Keep Your Distance

It's a truth as harsh as it is simple: As you age your swing becomes less powerful. Here's what two swing experts say you can do to maintain your driving force

The older I get, Lee Trevino once quipped, the better I used to be. That remark sums up a problem many of us suddenly experience in our forties or fifties: a loss of power—drives that don't go as far as they used to, iron shots that fall short of the target. As a result we're faced with a host of new challenges and hazards. We have to club down, from a seven-iron to a six- or even a five-iron—and consequently suffer a wider margin for error. More disconcerting is the Pandora's box of doubts opened by having to use a driver where once a three-wood easily sufficed. That's what ultimately kills your swing.

I finally faced up to this problem last summer. I am only 44, my health is excellent, and my swing did not feel all that different from the way it always has. In fact, technically speaking, I knew my swing was sounder than it has ever been. Still, many of my driver and mid-iron shots were falling 10 to 15 yards shorter than they used to, and nothing I did—fiddling with my grip or altering my stance—enabled me to recover the distance. Frustration gave way to doubt, doubt to pulled and hooked drives and an epidemic of out-of-bound penalties. My handicap rose only one stroke, but my spirits slumped mightily. Long drives had always been the mainstay of my game.

It was clear I needed more help than I could give myself, which is why I flew out to Cog Hill Golf Club in suburban Chicago, site of the Motorola Western Open and one of the finest layouts in the area. It's the headquarters of Jim Suttie, a respected golf teacher and pioneering thinker about golf-swing biomechanics, who has put more than one prominent Tour player back on track.

What I've always liked about Suttie is the fact that he puts individual peculiarities before grand theories. "It's shocking to me," Suttie said as we sat in the clubhouse, "how mechanized golf-swing teaching has become. It's like buying suits off the rack. You have schools and teachers and all these theories floating around, and they all start with an ideal golf swing and try and make every player fit it.

"The problem is, no golf swing is perfect, and every golfer is different. To maximize a player's performance skills, you have to reverse the thinking and start with the player's physical characteristics and body style and build the golf swing around that."

Suttie's framework rests upon three main ideas. The first is that a golf swing is in essence a compensatory motion. We all possess technical and physical limitations that prevent us from achieving the ideal swing; as a result we have to play up one or more factors—timing, rhythm, tempo, balance—to hit well. The second is that no matter how technically competent our swing, we all have a tendency to hit the ball a certain way—from left to right, for instance. Suttie says work with your natural swing pattern, not against it, to make it better. The third is that to obtain the greatest power possible from your swing, you must first find your power source—"that part of your body," says Suttie, "that enables you to maximize your swing. It's your greatest asset as a golfer.

"Some peoples' power source lies in their legs; for others it is in their hands. Some players have tremendous shoulder turns that generate great velocity—Tiger Woods is an excellent example of this—while others use their lower bodies and the transfer of energy through their hips and thighs to get the job done. Most men create power through their arms or legs, and most women use their hands and hips. The surprising thing I find is how few people have discerned what kind of golf swing their body says they should have.

"The first rule of improving your power, then, is listen to what your body is saying. In the future—and I am quite serious about this—I think all golf lessons will begin with an anatomy lesson."

That means using the advantages and limitations of your body type to get a fix on your power source. Take a stocky, muscular golfer with short arms, like Ian Woosnam. Such a player, Suttie says, will typically have a short backswing and rely more on his chest, arms, and hands to deliver the payload. Which is why, though Woosnam is small, he can drive the ball a country mile down the fairway (or miss it by a couple of zip codes).

Tall, lanky players, like Paul Azinger, lie at the other end of the spectrum. They rely on a strong leg turn and long release to generate headspeed and power. Whereas a physical type between the two (Jack Nicklaus, for example) frequently relies on a combination of factors, a strong shoulder turn combined with lots of leg action, to make the ball go a long way.

I asked Suttie to show me how his analysis works in real golf life. "All excellent long drivers," he said, "share one characteristic: a lot of lateral hip motion; their hips rotate forward before the downswing fully uncoils and releases the club. The problem with most average players is they try to achieve this rotation or turn through the ball from the top portion of their bodies, with shoulders and arms. That's fine if you have good upper-body strength. If you don't this approach produces a swing that comes over the top, pushing the club out of the swing plane and on an outside-in path, resulting in a weak fade—the bane of so many golfers. They rob themselves of their potential power even before the club strikes the ball."

