Misunderstood Advice: Hitting Down on the Ball

There are several bits of information that come up on the topic of the golf swing that are often misleading to people. Some things just naturally lend themselves to various interpretations or even varying degrees of whatever is involved.

One of the big offenders in this category is the idea of hitting down on the ball with irons. We might say “hit down on the ball” or “the club makes a descending blow”. Unfortunately, some players may get two wrapped up in that idea and take it too literally.

Let’s step back for a second.

Think about the arc of the golf swing. Obviously, the club head starts behind the ball. It moves in an arc back and up to the top of the swing then back down in a similar (though not necessarily the same) arc, through the ball and then up into the follow through.

By definition, that arc will have an absolute low point, where the club is closest to (or under) ground level. Once the downswing starts, the club head is getting lower and lower as it approaches that low point, then it immediately starts moving higher into the follow through.

When we talk about hitting down on the ball, we’re simply talking about striking the ball before the club head gets to that low point. In other words, the club is moving down and still has even further to go.

Let’s have a look at K. J. Choi hitting a 6-iron:

[Update: Oops! The video was removed from YouTube since this post was written. You'll have to take my word for it.]

As you can see would have seen there, especially in the close up, the club is still moving downward well after contact.

Now, back to the misunderstanding. Some players believe there is some kind of action they need to take to properly hit down on the ball. Unfortunately, this just leads to a steep angle of attack and the club head getting stuffed into the turf and huge divots that expose rare mineral deposits.

Try this experiment: go to the driving range with a 7-iron and hit a few balls (or even just do swings with no ball), paying careful attention to the divot and to the location of your feet. I hope I don’t need to say that astroturf mats are inappropriate for this experiment.

As the club is entering the turf (at the back of the divot) it is still moving downward. As it comes back up and leaves the turf it is moving upward. Therefore, the low point of the swing is somewhere in the divot.

Now that you know where your divots start and end, you have all the information you need to hit down on the ball. Simply play the ball just a fraction behind where your divot starts. Then, you’ll strike the ball with a descending blow without any kind of conscious effort to hit down.

Eliminating a conscious effort to hit down on the ball will help you make more consistent contact and avoid fat shots. Playing the ball in the proper location relative to the low point of your swing will improve your ball striking as well.

It’s as easy as that!

Comments

  1. Great explanation! Very easy to understand! This hitting down on the ball took me years to understand and perfect. Once I did, the crispness of my shots went way up, as well as getting good spin on the ball when it hits the green!

  2. Double Eagle says:

    Thanks, Mike.

    It took me a long time to realize it as well.

    For something that seems so simple, golf can get pretty complicated, especially when you’re trying to do it well.

  3. joe johnson says:

    Another thing that I would recommend to help promote the “hitting-down” idea would be to allow the wrist to hinge during the take-away portion of the swing. To be more specific, start the “hinge” as your club goes past the point of becoming parallel to the ground. Feel the wrist hinge from there and you’ll begin to feel more coil as well, promoting a more powerful swing.

  4. Double Eagle says:

    Good points, Joe. That wrist hinge is critical for solid ball striking. Maintaining it on the down swing (lag) for as long as possible is a big component of explosive distance, as well.

  5. Don Oosterveen says:

    Thank you for this explanation of “hitting down” on the golf ball. Once in a while, I hit a perfect iron shot with both good height and distance. I’m sure part of it was hitting the ball as you have described. I can’t wait to work on this on the range and on the golf course.

  6. Double Eagle says:

    My pleasure, Don. Have fun at the range – you sure will when you start to groove the feeling of those purely struck shots!

  7. jhantonio says:

    Thank you so much for explaining.
    I started golf 2 years ago, and my friend kept telling me that in proper iron shots, the clubface hits down on the ball and traps it between the clubface and the ground. But I didn’t understand how the clubface could trap the ball since the clubface has a loft and faces upward. It just could not be true.
    Your article and KJ Choi’s video helped tremendously.
    Thank you again.

  8. Double Eagle says:

    You got it, jhantonio. Glad I could help out. One thing I will add is that your friend is also right.

    In the video above, KJ Choi was hitting the ball off a tee. However, if the ball was on the turf, what would happen is, as the club head moves downward in its arc and begins to make contact with the ball, the grooves on the club face sort of grab the cover of the ball and “pinch” it against the turf. This is where great amounts of backspin are generated. In reality, you don’t have to do much different than what KJ Choi did above to achieve that. In high speed video, you can actually see the ball deform a little as the grooves grab the cover of the ball and pinch it downward. As the ball leaves, it’s actually starting to spin up the face as the club keeps descending because the grooves have grabbed hold.

