Obviously, and happily, women are not as strong as men. They cannot run as fast as men, or jump as high, or hit a golf ball as far. Because of this comparative lack of strength, every woman knows she has to play a different kind of golf than a man. She knows she must excel at the shots that do not depend on muscle—the chips and short putts—and because she concentrates on these she becomes quite good at them. But what most women golfers overlook is that there is another kind of shot where compensation can be made for needed strength. This is the fairway wood shot. A good fairway wood can make up for all of the power a man puts into anything from a two-iron to a five-iron. It is a vital part of a woman's golf game, yet it is much neglected.
The trouble is that too many women are afraid of fairway woods. They approach the fairway wood shot as a bride might approach her first soufflé, bravely beating the eggs but convinced in her heart that collapse is imminent. In golf, as in cooking, knowledge and practice bring confidence, and with confidence in what she can do with a three-, four-or five-wood, she can quickly lower her scores.
When faced with a 190-yard second shot to the green on a par-4 hole, a man can reach for a two- or three-iron with reasonable assurance he can carry the ball that far. A woman cannot. Even a woman professional may pull out a four-wood for a shot of that distance, and she knows she must be able to hit the four-wood with as much accuracy as a man would hit a four-iron. Women golfers frequently have wood shots to the green on par-4 holes, and if they cannot hit them they simply cannot score well.
Why, then, are most women—and, in fact, most high-handicap golfers of both sexes—frightened of fairway woods? The answer is simple. The club itself is longer, the arc of the swing is longer and the distance the ball travels is longer. As a result, any error in the shot is exaggerated. Naturally, a ball that is hit 190 yards will slice more than a ball that is hit 90 yards. Since the errors of a big swing show up more, the golfer has a tendency to tighten up and compound her errors. But by following a few basic principles and giving a little practice time to your fairway woods you can avoid making errors in the first place.
For women, fortunately, fairway woods are easier to use than long irons. The three-wood is the club women use most because it has plenty of loft and gives good distance. The four-wood, which has about 15 yards less distance, is the club to use out of fairly bad lies. And the five-wood, with its extra loft, is an excellent club for getting the ball into the air easily. Women can hit the five-wood farther than they can hit a two-iron, especially from the rough or from a bad lie. Not many pros—men or women—carry a two-wood anymore.
There are four vital things to remember about hitting fairway woods: keep your balance, finish your backswing, contact the ball at the bottom of the swing and hit it hard. When I say hit it hard, that is exactly what I mean. A woman cannot take the easy swing of a Julius Boros, because she is not strong enough. A woman must play more like Gary Player or Chi Chi Rodriguez, small men who hit the ball hard. A woman must have a better golf swing than a man because she cannot make up for her mistakes with muscles. And when you see a woman merely waving at the ball, no matter how gracefully, you are seeing a woman with a bad golf swing.
So now you have decided to hit it hard. The next thing to concentrate on is hitting the ball at the bottom of the swing. To illustrate what I mean, take your three-wood into the backyard and swing it without aiming at a ball. Pick out a dandelion or a spot on the grass and hit it. There is nothing to it. You just naturally hit the dandelion at the bottom of your swing. Your eyes and your reflexes take over, and you don't have to try to hit the dandelion at the bottom of the swing, you just instinctively do. And that is how you should hit the ball with a fairway wood, right at the bottom of the swing.
On most iron shots the idea is to hit the ball on the downswing in order to get it high into the air and to give it backspin. With an iron, you are striving for control, not for maximum distance. On a tee shot the idea is to hit the ball on the upswing, to sweep it off the tee. The proper fairway wood swing is right between these two.
One thing that helps a great deal in contacting the ball at the bottom of the swing is getting into the proper address position. The only difference in address between the fairway wood and the other clubs is in the position of the ball. To hit the ball at the bottom of the swing, you play the ball where the bottom of the swing is most likely to be—and that is just opposite your left heel. The position can vary with some players, but it will never vary more than an inch or two. Use a square stance—with the feet and shoulders parallel to the intended line of flight. The width of the stance is about the width of the shoulders. This is a little wider than with irons, because your swing will be longer with a fairway wood and you need a wider base in order to keep your balance. Both knees should be slightly flexed. Many women make the mistake of standing up to the ball with their legs straight. This makes it hard to hit the ball at the bottom of the swing's arc.
