A Justin Thomas-inspired drill to improve your backswing

Justin Thomas got his groove back…

What a weekend. Indeed, a record-tying performance, JT put on to claim the The Players Championship.

His rounds of 64 and 68 on Saturday and Sunday were sublime displays of golf, because I can tell you first-hand: the course was not playing easy at all. 

I was part of the PGA TOUR LIVE Featured Groups coverage and saw how The Stadium Course was playing up close and personal.  Typically benign and receptive in the morning, the sunny, mild and breezy conditions, with low humidity, sucked the moisture out of the place and it typically played tougher later in the day.

Credit to Justin for managing the conditions and crafting that 64, the low round of the day, on moving day.  

And credit also to him for navigating his emotions, his temporary slump leading into the event, and his gritty finish on Friday just to make the 36-hole cut — he birdied two of his last three holes on Friday to slip inside the cut-line.  He did so with less than his best and it illustrated his mental acumen as well his his understanding of how to manage a day with less than your best. (An important lesson for everyone reading this: you don’t have to play your best game to shoot decent scores.)

Saturday and Sunday he was a virtuoso.  He putted great on Saturday and struck the ball magnificently on Sunday.  His Sunday ball-striking day, around a demanding venue, got me to thinking about his golf swing and what you can learn from it:

The case for high hands at the top of the backswing

Like Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus, Payne Stewart, Ernie Els and Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas carries a pretty upright lead arm at the top of his swing.

I have asked his dad, and coach, Mike, about it. Mike mentioned that he has no problem with the swing being more upright, and that all they keep tabs on are the clubshaft not getting too far across the line and the swing not getting too long.

The are certainly advantages to a higher arm-plane at the top:

  • The position creates a feeling of less restriction and more freedom leading to better swing rhythm,
  • High hands allow more time for the clubhead to accelerate in the downswing creating more speed and likely more success with longer irons and clubs, and
  • High hands can create a steeper an angle of attack making it easier to play out of the rough and bad lies.
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Typically, players with higher hands at the top are better iron players too.

Now it pays to be realistic about everything and not everything is the next great elixir for your ball-striking.  

I would advocate though that you get to a place where your lead arm is at least cutting through the seam of the shirt of your trail shoulder if you feel your arms are too deep and behind you at the top of your backswing.

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A simple drill to help

The first thing to be aware of is that you don’t just lift and raise your arms to the top of your swing.  

The higher hands position should be a function of the correct forward spine tilt, an appropriate pivot and a little free swing of the arms.

A great way to feel this is to grab a play-ball or soccer ball and throw it over your trail shoulder as you make your backswing.  Imagine an elephant throwing water over its back with its trunk.  The elephant’s body remains stable and down and the trunk swings freely over its shoulder. 

In the same way, grab the ball with your palms on each side of the ball and assume your address with proper spine tilt forward.  From there make your pivot and with stretched arms release (throw) the ball over your trail shoulder.  If you do it correctly you should throw the ball somewhat parallel with the target-line.  Hold that finish position for a little while and sense where your hands are located – they should be pretty close to the ideal position.  Try and straighten the elbows a little to add some width to your swing arc – it will further engage and load you up and you will feel like you can smash the ball.

Just like Justin Thomas.

Golf.com Contributor

On-course announcer and analyst Mark Immelman is passionate about the game of golf. As a decorated instructor, award-winning NCAA college golf coach, and an accomplished golfer, Mark brings a robust knowledge and vast experience to his role as a television broadcaster and golf instructor. He is currently a Golf Analyst for CBS Sports HQ, and an Analyst and On-course Announcer for CBS Sports and Golf on CBS. He currently also serves as a Studio Analyst and an On-course Announcer for PGA TOUR Live  for PGA TOUR Live.

The older brother to 2008 Masters Champion, Trevor Immelman, Mark grew up in Somerset West, South Africa. After a successful amateur career in South Africa he was offered a golf scholarship to Columbus State University (Columbus , GA). He enjoyed a prolific collegiate tenure highlighted by his four-time All-America selections, two-time Academic All-America awards, and two NCAA Div. II National Championship victories. After graduation, Mark had a short season as a playing professional, but quickly turned his attention to his true passion – golf teaching.

As a golf instructor, Mark believes in cultivating ability and talent by providing comprehensive, holistic golf instruction that is easily understandable and of the highest quality to golfers of all abilities and skill levels. His passionate approach and keen knowledge of the game have led to him being a sought-after mind by leading Professional and Amateur golfers alike. Through his career he has taught and/or consulted to PGA TOUR and European Tour professionals and tournament winners such as: Larry Mize, Loren Roberts, Trevor Immelman, Scott Brown, Patton Kizzire, Louis Oosthuizen and Will Wilcox. He has been recognized as one of “Golf Digest’s Top 20 Instructors Under 40”, Golf Digest’s “Best Teachers in the State of Georgia” and Georgia Trend Magazine’s “Top 40 Under 40 – Georgia’s Best and Brightest”.

As a NCAA College Coach at Columbus State University (since 2001) Mark continues to coach the Columbus State Men’s Golf Team and his program is a perennial contender for Conference and National Titles. He is a two-time NCAA Div. II Atlantic/Southeast Region Coach of the Year, two-time Peachbelt Conference Coach of the Year, and the 2009 NCAA Div. II National Coach of the Year.

In 2019 Mark was selected as Captain and Coach of the (Arnold) Palmer Cup International Team. His team triumphed over the United States Team in the Palmer Cup Matches held at The Alotian Club outside of Little Rock, AR.

Mark’s additional broadcast duties include being a guest analyst on the CBS Sports “First Cut Podcast”. CBS Sports also uses Mark’s unique voice for audio and promotional PGA TOUR advertisements and promotional reads.

He has also served a 6-year tenure as a Play-by-Play Announcer for Sirius/XM PGA TOUR Radio.

Additionally, Mark hosts “On the Mark”, a PGA TOUR Podcast, which to date has been downloaded more than 3 million times in more than 125 countries.

He has also written golf instructional columns and articles for Golf Digest SA, Golf Digest USA and is currently penning instructional pieces for Golf Magazine. As an author, Mark has published two e-Books on golf instruction: “Scandalously SImple – The Easy Way to Accurate Golf Shots” and “Golf is a Game of Recovery”.

You can learn more about at MarkImmelman.com