Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Golf Spine Angle and How to Acquire a Feel for It
By Robert S. (Bob) Doyle and Dave Tutelman
Today, more than ever, a golfer can read, see photos, observe videos and hear from the pros and TV analysts, a great deal of information about the golf spine angle and its importance to the golf swing. This article will fully explain the concept of the golf spine angle and offer a valuable tip that will enable the golfer to gain a feel for her/his unique spine angle.
It was not until around year 2000 that the concept of spine angle was first mentioned as an important aspect of the golf swing. Prior to that year, one could rarely find the words used anywhere in golf instruction or literature. Today there is hardly a golf periodical, golf newspaper, a new golf book, an instructional video or a TV analyst that does not discuss the concept. And there are over 30,000 links to “maintain your spine angle” that can be found on Google.
Prior to this recent and increasing focus on the importance of maintaining one’s spine angle during the swing, professionals, instructors and analysts commented on other aspects of the golf swing. Observations were made about the golfer’s head, the plane, one or two planes, the length of the backswing, tempo, weight shift and still others. All aspects however seemed to be open to argument, were contradictory or could be misinterpreted. Keeping one’s head behind the ball through impact however is irrefutable as agreed upon by almost, if not all experts.
You would think this transfers to spine angle as well, but there is some difference of opinion. Well, perhaps more a difference of terminology. Different experts mean different things when they refer to spine angle. As our favorite golf instructor, Martin Hall, says, “You only have one spine — and it moves during the swing.” So let’s start by reviewing the terminology.
So exactly what is the spine angle as it relates to the golf swing?
There are actually two golf spine angles. Illustrated in these pictures, they are:
The red line in the left photo, which is the angle viewed down the line of the shot. Shown as Column 1 of the table below.
The green line in the right photo, which is the angle viewed from in front of the golfer. Shown as Column 2 of the table below.
Different golf analysts apply different names to them. For instance:
|Spine angle||—||We see/hear this reference from analysts who haven’t thought about two spine angles. Even Tom Watson, who is most emphatic about spine angle, uses the down-the-line meaning.|
|Posture||Spine angle||Martin Hall’s nomenclature for them.|
|K-Vest biodynamics research and training.|
|Forward bend||Side bend||Golf Performance Labs’ nomenclature.|
|Spine angle, Inclination to the ground||—||Golf Evolution, which teaches stack’n’tilt, uses this terminology.|
|Spine angle||Frontal spine angle||Somax Performance Institute uses this terminology.|
|Spine angle||Frontal spine angle||We will use these terms. Based on the most common usage and logic, it seems most natural to us.|
To reiterate, we will use “spine angle” as the term for the down-the-line view, and “frontal spine angle” as the term for the front view of the golfer.
The spine angle — the down-the-line view — is the most commonly discussed and is best seen by looking at the right side of the golfer (for a right handed golfer), and down the target line. Imagine a straight vertical line extending from the back of the golfer’s shoe, up through the hips and as high as the head. Now imagine the straight line made by the golfer’s spine, from the neck to the base of the spine and intersecting the vertical line. The angle made at that intersection is the spine angle. The angle will be unique for each golfer depending on build, physique, and posture at address but the average for most golfers will be about 30 degrees. Note it is said that there is a straight line from the neck to the base of the spine. The back or the spine is not to be hunched……it must be straight. Here is an image of this more commonly referred to spine angle.
Conventional Spine Angle
The frontal spine angle can best be seen by looking at the front of the golfer. In this view, the line of sight is perpendicular to the target line and 90 degrees from the view of the first and more conventional spine angle mentioned in the previous paragraph. Here imagine a vertical line extending upward and starting at the base of the spine. For most golfers with the proper address, the head and therefore the spine are tilted slightly to the right for the right handed golfer. Now imagine a straight line from the base of the golfer’s spine, extending up and through the center of the golfer’s head. Here is an image of this angle.
Frontal Spine Angle
This angle also will be unique and will depend on each golfer’s build and physique. But it will also vary during a proper swing, ideally being greater at impact than it was at address. In this image, the frontal spine angle is about 8º at address and 25º at impact.
Why has spine angle become such a popular and important aspect for discussion?
Now let’s look at why spine angle is so important to the golfer’s swing. By carefully observing the golfer’s spine angle from behind and down the target line, a professional, an analyst and even the average golfer can easily visualize what can happen during a swing and particularly toward impact. If the golfer does not maintain the spine angle, i.e. decreases it from its starting angle, say from 30 degrees toward 25 degrees, the head, shoulders and arms will move away from the ball toward impact. The result will probably be a push or slice to the right, or worse, a topped hit or even a whiff. If the golfer increases the starting angle of the spine, say from 30 degrees to 40 degrees, the head, shoulders and arms move closer to the ball toward impact. The result of these movements might be a drastic hook, a hit behind the ball or a pull to the left.