At this point, of course, there is no use doing anything else unless you have the right grip. Since you are striving for distance and a hook will roll farther than a slice, you should use a hooker's grip. This means that the Vs made by the thumbs and forefingers should point toward the right shoulder. Men generally play with the Vs pointing between the chin and the right shoulder, and men professionals usually have their Vs pointing at their chin. But women should use the hooker's grip.
Now that you have a strong grip and the proper address, think about your legs. The legs contribute more than anything else to balance and power. Start the swing with the weight evenly distributed between both feet at address, then gradually shift the weight to the right so that at the top of the backswing most of the weight is on the right leg and the right knee is bent slightly forward. It is especially important that you do not let the right leg become stiff at the top of the backswing. Now you are in the strongest possible hitting position.
From the top of the backswing, concentrate on hitting the ball hard. Think of moving the club fast on the downswing. The dainty golf swing went out with the duster and veil. Move everything as fast as you can. In your backyard, whip that club head through that dandelion—and whip it through hard! Too many women do not move the club head as fast as they can because they try to be ladylike; they do not want to be aggressive. This is commendable—even necessary—at country club dances, but it will not get you far on the golf course.
You must not, however, swing hard in the wrong way. You can get so anxious to start hitting hard on the downswing that you do not complete the back-swing. The amount of shoulder turn you take is going to have a lot to do with how far you can hit the ball, so it does no good to start down if you do not take the club back far enough. I have this trouble myself sometimes when I feel the pressures of tournament play. I cure it with a mental exercise.
I picture the club head making a semicircle from the position at address around on the backswing until the club head is pointing at the hole (above). When you do not finish the backswing, the club head never gets to that position, your wrists uncock too soon, you lose power and the bottom of your swing is behind the ball. I wait until I can feel the club head pointing at the hole and do not start my downswing until that moment. Then I can hit the ball as hard as I want, move everything as fast as I want. The wrists uncock at the proper point, and the timing is automatically right. With a good, balanced swing you cannot hit the ball too hard.
But when I say start hitting hard from the top of the backswing, I do not mean to uncock the wrists there. This is one of the worst errors you can make. When you get to the top of the backswing, pull down with both arms and shift the weight to the left side without doing anything with the wrists. Leave the wrists cocked and just pull down with the hands. When you do this the right elbow comes in front of the right hip and the wrists remain cocked until they are in the hitting area. It may sound complex, but look at the drawing (left) and you will see quite clearly what I mean. You should practice this downswing movement over and over. Mickey Wright used to do it for hours in front of a mirror, which is an exercise worth trying.
Women are sometimes inclined to overswing, to go too far back on the backswing because they think that is how to get extra distance. In their search for that extra whip, they bend their left arms on their backswings and almost bounce their club heads off the ground behind them. That is not only unnecessary, it is usually disastrous. If you do not feel strong enough to keep from bending your left arm while taking the club back to its proper position, try practicing by swinging the club with the left arm alone. Keep the left arm straight—even if you can swing it only two feet or so—and keep the left hand firmly on the club throughout. Just a little time spent on this training exercise will soon develop both the strength and the confidence you need to keep yourself from wrapping the club around your neck on the back-swing. Swinging with just the left arm will not produce a good swing, which is a combination of timing, rhythm, balance and many other things, but it will eliminate a few common faults.
Some instructors will tell you to relax on a fairway wood shot. I think this is a mistake. You cannot really relax and hit the ball very far. You cannot be tense, either, but confidence eliminates tension. You should concentrate on keeping your balance and on hitting the ball at the bottom of the swing. Concentrate enough and you will block out of your mind any fear of topping the ball or hitting it off line. You defeat tension by concentration and confidence, not by relaxing.
As I said earlier, women frequently find themselves hitting fairway woods to par-4 greens. This means they need greater accuracy with these clubs than men do, and proper alignment becomes most important. You cannot ever maintain a good swing with bad alignment because you unconsciously try to make up for your bad aim by adjusting your swing. Then your swing goes sour.
To align myself properly I place the club head behind the ball before I take my stance. I put the face of the club at right angles to the line of flight and leave the club in exactly that position, not turning it to left or right. Then I place my feet with my left heel in line with the ball. All good players have a definite routine to go through in aligning themselves, and they do it the same way every time. No really fine player is ever casual about this. For example, you can anticipate every move Mickey Wright will make once she starts her address. She will never vary her movements. She has confidence in her alignment because the routine is familiar to her, and she knows she is always lined up the same way. You can no more play good golf without getting the proper line than you can pitch a baseball game while facing toward the shortstop.
