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Smart Golf | Swing Tempo




If you've ever wandered out to the range at a PGA Tour event to watch the pros practice, you were probably less impressed by how far they hit the ball (you already knew they were long) than by the smooth, leisurely tempos on display up and down the line. Compared with the quick-jerk artists at your neighborhood range, the best players in the world seem to swing in slow motion. But the truth is that they are completing their swings much faster than it seems. If you were to start your take-away at the same instant that a languid-swinging pro like David Toms started his, in all likelihood you'd still be lost somewhere in your backswing by the time Toms made contact. Moreover, your swing almost certainly would look rushed while Toms's swing would look like it always does, smooth and easy.

What the top pros have that you, I and the quick-jerk range rats don't is perfect tempo. And now, thanks to the work of John Novosel, a businessman, inventor and golf enthusiast from Leawood, Kansas, we know a lot more about what constitutes perfect tempo than we used to. Novosel closely analyzed video of most of the world's greatest golfers, both past and present, and discovered that virtually all of them executed their swings, from take-away to impact, within a very small window of time, from .93 seconds to 1.2 seconds. He also discovered that nearly all accomplished golfers have a precise, identical rhythm: three beats back, one beat down. Novosel then devised a way for average golfers to approximate the tempo of a pro swing by hitting balls while listening to tones through a headset and watched in amazement as their shots improved instantly and dramatically—without any attention whatsoever to wrist cock, hip turn, swing path or the countless other mechanical issues that are the bane and substance of traditional instruction. This improvement happened essentially, Novosel came to realize, because once the tempo is right, there isn't any time left over for the club to do all the crazy, inefficient things it usually does during bad swings, like pause, hitch, wander around in loops and come over the top.

Novosel has compiled the results of his research and offers an instructional program (see below) based on his findings in a compelling new book, Tour Tempo: Golf's Last Secret Finally Revealed, cowritten with John Garrity, due out this spring. In Novosel's view, good tempo ought to be viewed as a bedrock fundamental of the golf swing that helps produce good mechanics, rather than something tacked on as a kind of extra once a player has supposedly mastered the mechanics. "The old paradigm of teaching club, hand and body positions at every conceivable point in the swing doesn't work very well," Novosel said. "There's really no good way for a player to incorporate all that information during a swing that lasts just a second and while the player is moving the club at a hundred miles an hour." He doesn't contend that mechanics are irrelevant, only that beyond a certain point, teaching them in the traditional manner is unnecessary and even counterproductive. People learn faster and better, he argues, by focusing on tempo to get the feel of an effective, powerful swing and letting the body figure out the rest by itself.

Like many discoveries, Novosel's insights into tempo occurred serendipitously. While editing video of LPGA star Jan Stephenson's swing for an infomercial, he happened to pay attention to the frame counter on his editing program. Broadcast video is shot at a rate of thirty frames per second (or roughly thirty-three thousandths of a second per frame), and Novosel noticed that Stephenson's tempo was exactly the same from swing to swing, no matter what club she was using: twenty-seven frames from take-away to the top, nine frames from the top back down to impact, for a total of thirty-six frames, or 1.2 seconds. Curious, he started examining the videotaped swings of other top pros. The fastest swingers, like Nick Price, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus, took twenty-one frames to reach the top of their backswings and seven frames back to impact, for twenty-eight frames total and .93 seconds total swing time. Another group, including Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Sam Snead, took twenty-four frames back and eight frames down, for 1.02 seconds total swing time. And a third group, including Bobby Jones, David Toms and Jim Furyk, swung consistently at a 27:9 tempo. Of the more than one hundred pros whose swings Novosel studied, only one—Ed Furgol, the 1954 U.S. Open champion—swung faster than 21:7 (he swung at 18:6), and only a handful swung slower, including Nancy Lopez in her prime (30:10). But always, the three-to-one time ratio of backswing to downswing was identical.

The only time the swings of the best players in the world diverged from this ratio was when they hit bad shots. For example, Novosel's analysis of a badly pulled drive by Phil Mickelson revealed a tempo of 3.5 to one. Amateurs, on the other hand, were consistent only in being all over the lot. Some swings that Novosel recorded took as long as three full seconds to complete. Ratios ranged from solid, quick three-to-ones for certain low handicappers to good rhythms but slow and weak three-to-ones for others (33:11) to highly erratic for most (26:11, 44:11, 66:11).

The audio files that Novosel created for players to listen to while swinging (through MP3 player or CD Walkman-type devices) come with his book in the three main, pro-quality tempos: 21:7, 24:8 and 27:9. The three-tone sequences can be played in endless loops, allowing golfers to initiate the swing whenever they are ready. Novosel directs his students to initiate the take-away in reaction to the first tone, initiate the transition between backswing and downswing in reaction to the second, and synchronize the moment of impact to the final tone. "Almost always the first reaction I get is, 'Whoa! That's impossibly fast. I could never swing that quickly,'" he said. But usually it takes only ten minutes for novices to get into the groove. Most start out with the slower, 27:9 sequence and then experiment with the 24:8 and 21:7 versions to see which they feel most comfortable with.

The results are often dramatic. A video CD accompanying Novosel's book shows the before-and-after experiences of a half-dozen players. Typical is Bruce Provo, a nine-handicapper. His form improved, his backswing significantly shortened and his five-iron clubhead speed shot from 79 m.p.h. to 99 m.p.h. after just twenty minutes of work. Our experiences hitting balls with the Tour Tempo tones, although not so transformative, were highly satisfying. When our timing was in sync with the tones, our shots were invariably straight and long; when our timing was off, so were our shots. After just a few minutes on the range with the tones, our focus over the ball shifted almost completely from mechanical considerations (taking the clubhead back on line, stopping the backswing before parallel, etcetera) to getting the timing right. Novosel said this is typical and transfers easily to the golf course.

"The purpose of the Tour Tempo audio tracks is to internalize the intrinsic tempo of the golf swing in your subconscious mind," he said. "If you are a low to mid handicapper with reasonably sound swing fundamentals, you can basically forget about mechanics once that happens. Out on the course, you won't have to worry about what starts your backswing, where you are at the top or what triggers your forward swing. Those things will happen reflexively, as they do in the swings of the pros." Novosel recommends practicing frequently with the tones to reinforce the rhythm, but never for longer than you can pay full attention to them. Five-minute sessions in the backyard or during warm-ups at the range are often all it takes to stay in tune, he says.

For experienced players without sound mechanics, Novosel teaches two simple mechanical drills designed to get your swing off to the right start. He believes that in most cases these drills, combined with practicing to the tones, will eventually get most golfers to the point where good tempo and instincts can profitably take over. For those who want more-personalized tempo training, Novosel is schooling instructors around the country to use the Tour Tempo system, and he himself is available for lessons in Kansas City, Kansas (see box below).


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