There is much less agreement about the frontal spine angle. There are a few who say it should be constant, like the conventional down-the-line spine angle. But such may not be possible in a good swing. The only sensible discussion is how much should it change. Think about it. There are a few things that just about everyone agrees upon for a good golf swing:
- The feet should remain where they are, not shift in or out, forward or backward.
- The head should remain behind the ball through impact.
- The weight should shift in the downswing to the forward leg.
When we think about the implications of these three, nearly universal, rules (only the “stack and tilt” school brings the third point into a bit of question), we see that the frontal spine angle must necessarily increase during the downswing. Consider:
- The feet are planted for balance.
- The head does not shift forward.
- Yet somehow the weight shifts forward.
The only way such can happen is if some significant fraction of the body below the neck and above the feet moves forward. What is going on here? Let’s look at two of the more common proverbs for a good swing:
- You should “hit against a firm left side”.
- You should “fire the right side”.
That suggests that the hip turn — which everybody agrees is essential — involves a movement forward of the hips. Even if you are turning the hips rather than sliding them, firing the right side against a firm left side means that the hips are moving from right of center (top of the backswing) to a point over the left foot (for balance in the follow-through). And that forward movement of the hips, however slight it may be, is where the weight shift comes from. The feet don’t move and the head doesn’t move; the forward movement of the hips shifts the weight.
Another look at the above image of the frontal spine angle, shows us why the frontal spine angle must increase between address and impact. The hips move forward and the head stays back. You need either an increased spine angle or a guillotine! So “maintaining” the frontal spine angle requires not a constant angle, but rather tilting the spine so the head stays back as the weight shifts forward.
So how can the golfer learn to maintain and/or utilize the proper spine angle — both conventional and frontal? Most professionals, instructors and expert golfers will say that golf is a game of feel. And if you are to maintain your spine angle, you must know how this aspect of the swing feels. The golfer can have her/his swing videotaped from both spine angle views and would quickly be able to see how and if the spine angle changes. Such a review however would not translate to the desired feel. Without such feel, one does not know what physical movements to correct or what to practice for improvement.
For many years, and still today, many golf experts focus on the head as the critical body part that affects the swing. The head is at the top of the spine and it follows that if the head remained relatively steady throughout the swing, the conventional spine angle also would remain relatively constant. Moreover, a steady head is the key to a proper sequence of the frontal spine angle. Perhaps it was with this end result in mind that Jack Grout, the first professional instructor to Jack Nicklaus, held young Jack’s hair with his extended left arm for two hours and had Nicklaus hit real balls. Grout knew that tactile feedback was the best way for a golfer to gain the feel for any aspect of the swing.
More recently, Hank Haney used the exact same technique with Charles Barkley on the Golf Channel’s Haney Project. He did not however require that Sir Charles hit balls for two hours with tactile feedback. The desired feel for a steady head and a constant spine angle could not have been acquired by Charles with Haney grabbing and holding Charles’ head only two or three times. Acquiring a feel and ultimately, the development of muscle memory to maintain a constant spine angle would have required Charles’ head to be held for two hours or more — and would probably require subsequent practice sessions as well.
The brain has memory and it can remember physical and muscle movements and bodily feel so that they can be repeated. The task is to tell the brain exactly the movements and the bodily feelings that you want it to remember. Tactile feedback has been proven to be the best procedure for programming the brain to acquire new and desired physical movements and bodily feelings. And probably the best tactile feedback for helping a golfer acquire a feel for maintaining spine angle is to use the Jack Grout technique. To do so, you must get another person to hold your head in a steady position (which also will maintain your spine angle) while you take practice swings or hit real or plastic balls, until you get that feel. Or you can use a training aid like the PRO-HEAD Trainer that holds your head in a similar manner.
Some instructors have referred to the PRO-HEAD Trainer as a “mechanical Jack Grout,” because it performs the same function. It holds the head relatively constant with the hat attachment and, as mentioned above, it also holds the conventional spine angle relatively constant throughout the swing. The specially designed rubber arm connector of the Hat attachment allows for any hip and head movement to accommodate the golfer’s unique and proper frontal spine angle. The Hitting attachment allows the golfer’s head to move away from the PRO-HEAD after impact. Both attachments provide the necessary tactile feedback for incorporating the feel of both spine angles into the golfer’s swing. Best of all, the golfer can practice at any time, without the need of an assistant or partner, and for as long or as little as the golfer prefers to practice.
The more often you can practice your swing with tactile feedback, with or without hitting balls, the sooner that feel will become a natural part of your swing. New muscle memory will eventually be developed. You will have acquired the feel for maintaining your spine angle, an irrefutable aspect of a good golf swing. You will hit more consistent and solid shots. You will lower your scores and your handicap. Enjoy your game.