There is one last thing to consider, the actual finish of the swing. I have only one major test for this. Can you hold your follow-through position for a few seconds without falling forward or backward? If you can, the odds are that your weight has shifted as it should and you have good balance. If you go lurching back on your right leg like a drum majorette or if you stumble forward on your left foot, then your balance is not good and you can probably start looking for your ball over in the trees. Other than that, you can pretty well use any follow-through you want. You can see my own at right, but there is no need to imitate it. The touring pros, both men and women, exhibit a whole galaxy of follow-throughs, and they all manage to hit the ball pretty well.
There are a couple of easy things to remember about hitting fairway woods from sloping lies. An upslope adds loft to the club, and a downslope takes loft away. On an upslope, you use a less lofted club. For example, you may be four-wood distance from a green, but with an uphill lie you should use a three-wood. The upslope will make the ball go higher and will cost you distance. On an upslope the bottom of the swing is toward the left foot. Stand away from the ball and take a practice swing to see where the club hits the ground and then judge your position of address from that.
On a downslope, if the shot calls for a three-wood, go ahead and hit a four-wood. The downslope will turn the four-wood into a three-wood anyway, and you need that extra loft. On an extreme downhill lie from the same distance, you might need to use a five-wood. On a downslope play the ball back toward the right foot, because that is where the bottom of the swing will be.
Now I want to suggest something that you may think is heresy. You should not be afraid to hit a fairway wood out of the rough, or from a bad lie, or even from a fairway bunker. It was back in the era when ladies didn't bare their ankles that somebody first told them, "Never use a wood in the rough." It was a fine pontification with a kind of hell's-fire-and-brimstone ring to it, and in the 50 years that followed women dared to get the vote and the bikini, but when their ball went in the rough they took out a six-iron and hoped for the best. What a shame. A four-wood, and certainly a five-wood, is an easier club to hit out of even heavy rough than a long iron, and you can nearly always hit a five-wood 20 or 30 yards farther out of the rough than you can hit a long iron. Even if you miss the wood badly your chances of reaching the fairway are better than if you had missed the iron. You must, however, make a slight adjustment in your swing. In high grass you do not play the ball opposite the left heel as you would in the fairway. You do not want to contact the ball at the bottom of the swing, because the grass will slow down the club head too much. So you play the ball more off the center of the stance, and you hit it on the downswing, as if hitting an iron shot. Of course, if the grass is very high, you may have to take a short iron and whack the ball out, but from most rough you should never hesitate to reach for a wood.
Hitting woods out of fairway bunkers can be smart, and even fun. First, your friends will begin to look upon you as the bold Arnold Palmer of the Sunday mixed-foursome tournament—which is almost reward enough. But you will also pull off some most successful shots. All you have to remember when using a wood from a fairway bunker is that you hit the shot just the opposite of the way you would hit an explosion from a trap around a green. With an explosion shot, the idea is to hit the sand and let the sand ride the ball out of the trap. But in a fairway bunker you are going for distance, and the sand will obstruct the speed of the club head and kill the shot. So when using a wood in a bunker you must make sure that you hit the ball before you hit the sand. This is easily accomplished by playing the ball back, off the center of the stance. It is also more difficult to get the ball up quickly from sand. As a result, you would seldom use anything but a four- or five-wood. It is important that you learn how quickly the ball gets up into the air, because every time you are faced with this shot you will have to decide if you can get the ball over the lip of the trap that is almost surely in front of you. In some cases you will just have to hit a seven-iron, even when you are 175 yards from the green. You may have a four-wood shot in distance and be tempted to try it, but part of being a bold golfer is recognizing what is impossible.
If you are now swinging well at your fairway wood shots, how far can you expect them to go? This varies greatly with the individual. I hit a three-wood about 210 yards, a four-wood about 195 to 200 yards and a five-wood about 185 yards. You will most likely be somewhat short of that. The important thing is to learn what your own ranges are, and then play within your own ability.
There are certain situations where you will not want to hit a fairway wood. If the ground is hard and the front of the green is open, you might want to hit a two-iron and roll the ball onto the putting surface. If there is a strong wind in your face, you may want to hit a two-iron to keep the ball low. But usually if you have a long way to go the fairway wood is the club to reach for. So remember, if you maintain good balance, take a full shoulder turn, finish your backswing and then hit the ball hard so as to achieve maximum speed at the bottom of the swing, the fairway wood is as good a friend as you can have on the golf course. Use it a lot—and watch your scores drop.