Don’t Even Try To Hit It Straight

I don’t feel you have to be a golfer to appreciate how incredibly talented the professionals (and some amateurs) you see play on TV are. And, should you ever have the inclination or invitation to actually attend a professional tournament, don’t even hesitate. Go! It’s the best live spectator sport, especially if you attend one of the practice rounds as the players generally don’t mind a quick chat as they walk from green to next tee and the taking of photographs is allowed. During the tournament, you can select a spot and watch the groups pass by or you can follow a group or, well, I think you get the picture. It’s the just the best!

And, to see them strike the ball, well, it will take your breath away at the distance and accuracy. But, if you’re not a golfer, and even if you are, you will be surprised at one aspect of that striking of the ball. Those supremely talented athletes don’t even try to hit the ball straight. Wow! Really? They don’t try to hit straight? No they don’t!

You see, hitting a golf ball is not exactly the easiest motor skill known to mankind even though the ball is stationary and you have all the time required to set up and swing. There are so many variables at play in the striking of a golf ball that it’s a game that one can learn relatively quickly and spend a lifetime attempting to master, even within one’s physical limitations. One of the biggest problems facing the recreational golfer is this whole business of trying to hit the ball straight. Assuming one is a right-handed golfer, usually as the ball leaves the club head, it will begin to travel a curved path either from right-to-left (hook) or left-to-right (slice). Unless things have changed since I started to play, most beginning golfers slice the ball left-to-right and that is exasperating to say the least.

So, what does the slicer or hooker of the ball try to do? They try to hit it straight and therein lies the problem. The professionals don’t. Why would you? Allow me to explain the basic physics involved.

To swing a golf club in such a way so that for the millisecond the face of the club is in contact with the ball, it’s exactly perpendicular to the intended trajectory of the ball, straight in this case, is asking for the sun, the moon and the stars. It’s very unlikely that’s going to happen and, when one tries to hit the ball straight, they’re a fraction from either slicing or hooking the ball. Usually, and the recreational golfer knows not when, the right-to-left or left-to-right trajectories rear their ugly heads at the most inopportune times (left-to-right when right-to-left would have been OK and right-to-left when left-to-right would have sufficed). Grrrrr!!!!!

What does the low handicap (golf parlance for “really good golfer”) do? He/she “shapes” the ball. He/she decides, given the natural tendencies of his/her swing, to hit it right-to-left or left-to-right but under control. The curved trajectory is not great. In fact, the recreational golfer’s “slice”, in the hands of a really good golfer is now called a “fade” and that duck “hook” becomes a “draw”. And, through practice with an instructor, the elite golfers can “work the ball” either way. But, the point here is that for all intents and purposes, he/she does not try to hit it straight, for the reason stated above.

Think of it this way. You’re on the tee for a par 4 or 5. You have that pesky driver in your hand. The fairway is, oh let’s say, 40 yards wide and, of course, you’re trying to hit the ball straight down the middle of the fairway. But, most of the time, in attempting that, you will either slice or hook the ball and let’s say that’s exactly what occurs. How much of the fairway do you have left if you’re trying to hit it down the middle? Right, only half of it (i.e. 20 yards). Even if it lands on the fairway, it’s headed for the rough, trees, or out-of bounds. Yuk! Sound familiar?

Now, let’s return to the tee but with a difference. You don’t try to hit the ball straight down the middle. You have developed a right-to-left trajectory (a draw for that right handed golfer) so you set up somewhat toward the right portion of the fairway. You can do that because you know for sure, you’re not going to hit the ball left-to-right (slice). You might hit it fairly straight but you’re anticipating that nice draw (right-to-left). How much of the fairway do you have to land the ball? Right, more than 20 yards, much more, likely most of the width of the fairway. Now do you see that you shouldn’t try to hit the ball straight?

And, the same is true for curling (you knew I get a round to the curling tie-in at some point) but it’s not about trajectory, it’s about “weight control”, the most important skill of the game!

Did you watch the recent “Continental Cup”? Did you notice the shooting percentages of players who participated in the “mixed doubles”? Athletes who were accustomed to shooting in the high 80’s and low 90’s were shooting in the high 50’s and low 60’s. What’s with that? I hope the answer was obvious. Those wonderful curlers didn’t have their support system in place (i.e. their brushing teammates). They had to try to deliver the down weight shots with exactly the right weight. And the result frequently was a stone that was either light or heavy. In golfing terms, they were trying to hit the ball straight.

What they do most all the time, for a down weight shot (i.e. any shot that’s intended to remain in play [draws & guards]) is slide from the hack somewhat more slowly than required and if they have the weight of their body evenly distributed on their slider, thus reducing the rate of deceleration, they will monitor the velocity of the slide and with a “soft elbow” (i.e. slightly bent) extend the delivery arm to add the weight required so that the brushers can take it the rest of the way to its intended destination.

But that’s generally not what recreational (& some more competitive) curlers even attempt to do. They try as hard as they can to slide from the hack at exactly the right velocity. When you do that you’re asking the largest muscle group in the body, the quadriceps (in the thigh) to execute a fine motor skill and it’s the muscle group least prepared, physiologically, to do that. I was party to a study, when I was the National Development Coach, that proved this fact. The curler that was used for the study, at the time, had two world championships to his credit. This elite athlete could not drive from the hack at a consistent velocity. But, in competition, this athlete had superb weight control.

In other words, the sport science simply doesn’t support the notion that even an experienced and talented curler can slide from the hack at exactly the right speed. So, “don’t even try to hit it straight”!