Ball position makes a lot of difference. Because of the way the swing travels in an arc, it makes the ball go low or high, and it produces a push or a pull which turns into a hook or slice. More than anything, it’s important to get consistent ball position — and that’s one variable you can control that doesn’t involve timing things during the swing.
Originally published 2004
The Search for Consistency
I took a lesson and found that I had the ball a bit too far back in my stance. As a result, my hands were pressed too far forward in relation to the ball, and I was setting up with level shoulders, instead of having a bit of tilt. (With the ball farther forward, the club was no longer level on the ground — it was resting on the front edge, reducing the loft. Tilting my shoulders had the effect of leveling the club and restoring its loft.)
I was told to move the ball forward. That made a huge difference in the height of my shots. And with the other swing changes, I got even more distance. (I learned to restrict my backswing for control, and put more energy in the forward movement. And I learned to stretch out to 1:00, instead of chasing the club down the target line at 12:00.)
With those changes, my good shots were really, really good. So I liked the changes. But when I went out to play, I was getting very inconsistent results. I loved the good shots, but only about a third of them were good. I was topping quite a few, and others were spraying left and right.
I was also getting a lot of variation in my distances — anywhere from 10 yards shorter to 20 yards longer than distances I previously had “dialed in”. Part of it was due to the swing changes. (I was overrotating my back swing. To correct it, I needed to “feel like I was stopping at 90 degrees”. At times, I was stopping at 90 degrees. That produced short shots. And when I connected well, the ball took off like a rocket. But still, I was seeing a lot of distance variation even when the swing felt the same — generally because I moved the ball a bit further or back, depending on how the previous swing had worked out.
Clearly, I needed more consistency. Swing-consistency will take time and practice, of course. But ball-position consistency could be achieved right away — and making that consistent will eventually help to make the swing more consistent. So it became important to answer the question: Where, exactly, should the ball be placed? After looking around for answers, here’s what I found.
Unfortunately, there isn’t one single position that works for all clubs. GolfHelp.com had the most useful explanation for why:
- Drives should be struck slightly on the upswing (right after the bottom of the swing arc, because the ball is on a tee).
- Fairway woods are hit at the bottom of the swing arc (no backspin, so the ball runs when it lands).
- Iron shots are struck slightly on the downswing (to get backspin, which gives the ball more loft and makes it stop).
Adding to that, wedges through eight iron get maximum backspin, so they are even slightly further back. (Remember how you’re supposed to take a divot after you make contact with the ball? Playing the ball slightly back is how that happens.)
As this video illustrates so well, that makes a total of four posititons for the golf ball, with the middle of your stance being the farthest back.
Hybrids are supposed to be played like irons, not fairway woods. So you use the same position you use for irons (slightly ahead of middle), when playing a hybrid club.
Ok. It makes sense that the ball positions differ slightly, but what is it that the middle of your stance is the farthest back point? Why is the middle of your foot the farthest forward point? What makes the range of ball positions go from the middle of your stance to heel/inseam of the forward foot? It all comes down to the mechanics, of the swing.
At set up (for a right-hander), the hands are just to the left of your zipper (just inside the left thigh). That’s a constant that doesn’t change from club to club, so it’s worth ingraining that part of the setup process.
But why is that the right starting position for your hands? It’s because your body will be moving forward during the swing, so the bottom of the swing — the bottom of every swing — will be just to the left of middle, or just inside the left foot. That’s another constant worth knowing.
So, as a result of shifting your weight and posting up on the left leg, the bottom of the swing is always just behind the left foot. At setup, that point is where the inside of your forward leg joins your hip. Since that position will be the bottom of the swing, that’s where you position the ball for fairway woods and long irons.
Just ahead of that point is the position for the driver, or fairway wood, when the ball is on a tee. Just behind it is the position for the mid-irons (5-7), where you want mild backspin. Behind that, in the middle of your stance, is where you put the ball for the short irons and wedges — the scoring irons, where you want precise distance control, so the ball stops where you land it.
What Happens When Ball Position Isn’t Optimal
The swing moves in a diagonal arc, so in terms of physics, there are actually two vector components of that arc. One is the vertical component, and the other is horizontal component. If you play the ball two far forward, you can skull it or top it. Too far back, and you pound it into the ground and watch it bounce.
That’s the vertical component of the swing. Imagine a pendulum that just brushes the ground (kind of like your putter). As the pendulum swings, it strikes the ball perfectly at exactly one point in the swing. If the ball is too far forward or back, you get a topped or skulled shot.
At the same time, the club is traveling around your body. That’s the horizontal component. Imagine a clock face on the ground, with the ball at 3:00. At that position, the club is traveling directly towards the target. If the ball is further back, the club is pushing the ball out to the right. Further ahead, and the club is pulling back to the right. So right there, you get a pull or push, even with a perfect swing.
With shorter clubs, the ball is closer to your feet, so you swing in more vertical plane. The horiztonal component is much reduced, because it’s a more vertical swing.
Hooks and Slices
Finally, as the club is traveling through the air, your forearms are rotating from left forearm on top in the backswing, to right forearm on top in the follow through. So the club head is rotating as it travels the horizontal arc. That creates a third arc for the position of the club face. (Imagine that the club is a rotating like an axle as it travels through the air.)
If that rotation is a little late, the club face is open. It cuts across the ball, producing a fade or slice, depending on how open it is. If the rotation is a little early, the club face is closed, producing a draw or hook.
The problem with inconsistent ball position is that you will unconsciously make other adjustments to your motion to make the ball go in the direction you want it to go. But in the process, it is highly likely that the club face won’t participate in the correction, producing the inevitable hook or slice. That helps to explain why Jack Nicklaus said that ball position is one of the most under-talked about subjects in golf.
Putting the ball in the right position will help you make a good shot. Putting it there consistently will help make your swing more consistent. And when your swing and ball contact are more consistent, your club rotation will get grooved in, as well.
Getting the right ball position, consistently, is a major key to playing golf well.
Of course, you need a consistent swing, as well. That takes lessons (because what you think you feel typically isn’t what is really happening). And it takes practice to groove in what you learned in the lessons. But getting the right ball position, consistently, is a big part of that process.
- Tips on the stance and ball position
- Video showing the different positions
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