It wasn't hard to apply Suttie's "know thyself" gospel to me. "You have a lot of upper-body strength and probably generate most of your headspeed from there." In fact, I am like Craig Stadler or Arnold Palmer, using a stronger grip, shorter backswing, and delayed release to "whip" the ball out into the fairway.

But like many golfers I long to be someone else, Jack Nicklaus. I reached my formative golf years about the time the Golden Bear reached his zenith, and like others I tried to copy him. (John Jacobs, renowned British golf teacher, said Nicklaus turned America into a nation of slicers.) Forget trying to ape Jack's leg action, Suttie prescribed: "Rebuilding a swing from other power sources is extremely difficult." Instead, he advised me to refine those elements that maximize an upper-body swing:
• Strengthen the grip;
• Flatten the swing path;
• Use legs to brace;
• Turn shoulders as much as possible;
• Keep wrist cocked as long as possible.

I found Suttie's framework useful in reformulating some of the standard topics taught at golf academies, such as the left side-right side debate. Some teachers insist that a good golf swing generates power when the left side of the body "leads" or "pulls" the swing through the ball, while their opposites counter that the right side should "push" the ball through impact. Which is correct, I asked?

"Not to get too technical about this," he said, "but you have two basic forces at work in a golf swing—a centripetal, or 'inward' pulling motion, and a centrifugal, or 'outward' throwing motion. They're directly related. Thus the more inward pull you have, as a rule, the stronger the outward throw; so the question, once again, becomes one of personal anatomy."

However, there are in fact a few rules of thumb here. Upper-body types tend to use their right side to push the shot, lower-body types use their left side to pull the shot through. Some power hitters even go "under" a bit through the impact and use their right leg to brace on the backswing. "Nick Price consciously uses his right side to fire the ball," said Suttie. "Jack Nicklaus uses his left side very nicely. He keeps his left side firm so the club acts as a whip."

It was time to pop the million-dollar question: Is it possible to recover the distance you start to lose as you age?

"Absolutely," said Suttie. "A golf swing is about physics, and there are commonalities every hitter can use." The one thing Suttie stresses that surprised me was flexibility. "I can't stress this enough—try to keep a tension-free body," he said. "Your best shots go the farthest when you're relaxed; and that's because your rhythm and tempo are much better achieved."

Which brought me to those two elusive concepts. Most of the players I know use them but can't precisely define them.

"Rhythm is how the club and body accelerate and decelerate during the swing," he answered, "while tempo is the overall speed of the motion. There's also a third critical factor, and that's timing—or the sequence of the motion. Some pros avoid talking about these factors because they really don't understand what they mean. They rely, instead, on teaching good mechanics and hope that tempo, rhythm, and timing come from that.

"But I'm the other way around. I'd rather work with a student who has a peculiar swing but exceptional rhythm and tempo than one who has flawless technical skills but no natural tempo or rhythm. The great ballstrikers have it. That's why Arnold Palmer or Lee Trevino could make unorthodox swings work so well—tempo and timing and rhythm were exceptional.

"If I had to give you one thing that would improve your power besides identifying your body type, I'd say work on the smooth tempo swing."

From Cog Hill I went on to Monterey, California, to take up the same topic with Laird Small, director of instruction at the Pebble Beach Golf Academy and one of the most respected teaching pros in the country. Small and I have played enough rounds so he understands the peculiarities of my swing, and he, like Suttie, stresses common sense over technical purity.

"The first thing I'd like to know, and you need to know," Small said as we stood on the driving range at Spyglass Hill, where he does much of the academy's teaching, "is why gaining more distance is so important to you."

I talked strategy. The farther I get off the tee means the closer I am to the hole. That means I can use a shorter iron for the approach shot—and enjoy better odds of hitting the target. I reminded him of Tiger Woods' record-setting feat at the Masters golf tournament last year, bringing the famous course to heel by averaging 320 yards off the tee—roughly 40 yards more than his nearest competitors. As a result, he had the luxury of hitting nine-irons and wedges to Augusta National's difficult greens, which meant he was putting for birdies from close range—closer than anybody else. That's why he took home the green jacket.

