This is a golf tip that will be skipped over or forgotten by 90% of the people who start to read it. It’s so basic that intermediate and advanced golfers will think it’s beneath them to take the time to read it, let alone work on it during their next practice session. But I warn you…never underestimate the power of the set-up. Set-up positions are the foundation of every good golfer, and if you don’t have a consistent set-up routine, you won’t make consistent contact, and you won’t achieve consistent results.
I like to describe the set-up positions like a three-dimensional box. Ball position puts two sides on the box. The distance you stand from the ball puts the other two sides on the box. And your knee flex puts the lid on the box. Let’s talk about each individually and see if we can help you create a consistent set-up routine.
And as you read, regardless of your current skill level, remember this:
Even if you have the best golf swing in the history of golf, you won’t make consistent contact and you won’t have a consistent ball flight if one of these three positions is inconsistent.
Ball position is simply where you place your feet in relation to where the ball is sitting. The overriding principle in selecting the best ball position is to set your feet so that the ball will be struck at the best part of the swing arc for the shot you are trying to hit. For a short and mid iron, the ball should be somewhere close to the middle of your stance. For long irons, hybrids, and fairway woods, the ball position will start to slide forward toward your front foot. For drivers, the ball position will be in line with the heel or arch of your front foot. There can be variations on those general guidelines, so experiment with different ball positions and see how they affect your trajectory.
For example, if you move the ball position toward your back foot for a short iron shot, you’ll be forced to deloft your club and the shot will be lower. Or if you move your driver ball position forward and tee the ball up higher, your trajectory will be higher.
Ball position can also be a big factor in whether your shots go left or right. That same delofted short iron shot from our example above, will likely start off right of your target line because the further back ball position means the clubface won’t have as much time to square up at impact. And the driver shot you move forward in your stance will likely start out left of your target line because the clubface has that extra split second to continue rotating past your target line.
One last thing on ball position. We can’t talk ball position without talking about hand position too. Notice in the picture below that the hands are ahead of the ball with irons and even with the ball with the driver. If your hands lag behind the ball at address, you’ll run into ball-striking inconsistency–sometimes thin, sometimes fat, but never solid.
Distance From the Ball
How far you stand from the golf ball is important simply because you only have a few inches of clubface you’re working with. Shots off the toe and the heel of the club are often due to standing an incorrect distance from the ball. Shots that are hit thin (low on the clubface) and fat (high on the clubface) are also often a result of standing too far from or too close to the ball.
First, you need the clubhead sitting flat on the ground. If the toe (the tip of the clubface farthest from you) of the club is off the ground, you’re likely too far from the ball. If the heel (the part of the clubface closest to the shaft) is up, you’re likely too close to the ball. Second, you want to have your arms hanging naturally from your shoulders. Don’t be reaching for the ball and don’t be restricted with your arms too close to your body. When you’re in a correct posture (see the posture golf tip here), and your arms are hanging naturally, the club’s grip should be about a spread hand out from your front thigh (see the picture above). When you’re in this position and you swing the club back and forth, you should be brushing the grass right where the ball would be. If you’re catching too much grass, you’re probably too close to the ball. If you’re not touching any grass, you’re probably too far from the ball.
One last thing on distance from the ball. Your clubs are different lengths, so you’ll be farther from the ball when you’re using your driver than you will when you’re using your wedges, but only because the shaft is longer. The club should still be flat on the ground and your arms should still be hanging naturally from your shoulders. An incorrect tendency to watch out for is extending your arms on the longer clubs. It feels more powerful, but it actually saps you of distance because your swing relies too much on your arms and not enough on the big muscles in your torso. For a baseball analogy, do you generate more power turning on an inside pitch or reaching for an outside pitch? Keep your arms in close and your power is greater.
Our knee flex puts the top on the 3-D box. Everyone’s knee flex is a little different, but the key is making it the same each time so the club has the best chance to return to the ball consistently. We talk more about knee flex during the swing when we want to minimize up and down movement with our knees, but starting with a consistent knee flex is the key to a consistent set-up and consistent ball-striking. Check out the posture post linked to above for more on knee flex, and soon you’ll see how related all of your set-up positions are. If one is off, the whole system starts to break down. So the next time you’re at the range, go through a checklist of set-up positions. Check your ball position. Check your distance from the ball. Check your knee flex and posture. The more you make the set-up positions part of your routine, the more natural it will start to feel and the easier it will be to adjust on the course if something starts to feel a little off. And the best thing about practicing set-up positions is that once you get them set, you don’t have to worry about them during your swing. Your brain can transition to thinking about one in-swing idea instead of grinding over 10 things at a time.
You did it. You’re part of the 10% who made it through this entire novel on set-up positions. Congratulations on laying the foundation for consistent ball-striking. The other 90% will continue to worry about their swings and their follow-throughs and everything else, except the set-up positions that are the root cause of their problems on the course. As always, if you have any questions on the set-up, please stop by and chat with your local PGA Professional who can help you with every part of your golf game.
Eric Larson, PGA
GM/Head Golf Professional
Fox Hollow Golf Club
Mike Seiffert, PGA
Fox Hollow Golf Club