Last season was a good one for me. I won on the PGA Tour for the first time in more than four years, contributed two points to the winning European side in the Ryder Cup and, to be honest, felt like I enjoyed the game more than I have in quite a while. I chalk up the success to a commitment I made early in the year to control my emotions a bit better and adopt a more competitive attitude. I'd be lying if I said it was the result of a breakthrough swing discovery or a new magic move.
Nope, my technique is the same as it's always been, and the foundation of that technique is built on four key moves that have been part of my motion since day one. These are simple swing thoughts that allow me to position the bottom of my swing in the right spot so I can catch the ball crisply and in the center of the sweet spot with every iron in the bag. If you're struggling with contact and missing more than your fair share of greens, give my moves a try and see if they don't help you realize the success you deserve, just as they have for me.
YOUR SERGIO TRANSLATOR
According to Top 100 Teacher Brian Manzella, Sergio's swing is "in the Top 10 — maybe Top 5 — of all time."
That good? "Let's put it this way," Manzella says, "Sergio's is the best 'lower-back-plane' swing of the past 40 years, or, said another way, the best one where the shaft bisects the lower back once it settles on the downswing."
While many point to Sergio's tremendous clubhead lag as his key swing trait, Manzella says that folks are missing the point. "Any good golfer can create lag, but nobody — nobody — knows how to release it like Garcia. Most lag guys drag the handle through impact. Sergio lets it all go. The man doesn't get enough credit for how dynamic — or good — his swing really is."
High praise from a teacher who knows what he's talking about, which is why we asked Manzella to provide additional insight into El Niño's key moves so that you can more easily add them to your own motion.
EASY IRON MOVE 1: STAND TALLER AT ADDRESS
Your address position doesn't feature any moving parts, so there's no reason you can't make it as good as a Tour pro's. First thing: Bend forward and stand at a distance from the ball that allows your upper arms to hang straight down from your shoulder sockets (below left). You can check this by simply removing your hands from the grip and seeing how your arms naturally hang when you're in your setup. Not only does this create less tension at address, it gives your arms freedom to swing back and through at maximum speed.
I tend to swing poorly when I bend forward too much at address and get my head and shoulders too far down. Notice how much more cramped I am in the right photo above than I am in the one in the center, and how much flatter my posture is. This is just enough of an error to rob me of the athleticism I need to swing at my best. While it's a good idea to get your arms hanging straight down, try to do it with a more erect posture, even with a short iron in your hands. As I say to myself when I practice, "Keep your height."
TRANSLATION: A TALLER POSTURE MAKES IT EASIER TO TURN
Garcia's a pretty normal-size guy, but he can hit his 4-iron farther than most amateurs can hit their driver. He gets his power by combining his famous arm swing with the powerful rotation he creates, in part, by turning his torso all the way to the right during his backswing. His turn is a big part of his engine, and most of us can turn better from a taller posture than from one that's more bent. Plus, a taller posture naturally supports a flatter downswing plane, which as you'll see on the next page, is Garcia's telltale swing trait.
EASY IRON MOVE 2: PULL DOWN FROM THE TOP
In my opinion, the two worst things you can do for your swing are (1) spin your shoulders too early from the top of your backswing (photo, below), and (2) lose the angle between your left forearm and the clubshaft before you come into the ball. The first error will lead to nothing but a heavy dose of slices and pulls. Losing your lag — the second error — will quickly make you the shortest hitter in your foursome. Once I'm at the top, I think about keeping my right shoulder behind me until I'm done transitioning from from my backswing to my downswing. When I'm swinging at my best, my shoulders are the last thing to move as I make my way back down toward the ball.
Here's a swing thought my father gave me years ago to help me stay back and stop swinging across the ball or getting the club too far out in front. (I know I need it when my draws start turning into hooks.) Once you're at the top, feel as though you're holding the end of a long chain. As you start your downswing, try to pull the chain straight down. It's a heavy chain, so give it a good tug. This should help you keep your shoulders back and retain some lag (the angle between your left arm and clubshaft) deeper into your downswing.
