This is the 6th post in my instructional series on the golf swing. If this is your first time here, I suggest starting from the beginning, as these posts are in sequential order and build on each other.
Throughout the post, you may see small superscripts like this one 1This is a superscript. Click the superscript to see additional commentary.
Hogan said that for all clubs, you should place the ball inside the left heel, and simply alter the width of your stance for different clubs.
Contemporary Instruction says that you should place the ball inside the left heel with the driver, and progressively further back, reaching the center of the stance with the wedges.
Your local pro told you that you should play your pitch shots off your back foot.
The internet told you that you should play all shots in the center of your stance.
After spending several years utterly confused by this topic, I finally decided it was time to master this subject so I would no longer have to agonize over it on a nightly basis.
Fortunately, if you have read the previous posts in this series, and understand the relationships between the inclined plane, various ball flight factors, and how all this relates to the two lever model, then ball position won’t be all that difficult to understand. You already have the knowledge. Now it is time to explore the applications of this knowledge.
Instead of thinking about ball position as a static position, I want you to think of it as the relationship between the ball and the low point of the swing, which is directly below the left shoulder according to the two-lever model.2In real life, low point is slightly right of the left shoulder, but a negligent amount.
As I take you through various factors that influence ball position, just keep this in mind.
There are three primary ways to alter the position of the golf ball:
- Keep the stance constant, and move the actual golf ball forward or backward
- Open/Close the stance
- Widen/Shorten the stance
I will dive into each of these, and then bring it full circle with a few applications.
Keeping Stance Constant, and Moving Position of Ball
Let’s assume that you are perfectly aimed at the target (plane direction is the same as target line), you maintain the flat left wrist through impact, your center does not move, and you swing perfectly on the “optimal plane.”
Now, have someone move the ball forward/backward in your stance. As you may have intuitively reasoned, moving the ball back creates a greater distance between the ball and the low point, while moving the ball forward decreases the distance between the ball and low point.
This also means that if you swing perfectly on the plane set at address, there will be a divergence between the club path angle and the club face angle at all points except low point. The further back the ball is positioned, the greater the divergence, and the more the golf ball will draw.
In addition, the further back the ball, the lower the trajectory of the ball, and the more spin thanks to an increased angle of attack.
Unfortunately, when a golfer moves the ball a significant distance back in his/her stance, he/she has a tendency to approach the ball on a different plane direction than was established at address, which subsequently alters the effective ball position, trajectory, spin, etc. This is why many golfers who attempt to lower their ball flight by putting the ball back in their stance achieve poor results.
Keeping the Ball in Same Position, Altering Stance Width
Again, let’s assume that you are perfectly aimed at the target (plane direction is the same as target line), you maintain the flat left wrist through impact, your center does not move, and you swing perfectly on the “optimal plane.”
This time, instead of moving the ball, move your right foot forward/backward, while keeping the left foot stationary.
The best way to see how this works is to try it yourself. As you drop the right foot further and further back, your left shoulder (low point) moves further back as well. This effectively moves the ball position forward in your stance. In addition, your spinal tilt at address will also increase as the stance widens, which has various implications which will be discussed later.
The more you drop your right foot back, the closer and closer the ball gets to the low point, and the less and less the divergence between the club path angle and club face angle. With longer clubs, it is even possible to drop the right foot far enough back to position the ball in front of low point. Since the ball is on a tee, this is okay.
This was Hogan’s reasoning when he said that every club should be played off the inside of the left heel, and the stance width adjusted to alter ball position.
An important takeaway here is that golfers who use a wider stance will appear as if they are playing the ball further back in their stance, while golfers who use a narrower stance the opposite.
Let’s imagine a golfer who uses a fairly wide stance with all his clubs. He would certainly not want to take Hogan’s advice of playing the wedges off the inside of the left heel, because with such a wide stance, this would put the ball forward of low point, and lead to chunked/bladed wedge shots.
Keeping the Ball in the Same Spot, Keeping the Stance the Same Width, Altering the Stance Direction
For this last factor, let’s assume that you still maintain a steady center, a flat left wrist, and swing on the same plane that was established at address.
We will also assume that the stance width stays the same, and the ball’s location does not move. The only adjustment we are making is a perfect rotation of the stance. Imagine that the player is standing on a board with a pivot in the center of the board, and we are simply turning the golfer radially by use of this pivot in different directions.
When we “open the stance,” or spin the board counterclockwise, the left shoulder (low point) moves back and to the right, or in other words, the ball position moves forward. On the contrary, closing the stance moves the ball position backwards.
This is why we can play our short pitches and chip shots so far back in our stance. Sure, the ball may look like it is playing off the right foot, but since the stance is opened so much, the ball position is fairly close to the low point. This is partially why you don’t hear many instructors defining a specific ball position for various short game shots. Unlike the full swing, which doesn’t vary as much in the setup, the short game can be played with extremely narrow stances, wide stances, open stances, closed stances, various ball positions, etc., and all achieve the same result. This makes it awfully difficult to pick one ball position for all your short game shots.
Summary of Ball Position
The main point that you should take away from this section on ball position is the fact that it is entirely relative! Also, you should remember that when relative ball position moves back in the stance (ceteris paribus), the ball will fly lower and with more of a draw. When the relative ball position moves forward, the opposite happens (high fade).
I hope this clears away any anxiety about whether or not you are positioning the ball correctly. As long as the ball is positioned at or back of low-point, you will be able to strike it solidly. If you find yourself chunking/blading shots, most of the time, it is not faulty ball position, but rather a faulty swing that is causing this. As long as the ball remains somewhere in the vicinity of the low-point (just inside left armpit), you will be able to strike it pure. The only thing that ball position should change is the trajectory and curvature of the golf ball.
For those who like recommendations, I suggest that for full shots, you keep the ball between the inside of the left heel and the middle of the stance, progressively moving the ball position back with shorter clubs.
For the short game, you must experiment in order to find your favorite ball positions. Additionally, taking practice strokes before each short game shot will allow you to find the low point by looking where the club hits the ground.3Although the two-lever model says that low-point is below the left shoulder, if the ground is not flat, this does not apply. With many short game shots, you will be standing on slopes, and will have to take a few practice swings to find the low-point.
As an example, consider you are trying to play a pitch shot off wet and tight turf. In this situation, since the ground is wet, you don’t want to contact the ball with a steep angle of attack, otherwise the club will dig deep into the ground, face tremendous resistance, and almost completely stop. To make sure you are taking a small divot and picking the ball cleanly off the turf, you would make sure that the ball is only slightly back of low point (slightly right of your left shoulder). With an open stance, this will look like the ball is too far forward, but you know that this is not the case. As long as you keep that left wrist flat and your center stationary throughout the swing, you will successfully pick the ball off the turf.
As another example, consider a scenario where you are pitching off hard-pan. This type of ground is hard and dry, and a wedge tends to bounce aggressively off of it. In order to ensure crisp contact, you might play the ball further back in your stance to ensure that the leading edge cuts steeply through the hard turf.
As mentioned, ball position in the short game is largely a result of experimentation and practice. The key is to remember how each adjustment to your setup alters the ball position, and predict what that particular adjustment will do to the flight of the golf ball.