In golf, a lot of focus is given to a part of the body that does very little physical work to propel the ball down the fairway – your head.
We’ve all been having a shocker on the course, only to be told time and time again by a playing partner: “you did it again, you lifted your head on that one”.
Some golf instructors might tell you to keep your head right over the ball at address.
Others recommend letting your head move with your backswing, and keeping your ear to the ground as you move through impact.
And there’s a few who suggest you don’t even need to be looking at the ball at the point of contact, just like PGA star Dustin Johnson.
So, which of these tips are true? And does it actually matter what your head does in the golf swing?
Well, yes, it does, but there are some myths out there.
Read on and hopefully you’ll be able to dispel the fiction and take the fact out on course the next time you play.
Table of contents
How do I keep my head centred in the golf swing?
To keep your head centred in the golf swing you must rotate your body correctly. Lateral movement in the backswing – where your hips and spine slide away from the ball, rather than turning into your trail hip – can cause your head to move away from centre.
Lateral movement, otherwise knowing as ‘swaying’, can be a killer in the golf swing, leading to inconsistent strikes, fats and thins as it becomes harder to control the low point of your arc.
Another biproduct of this incorrect takeaway movement is a shifting of the head away from the ball – and if you’re doing this, there’s a fair chance your hip turn could be one of the root causes.
We’ve outlined some fundamental guides that can help you improve in these areas:
- Start Your Swing: How To Perfect Your Takeaway
- Rotation Basics: Stop Swaying In The Golf Swing
- Hip Turn: How Much You Need In Your Swing
- Maintaining Spine Angle: Why It Matters
When practicing, it definitely pays to film your golf swing (read how to do this in another article here) so you can keep a look out for excessive head movement and use this feedback to diagnose flaws in your swing.
A simple, free golf app will allow you to mark lines or draw a circle around your head and help spot these problematic movements when you watch the video back and analyse it.
Should your head be behind the golf ball at address?
At address, your head should be behind the golf ball slightly, feeling as if your left cheek lines up with the back of the ball. This movement should be accentuated when setting up for the driver, as the greater spine tilt will naturally move your head a little farther behind the ball.
It’s important to emphasise the word slightly.
You don’t want your head positioned too far behind the ball, as doing this may cause you to lose balance or keep your weight too much on your trail foot (which can hinder your hip turn during the backswing and downswing).
This is especially the case when hitting irons, as it can lead to both fat strikes or thin strikes – the latter caused by striking the ball on the up after passing through the low point of the swing.
Having your head too far forward is also problematic, as transferring too much weight to your lead side could create a steep attack angle and cause your left side to crumple over and hinge.
This is sometimes referred to as a ‘reverse pivot’ and is something I struggle with in my own swing from time to time.
Your attack angle will likely be incredibly steep, with heavy contact being the undesired, but inevitable, result.
How do I stop my head moving back in the golf swing?
To stop your head moving back in the golf swing you need to rotate, rather than slide, off the ball in the backswing. If you struggle with this it may be due to poor flexibility, so increasing your range of motion will help you turn properly into your trail hip and eradicate this undesirable lateral movement.
Newton’s Third Law states: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
It makes sense then that a lateral slide away from the ball in the backswing will need to be countered with a lateral movement forward in the downswing, and unfortunately our bodies aren’t great at syncing these two actions up.
Because of this, the result is typically inconsistency when it comes to quality of strike (one way to improve in this area is by using an impact bag).
To stop this backward movement, you need to work on rotating in your takeaway, rather than sliding.
A simple way to do this is to hold an alignment stick across your chest, then make some initial movements as if you were starting your backswing.
The aim is to get the alignment stick pointed at the ball upon the completion of your turn.
Another great way to practice rotation and stabilise your head is by extending an alignment stick out along your club shaft, as shown in the video below.
When you swing, the alignment stick should keep in contact with your lead side, something that will be difficult to do if you slide your hips, and your head, back off the ball during the golf swing.
How important is it to keep your head still in the golf swing?
It is important to restrict the movement of your head in the golf swing, but it does not need to be completely still. You should avoid bobbing up and down or excessive lateral movement, but some rotation, especially through strike, is necessary when making a full swing.
Legendary US golfer Tom Watson believes the ‘don’t move your head’ line has been done to death, arguing that, apart from up and down ‘bobbing’ of the head, some movement is OK and may actually help deepen your rotation in the backswing.
When you watch PGA Tour superstar Dustin Johnson swing the club, you’ll notice his head doesn’t stay perfectly still – in fact, his eyes begin looking out towards his target before his club actually strikes the ball, which allows him unrestricted movement in his hips and gets them wide open at impact.
