The Secret of Golf…

Sunday, I promised I’d share the secret of golf that I discovered in a lesson over the weekend.

It was said that Ben Hogan supposedly was coaxed to share his “secret”, but that he kept the real secret for himself.  Many now claim to know the lost secret move that gave Hogan’s swing the magic.

Well, I’m afraid that it has nothing to do with angles or positions.  If golf swings were meant to be a series of geometrical checkpoints, then players like Jim Thorpe, Jim Furyk, Lee Trevino, and so many others never would have made it to where they did.

I asked on Sunday if anyone knows what I’m referring to.  I will guarantee that the secret to the golf swing is something that any golfer has heard time and time again.  The question is, do you realize the importance?  I don’t think I did.

Are you ready to know?

Here it is:  tempo.

That’s it.  The secret to consistency in golf is tempo.  Of course, consistency is what leads to scoring and scoring, obviously, is success.

Do you feel cheated?  Did the answer not live up to the hype?  Let’s look a little further.

When we’re talking about tempo, we’re referring to the natural flow of the golf swing.  It is very much the same as tempo in a musical sense.  To strike the ball with solid contact and more importantly, to do it consistently, a player must have a smooth-flowing tempo and rhythm that lets him stay in balance.

I’ve heard it said that in many great players, the amount of time that the backswing and downswing take are nearly identical.  That’s tempo.  In a musical sense, we’re talking about beats, like with a metronome.  Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.  The golf swing is the same.  Tick (backswing) – tock (downswing).  Not tick-tooooooock.  Not tiiiiiiiiiiick-tock.

Let’s take a look at my own case.

As I told you on Sunday, I’ve resumed taking lessons and while I have had great success on the lesson tee, when I get on the driving range or on the course, it’s all been falling apart.

My problem?  I’m always trying to hit the ball too hard.

This is something my pro noticed immediately in my most-recent lesson.  I told you that he gave me three minor technical adjustments to make, but that wasn’t all.  He noticed within a swing or two that my tempo was way off.

When I swing the club back smoothly, and keep that smoothness through the transition to the down swing, through impact and into follow through, then I hit great shots.

Unfortunately, my tendency to try and hit the ball hard leads to some adrenaline creeping in and taking over.  Sometimes, I take a smooth backswing and then jerk the club down at the ball, trying to get some serious clubhead speed going.  Sometimes, I know I’m going to try and kill it, so my takeaway is jerky, and once I’m in a bad position at the top or my rhythym is off, then the shot is a disaster.

As I hit a few 7-irons, my pro had me dial back to try and only hit them 150 yards.  Still, I was smooth all the way to the downward transition, and then the adrenaline took over and I was pulling them left.  The tension in my hands and arms was causing me to flip the club closed.  I was hitting them off the toe.  It was bad.

Then, he did something that turned on the light bulb for me.  He handed me my pitching wedge and had me aim at the 100 yard flag.  Since a full wedge is about 125 yards for me, I had to dial it back.  I immediately fell into my Pelz-style, dead-hands, finesse wedge swing.  I began striking the ball crisply and on target.

After that, he simply handed me my 7-iron and told me to put my wedge swing on it.  I did and the results were immediate.

Surely you’re thinking that I can’t be suggesting to hit drivers with a finesse wedge swing.  No, not exactly.

What I’m saying is that he found a way to show me what proper tempo is, and how to bring it out of the wedges and into the rest of my bag.  It was there on the wedges but on full swings, I was just suppressing it.

Trying to increase my tempo by jerking the club from the top and trying to crush the ball was actually having the opposite effect.  I was tensing up and getting out of sync.  From there, all hope is lost.

I actually fall into a common trap on the range.  When I hit a solid shot at 70% power, then my natural tendency is to hit the next shot at 75% to get more distance.  Then 80%, then 90%, and so on.  Long before that, my ball striking has broken down because I begin to sacrifice tempo for power.

Then comes the funny part – do I then peel back to 70%?  No.  What happens then is, I try to “fix” the things that I perceive I’m doing wrong at that time.  I change my shoulder alignment, the alignment of my feet, the tilt of my spine, my distance from the ball.  On and on and on, until I have no hope of making progress.

My pro proved to me that tempo is the secret by forcing me to find it and then stick with it after I went back to my 7-iron.  The fact that I went back to hitting perfect shots proved that I wasn’t off-plane and didn’t have a bad wrist cock, or have too open/closed shoulders or anything else.

