In the eight years I’ve been working with Ross, we’ve seen his technique go from strength to strength, says coach Kristian Baker. But like any top player, Ross is always looking to improve. That’s why at the end of last season I gave him a document with a swing plan to take his game to the next level.
Ross doesn’t make many bad swings, but when he does his tendency is to come ‘over-the-top’. This move, only too familiar to many club golfers, involves starting the downswing with the shoulders, and not the lower body. It causes pulls with the short irons and cuts with the longer clubs. It also makes life tough for Ross’s caddie Adam when it comes to clubbing; short-iron pulls go long while the longer slices fade short.
But as we will discover, cleansing a swing of that over-the-top move involves a lot more than simply finding a new way to start the downswing. For Ross, the root cause of this swing shape can be traced to problems in turning his upper body against his lower half during the backswing, a situation created by his set-up posture and his inflexibility. In essence Ross’ bad swing tendency is to turn his hips and shoulders as a unit, a move that not only encourages the over-the-top downswing but also costs him stability, and therefore consistency.
The plan is to boost his stability and mobility through a mixture of technique and biomechanical work. We want to get to a stage where he can make a full upper body coil against a more stable lower half. From here, properly coiled, he can start the downswing more with the lower body, a move which flattens his downswing plane, shallows his angle of attack and promotes a more neutral shot pattern.
In all, the process will probably take a couple of years. But the progress he has made so far – Ross is the only man to finish in the top 30 in 2009’s first three Majors – suggests we are on the right track.
Stage One: Set-up
Ross’s old habit was to form a subtle version of what’s called an S-posture. His backside would stick out too far and his shoulders rounded, causing an arching in the small of the back. This causes immobility because, besides tensing up the muscles, it seats the pelvis in a tilted position. It can’t rotate properly from there.
Ross’s posture needs to set up mobility where he needs it – through his middle section, the pelvis and the hips. Here he’s in the ideal position to achieve that, with a good straight line from his belt to his shoulder blades. There might be a slight concaving of the back, but it’s fairly straight.
Another telltale sign of that unwanted S-posture is an overflexing in the knees, again, something that costs mobility. Here Ross’s knees are flexed the perfect amount, giving stability without tension and helping align his pelvis with his spine, which is crucial for rotation.
“I am a feel player. I’ve never been one to work on drills, and I’ve never tinkered with my swing too much. I prefer to look for feelings in the swing, and the feeling I want from this work is for my swing to feel more compact and stable as a unit. The goal is to get my upper and lower body working independently, upper half moving while keeping lower body still. I’m not able to do it to its full extent yet but with time and work the results will come.”
Stage Two: Backswing
Ross is not the most naturally flexible of guys. Couple that with that S-posture, which breeds a rigid mid-section, and he was previously starting from a relatively immobile position.
Ross’ posture and flexibility work is helping create mobility in his hips and back. This will give him the ability to make a full upper body turn without so much stability-killing lower body assistance. The right knee can remain flexed and the left knee solid and supportive, its heel planted firmly on the ground
This extra mobility also allows Ross to create the so-called ‘X factor’ stretch, where the upper body is able to disassociate from the lower half and turn above it, independently. Adam Scott can turn fully through with his feet and knees hardly moving. Ross is not too far off that.
Before work on his flexibility and posture, when Ross used to tried to turn his shoulders, his lower body would go with the turn. His right leg would straighten slightly, and the left knee would collapse inwards. On fuller swings, the left heel could lift off the ground. It added up to an unstable backswing that could only hinder consistency.
“Flexibility has never been a strong point for me so I’m working on it with physio Dale Richardson. The work with Dale and Kristian is designed to enable me to turn the same, but with a much more solid base. At the moment my left knee buckles and moves in towards the right knee. My left heel rises off the ground and occasionally I slip. As I get more mobile I’ll be able to turn on to my right side more easily while my left leg offers more stability.”
Stage Three: Starting Down
As Ross develops the ability to turn his shoulders against a stable lower half, he will find the torque built up through his mid-section will naturally release to power the first move into his downswing. In fact, his hips will start unwinding even as the shoulders complete their backswing turn.
This early lower-body move involves a lateral shift towards the target followed by a rotation of the hips. This drops the club a shade flatter, allowing us to create the shallower angle of attack and neutral ball flight that has been our goal from the outset.
