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It was a bleak beginning for Matthew Wolff and my golf swing. “The good news is I’ve seen worse,” he said immediately. “I’ve seen a lot worse.”
How endearing! I had just hit three drivers at Old Palm Golf Club, the last of which failed to reach the fairway from the back tees. Wolff wasn’t working with much on this day, but to be fair to me, I had no warmup, was swinging a coworker’s driver and had squeezed into Wolff’s Nikes. And oddly, he was thrust into a difficult situation, too: Watch this man swing. Help him figure it out!
It’s a classic scenario seen in pro-ams and corporate outings; one not all Tour pros excel at. Being great at golf, it turns out, doesn’t imply being great at explaining why. Thankfully, I had an inclination of what Wolff would want from me. Twelve months prior, his coach George Gankas had given me a 20-minute lesson, focusing mostly on lengthening my backswing.
I was a fool with driver in my hands, inconsistent and occasionally very high, right and in the next fairway over. Lengthening the swing, standing up straighter, getting my hands higher, etc. would slow down my frenetic transition, help me swing more on-plane and keep that clubface shut at impact. If only we had more time! That’s where his no. 1 pupil comes in.
“You’re obviously hitting really far down on [the ball,]” Wolff said, springing into action. “You get to the top and you don’t really rotate your body.” Sadly, he was very correct.
“You just lift your arms up. And so when you lift your arms up, they’re just literally going to come straight down, and if they come straight down you’re pretty much going to go straight into the ground.” Correct again.
“When your arms come down, your body naturally slides forward so you don’t chunk it, which isn’t good.”
My swing was the definition of patchwork. I had grown obsessed with trapping the ball into the turf with my irons, creating maximum spin striking down on the ball with speed. With driver, I would lose that reliable turf interaction and create even more spin — the kind you don’t like. (A closer look at that video will show my ball actually skips off the tee box just a few feet ahead of the tee. Yikes!) This is, of course, a recipe for inconsistency.
The fix was simple, according to Wolff, the kid with 21-year-old flexibility. (He says he doesn’t really workout much during the season, because he doesn’t need to.) I needed to rotate. Really rotate. And not just with my upper body. Turn those hips further than they’re used to. And Wolff is the king of turn, isn’t he? That front heel lift he does during his backswing only allows him to rotate even more.
Wolff’s big idea is that not only is it okay to drill in exaggeration, that’s how you make significant changes. “You’re teaching your body to move in ways you haven’t moved before,” he said. “But without thinking about it while you’re actually hitting a shot.” Golf coaches might call it the Feel is Not Real Paradox. I thought I was turning. Harder than Elvis. But in reality, I could turn more.
“Your whole body is going to turn more around,” Wolff said, pointing his belt buckle about 50 degrees out to his right. “From here your body should just turn [back] around again. That way you can have more weight on [your] backside in order for you to hit up on [the ball].”
Simple enough when it comes out of his mouth. It was a useful reminder of how minor discrepancies in one part of your swing bleed into others. My lack of hip rotation triggered a quick lower-body transition, which my upper body struggled to keep up with, leaving me to shoot my hands down at the ball and sway with my lower body to make decent contact. Damnit, this game is hard. Fortunately, it worked.
To convince me to rotate as much as he hoped, Wolff explained the exaggerated rotational drills that Gankas has put him through. He’d tell Wolff to forget about where the golf ball is. It’s a harrowing thought for most golfers. Forget about the golf ball. Turn away from it so much that you lose sight of it. This is drilling in exaggeration. Fifteen to 20 swings (they can be half swings) where the result of contact doesn’t matter. All that matters is you make that belt buckle turn. As you can see in the video above, the early results were very positive: one baby draw, straight up the fairway, followed by one bigger draw that hooked into the rough. For me, the forever-slicer, it was a teeny-tiny a-ha moment we could build off.
“I’m tellin’ ya,” my new swing coach said. “That shot that you just hit was a lot closer to being good than the first one you hit.”
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