Controlling your direction is obviously a hugely important part of golf. However, when questioned, most golfers don’t seem to understand what actually causes a ball to go straight/offline. I know this because I teach golf for a living, and it's a question I ask each of my students.

While there are many swing-style elements which could contribute to an offline shot, I like to boil it down to what definitively causes a ball to go in the desired direction (or not).

The Facts

The golf ball responds to what we call the “impact interval” - the time in which the ball is in contact with the face of the club; to the golf ball, nothing else matters. So whether you are:

  • 6'4" or 4'6"
  • 230lb of muscle or 110lb soaking wet
  • Tiger Woods in his prime, or a complete beginner
  • Have a weak grip or strong grip
  • Long or short swing
  • Lifting your left heel in the backswing or keeping it planted

etc., it makes no difference to the result.

While this sounds controversial, it is a fact. The best players are simply great at creating a functional and consistent impact. It is important to state that the difference between you and a top tour pro resides in this 0.75" or so of space where the club is in contact with the ball.

This is why we can see so many different swing styles on tour being effective – they are simply an individual’s unique vehicle to a functional impact interval.

swing styles

So many different styles.

This is not to say that swing style is irrelevant – many technical moves can add consistency/improvements to the impact interval. However, if a swing change doesn’t positively effect this small space at impact, it wont affect your golf ball.

Path and Face

The logical progression from that information would be to look at what causes direction. Given a centered strike (sweet spot – more on this in later articles), there are two main elements which determine a shot’s direction – path and face.

Path

Path refers to the direction the club is moving during the impact interval. Most players will have heard of the terms “in-to-out” (referring to a club moving to the right of the target line) or “out-to-in” (referring to a club moving left of the target line).


Images taken from The Practice Manual – The Ultimate Guide for Golfers

The swing path is only really responsible for around 25% of the starting direction of the golf ball. Also, while it is necessary to have a relatively square swing path through impact to achieve the elusive perfectly straight shot onto our target, it is not necessary to have a square swing path to play great golf.

In fact, many top players are able to play great golf with clubs which swing to the right of/left of the target line through impact – essentially hitting a draw or fade shot. Some, such as Bubba Watson, may dramatically change their swing paths from shot to shot to achieve a desired shot shape.

Face

Clubface direction is simply the direction the clubface is pointing during this impact interval (it also includes dynamic lie angle).

club faces

This has the biggest influence on starting direction of the ball (often around 70-80%). In fact, a clubface direction which is offline can easily override the swing path of the player. For example, a player may swing the club 3 degrees in-to-out (to the right) and have a clubface which points 3 degrees left – meaning the ball starts to left and moves further to the left.

The player will then often report that they felt they have “come over the top” of it, whereas this was not the case (I can then use Trackman numbers to prove this to them).

adam-young

A match made in heaven

Effectively, it is the relationship between these two factors which create the direction of the ball. For example, a square swing path and square clubface at impact (sweet-spot strike, barring minutiae) will produce a straight shot with no curvature.

square path and face
Image taken from The Practice Manual – The Ultimate Guide for Golfers

If the clubface is closed to the swing path, the ball will curve to the left, and vice versa. The amount of difference between the path and the face will determine the amount of curvature, with a bigger difference creating a bigger curvature – all other things relative.

A general rule I like to give beginner players is to learn to control/manage the clubface better. We do this through a mixture of drills and techniques, as well as improvements in awareness.

We then progress to a better understanding, with the general rule of;

“The ball starts on the line of the clubface and curves away from the swing path”.

Note - While this is not 100% accurate (the ball actually starts around 70-80% between the path and face, favoring the face), it is easier to remember, and functional enough to make appropriate changes.

square path face right
Image taken from The Practice Manual – The Ultimate Guide for Golfers

For example, if your ball starts on the target line but curves right, your clubface was square the the target at impact, but your swing path would have been more to the left (the more curvature the ball has to the right, the more left the swing path was).

Work On It

There are many dogmatic statements in golf instruction explaining how you ‘must’ swing this way/that way. However, most of this is unfounded – as evidenced by the innumerable functional swings on tour.

The commonality between all tour players is that they all manage their clubface/path relationship really well. And if you want to hit the ball more accurately, this is something you should be working on too. We all work and tinker with our swings endlessly, but have you worked directly on clubface or swing path yet? The answers to better golf lie there.

I use a mixture of drills, techniques and conceptual understanding to make dramatic improvements with my students in this area.