    It’s one of those things that doesn’t make sense in your imagination, because you’re probably trying to figure out how it could be possible for the club face (or sole) to come smashing down on top of the ball and to still hit a decent shot. That’s not what really happens, though. The secret is in the grooves. “Trapping” and “pinching” are accurate ways to describe what happens, but without having seen it before, the first thing your imagination conjures up probably isn’t what’s actually going on.

  9. AJB says:

    I like the drill with the suggestion of the divot.

    But what about a drill on the turf, as I live in a city area with a driving range that doesnt offer a dirt option.

    Thanks,

    Alex

  10. Double Eagle says:

    Alex,

    You may need to get a little creative in that case.

    One thing you might try is getting a very thin piece of plywood board (1/8 inch would be good). Lay it down so the long side is along your target line. If it’s fairly light, you might want to use a piece large enough to stand on so that it doesn’t go flying down range when you hit it (and it also has the positive effect of making sure you’re standing at the exact same height as the surface you’re going to strike).

    Draw a little circle where the ball would be (or just a pair of lines a ball-width apart, perpendicular to the target so you can take multiple swings). Address the “ball” and take a practice swing. You should see scuffs where your club struck the board. That would be the start of the divot. Do that a few times, adjusting the position of the lines until you’re able to make the scuffs appear at or just in front of the forward line. if you’re not seeing scuffs, you could try painting the surface of the board or even try sprinkling powder (like baby powder) on the surface – anything to show the scuffs better.

    Then, simply take the wood away and play the ball in the position you found that put the start of the divot ahead of the ball a little. I personally like my divots to start at the front edge of the ball, but depending on how steep or shallow your swing path is, you might like it to be slightly different, but probably not much.

    You probably want to make sure you don’t use wood that’s too thick (thin and flimsy is good) and you’ll want to take easy, smooth swings, especially if you take huge, deep divots normally (meaning you probably have a steep swing), because slamming down into the board might be a bit jarring.

  11. Rick says:

    Great explanation! I have an issue with not hitting the ground in the same spot. The bottom of my swing arc varies at least 4 to 6 inches. Any ideas?

  12. Double Eagle says:

    Rick,

    Without seeing your swing, it’s difficult to give an opinion. However, one possibility that does come to mind is that you may be swaying way too much during your swing.

    The low point of your swing will generally somewhere just forward of the center of your chest (not quite in the center, because you hold the club with one hand below the other and your shoulders are tilted). If you sway that point forward two inches, then your low point will more forward two inches. Same if you sway the opposite way.

    Next time you hit some range balls, maybe try and get a sense of whether you are swaying excessively during the swing. Generally, your hips probably should not sway over the outsides of your feet.

    Another possibility is that you’re changing your spine angle during the swing. If during the back swing, you tilt more to the right away from the ball, or even the opposite way in a reverse-pivot, you could be adding all sorts of variation to the low point of your swing. But that definitely has the effect of moving that point in your chest where your low-point will occur.

    One thing that might help is searching around YouTube for some CBS SwingVision clips (face on) of some of the PGA Tour pros. Pay careful attention to how their weight shifts during the swing, how their shoulders tilt, and how the center point in their chest moves during the swing. That might help you to understand what a proper weight shift should look like and might help you understand what you’re doing differently.

    I hope that helps some.

  13. Les says:

    Thank you! Great explanation over a concept I never understood. I have been the dreaded weekend hacker. I almost never leave a divot.
    Also, pro I was taking lessons from had me changing ball position front to back depending on which iron I was using. (7 in the middle)
    I would love to hear your comments on these two items! Thank you again.

  14. Double Eagle says:

    My pleasure, Les. I’m glad it was a help.

    If you never take a divot, it may be that your swing plane is very shallow and flat. If you’re not familiar with what that means, this might help: http://www.lifeintherough.com/2007/12/22/golf-glossary-swing-plane-edition/

    In relation to that image that you’ll see by clicking that link, a shallow plane would have your club approaching the ball on or underneath that line and with the shaft possibly more parallel to the ground. The opposite would be more upright where the shaft is more vertical as the club approaches the ball.

