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What the frozen left shoulder taught me about the right elbow

So all this year I’ve been slowly recovering from my left shoulder getting frozen by adhesive capsulitis.  The last 6 weeks or so I’ve been noticing more visible improvement, the arm is beginning to regain some of its reach.

As one might expect, the shoulder problem has created some difficulty with swinging a golf club, although there was a short stretch this year where it seemed like it greatly simplified my golf swing and I was seeing some favorable results because of that, in spite of the distance I’ve lost. But the last few months as the left arm has started getting more mobile again, it’s led to some difficulties. I began having great difficulty having any consistency with ball striking.

But then something fell in place yesterday and I now feel very excited I’ve made a huge leap of understanding in the golf swing.  In Ben Hogan’s book, 5 Lessons, he advocates a few points about how the arms should be — that when you set up at address of the ball, your elbows should not be pointed out to the sides, , but that you should turn your forearms so that your elbows point towards their respective hips.  Earlier this year when I tried doing that, I couldn’t turn my left arm like that, the shoulder would hurt. But about a month ago I noticed I could turn things that way, but I didn’t implement it in my game.  I had mostly gotten in the habit of turning my right arm into that position, but I would leave the left elbow facing forward.

That left elbow led to a couple of problems sometimes. It was easy for me to break my left arm during the backswing, and I was prone to that because I wanted to get further back. Sometimes by focusing on keeping my left arm straight I would avoid that, but it still happened sometimes if I didn’t concentrate on it.

But all of that meant something else as well. My right elbow has always had a tendency to fly away from my body. Some of that was because when I first started playing in 2005, after my right shoulder had gotten mostly better from its frozen shoulder, well, I couldn’t externally rotate my right arm fully and that made it impossible for my right elbow to stay tucked in close to the body.  Over time that improved, but mostly my swing was about trying to get the right elbow back into the body after it got separated.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of PGA players will let their right elbows get away from the body on the backswing. But what they are all very good about is getting the elbow tucked back in.  On the other hand, if you look at video of Ben Hogan’s swing, the right elbow is almost always right beside his body.

So yesterday, on about the 5th hole of the first 9 holes I played, I keyed up that thought of pointing my elbows at my hips at address and I then felt how my right elbow kept close to my body and I hit my first real good drive of the day. I did that again at the 7th hole. I missed it on the 8th hole when I let my concentration lapse, but that helped to drive home the lesson — I need my right elbow to stay tight to the body.

That then led me to doing something I’ve never done before in all the times I’ve played the front-9 at Delcastle. After my group had completed our first 9 holes, we elected to go play the front-9 again where the course was open because of the time of day and no one going out to start new rounds of play. But in all my prior times out on the front-9, I have never hit the first 5 fairways in a row with my driver.  But late yesterday afternoon, first hole, a beautiful light fade that started out down the left side and cut back in towards the middle. 2nd hole, again. 3rd hole, again. 4th hole, again. 5th hole, again. It almost felt automatic, if I kept that right elbow tucked against my body, the swing was simple. Hitting the ball solidly with a little bit of fade was simple.

It doesn’t mean I’ll hit a perfect shot every time. But I realize what it does mean is that if I keep my right elbow in close, I greatly improve my chances of returning the golf club in a much more consistent path and plane to the ball.  And that’s why you see the PGA guys hitting the balls as consistently as they do, they’ve mastered the art of getting the right elbow (or left elbow for lefties) back tight against their bodies when they make the downswing.  I finally really felt that clearly yesterday. I’ve probably had some awareness of it before, but never so forcefully and so consciously, with such a feeling that I now know what is key for me when I play golf. Or with the feeling that began to have yesterday that I can have confidence in my swing like I’ve never had before.

I suppose back in 2006 and 2007 when I was able to shoot in the 80s pretty consistently I was sort of closing in on that in an unaware way. Through lots of play, when I’d play 2 or 3 times a week, my body sort of unconsciously got better at getting the right elbow back in against the body, but I wasn’t really keyed in on how to accomplish it. And of course the swing would still break down a lot. Then the less I played, the harder it would get to have any sense of the right elbow being grooved into getting back to the body.

But now it feels like I know, really know. And I understand why Ben Hogan kept the right elbow so close all the time. It simplifies things greatly.

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