer in towards the hips and thighs. It usually helps to have a firm grip pressure in the lead hand.

What misguided golfers worry about in the case of a loop at the top of the backstroke is re-routing the "sweetspot" to make solid impact; instead, they should prioritize re-squaring the face even if the impact is not on the "sweetspot" and is a bit thin. Square impact is much more vital to success and less-than-solid impact not nearly as harmful as non-square impact, so get the face square regardless of the sweetspot re-routing to accomplish solid impact. Both would be best, but square trumps solid.


A stroke that goes straight back can sometimes cause a problem because the body finds that move a bit unusual unless the golfer has trained to like it and find it usual and familiar and welcomed. The "feel" that a golfer gets who is not well trained is that he has "closed" the putter face with some sort of manipulation. This "feel" is illusory and only contrasts with what the golfer subjectively expects to feel, and it's not a case of the "feel" indicating what really happens. When the poorly trained golfer, then, TRIES to make sure the stroke goes straight back, he gets this illusory "feel" that worries him and confuses what he should do about it. Unfortunately, almost all golf teachers seem to think this "feel" is real and tell golfers it is real when what actually happens is NOT a manipulation at all biomechanically, so these teachers mess up golfers who otherwise could work thru the unfamiliarity and tell them NOT to try for a straight-back movement. Just dumb teachers without biomechanical knowledge, but they are the majority by far and golfers also without knowledge believe the "feel" is real, so it ends up being a big "flat earth" gaggle of teachers and students all supremely certain the ocean ends in a waterfall just past the horizon.

So you have to practice what is a straight-back move and what is real and what is illusory for "feel" and learn to like what is the real move and get familiar with its "feel". But even so, it is NOT a requirement to ALWAYS make a straight-back move perfectly or even to worry much about it. Instead, just pay attention to what you actually get going, and then finish it well in the forward stroke.


A stroke that goes slightly to the inside in the backstroke is not a problem at all so long as the golfer can re-square the putter face in the forward stroke before impact. So what's the problem getting that forward stroke re-squared? The answer seems to be: defining the body-in-pace in relation to being square no later than 1-2 inches before impact on the back of the ball. What does that mean? It means keeping in mind the sense of body-in-space when square at the address position BEFORE starting the backstroke so you can return to this body-in-space orientation 1-2 inches before impact starts.

What does that mean? It means looking at the way the leading edge of the putter face traces a line across specific grass blades behind the ball and registering this line as what must be returned to flush before impact can be gone thru, and it also means paying attention to how the body (feet, hips, shoulders, chest, hands, throat) is oriented to this line on the leading edge of the putter face and ground at address and then keeping track of the changes from this starting posture that occur during the backstroke so the golfer can return to the starting orientation.

Physically, it helps to sandwich the shoulder-arms action of the backstroke between a stationary lead / left hip and a stationary throat while the backstroke is in progress, as this simplifies the heck out of getting back to square in the rest of the stroke. Fix the face and eyes and fix the lead hip BEFORE starting the shoulder-arms into the backstroke. Then if the hands have the required minimum grip pressure to keep the putter face from fanning open out of the stroke action, so the putter face is held to match WHATEVER stroke action the chest makes, and the tempo is not too violent, then the returning of the chest/shoulders/arms to square is simply retracing the way back along the lines of tension between the chest at the top of the backstroke and the lead hip and fixed throat remaining in the at-address orientation. The only trick then is DON'T OVERDO THE INSIDE-EDNESS OF THE BACKSTROKE MOVE -- KEEP IT MILDLY INSIDE AT WORST -- AND OTHERWISE DON'T WORRY ABOUT IT.


To summarize, paying attention to whatever in fact sort of backstroke you've got going and knowing then what to do about it to roll the ball where you intended when you aimed the putter and set up to the aimed putter at address is all you want to set as the "problem" of the stroke -- NOT making a back stroke match the forward stroke and not gunning for a specific shape in the backstroke as if that in and of itself will cure the forward stroke. The forward stroke is all that matters and it's up to you to get it done no matter what sort of backstroke you hoped to make.


If the backstroke started off with the hands "dragging a dead coyote by the tail backwards to throw the carcass out the gate", that causes an across-the-line loop stroke. If you did that, shame on you -- now recover. let the upper arms settle back to the sides before going forward.


If you "went for" a perfectly straight backstroke and got one but it "feels" like a manipulation (but isn't), then you have to have sense enough to ignore the feel and focus on getting a straight, square thru-stroke accomplished despite the "fog" of this illusory "feel". Good luck with that, because you need more training.

If you "went for" a perfectly straight backstroke and ALMOST got one but then start worrying about exactly what the consequences of not being perfect are for the rest of the stroke, then you're totally missing the important part which is to simply accept where you are and get the forward stroke square. You don't want or need the added aggravation of thinking an imperfect backstroke cannot be saved. So forget the imperfection of the backstroke -- don't go for it or worry about what imperfection might mean -- just accept whatever you've done and get on with the real job of the forward stroke.


If you went inside in the backstroke BUT forgot to stabilize the hip and throat, you will go further away from the address squareness than normal so returning to square means moving your tail bone back around in the forward stroke action. That's necessary to return the lead hip to where it should have stayed during the making of the backstroke. This indifferent sort of casualness in the starting of the backstroke also brings with it a danger of "overcooking" the tail-bone swing that brings the hips and chest back to square. Once square, stay there. The feeling of this is like swinging the tail-bone in order to swing the chest in order to swing the arms back onto line, and then let nature take its course thereafter. To practice this, set up opposite the baseboard of a wall and deliberately allow the lead hip to follow along in the twisting of the chest in the backstroke to the inside, and then fix it coming forward with a little tail-bone action without overcooking it. If the throat then rolls thru impact and this shoulder rock carries the top of the head back or rolls the face slightly down along the start line, that's fine -- allow that, as opposing it may ruin the line or touch.

If you went inside in the backstroke and REMEMBERED to stabilize the hip and throat before starting the backstroke, then you're probably good to go -- keep the upper arms near the sides and swing thru impact square and down the line sideways straight, just like swinging squarely down along a baseboard with the grip pressure of the hands keeping the putter face square to the wall the same as the chest and throat. If the throat then rolls thru impact and this shoulder rock carries the top of the head back or rolls the face slightly down along the start line, that's fine -- allow that, as opposing it may ruin the line or touch.

The stroke paths defined by "straight-back, straight-thru" AND "inside-square-inside" both refer to only a TWO-DIMENSIONAL line or curve on the surface of the ground, and not to the REAL MOVEMENT of the golfer swinging a putter in the three dimensions of space and the fourth dimension of time of real bodies and putters facing real putts. In the real world, taking either of these 2-D paths along the ground as the definition of the stroke is, frankly, not very helpful, and actually is seriously misleading. The "skill" for the putting stroke golfers need to perform at a high level of accuracy and consistency has to deal with the actual situation of physics and the human body, and that means the FORWARD stroke has to be right, and the backstroke is merely prelude that may or may not be causing problems. The deep putting-stroke skill is reducing these backstroke problems in sorting out the general stroke movement and its "know how" BUT ALSO knowing how to handle them since they will crop up anyway no matter how much you practice. It's golf.


Geoff Mangum
Putting Coach and Theorist

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