Hitting Down on the Golf Ball To Make It Go Up

Irons are designed to contact the ball while descending

Golf club and ball
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If you've ever read or watched golf instruction - or, likely, simply listened to "amateur instructors" on the driving range or golf course - you've probably heard a few variations on a piece of advice about hitting irons:

  • "Hit down on it" or "hit down on the ball";
  • "Stop trying to lift the ball";
  • or "let the iron do the work for you."

All these catchphrases relate to something about the design of golf irons and the proper way to use them to hit a golf ball: Irons are designed to contact the golf ball while still traveling down. Hit down on the ball means your iron should contact the ball before it hits the ground.

'Hit Down on the Ball' Seems Contrary to Our Instincts

"Golf is a difficult game, yet to so many of the uninitiated it might seem incredibly simple," says golf instructor Clive Scarff. "The objective is to strike a ball ... that is just sitting there. How tough can it be? It's not like baseball, or tennis, where the ball is moving as we attempt to make contact with it. Or hockey, where someone is trying to knock you down while you hit the ball."

Scarff is a veteran teaching professional at Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. His series of instructional DVDs and books are titled Hit Down Dammit! (browse Scarff's media on Amazon)

So if the ball is just sitting there, what makes it so hard to hit good iron shots?

"Golf is difficult - deceptively so - due to our perception of how to get the ball airborne," Scarff explains. "We want the ball to go up, and our natural inclination is to hit up at it. However, with irons, we need to hit down."

Why Hitting Down - Not Trying to Lift the Ball - Works With Irons

Trying to swing up at the golf ball might make sense at first glance; after all, you want the ball to get up into the air. So we asked Scarff to explain the concept of hitting down to make the golf ball go up.

Scarff's explains:

"Part of this initial deception in golf lies in the fact that the ball is round, and the iron clubface has loft (is angled back). On first look it might appear that our goal is to slide the lofted clubhead under the ball, striking its lower half on the upswing, and thus driving - or lifting - the ball into the air. However, it is critical to note that the golf iron has not been designed to get under the ball to lift it. It has been designed to strike the ball as the clubhead is descending - on the downswing.
"The face of the iron will then contact the surface of the golf ball just prior to reaching the bottom of the swing arc.
"As a result, the ball becomes trapped between the descending clubface and the ground. The ball compresses. Because the face of the clubhead is lofted, the ball - rather than be driven into the ground as a downward hit might imply - will spin backwards up the iron face, decompress (adding energy to its escape) and climb into the air."

That's the technical explanation of what happens when an iron face correctly impacts a golf ball while the iron head is still traveling a downward path. When the iron is "hitting down on the golf ball." (The path any club travels into the moment of contact with a golf ball is called the angle of attack.)

Scarff continues:

"Until the technicalities of hitting down are fully explained, hitting up seems, on the surface, more logical. If we want something to go up, we tend to hit up at it. If I gave you a tennis ball, and a racket, and asked you to hit the ball up into the air - what would you do? You would lower your racket and strike up at the tennis ball. And the tennis ball would go up. It's logical. So why wouldn't it be logical with golf, too?
"Certainly - on the surface anyway - hitting down at something you want to go up is not logical. And until it becomes logical to you, your muscles may resist as a result. Gaining a firm understanding of the golf swing - and especially the mechanics of "hitting down" with an iron - is vital to programming muscle memory. And good muscle memory in golf is essential, so you can stop worrying about your swing, and concentrate on the game itself."

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