    There’s probably nothing inherently wrong with that, but you might not be maximizing your spin by hitting down on the ball.

    Regarding ball position, I don’t typically like to play any standard shots behind the center of my stance. I might do it for a punch shot or something, but I pretty much play everything from 7-iron and down in the middle of my stance. For longer clubs, I like to move it a little more forward, but even for long irons, I don’t like to move it more than a ball-width or two forward of center.

    Your pro was probably trying to maximize the spin with your shorter clubs by having you put the ball a little behind center. That forces you to hit more down on the ball because if you don’t, you’d likely end up making really thin contact. But it also may force you to keep your weight hanging to the right some to avoid smothering it (hitting down on top of the ball).

  15. ron says:

    Thanks for the most easily understood advice. Now that I know what “hitting down on the ball” actually meaans, I cannot wait to try it out on the course. By far the best advice on any web sites.

  16. Double Eagle says:

    Thanks, Ron, glad you found it helpful.

  17. Joe V. says:

    Good advise. Some get confused by this statement. I have always heard that your divot should be the size of a strip of bacon. I try not to get to “wrapped up” on whether I am “hitting down” on the ball or not. I simply try to make good contact. Your advise continues to be very good.

  18. TimothyW says:

    If the hands are forward in the entire downswing through the follow-through then the divot will be taken automatically. Hands forward at impact means that the club is still travelling downward to low point. After three years of returning to golf, I now understand what it means to hit down on the ball, the club head has to lag, if it doesn’t then the ball won’t compress. The worst swing thought ever that plagues many golfers is the phrase “get under the ball” in attemping to “get under the ball,” the clubhead is thrown at the ball and the result is topped, duffed, and thin shots. Swinging down on the ball in order to compress it means that the club shaft has to be stressed in the downswing all the way through to the follow-through.

  19. Thanks for the in depth explanation, I will have to try some of these tips when I go to the range next. I have serious issues trying to follow these tips while staying relaxed though, but I guess that’s golf for ya. I either stay relaxed and lose all form, or have too strict of form and my mind is cluttered. I’ll try these tips out this weekend and let you know how they worked for me.

    Thanks again!

  20. I would like to see some comprehensive testing (I’m sure one or the other of the club manufacturers have done this sort of thing with their high-tech, computer-controlled club testing machines, the descendants of “Iron Byron”) showing the differences in ball flight characteristics when the club strike occurs at various points in the arc of the swing.

    I have a hard time believing that the ball is compressed against the turf by the impact of the club — I’ve never played off of a fairway that was harder then a golf ball, which it would have to be for this effect to be present. I think it far more likely — and important to the quality of the golf shot — that the interaction of the club face and the ball create backspin. The interaction between the surface of a spinning sphere (the golf ball) and the fluid through which it is moving has a profound effect on the path of the sphere, via the Magnus Effect; and of course, the amount of spin the sphere has retained when it comes into contact with the ground affects how it behaves on the turf.

    So – intercepting the ball with the clubface while the club is still in some portion of the downward arc of its motion is pretty much certainly a Good Thing, but I think that most people misunderstand why it is a good thing — esp. the huckster-proponent of “Hit Down, Dammit!”.

  21. Keith says:

    As often happens, the more startling words are remembered (and repeated), while the more mundane part of the sentence, the part that sets the context, is lost. “Hit down on the ball” in isolation, is bonkers. And even worse, people begin to attempt to apply erroneous science to justify it!

    The missing part of this nugget of pure gold advice? “Have a *feeling* that you are hitting down on the ball”. The logic behind it makes complete sense, when we consider the single most common error almost every golfer faces at some point, failing to weight shift properly and contacting the turf behind the ball. The ‘notion’ of trying to hit the ball into the ground *forces* us to push our weight more forward (DTL), and the consequence is that the swing arc moves forward and creates perfect ball contact just before the bottom of the arc.

    The advice was never intended to modify the swing path so that we do actually hit the ball into the ground, it was simply meant to use the same swing, but with a better weight shift. The key word is ‘feeling’.

    Whenever I realise my swing is getting lazy, during a round, persuading myself that I need to ‘hit down’ at the ball is all it takes to re-energise a proper weight shift. I’ve used a self-taught S&T for years, and while weight shift is less vital and easier to time, it is still the component of the swing that is most easily neglected. Especially on uneven lies!

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