But what you won’t see is any excessive dipping down of his head through the swing.
The reason why eight-time major winner Watson dislikes dipping of the head so much: the farther you dip, the farther you have to come back up.
If you dip your head in the backswing, it can steepen the angle that your club will travel through contact, unless you stand back up – otherwise known as ‘early extending’ – in the downswing.
This body movement is extremely hard to marry up, and may cause you to throw your hands at the ball, flipping the clubhead at impact, leading to poor compression and inconsistent contact.
How do I stop my head from dipping in my golf swing?
To stop your head dipping in your golf swing you should focus on two things: maintaining your height while rotating, and keeping a high left shoulder. You should feel as though you maintain the same space between your chest and the ball throughout the entire swing.
Golfers who hinge at the waist on their left side (if you are right-handed) usually do this as their body is sliding backwards away from the ball.
What this does is causes the left shoulder to dip, taking the head with it.
This is a swing flaw I dealt with for years before a good PGA professional taught me the importance of keeping the left shoulder up and rotating around my spine.
Not long after, the head dipping started to disappear.
Another reason the head can dip is due to lazy movement in the legs where the knees, particularly the left knee, buckles in the golf swing causing a downward dip through the left-hand side of your body.
Read our full article on Using Your Legs In The Golf Swing to learn how they should move in the backswing in order to aid, not hinder, your rotation.
How do I stop lifting my head in the golf swing?
To stop lifting your head in the golf swing, you need to stay in your posture. The goal is to maintain your forward bend throughout the backswing and downswing – including through impact – to avoid early extending, as this will cause your head to lift.
You should feel as though your chest stays over the golf ball during the entire swing – a sensation which is known as ‘covering the ball’.
Covering the ball essentially means you start your golf swing with adequate forward bend over the ball and maintain this as you complete your backswing and downswing.
Your head will lift if, from this initial bent position, you pull your chest back and away from the ball, rather than keeping that posture.
YouTube golf coach Chris Ryan explains the problematic movements that lead to a lifted head below:
The issue for some golfers is that they may not even realise they lift their head in the backswing, making it extremely hard to diagnose.
The main thing to look out for is topped shots or shots that are low on the face, which could indicate that you are early extending in the swing.
Better yet, film yourself when you practice: the footage won’t lie and will offer you great visual feedback on how you’re moving through the ball.
What causes topping the ball in golf?
A main cause of topping the golf ball is an excessively upward attack angle at impact. Instead of striking the ball with a slightly downward angle of attack – especially with irons – it’s likely you are hitting it on the way up, which causes the dreaded ‘topping’ effect.
Topping the ball is a flaw that is particularly common with beginner golfers who try to pick the ball off the fairway to lift it into the air.
They do this because they fail to realise how club loft works, and that in order to create the best possible compression and ball flight – particularly with wedges, irons, hybrids, fairway woods and even driving irons – you should strike the ball with a slightly negative attack angle.
If you’re not leaving divots with your short irons or wedges – and even your hybrids or fairway woods – it’s a good indication you’re ‘picking’ at the ball and probably don’t have enough shaft lean at impact, too.
Below are some articles that can help you improve your ball-striking and stop you topping the ball from the fairway:
- How To Control Your Clubface At Impact With Shaft Lean
- How To Hit A Hybrid In Golf
- Where You Should Position The Ball For Each Club
But while you should focus on creating a slightly negative attack angle when hitting from the fairway, to maximise distance with driver you need to strike the ball on the up – but there’s a right and wrong way to do this.
Why am I topping my driver?
If you’re topping the ball with driver, it’s likely you’re doing one of these things wrong: having the ball too far forward in your stance, teeing the ball too low, or striking the ball with an excessively upward angle of attack.
Ideally, with driver, you want the ball positioned just inside your lead foot, and teed at a height so that the clubface, when resting on the ground, covers half the golf ball.
As I’ve explained in another article, it’s also important to keep your shoulders square to target, or slightly closed, when addressing the ball with driver as this will help deliver the club on the correct path and angle, reducing the chances of topping the ball.
Incorrect head movements can have a crippling effect on your golf swing and is one of the first flaws any good golf coach will look for during a lesson.
The camera is your friend and filming a few swings, and marking your head with circles or lines to determine its position will provide a quick diagnosis.
While your head shouldn’t be stiff as a board and needs to flex and rotate a bit in the swing, avoiding bobbing up and down or sliding back and forth will improve your consistently of strike dramatically and help you recreate the low point of your swing every time.
The end result will be straighter, more penetrating golf shots – and less topping of the ball.