While there is a disagreement within the golf world of what a perfect swing looks like, most agree that it’s a very complex motion that requires precise timing, posture, and muscle control. Factors such as the golfer’s physical condition, posture, mental concentration at the time of the swing as well as his or her composure can all play significant roles in determining how the golfer will hit the ball. Typically, as these factors change with time, so does the golfer’s ability to effectively swing.
We compared the golf swings of five professional golfers during different points of their life to see how changes in their swings – particularly, their posture – have affected their gameplay. By studying these well-known players and their historical playing styles, it’s possible to infer what went right and what went wrong for each of them. (Plus, you can use this information to help refine and improve your personal golf game.)
Tiger Woods’ swing has been a work in progress throughout the superstar’s career. On four separate occasions, Tiger has completely changed his swinging style with mixed results. The notion that a professional golfer could successfully improve his golf swing in a major way is not the part of Tiger’s story that keeps golf analysts arguing with each other – it’s that Tiger would want to change his swing. Before Tiger, very few professional players ever did successfully. Doing so negates the muscle memory that is crucial for a consistent, effortless stroke. For the most part, Woods’ recent changes have been blamed for the detriment of his game.
It’s fair to say Woods’ first two swing reinventions refined his rail-straight, high, and very open teenage swing to produce the one that won him several Majors and made him a golfing legend. However, the last two undid his game. Citing his knee injury as a reason, he parted ways with longtime coach Butch Harmon in 2004 and created a single-plane swing (in the style of Ben Hogan) that yielded laser-like precision. Finally, in 2010, Woods switched to a swing that had him center over the ball in the backswing; he focused all of his weight on his body’s left side, stacked it there, and gave his shoulder an upward tilt during the follow-through. On the suggestion of his swing coach, the previously lanky Woods also bulked up to better utilize the new technique.
An extreme departure from where he started, Woods’ new swing has yet to bring his game back to where it was. Many wonder if Tiger changed his swing one too many times. The fascinating part of it all: Woods may be close to completing a fifth major swing change.
LESSON: Don’t overthink your swing. You can ruin your already-good stroke searching for the “perfect swing.” Spend your time improving what you already know works.
If Tiger Woods is the example of what can go wrong when you change your swing, then Rory McIlroy must be the example of what can go right when you stay faithful to it. Unlike Woods, McIlroy has only had one coach – Michael Bannon – and one swing since he first took up competitive golf at age 8. His swing is a true strike to the target. It starts with McIlroy reaching out wide for the target, moving his head and body to the right during the pre-swing, and maintaining a wide distance from the clubface for the whole of the swing while producing a pronounced left swing from his hips that delivers a hard-hitting strike.
Note the minimal bend to his knee and the triangle his arms form with the club – neither changes significantly during his swing. With very aggressive core movement and an exaggerated open-shoulder placement in the backstroke and stroke, McIlroy relies heavily on his athleticism, rather than pure technique, to deliver his laser-accurate stroke.
LESSON: Learn perfect form and become a disciple of it. Mastering strong posture and good core control can make any swing better.
While Jordan Spieth’s relative youth makes him a unique example of golf swing evolution, Spieth has maintained a consistent stroke since his college years, when he won the U.S. Junior Amateurs in 2009 and 2011 and placed second in the 2008 and 2009 Junior PGA Championships. Spieth's swing is defined by his reserved hands and an aggressive body rotation, in which his upper body completely faces the direction of the swing by the end of the follow-through. This creates a rhythm that is incapable of significantly curving off the plane of the swing. For this reason, Spieth may be one of the best accuracy golfers currently playing.
Taking a closer stance to the ball than McIlroy and Woods, Spieth tends to slightly squat about three inches toward the tee during his pre-swing and the opening of his downswing, releasing the pent-up energy while straightening up in the swing. This posting to his left side creates a right-to-left weight shift during his swing, which adds smoothness and power.
LESSON: Don’t just swing with your arm. Use your whole body to control your movement – from set-up to follow-through.
Phil Mickelson’s swing has been called an artistic or “feel” stroke. Unlike Woods, who used critical analysis and endless mental deliberations to determine how he should hit the ball, Mickelson has always swung the way that felt best to him. This is a formula that creates hot and cold streaks for the 23-year PGA Tour veteran.
Despite this “play by feel,” Mickelson decided to work with Woods’ former coach, Harmon, to improve his iron’s swing. This resulted in a shorter, wider swing in recent years. It also helped to develop Mickelson’s mid- and long-range strokes with the irons – factors that were nearly nonexistent for Mickelson earlier in his career. With a wider backswing, a broader stance, and less distance from the tee, Mickelson has to use less effort to deliver the ball, resulting in a smoother stroke. In comparison to his earlier career, his hands are now much wider from his head in the downstroke and he has better control and balance in the follow-through. Also, he has slowed the rotation of his shoulders so that his arms are moving at the same rate or more than the rest of his upper body.
LESSON: Know who you are, but don’t be afraid to take advice toward resolving holes in your game.
With 11 years of professional golf under her belt, 26-year-old Michelle Wie – thanks to talent, endurance, and an impressive swing – is a force to reckon with. The mechanics of Wie’s swing have not drastically changed since her amateur play; she’s “the consummate tinkerer” when it comes to her swing, according to coach David Leadbetter. Among the evolution: She has adopted a slightly wider stance, tweaked the length of her swings, stood up straighter, and held her arms lower at the peak of her swing than she used to.
How does Wie’s famous swing play out? She starts with a straight spine and slightly bent knees and then rotates her upper body 30 to 40 degrees to the right while pushing her right leg back. At the top of her swing, she brings her hands close to her head so her left arm forms a nearly 90-degree angle.
As Wie starts the downswing, her arms and hands move before her shoulders and hips do, smoothing her momentum. At the halfway point, she lowers her upper body and begins to rotate. At the impact point, however, she is still facing right. Her extensive follow-through requires raising her upper body and rotating fully left. Wie produces a swing that looks simple, but it actually requires a 135-degree upper body twist and a remarkable amount of concentration and control.
Injuries have forced Wie to change her swing again. However, Wie’s swing is one of few in women’s golf that can produce a 300-yard drive – and it remains to be seen if she can come up with a winning formula. Her coach’s main goals for her swing? Keep it simple and consistent.
LESSON: There’s no such thing as a perfect swing. A swing is only as perfect as the effort and commitment you place into it.
Mastering a golf swing is hard work. It takes years of practice, a commitment to conditioning, and a very high tolerance for criticism; it’s also easy to underestimate yourself and assume that what you’re doing may be wrong. As players age, the way they swing changes too. But by looking at the evolution of technique for these five players, hopefully, you will be able to see how your own swing is aging and make the necessary refinements.