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Making an Impact

By Ted McIntyre

Ask 10 accomplished players and instructors what it means to be a great ball striker and you’ll get 10 different answers. Some say it’s the ability to work the ball in all directions and vary its trajectory. Others suggest it’s the ability to hit the same shot over and over, or describe it as wearing out the sweet spot of your irons by repeatedly hitting the ball on the same part of the clubface. All agree on one thing, however—that pure ball striking is a lot more valuable than a pretty golf swing.

As for its own definition, the PGA tour calculates ball striking by combining a player’s ranking in total Driving (accuracy + distance) and greens in regulation. for example, last year boo Weekley ranked first in gir and 17th in total Driving. The sum of those two numbers (18) was the lowest such value on tour in 2012, placing Weekley first overall in ball striking.

It’s actually one of the more telling statistical categories in professional golf. Although Weekley finished 108th on the money list in 2012—mostly attributable to his bad putting—he was immediately followed in the ranking by some of the most accomplished players in recent years: Jason Dufner, Hunter Mahan, Justin Rose, Lee Westwood and Louis Oosthuizen, with Bubba Watson and Tiger Woods a little further behind at 11th and 12th, respectively.

While all those swings vary, one consistent attribute is the sound those players generate at impact, distinguishing them not merely from the average amateur golfer, but from their fellow tour professionals on the driving range.

“After spending time with some of the best coaches and watching the best strikers, the sound the ball makes gets louder,” observes nick Starchuk, teaching professional at Mississaugua golf and Country Club. “I was with Sean O’Hair and (his coach Sean) Foley at the Disney Classic in 2009, and O’Hair’s impact made a different sound than the rest of the guys on the range, which is a result of compressing or ‘deforming’ the ball more than the others. This deformation is caused by reducing a player’s ‘spin loft,’ which is the difference between their angle of attack and the loft delivered at impact by the clubhead. The lower this angle, the greater the compression.”

“From a face-on perspective, a lot of players have the club standing up a little more vertically at impact,” explains Hamilton G&CC teaching pro Scott Cowx. “When tiger was with Hank Haney, he would do entire practice sessions without taking a divot. The path was really shallow. With? Foley, Tiger is really compressing his short irons. He’s moving the point of contact slightly up on the face of the golf club, which makes it sound completely different. For most players who move that contact up a half or full groove on the clubface, the ball comes off sounding like a gunshot.”

Sometimes that gunshot sounds more like cannon fire. “I’m standing next to Bubba Watson at the BMW last year when he’s hitting his driver, and it is hit so pure and hard and is so loud that my ears were still ringing two hours after I left the range,” recalls PGA Tour player Graham DeLaet, who has a refined ear for such impact, given his sixth-place ranking on tour in ball striking as of this year’s Florida swing. “Everybody on the PGA tour hits it good, but that separation is the sound it makes and the flight it has. Some guys have a nice click when they hit it, but it’s not that consistent thump, thump, thump.”
The sound is immediately identifiable.

“You can close your eyes and tell,” echoes Champions tour player and Victoria Native Jim Rutledge, an exceptional ballstriker himself. “There’s no clunk, no click— just a good, clean, flush sound.”
Although many Canadians past and present have ranked among the elite of such pure deliveries—with Moe Norman and George Knudson leading the cast—there is no obvious swing element that links them together.

Norman’s unique motion rarely resulted in a divot. Ball strik- ing machine Lee Trevino, on the other hand, generally took deep, long divots. Thee genesis of their swings, however, might provide some insight. It turns out there’s no single way to swing that yields a great striker of the ball. “I think those players who have their own homemade swings, such as Boo Weekley or Bubba, are able to be more repetitive in their action because they really only have one way to do it,” says Starchuk. “Those that have taken many lessons have a tendency to have a couple swing thoughts, which may not be best for consistent performance. Look at Mike Weir over the past few years. I know that two of the dozen or so coaches he’s had actually told him to do opposite things—and these coaches are the best out there. I think some golfers can be coached out of greatness, and that some of us are getting in the way.” interestingly, whether it is DeLaet or Weekley, many of the best ball strikers on the PGA tour have not had conventional coaching.?“where I grew up in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, I didn’t really have a teaching professional until I was 16 or 17. By then I’d developed the swing i pretty much have now,” notes DeLaet. “When I’m on the driving range, I don’t work on trying to get my body in a certain position or work on mechanics. i work on trying to maneuver the golf ball. Different shapes, heights, trajectories and spin. That’s how I practice. The majority of guys don’t do that.”

DeLaet might be a product of his environment. Players who have been brought up in windy climes, from Northern Ireland to Australia and from the Canadian Prairies to Texas, may have some inherent advantage in that they learned at an early age the unforgiving nature of less than ideally struck shots. “Growing up in those conditions, you’d have to develop a good solid base and good balance and learn to hit the ball solidly to get the results you needed—probably a lower flight as well,” says Rutledge. “A ball hit the sweet spot of the golf club holds its line better.”

Manotick’s Brad Fritsch is quickly turning into one of the best all-around ballstrikers on the PGA tour in his rookie season, the latest in the line of Canadians who hit lasers. Fritsch, who works with a coach Patrick Kelly, says for him it comes back to the basics—rhythm and tempo.

“That doesn’t change from swing to swing,” Fritsch says. “That’s been a goal of mine—to stay poised throughout the swing and in balance. Sometimes in a situation that I’ve never encountered before, like being in contention at Torrey Pines this year, will lead me to quicken my pace, to get fast. It’s a challenge to maintain my poise, but when I do, I hit it way better.”

DeLaet ponders whether such innate ball striking talents might also be common with players who played multiple sports growing up and were blessed with a natural hand-eye coordination. “I look at guys on tour who are very good ball strikers, like bubba,” says DeLaet. “He’s got a different swing, but he knows what the club is doing when it makes contact with the ball. Dustin Johnson has a great swing, but it’s also unconventional. A lot of the great athletes seem to have a sense of where their hands and the clubface are in respect to the ball, and are able to manipulate their swing in the final moments to make up for something that might be a tad off timing-wise. Golf was just another sport for them growing up. They’d think as little about what they did in the golf swing as what they did to make a jump shot in basketball.

“More than anything, I’d suggest to amateurs that they just try to have fun on the range by hitting different shots,” suggests DeLaet. “When i was younger, my buddies and i would try to hit a big slice, and then hit a rope hook. We didn’t know anything about the physics of it; we were just messing around as 12-year-olds.”

DeLaet has no intentions of hiring a full-time coach anytime soon. He doesn’t even like to see himself on video. “I don’t need to see which direction my divots are going or where my club is at the top, because i can see what the golf ball is doing. There is way too much money at stake for me to change my swing now. It’s not that I don’t want to improve; I think I get a little bit better every year.”

DeLaet’s process will be the same as for any amateur, says Rutledge. There are no shortcuts. “It’s about good timing, good rhythm and basic fundamentals,” he notes. “Lots of work and hours and hours of hitting balls.”

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This article originally appeared in this year's PRO:Formance magazine. To check it out, CLICK HERE

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