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Science may hold the secret to a better golf swing

Golfers are notoriously obsessive about perfecting their games and lowering their handicaps, so it's no surprise that sophisticated science has often been enlisted to provide a boost. But while club design and even golf-ball dimpling have been subject to rigorous study and dramatic improvement, there is a more fundamental component that must be enhanced before the PGA comes calling: the person holding the club.

In research published online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A, engineer Robin Sharp of the University of Surrey in England dissects previous studies of golf-swing mechanics to identify what makes a great drive—and what that means for the average duffer.

But first Sharp had to debunk the conventional model. In many previous studies, a so-called arm-club simulation was used, which presumes the arms to be locked in a triangle with the shoulders as its base. Sharp's model, the shoulder-arm-club simulation, allows for the bending of the golfer's trailing arm during the backswing, resulting in a more realistic motion. Using 1968 data from the swings of pro golfers Bernard Hunt, Geoffrey Hunt and Guy Wolstenholme, Sharp translated their swings into the shoulder-arm-club format.

Although none of the three golfers was a slouch on the links, Sharp discovered that their swings could be significantly improved. By tweaking the rate of arm-torque buildup and the point at which the action of the wrists provides added torque, he demonstrated that the speed of the club head at impact could be improved by as much as 6.5 percent. (Bernard Hunt, an eight-time Ryder Cup competitor and perhaps the most accomplished of the bunch, was within 1.8 percent of his optimal swing.)

By observing the pros' swings, Sharp writes that "control of the arms and not the wrists appears to be the priority." In the optimized swings, the timing of the "release," when the wrists bring the club head into line with the hands, comes not from the action of the wrists directly but from "later application of arm torques [that] act to retard the release and to improve the efficiency of the swings." In other words, don't swing too hard, too soon.

In the paper, Sharp speculates that an optimization system could be easily automated, allowing golfers to "have swings of various kinds recorded" to reveal "desirable changes to obtain better results with no more effort."

CREDIT: Andrew Penner/iStockphoto.com

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