Small smiled and agreed that Woods probably possesses the most perfect power swing in the game today. "But he's also twenty-three years old and, like a lot of young players now coming into the game, a finely conditioned athlete. He works on strength conditioning. The truth is, Woods may not be able to maintain that awesome level of power forever. Eventually he will have to adjust like everybody else does. I think that a more realistic role model for you, in a purely cautionary sense, might be Ian Baker-Finch."

Baker-Finch was the likable Australian who won the 1991 British Open and Royal Birkdale through a sparkling short game. But after his win at the latter, Baker-Finch tried to change his game, having been persuaded that he needed more distance off the tee if he wanted to contend regularly for major tournaments. He had told me about his sessions with several famous swing doctors, all of whom did nothing more than scramble his swing and ruin his confidence. He eventually abandoned the grail of distance and was now trying to recapture the fine short game touch that got him the Claret Jug.

"As long as you realize at your age there isn't a lot you can do to retrain your golf swing to achieve more power and distance," Small said, "you'll probably be fine. There are things you can do, however, that always help in achieving distance."

He began by suggesting I change from a soft-cored balata to a two-piece Surlyn-covered "distance" ball. That might gain me 10-15 extra yards off the tee because of the ball's reduced spin. Was I willing to sacrifice the "feel" and "workability" of the softer ball for distance? I said I wasn't.

Next we considered equipment, specifically drivers. I was using a 44-inch Cobra Ti driver with a D-3 swingweight. Small watched me hit several drives with it, then noted that a longer, lighter driver might yield more distance with an easier swing.

I said I'd try it, even though I found that the slower swing needed to control the longer stick sometimes threw off my rhythm. We agreed to try a longer, lighter Biggest Big Bertha at the end of the session. Then Small ticked off several things in my swing that were robbing me of distance.

The first was my stance. It was a bit too narrow, he said, which allowed me to turn my hips too much on the takeaway portion of the golf swing. That in turn diminished the tension of the coil at the top of the swing—the place where power is "loaded" in. To keep my left side in place, Small made me widen my stance a bit and turn the toes of my left foot slightly toward the target.

Next, my left-hand grip. It was a bit too neutral, meaning the Vs produced by my thumb and forefinger were too much on top of the club. This meant my release (the moment I uncock the club at impact) would have a tendency to be more "handsy," whereas I, given my powerful chest, wanted to use my upper body. It also made me swing too upright or "lift" the club rather than sweep it through the ball, something all great power hitters do well.

Small suggested I shift my grip slightly to the right to promote "sweeping" the club back on a lower path and also "delay" the moment of release, which normally increases the velocity of the clubhead.

On ball position Small noted two things. I teed the ball too close to the middle of my stance and too low. Moving the ball forward in my stance would make the driver hit with a level or even ascending blow, improving trajectory and producing overspin, which makes a ball roll when it lands. And teeing the ball slightly higher would also promote a more level blow.

Finally, he noted, my shoulders were too level at address. My right shoulder, he contended, should be slightly lower than my left one—a natural position since the right hand grips the club farther down the shaft than the left. Lowering my right shoulder a bit would also keep my weight on the right side as well as my head "behind" the ball until the moment of impact. Thus my weight would follow my arms through the downswing to produce an extended finish, which maximizes velocity.

I made the adjustments and, after 10 or 12 swats, noticed the ball coming off my driver with renewed authority.

Then Small slipped a seven-degree Biggest Big Bertha in my hands and urged me to make a relaxed, easy-tempo swing. My first efforts yielded good results, but no better than my regular driver. I felt tension in my arms as I consciously tried to "steer" the slower swing. After a few minutes of practice, though, I achieved a better rhythm and noticed that the ball was jumping off the clubface. And after I got the hang of it, I drove one or two shots out of the back of the range. It was nice to be 22 again.

"There's your power," Small smiled.

For the rest of the summer I worked on melding what I had learned from Suttie about my power source with the specific pointers Small had given me. I was deliberately going back to the swing I had in my 20s. My confidence roared back, and I was soon matching drives with the long-hitter of my regular foursome, the local hockey and golf coach. But I found that the adjustments I'd made resulted in shots that traveled farther from right to left, requiring me to compensate (remember what Suttie says) by aiming right of the target.

The moral being, I guess, that you can't have everything.