TRANSLATION: DROP IN THREE DIRECTIONS
I've looked at Garcia's swing from every angle and at every speed, and while he's definitely one of the best at using a pulling motion from the top to create lag, he never really pulls the chain straight toward the ground. Sergio's hands go down, but they also go out toward the target line. More importantly, they also move to his right (away from the target). In fact, nobody's hands move away from the target from the top as much as Sergio's. If he really was pulling a chain, it would be on more of a 45-degree angle after he yanked it than what he's depicting at left.
My advice: Drop your hands and keep your shoulders back as Sergio advises, but experiment with moving your hands to the right (away from your right ear) and out toward the target line a bit. The "away" move will definitely help you keep your back pointed at the target longer, which is always a benefit.
EASY IRON MOVE 3: KEEP YOUR RIGHT SHOULDER UP
Just as I want to feel taller at address, I want to feel taller as I make my downswing and move through impact. I focus on my shoulders — once I start turning them I don't want to raise them or drop them closer to the ground. I think of it as a "level turn." My big error is dropping toward the ball, or dipping my left or right shoulder. Now, a lot of great golfers make this move and hit incredible shots, but for me, it's a killer.
Once you start to turn through the ball, picture a dot in the middle of your chest, and keep that dot moving toward the ball on a straight line. Feel like you're swinging more "around" your body. (Your arms will take care of the "down" part.) If you do it correctly, your swing will feel flatter, and for most slicers this will do wonders for your ball flight.
TRANSLATION: MATCH YOUR TURN TO YOUR SWING
Sergio's "level turn" actually happens on an angle, but it's more level than what you typically see on Tour. As important as it is to his swing, most people miss it. Because he drops to such a low plane on the way down, making anything but a level turn would cause Sergio's swing to move too much out to the right and shift the bottom of his arc behind the ball. In other words, if he had practiced making a steep turn rather than a level one growing up, you never would have heard of him.
Steep swingers (those who swing down on a more upright plane), need to move their right shoulder down to keep the club from getting too far out in front. (Jack Nicklaus is a great example of this type of swing.) The flatter your plane, however, the flatter you should turn through the ball.
EASY IRON MOVE 4: FINISH OVER YOUR LEFT SIDE
There are a lot of things going on during the downswing, and sometimes you need to step back and make things as simple as possible to keep it all from going haywire. For me, it's realizing that my weight and upper body are over my right leg at the top of my backswing and over my left leg in my finish. Really, your down-swing is nothing more than a shift toward the target as you whip the club through impact and into a nice balanced finish. When I start to feel like I'm hanging back a bit at impact or at the end of my swing (below center), I know I have problems. I'll immediately go back to basics and start making swings with the sole intent of getting my upper body over my left side at the finish. I'll exaggerate it until I feel like I'm falling toward the target (below far right). It's that important to get moving toward the target.
I've got two checkpoints you can use to make sure you're properly getting to your left side and not hanging back: (1) At impact, you should feel as though your right side is closer to the target than it was at address, and (2) when you finish your swing, the buttons on your shirt should be over the laces of your shoes. Get these right and you'll almost guarantee a full move through the ball.
TRANSLATION: TURN "FORWARD"
As mentioned earlier, Sergio has to make a flatter downswing turn in order to keep his flat approach from missing its mark. Some golfers require a steeper turn (right shoulder low) to approach the ball on plane. But all golfers need to move their right shoulder forward. As Sergio says, you need to get to your left side. Do it by continuing your turn as your hips move forward and around. Your goal is to get your right shoulder and hip closer to the target at impact when hitting an iron (and also at the finish on all full-swing shots). This is critical for a flat swinger like Sergio. It helps him move the low point of his swing forward (hello, perfect divot!). If you're a steep swinger, you'll have more of a hang-back look (above far left). If you're a flat swinger, you should look more like the photo at right in your finish.
This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Golf Magazine, on newstands now. Click here to subscribe to Golf Magazine and to learn about Golf Magazine All Access.