Finding the move that works for you
More than other components of golf technique, such as grip, alignment and backswing, the downswing reflects your personal style. Fundamentals still apply, of course, but flexibility, body type, the shot shape you desire (draw or fade, low or high) and the way your body just naturally seems to want come out of the backswing also factor in. I like to initiate the downswing with a left shoulder move, for example, but others feel more comfortable leading with the lower body. The surest way to find the downswing that suits you best is to experiment. On these pages are several great drills to help with that process, along with some insights into the fundamentals you really must pay attention to.
My watchwords here are "slow and unwind." One of the biggest mistakes both amateurs and pros make is to start the downswing before the backswing is complete. The urge is understandable, especially under pressure, but doing so throws off your approach angle into the ball and robs you of power. The backswing is a coil. Releasing that coil prematurely, before you've wound as much resistance into it as possible, is a waste of potential.
When I ask my long-hitting brethren on Tour how they add distance to their drives, most say they try to "swing easier" by focusing on giving their backswings plenty of time to finish. This was exactly my key swing thought in winning the 1996 Masters. I like to think of the downswing as an act of gradual acceleration. Speed only matters at impact, so there's no need to rush it.
I pay a lot of attention during the transition to holding my right knee and thigh still. With them rock solid, I can concentrate on first-move visualizations. One is to imagine a big rubber band stretched between my right knee and left shoulder; I then start the downswing by pulling the shoulder-end of the imaginary band away from the knee. The right side stays still only for the time it takes the left shoulder to move a couple of inches, but that lag gives me confidence to then fire the right side through the ball with abandon. Sometimes I practice this move with the right leg well ahead of where it normally is, in an exaggerated semilunge position.
Another image to work with, again keeping the right side still, is to start down by moving the left shoulder a couple of inches away from the chin and then follow with the right side. Advanced players looking to produce a power fade can envision that first left shoulder move as a drive down toward the intended divot. To promote a draw, think of pulling the left shoulder up for those first few inches.
The key ingredient of a good release is commitment. Many amateurs fail to truly release the club because they don't trust all the hard work they've done to get in a good position at the top. Both the right-arm drill and the thumbs-up drill are great for developing the confidence you need to make a relaxed but aggressive move through the ball.
Weight shift is an integral part of a good release, and for you Yanks there's no better image to contemplate than that of a baseball pitcher. He loads all his weight onto his back leg in the windup and then shifts it forward onto his front leg as he throws. Similarly, at the top of the golf backswing you want almost all your weight on the right side. At impact your shoulders and head should still be behind the ball, but the overall movement of weight should be powerfully shifting to the left. The right knee should be moving parallel to the target line and not shooting out toward the ball (a frequent amateur mistake). Practicing with a medicine ball can help convey the proper feel. Take your normal golf stance while holding the ball with both hands out in front of your stomach, then turn back and through. To support the heaviness of the ball, you must also shift your body weight back and through; your arms, shoulders, abs and legs will have to work together.
There are two images I've found helpful regarding the attack on the ball. One is to feel, as you start the downswing, as if someone has taken hold of your left hip pocket and is pulling it sharply around and behind you. Your shoulders and hips should open to the target through impact with that kind of force. The other is to visualize the clubhead reaching top speed in the foot or so after impact. This promotes an accelerating release through the ball with the clubhead traveling low down the target line. The hands don't fully release until a couple of feet after they pass the ball.
For players who have a problem slicing or hooking, I can recommend a good release-related drill. It requires laying two clubs on the ground. The first should be at your feet, parallel to the ball-to-target line. Align yourself parallel to this club and square to the target. For slicers, the second club should lie just outside the ball and point ten to fifteen degrees right of the target. The idea is to practice releasing the clubhead along this line. At first this swing path will feel awkwardly inside to out, but stick with it. Soon you will find yourself hitting straight shots or even draws. To cure a hook, point and release along a line ten to fifteen degrees left of the target. (If your range balls have stripes, you can use them instead of laying down the second club.)