Upper-Body Players

Arnold Palmer, Craig Stadler, Fulton Allem.

• Strong upper-body strength.
• Use upper torso to rotate through the shot.
• Little lower-body movement.
• Strong grip.

Leg Players

Payne Stewart, John Daly, Tiger Woods.

• Lots of leg action and lateral hip movement.
• High, wide swing arc.
• Delayed release.
• Downcocking on downswing.
• Big body turn and coil.
• Aggressive move to the left side at impact.

Combination Players

Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman.

• Very strong hands and arms.
• Tremendous lateral leg drive.
• Strong coil, delayed release.
• Aggressive move to left side at impact.

Jim Suttie's Power Tips

• Learn your physical power source and build your swing around it.
• Experiment with a stronger left-hand grip.
• Develop an exercise routine to improve strength and flexibility.
• Tee the ball higher to promote upward trajectory and overspin.
• Position ball forward in stance to accommodate lateral hip motion.
• Develop a larger shoulder turn. The larger the turn, the faster the swing.
• Widen and lengthen swing arc.
• Swing the club in a sweeping manner.
• Keep head well behind ball at impact.
• Work on maintaining "coil" on back- and downswing.
• Keep the wrists cocked until impact in order to "whip" the ball.

A Basic Power Primer

According to Jim Suttie, long drivers share these 10 characteristics.
• Tremendous lateral motion with hips. Hips open at impact.
• Big shoulder turns, wide arcs, lots of lower-body action.
• Right leg braced for better weight transfer through impact.
• Use right side to "drive" through the ball at impact.
• Wrists kept cocked on the backswing and for as long as possible on the downswing; shoulders coiled almost through the moment of impact.
• Strong left-hand grip and fast hands.
& #149; Shallow-angle approach and inside-out swing path.
• Ball positioned well forward in stance to promote lateral hip motion at impact.
• Ball teed high to promote upward swing path and late-release launch.
• Relaxed swing.

Jim Dandy Course

Jim Suttie offers three-hour sessions at the Cog Hill Golf Club. Courses are limited to four participants, cost $275 per person, and are offered all year round. The program aims to define your power source and use it to find the swing that works best for you. For further information, call 630-455-6327.

The Short Course: New & Noteworthy, Picks & Pans

Fair ball
Sumitomo Rubber Industries' SRIXON series—Hi-Spin, Hi-Brid, Metal Mix SF, and Soft Feel—employ high-tech ball technology. Only the three-piece Hi-Brid impressed me, but not enough to give up my Titleist Professional 90 or Maxfli HT. $24.95-$39.95 per dozen.

Ping Isi Tour Fairway Woods
These traditional woods are made of laminated maple block. The club has a new perimeter weighting system that allows for maximum swing speed and forgiveness, and the compact head makes shots from the rough much easier. Steel shaft: $185; graphite shaft: $210-$235. 800-474-6434.

Spring Training Specials
Here's a pair of Florida packages that let you hone your game and catch some preseason baseball. (All prices are per person, double occupancy.) *Turnberry Isle Resort & Club: Tee Time ($319) includes deluxe room and breakfast, unlimited daily greens fees for the two superb Robert Trent Jones courses, cart for two. The Cincinnati Reds train at nearby Fort Lauderdale. 800-327-7028. PGA National Resorts and Spas: Platinum Golf Package ($388) includes deluxe room (two-nights) with full American breakfast, unlimited golf (five tournament courses), golf cart, range balls, and daily clinic. The Atlanta Braves train in nearby West Palm Beach. 800-633-9150.

One Great Hole
The 421-yard, par-four first hole at *The Boulders' South Course in Carefree, Arizona, plays slightly downhill, tapering to a 30-yard-wide throat, then doglegs right. Drive too long, you're in the desert; too short, you face a daunting second shot over a wash. To make matters worse, a boulder the size of a house snuggles up to the rear of the dangerously shallow green. Two Boulders pros recently opened their club match here. The winner carded a nine! 800-553-1717.

James Dodson's Final Rounds has sold over 100,000 copies in hardback and is now available in soft-cover.

* Member of Platinum Card Fine Hotels & Resorts. Amenities may not apply to package deals. For information call 800-443-7672 (U.S.) or 800-668-9147 (Canada).

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