I spent my career on the PGA Tour doing whatever I could to put myself in the best position to make the best score. For a brief period in the 1970s, I could do that better than anyone in the game. During my career as a broadcaster for NBC, I’ve studied the course-management skills of the greatest players on the PGA, Senior and LPGA tours. And since I play in more corporate outings and pro-ams these days, I have witnessed the mood swings and struggles the average player can experience in the course of a round. My advice will not only help you hit better shots, it will help put you in the best position on each hole. And when you find yourself in some of those not-so-great positions, it will help you get out with more confidence and less damage to your score.
If you can incorporate all of this information, inspiration and advice into your game, I believe you’ll improve your scores, but more importantly, you’ll get more enjoyment out of every round. As I tell my pro-am partners: Enjoy the day. The sun is shining, the grass is green and you’re out playing golf with friends.
Stance and posture
Watch a major-league shortstop as the pitcher goes into his windup. You won’t see him standing there frozen, bent at the waist. He’s in a slight crouch on the balls of his feet, ready to jump in any direction if the ball is hit. Your stance and posture should be closer to the shortstop’s than to that of a statue. So many players get into a dead position over the ball, with stiff legs and an uncomfortable bend at the waist. That kind of position almost ensures that you’ll make an armsy swing–one that doesn’t get any of those crucial big muscles in the legs, torso and back involved.
The next time you hit practice balls, try getting into a more athletic position, with the knees flexed and loose and your head centered above your legs. Keep your head up. You want to feel as if you’re looking down over your cheekbones. You can make a better turn this way, and you’ll be able to make a more balanced swing. That leads to more consistent contact and better ball-striking.
You must also remember that the ball’s position in relation to your stance changes for each shot. Let your arms hang naturally from your shoulders while you are in your stance for a given club; where the clubhead hits the ground is the distance the ball should be from your body.
Good players have a variety of swing tempos. On the PGA Tour, Ernie Els is called the “Big Easy” because his swing looks so effortless. Fred Couples’ swing is the same. But Jose Maria Olazabal and Nick Price have had success with very fast tempos. All of these swings have one thing in common: whatever the tempo, the speeds of the backswing and downswing are the same.
Keeping track of your tempo is easy. You can use a basic cadence drill–something like “John-ny Mil-ler” or “Ar-nold Pal-mer”–and make your backswing on the first word and your downswing on the second.
Space-age materials and cutting-edge technology make it easier than ever for the average player to hit drives straighter, long-iron shots stronger, and approach shots with more spin. With perimeter weighting in irons, ultra-light graphite shafts and redesigned clubheads in woods, golf is a much more forgiving game than it used to be.
All irons used to be forged by hand out of superheated metal. Forged irons have most of their weight centered behind the sweet spot on the clubface. If hit precisely, a forged iron offers feel and feedback you can’t get in a cast club. But if you aren’t a pro or a very talented amateur, you don’t hit that small sweet spot time after time after time. You can still buy forged irons, but most irons today are cast clubs with clubheads made by pouring molten metal into a die to create a club’s shape. When clubmakers developed the ability to cast clubs, they found that by moving the weight to the outer edges–or perimeter–of the iron, they could enlarge the sweet spot and make the club much more forgiving on off-center hits. That means you can hit the ball a little off the toe or heel and still get decent results.
Couple perimeter weighting with ultralight shafts made of graphite, which is lighter, stronger and gives me more shock-absorbing benefit than steel, and today’s player holds a 4-iron that is no more difficult to hit than a 7-iron in 1973. So, if you don’t already have them, invest in a set of perimeter-weighted irons.
I also believe that the average 90-shooter could cut five shots off his or her score by adding two clubs: a 15-degree 2-wood or strong 3-wood to replace the driver, and a 7-wood utility club to replace the 2- or 3-iron. The control and improved ball flight you get from a club with more loft will offset the lost distance off the tee. If you don’t believe me, try this experiment: The next time you play a casual round, whenever a tee shot you hit with a driver ends up in the rough, pick up the ball, back up 15 yards, and hit it from the middle of the fairway. From the short grass, you’ll have an easier shot to the green eight out of 10 times.
The hardest club for amateurs to hit consistently well is the longest iron, either the 2- or 3-iron. Because of the long iron’s comparative lack of loft, any sidespin created with your swing will be accentuated, because the ball doesn’t crawl up the face as much as it does on a club with a more lofted face. You can handle this problem two ways: spend a lot of time on the practice range working with the 3-iron until you become comfortable with it, or take it out of your bag and replace it with a 7-wood. A good 7-wood is not only easier to hit than a 3-iron, but it’s also a lot more versatile. You can play it from medium-height rough or from an iffy lie in the fairway. It’s also easier to get a 7-wood airborne, because most of the weight is located lower in the clubhead. That’s especially helpful for players who sometimes feel as if they need to hit up on long-iron shots, because they don’t trust the loft to do it for them. Hitting up on a shot–or adding loft to the club at impact–is a cardinal sin in golf. It’s one of the easiest ways to be bad.
If you hit your long irons and driver well, take a fairway wood out and add a third wedge. It can really help your game. You probably already carry a 52-degree pitching wedge and a 56-degree sand wedge. A 60-degree lob wedge is great for short shots around the green that require a lot of height. You could also carry a 58-degree wedge with little or no bounce and use it as a short-approach club from inside 100 yards. Whatever you choose, give yourself flexibility. Don’t carry a club you may use only once every two rounds.