Page last updated at 21:59 GMT, Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Golf secret not all in the wrists

By Jason Palmer
Science and Technology reporter, BBC News


Jason Palmer's golf swing analysed at QinetiQ's Human Performance facilities

After decades of research, the world may be closer to the perfect golf swing.

The key, according to University of Surrey engineer Robin Sharp, is not to use full power from the start, but to build up to it quickly.

Surprisingly, the wrists do not play a critical role in the swing's outcome, according to the new model.

The analysis also shows that while bigger golfers might hit the ball further, it is not by much.

Any golfer will tell you that the idea of swinging harder to hit farther is not as straightforward as it might seem; the new results indicate that how - and when - the power develops is the key to distance.

Tricky balance

Professor Sharp's work is based on a little-used model in which a golfer employs three points of rotation: the shoulders relative to the spine, the arms relative to the shoulders and the wrists relative to the arms.

Conventional wisdom has it that the timing of these rotations relative to one another is the key to a long drive. However, the new research, reported in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, is the first to optimise those timings and how the power of a swing is developed as they play out.

Prior models assumed one of two things: that the torque - the power in rotation - was applied at its maximum from the backswing, or that it ramped up throughout the swing, reaching its maximum at the point of impact.

Control of the arms and not the wrists appears to be the priority
Robin Sharp

Professor Sharp used a computer model first to fit to the swing styles of three professionals whose swings were measured with high-speed photography in 1968: Bernard Hunt, Geoffrey Hunt and Guy Wolstenholme.

The model showed that the club-head speed, and thus drive distance, of these professionals could have been improved by increasing the torque quickly to the maximum value and maintaining it throughout the rest of the swing.

It is a delicate balance, however, and Sunday duffers may find it hard to implement Professor Sharp's prescription.

"Generating too much arm speed too soon causes an early release, with the club-head reaching its maximum speed before it arrives at the ball," he says.

The key, Professor Sharp explains, is timing which torques are applied and when. And contrary to the old saying, it is not "all in the wrists".

"In the expert swings studied, control of the arms and not the wrists appears to be the priority.

"The optimal strategy consists of hitting first with the shoulders while holding back with arms and wrists and, after some delay, hitting through with the arms. At release, the wrists should hit through."

The model also shows that height is not much of an advantage in a long-distance shot.

"A 21% bigger player can be expected to have just a 10% advantage in club-head speed," Professor Sharp said, which accounts for the fact that "good little ones are often not so far behind good big ones".

Put into practice

Tiger Woods (Allsport/Getty)
It doesn't require being a big golfer to be a good golfer

Another person who is familiar with the swings of professional golfers is Simon Wickes, operations manager and biomechanics consultant for the Human Performance facilities at QinetiQ.

In the the company's Biomechanics lab, visitors don a tight-fitting suit covered with reflectors that are tracked by 12 infrared-sensing cameras.

By tracking the independent motions of all the limbs and the club itself, the team can analyse in detail any number of motions, including golf swings; and the lab has been visited by professionals Nick Faldo and Justin Rose.

"We're not golf pros," Mr Wickes explained. "We just show them where we think the problems are occurring.

"What we were seeing with Justin Rose was the club head and the arms leading the body, rather than the shoulders leading the arms," he said.

It turns out that this reporter too had a problem of stiffness that makes the club lead the body.

"It's something we've seen with other amateurs," Mr Wickes said after an analysis of my swing. "There's this feeling of trying to keep everything in alignment and by doing that you stiffen up because you don't want to have the variability you get if you loosen up your grip and loosen joints."

Useful though it is to know Professor Sharp's result, the perfect swing is not just a matter of the mechanics.

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