The Backswing Plane - Survey of Tour Professionals
- by Kelvin Miyahira
Swing planes are like super models. There are some that are flat like Twiggy or Kate Moss and some that are curvier like your favorite Victoria Secret super model. Everyone has their own preference as to which is prettier but in the current world of golf instruction the bias is overwhelmingly toward the Kate Moss flat look.
But does anyone know what the most popular swing plane is for the players on tour? And I mean do they employ flatter or steeper backswings? I thought it would be a good project to find out where everyone is. So take your filters off and let’s just start by objectively seeing what the pros look like at the top of the backswing.
Since some players are tall and some are short, the angle of the left arm at the top cannot be used as a guide. Some players have more tilt to their spines toward the ball (left lateral bend) while some stand up a little (right lateral bend). The only way to judge the plane would be to use the left arm in relation to the shoulder line and how deep (or not deep) the hands get. So we’ll start with the flattest backswings and progress to the steepest backswings last.
Left arm matching the shoulder line 15 players with 3 major championship winners
By this definition, Matt Kuchar would have the flattest swing on tour. His left arm is slightly lower than his shoulder line. Since he’s using the Jim Hardy one plane swing, this is what we’d expect to see.
Another Hardy student, Chris Tidland.
Tom Pernice Jr.
Hardy senior tour player.
Jose Maria Olazabal
Miguel Angel Jimenez
AK has Leadbetter influence via Adam Schriber.
Problem with flat backswings
The one danger of the flat backswing is that the more the butt end of the shaft gets over your right elbow, the greater the chance that you will externally rotate the right shoulder maximally. This will trigger a stretch shorten cycle to fire the right shoulder internally which is the primary cause of the over the top swings in amateurs. See Morgan’s early right shoulder IR?
Matt Kuchar does the same move but then recovers with late right shoulder ER and lateral bend/lordosis. Thus at impact, he looks like any other drive/holder.
Morgan isn’t so athletically gifted to be able to recover from such a position and perhaps a different solution to the problem is employed. Instead of being able to fire right shoulder ER to stop from coming over the top, she instead restricts her shoulder turn and arrives at impact with closed shoulders (she does lateral bend while losing lordosis). This will then cause a flip to occur.
Left Arm slightly above the right shoulder: 24 players with 4 major championship winners
Hogan’s left arm is slightly above his right shoulder while his left forearm blocks full view of his right shoulder joint. Camera height matters because if shot from higher than the player, the left forearm will cover the right shoulder more easily. But at least you can see the left arm does not match the shoulder line or they would be placed in the previous category. These swings would be considered flat.
Brendon De Jonge
Notice the difference between Stuart’s right arm position and Matt Goggin’s despite similar looking left arm positions. The more vertical the right forearm, the greater the external rotation of the right shoulder (tucked position). Matt has a more angled forward right forearm showing a little more internal rotation of the right shoulder.
This was certainly not the same position when Stuart was playing his best golf early in his career. Notice also that as Stuart’s left arm gets flatter, his left wrist is more cupped and clubface “squarer” (or shall we say more open than in his younger days).
There are some very aesthetically pleasing swings in this category however there is the same danger as with the previous category of flat swings.
It would be safer to let the right elbow rise a bit with the flat backswing to allow the right shoulder to move toward IR at the end of the backswing which then can trigger ER on the downswing. Keeping the right elbow tucked and getting laid off can cause the “hit from the top” syndrome or firing IR at the start of the downswing.
Left arm above the shoulder line: 52 players with 14 major championship winners
If their right shoulder joint can clearly be seen, they will be placed in this category. These backswings are neither flat nor steep so I guess they would be considered the “on plane” group.
Phil Mickelson (LH)
Sang Moon Bae
Steve Flesch (LH)
Richard S. Johnson
Left arm way above the shoulder line (steep): 89 players with 26 major championship winners
This category of steep backswings will be split into two groups. The distinction is between those that have the hands and butt end of the club more posterior (deep or behind the right shoulder) or more anterior (in front or over right shoulder).
Steep/Posterior: 42 players with9 major championship winners
Davis Love III
Bo Van Pelt
Steep/Anterior: 47 players with 17 major championship winners
Steep/Anterior means the butt end of the club gets over the right shoulder at the top of the backswing.
Tiger Woods 2000
Jeev Milkha Singh
Wen Chong Liang
Some thoughts and observations
Prettiest Backswing on Tour
My vote goes to Henrik Stenson for the prettiest backswing. We tend to have the Golf Digest sequence still photos in our minds when viewing swings like this. The guideline of being “on plane” at the top of the backswing where the shaft gets pointed parallel to the target and the club horizontal is just nonsense. Sure it looks pretty but how many of the tour guys are actually looking like that? Not more than a handful.
Short or Long Backswings
For driver swings only, there was an equal amount of long backswings (going past horizontal) vs. short backswings (stopping short of horizontal) with each group having 41% of the total swings. Only 18% of the swings stopped at horizontal.
Laid Off or Cross the Line
There are more “laid off” swings by a slight margin (38%). Cross the line swings had 34% of the swings while the on plane swings where the club points parallel to the target line had 27% of the swings.
If you apply the standard of Stenson’s top of the backswing position to everyone else, they all look ugly in comparison. If judging by beauty, the ugliest swings are in the steep category and especially when the hands are more anterior.
There are no long hitters in the left arm matching the shoulder line category. Though Colsaerts and Woodland are in the flat category, the rest of the long hitters on tour have either on plane or steep backswings.
Accuracy leaders are in the steeper categories.
Just Win Baby!
But if look at effectiveness, which group has more major championship winners? The steep category (with both subsets of hands posterior or anterior) has 26 major championship winners. Yet if you look at the current instruction fad, everyone is teaching flat backswings. Whether it is some Golf Machine iteration, stack and tilt, Jim Hardy One Plane Swing or even David Leadbetter who seems to have gone away from what made his players great, you would think that the flat backswing is the only way to go.
Next month, I'll be looking a little deeper into the downswing planes of the tour players. Should be interesting.
Thanks to Justin Tang from the Asian Golf Institute, I have been approved to offer PGA continuing education credit classes on three different topics; Spine movements, Lower body mechanics and the Release movements. The target date is to start on September 1st.