Are those things in my swing (alignment, plane, etc.) what you’d consider “textbook”?  No.  But they’re also not what’s keeping me from scoring well.  Before I get to the next level, we’ll look to refine those areas.  But building a foundation that includes tempo, rhythm, and balance is crucial.  I finally see that I didn’t have it.

Now, what you want to know is, what is the proper tempo for you?

I have no idea.  There is no single proper tempo.  Tempo is an individual trait.  Some players swing very quickly with a fast takeaway and a fast downswing.  Some players swing more slowly with a deliberate takeaway and downswing.

One thing is certain, though – the “beats” on your backswing and downswing (tick and tock) should be very close to the same.  Tick-tock.  Tick-tock.  Backswing-downswing.  You’ll need to adjust the pace of the beats to find your optimal tempo, but once you do, your ball striking will improve.

The beauty (and curse) of tempo is that it’s the foundation of the swing.  When things go bad, it’s like a baseline that can be comfortably returned to, like a ship returning to a safe harbor to escape a bad storm.  If tempo itself goes bad, then the swing begins to crumble.  I discovered that on Saturday.  As bad as I was hitting the ball, fixing my tempo immediately resulted in good shots again.

No matter how good or bad your mechanical swing fundamentals are, you’ll never reach the full potential of your swing unless your tempo is good.  If your tempo is poor, then without question it’s holding you back.

Still don’t believe the importance?  Well, how about this – I’ll show you any number of great players you want with different grips, stances, swing planes, and so on, and you point me to a single great player with poor tempo.  I’ll wait… Give up?

If you suspect an issue with tempo, then you have to try and work it out.  Hit balls to the beat of a metronome to get the feel of perfect tempo.  Don’t forget that you might have to slow it down or speed it up to match your natural rhythm.  If you don’t have access to a metronome, then just do the tick-tocking in your head as you swing.

Most likely, though, you don’t even realize there’s a problem with your tempo, so the best solution is to meet with a pro and get a swing check-up.  If you discover a problem with tempo and work it out, you’ll be making music on the course in no time.

Comments

  1. Awesome. I don’t much if anything about tempo, but it makes sense that there swing fundamentals that transcend grip, follow-through, take-away, etc.

    It would be interesting to watch some video of some pros with non-traditional swings to see their tempo.

    If you really have solved it, how do you go about ‘reminding’ yourself on the range and course. How do you break your old bad habits?

  2. Double Eagle says:

    I came to that point last night at the driving range, Happy Rock. It was actually easier than I thought. Each bad shot I hit that hooked left and clunked off the toe of the club told me immediately that I had lapsed back into bad behavior. So, I just went back to my basic tempo fundamentals: grip lightly, 70% effort, tension free. I also was concentrating on the one technical fix of keeping my eye on the ball just a little longer.

    I almost always followed a bad shot with a good one, and even started to string together several good ones.

    After five or ten range sessions like that, I should begin to put that tempo into muscle memory.

    As an aside, I’m amazed at what this has done to my accuracy. When I hit a solid shot, it’s almost always dead on line.

    These are the kinds of discoveries that make me want to spend hours on the range. It’s hard to resist calling in “sick” and spending the day out there.

  3. Dave says:

    Great article. I never considered tempo as the secret to golf. Thanks for sharing

  4. DW says:

    yes, tempo. My golf instructor and I are both musicians and we have talked about this at length.

    I played my best round of golf with a song stuck in my head that I know was 90 beats per minute.

    My golf instructor prefers 80 beats per minute.

  5. Double Eagle says:

    I’m definitely finding out that fewer BPM are better for me, DW! I guess the problem is, once the song is stuck in your head, then you don’t have much choice but to keep time with it.

    Note to self: do *not* play Metallica on the way to the golf course.

  6. Nick says:

    Yesterday, I took a few moments to go to the range with my kids. I did this BEFORE reading your post unfortunately. But looking back on it now, when I was showing my kids how to hit their wedges I was balanced in my swings and using tempo. My shots were pure. But when I let them loose and I was just hitting balls to hit balls, my shots were horrible, obviously bad tempo. Thanks for the reminder and I will use that as a teaching point with my kids.

  7. Chuck says:

    Excellent Article!

    When I hit a bad shot on the course, about 75% of the time I can cite Tempo as the cause. Whether it is trying to pound a 2 iron on the green for an eagle putt, or hold back on that wedge, tempo is usually the issue.

    Reminds me of one of my favorite golf stories from my youth.

