Earlier this year, as part of my new duties as a commentator for ABC Sports, I walked up and down the range at a couple of Tour events and asked pros, "What is your one absolute must to make your golf swing happen?" Quite a few, including Adam Scott, said setup and alignment. Others said tempo, and several said the take-away. But when I asked them what amateurs should focus on, far and away the number-one response was alignment. (Number two, just so you'll know, was not taking enough club on approach shots, but that's a subject for another column.)
I couldn't agree more. Proper alignment is the without-which-nothing of a good setup. More amateurs than you might think hit the ball where they are aiming—the pity is how many times that's into the trees.
Alignment is such a critical concept that, at clinics, I tell people I won't stop to help them if I don't see a club on the ground at their feet as an alignment aid. I'm half joking, but I'm half serious, too. There really is no excuse not to practice with a club at your feet. If you aren't aimed precisely at a target every time you swing, you're wasting your time. Actually, it's worse than that. When you are misaligned, your body will try to make compensations to get the ball to the target, so you'll be practicing a poor swing. Have you ever watched Vijay Singh practice?You'll never see him without at least one club on the ground or a shaft stuck into the ground as a reference.
And don't just throw a club down and bump it into an approximately correct orientation. Stand behind the club facing the target and aim it carefully, plumb-bobbing if necessary. Then, once you take your stance, imagine the club at your feet as the nearer of two railroad tracks, with the other track running from your ball to the target. The club on the ground, an inch or two in front of your toe line, should be aimed parallel and slightly to the left of the target line (for right-handed golfers). On short shots of, say, 100 yards or less, you will definitely feel that your toe line, knees, hips and shoulders are aimed left of the target, as they should be. On longer shots, because of the way railroad tracks appear to converge on one point in the distance, you may feel more as if your shoulders are aimed at the target, but keep the railroad-track image in mind and be sure to swing the clubhead along the target line, which is parallel to your body alignment.
So important is laying a club down that I sometimes do it during practice rounds. You'd be surprised how many tricks the slopes of the terrain play on your aim. I recently conducted an experiment during a practice round with my sixteen-year-old son. I asked him to play six holes without laying a club down and then six holes with. No other advice. It was like watching two different golfers. He hit no greens in regulation on the first six holes, but four of six over the second stretch. Maybe that's why they don't allow clubs on the ground during official rounds: It would make golf too easy!
I've noticed some Tour pros, such as Stuart Appleby and Shingo Katayama, using a new alignment technique during practice. They lay a string on the ground just outside the ball. Naturally, they take care to aim the string at the target. Hitting balls this way gives your eye a strong line to follow and raises your awareness of how both your take-away and your follow-through relate to the target line. Paying attention to your divots is another advanced technique. When Jesper Parnevik practices, he creates arrow-straight divot lines in the turf, each several feet long, pointing straight at his target.
Good alignment is critical because it's a key to consistency. If you are aimed a little bit left on one hole and a little bit right on the next, you will have to swing differently each time to get the ball to the target, and that creates confusion. Poor alignment also saps power, and I can prove it with a simple throwing exercise. Stand so you are aiming forty-five degrees left of a target and throw a golf ball toward the target. Your body will quickly learn to compensate, but your motion will be limited. Now stand square to the target so you can release properly. You should be able to toss the ball twenty-five yards farther. Funny, that. And it's the same with the swing: Only when you're aligned properly do you have a chance to swing with full efficiency.
To some degree, both stance width and ball position are matters of personal preference, but I can offer some guidelines. The distance between your feet is a trade-off between stability (the farther apart the feet, the easier it is to maintain balance) and mobility (the closer the feet, the easier it is to turn). The drive is the most destabilizing swing, so spread your feet to full shoulder width. To help the clubhead make impact on the upswing, tee up the ball somewhere opposite the left foot. To promote a full finish, angle out the left foot about twenty degrees.
For iron shots, I position the ball about two inches behind the left foot and draw the right foot in toward the left as the iron I'm using gets shorter and stability becomes less of an issue. With a short club in your hand, you must bend over more at address; from that more awkward position, it's easier to make a complete turn from a narrower stance.
Since we're all built differently and unwind differently, it's important to get a feeling for your own best stance. A great way to do this is to find a patch of thick rough and slash away. Ideally, choose a spot on the rough line, so that you can stand in shorter grass and have an unencumbered take-away but swing the clubhead hard into the cabbage. Don't hit balls, just swing, progressing from feet together to feet spread very wide apart. After a while you will begin to identify the width at which you can swing the hardest while staying solidly balanced. For added sensitivity, try it with your eyes closed.
Posture and balance are the final setup fundamentals, and assuming you've got everything else right, they deliver the big payoff: power. The ideal posture creates spine and leg angles that promote a consistent, in-balance pivot. If your weight is too far back (the most common flaw among amateurs), if you are too stooped over or if you are standing too erect, you won't be able to make a full, easy turn and you'll have to fight to hold your balance during and after the swing. Any effort used to maintain balance is energy diverted from hitting the ball.
When you stand up tall to the ball, with your weight in the right position, you should have a powerful sense of balance. To test this, close your eyes and have a friend gently push you from whatever direction he chooses. When you can withstand a nudge from any quarter, your posture is excellent. It takes more strength than most people imagine to achieve good balance. Balance is an active, muscular action, not just a matter of standing there.