Now we get to the nitty-gritty. Starting the downswing with the lower body drops the club on a slightly flatter swing plane which enables the club to attack the ball from the inside with a shallower angle of attack. But because Ross’s hip and shoulder turn were too unified, his upper half was in danger of playing too dominant a role at the change of direction.
“My bad shots come from the way I start the downswing. If my first move is with my shoulders the club comes across the line, so I feel I have to manipulate my hands, hold it off, to hit it straight. My bad shots start left with a slight draw, or start left with a big fade or slice. I get away with it as my timing is good, but if my timing’s out I’ll hit pulls, slices, blocks, all sorts. My stability work will make me more consistent and less reliant on timing.”
Stage Four: Impact
Ross’s out-to-in swing becomes more of a factor when he has a break, perhaps at the start of the season, when his body is a bit stiffer; we’ll tend to see divots which aim left and are little deeper than we want. If he’s been playing for a month, he loosens up naturally and we‘ll see shallower divots, a more controllable ball flight and a better shape.
As he continues to work, Ross will find it progressively easier to find a shallower angle of attack into the ball. The second pay-off is that cutting down lower body motion means his legs and knees do not have to work so fast and so far to get him into this stable hitting position – that will only boost his consistency.
“I might be working on my game during the season, but when the tournament gets underway I just go out and play. I don’t think of my swing or flexibilty, in fact I don’t think of anything: I go to the range for a warm-up and see how I’m hitting it. Naturally I hope I’m hitting it well, but if not I’ll just go with it. If I’m struggling to move it right-to-left I’ll just play with a fade. I’ll never try to force a shot I haven’t been comfortable with warming up.”
Stage Five: Flexibility
At the start of 2009 Ross embarked on a golf-specific fitness regime. Overseeing the work is Lance Gill – head athletic trainer at Titleist Performance Institute – and Dale Richardson, an advisory board member at the institute whose own Pro-golf Health program has been used by Padraig Harrington.
Dale says: “Ross is what we’d call hypomobile; he lacks mobility, especially through his spine and his hips. In fact when he came to us he had some of the poorest mobility measurements we’ve seen.
“The human body is a series of mobile joints connected by stable segments. The feet are built for stability, while the ankle joint is designed to be very mobile; the knee is designed to be very stable; the hips and back are built for mobility. If this pattern is broken, it can cause the golfer problems. When you lack mobility in your spine to turn, you have to get it from somewhere, so you increase mobility somewhere else. Ross did it in his lower-body movement, sacrificing stability to make himself more mobile.
“Ross needs to develop the ability to rotate without so much lower body assistance, so the key is to improve his mobility through the spine and hip areas. Among the stretches we work on is an active straight leg raise, designed to stretch out the hamstrings and so boost flexibility in his lower spine and hips. We also work with a Swiss ball on extension and rotation; the thoracic spine can only rotate from an extended and straight position, and this work helps us achieve that.
“I will have met with Ross at 25 tournaments by the end of this year, working for an hour-and-a-half per day. We are only eight months into a two-year process but we’ve already seen a 25 per cent gain in his flexibility. Ultimately his work will allow him to coil his upper half against a more stable lower body – and so goes hand-in-hand with Kristian’s plans for Ross’s swing.”
What You Can Learn From This
Ross is of course a great player who can move the ball both ways. So the work we are doing is only a matter of fractions, designed only to improve his consistency rather than to fight a slice. But at his level, every fraction counts. But the things we‘ve been working on will help any club player who struggles with an over-the-top swing and a slice. The process is the same:
Boosted mobility through the correct posture and increased flexibility…
allows a better ‘X-factor’ backswing coil…
which enables the lower body to start the downswing…
which shallows the club, allowing a swing path which hits more from the inside.
One final point:
Underpinning Ross’s technical work is a commitment to gaining flexibility; he can only do technically what his body will allow. I’d urge any golfer serious about improving to go for a 45- minute physical screening, which involves a succession of simple tests. You’ll be given a 10-minute daily stretching program. It can tell you a lot about why you swing the way you do, and takes a lot of the guesswork out of your efforts to improve. The panel on the right (Stage 5) gives details of Ross’ flexibility program.