    When I was about 13 I was at our local golf course for a youth clinic. All the other kids were hitting the shortened driver oh about 150 – 180 yards. Unfortunately being a left hander, the only club they had was a 7 iron! Well I stepped up there and took a long smooth swing and cranked it out there about 165 and the instructor’s jaw dropped. That was definitely a good feeling!

    Chuck

  8. David says:

    Well we all know there is no one secret to golf, that’s what makes it so fascinating. One day you think you’ve cracked it, the next time out something else starts to fall apart.

    Good tempo is indeed very helpful, and many range rats fall into the trap you so eloquently describe of trying to hit it too hard. I have to say though that if your backswing and downswing and are in the same tempo you have a seriously fast backswing !

  9. Double Eagle says:

    David, when I say the backswing and downswing are timed roughly the same, I’m referring to the downswing as all the way from the top down through impact and on to the finish. So, while it’s at a faster pace, it’s also a longer motion.

    So with the metronome example, if you start your swing on a tick, get to the top of the backswing on the tock, the next tick would be right as you get to finish.

  10. Golf Books says:

    You are soooo right
    I had the priveledge of attending The President’s Cup last fall. Seeing all the big names swing in person was an eye opener. Television with the cool angles and crisp ground-level Mics just don’t give you a realistic impression of the pro’s tempo. The Swing Very Slowly. I though Singh was going to nod off on his backswing. Even tiger wih his rocket launches swings much more slowly than comes across on TV. Like you said everyone should find there own tempo (Nick Price was pretty quick and wasn’t too shabby).
    Bruce

  11. I think you have it right on. When I’m struggling with my irons I often dial back an eight iron to 145 yards or so and just stroke them out there. After I’m doing that for a while and have found that nice tempo and release, I adjust the depth of the swing just a bit and am back to hitting them 160 or so. I work my way up the set until I can do the same thing with the long irons. If I start hitting them bad, I go back to the shorter stuff again. This often works to get me out of a bad iron striking funk.

  12. Double Eagle says:

    Nick, I think you touched on the most important aspect – that tempo is the foundation that we can return to when things are going bad.

    I can’t remember the last time I’ve hit so many shots so purely. Of course, I’ve lost some distance, but that will eventually return as I build this foundation.

    You mentioned release, too. It’s weird that before, my release was kind of automatic because my swing was so hard. It just happened. Now, I feel like my release is under conscious control. I’ve been pushing some shots dead right because I haven’t found the right timing yet. Certainly that will change after I get it all refined and filed into muscle memory.

  13. Nice Post,

    This has been my biggest problem since I took up golf ten years ago. From what I hear I’m not alone. It’s quite frustrating actually. I can really force myself to slow down a bit on one swing (and of course I hit a nice one) but then one or two shots later the brain turns off. I can’t seem to get that ‘muscle memory’ tuned to the right speed. There was one little nugget I heard that helped me a bit last year. I think it came from a Jack Nicklaus book. The idea was to imagine a glass of water resting on your driver’s head. When you start your backswing – the first 12 inches- you don’t want to spill any water.
    I’ll keep working on it..
    John D.

  14. Cracking article, and great blog.
    My “secret to golf” is keep practicing regularly and progression will come naturally – but that’s not really a secret is it !?

    Keep it up.

  15. Double Eagle says:

    Thanks, Chris. Your secret to golf is definitely no secret – it should be a rule!

  16. Green Golfer says:

    Great post. I’ve been doing a lot of research recently about consistency, and I think you’ve nailed it on the head here.

  17. Kurt says:

    I watched a youtube video from an older gentleman (Hibbard) who nailed it for me. He uses the analogy of the playground swing. It’s a 2 part video. You’re right – Tempo is the Holy Grail, but people won’t belive it. . .

  18. Joe says:

    Very informative article. I find that when I get “caught up” with the actual mechanics of the swing, I tend to not play as well. However, when I focus on making a nice, smooth swing I perform much better. Thanks for the info.

  19. Double Eagle says:

    It’s tough to leave the mechanical thoughts on the range, but it’s difficult to play well otherwise. I find that I don’t have too much trouble doing that except for times like now when I’m working heavily on changing my swing.

  20. Joe says:

    Great article! Since I have started thinking about tempo, my game has gotten dramatically better. If I start mishitting shots, I alwasy look to grip, aim, satnce posture and now, I also think tempo of mys wing. Keep up the good work!

  21. Double Eagle says:

    Thanks, Joe. Glad you enjoyed the post. It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of tempo as I found out in my most recent lesson this morning. I find that when things are going bad, many times I just need to mind my tempo a bit and things get better.

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