The straight left arm: a safer way to hit a solid shot
Too often in explaining the golf swing the tournament professional makes the mistake of trying to get the weekend player to do things that only he, the experienced pro, can manage. Asking a physically out-of-shape and technically unskilled golfer to swing like a professional sometimes produces nothing but confusion. Changes should be made to lit a player's capabilities. One of the most important such adjustments in the long-iron swing is illustrated at left. The dotted line indicates the best possible position to take at address, as I explained in Part One. But the position I think most middle-and high-handicap players should take, at least until they become fairly proficient, is shown by the straight red bar. From this stance, even with a weak pivot, they are more likely to hit down through the ball and thus get a consistently firm shot. This is true because the hands are starting ahead of the ball and therefore have a better chance to remain ahead at impact. Though this stance results in less loft and distance, I occasionally use it myself when I feel a little tense or, for one reason or another, have temporarily lost confidence in my swing.
Strictly for sharpshooters: new thoughts on curve balls
An old golfing maxim that many of today's touring pros reject is that a closed club face will always promote a hook, and an open one a fade. We can hit a fade when the face is closed and hook when it is open—and sometimes, accidentally, the high-handicap golfer does the same thing. To do this intentionally requires excellent timing, and I do not recommend that the inexperienced golfer try it. But the new technique has two great advantages. It can produce a low fade and a high hook—hard kinds of shots to hit—and it is executed from a simple, square stance. For a fade, you close the face of the club and swing it back outside of the target line (above left). This will create an outside-in cutting action at impact and, provided the wrists remain absolutely firm and do not roll over, a low fade. The hook works in much the same way. The club face is opened and the club brought back inside the line to the target. The downswing must be inside out and, to guarantee a high, soft hook, the wrists must roll over slightly at impact.
Hilly lies: the adjustments are not difficult
Not even the most experienced professionals are so indiscreet as to use long irons consistently from awkward lies. The clubs are just too difficult. The uphill and downhill lies, however, provide two instances in which the long irons can be used successfully, once relatively easy modifications are made. To hit a shot from an uphill lie (above right), you compensate for the contour of the ground by playing the ball slightly forward. To make up for the tendency to put all your weight on the right leg, you must try to have your weight on the left side before you swing. This shot will often hook a little, so it should be aimed to the right of the target. Since the ball will also attain a higher trajectory than usual, you should use a lower club than ordinarily required for the distance to be covered, say a two-iron instead of a three. The swing is a normal one, except that to achieve greater consistency you should try to pick the ball cleanly off the turf instead of hitting down into it and taking a divot.
The main problem with hitting a long iron from a downhill lie is getting the ball well up into the air. The solution is to play the shot as a fade. The ball is positioned back toward the right foot, and your weight is placed mainly on the right side. Using an open stance, you bring the club down into the ball from outside the line to the target; in other words, slice across it. Cutting across the ball in this manner will help get it into the air, but to offset the effect of the downhill lie one higher club than normal should be used, a three-iron instead of a two. The shot is going to curve from left to right, so aim it to the left of the target.
Keeping it low: protection against high wind and tree limbs
It is invaluable when hitting directly into the wind to know how to keep the ball low. Most weekend players can do this by positioning the ball a few inches back from the left heel and having the left arm and the club in a straight line, as at left. The club face should be closed slightly, the swing remains normal and the club head is brought down sharply on the ball. The experienced player who wants to keep the ball low and also stop it quickly on the green can try a different shot. He should play the ball off the left heel, get well over onto his left side before impact and delay un-cocking his wrists as long as possible. When properly executed, this shot will start out low, then rise and land softly.
The best way to escape from woods is to use a long iron and punch the ball under the overhanging branches. To do this, choke down on the club an inch or two and play the ball as far back as the middle of the stance. Your weight should be on the left leg and the club gripped very firmly. Taking only a three-quarter swing, bring the club into the ball at a steep angle, letting the club head bury deep into the turf after impact. This will cause a sharp checking of the swing, so to be sure that you do not quit on the shot too soon you must keep the hands and wrists firm. All this may jolt the wrists, but you can punch the ball a long way.
The long-distance sand shot: steady head, steady nerves
Only a fool rushes into a sand trap with a long iron, but this does not mean you should never consider such a shot. If conditions are ideal, it can be quite effective. The ball should be sitting up nicely, preferably on a slightly uphill lie. The trap should be a shallow one with almost no lip at all ahead of you, because it is going to be difficult to get the ball up quickly. In the first 15 or 20 feet after being hit with a long iron the ball will rise no more than a foot. If the above conditions are present, you can proceed.
Remind yourself that you must take a smooth, easy swing, because any loss of balance or timing will be ruinous. At address, the feet should be closer together than usual and dug deeply into the sand. The ball should be played off the left heel to make maximum use of the club's loft. This is in no sense a punch shot. The club is kept low and swung straight back from the ball and is then brought down on the same line in an effort to nip the ball off the top of the sand. If you hit down on the ball instead of sweeping it clean you will force it slightly into the sand before it takes off and lose considerable distance.
Again, two crucial things must be kept in mind: the head must remain very steady and the swing must not be rushed—eager though you are to get the whole thing over with.
CONFIDENCE—BUT NOT OVERCONFIDENCE
Perhaps the major thing to understand about the long irons is that you must have confidence in your ability to use them. If you shudder each time you reach into the bag for a long iron, you are using the wrong club. You should use a fairway wood instead, or even play safe with a middle iron.
Developing confidence is a question of mastering the fundamentals and then working on them in practice. A smart way to prepare for a practice session is to be thoroughly loose and warmed up before hitting the first shot. I will usually take out my two-and three-irons and swing both of them together until my muscles feel stretched and comfortable. Then I will hit a few short-iron shots and work through the middle irons before getting down to serious effort with the long irons.
The thing to think about with the first practice shots is just meeting the ball solidly. Never mind where it goes. Then start to pick out targets and hit toward them. All the time, meanwhile, you should be concentrating especially hard on keeping the head steady.
Once you are out on the course, a few further ideas about long irons might provide some comfort. First, do not feel you should hit all of your long-iron shots onto the green. (In last year's U.S. Open only 65% of the irons hit to a 168-yard par-3 hole ended up on the green.) The middle-handicap player should be happy to get somewhere around the green. Second, remember that while the club face looks frighteningly narrow it actually supplies more hitting area than a fairway wood. Third, the shafts of these clubs are long, thus giving you a wide arc and plenty of club-head speed. It may not feel that way, but your club head is traveling plenty fast, so there is no need to rush the swing with your hands. Fourth, the shaft's extra length allows you to take a more upright stance than you are able to with a short iron. This gives you better balance. And, finally, when you begin to master the long-iron shot, you should experiment a little. You may find yourself able to do things with long irons you only dreamed about in the clubhouse. But never try the impossible. Do not use long irons when you have difficult sidehill lies or treacherous trouble shots that are hard enough to play with a short iron. If you want to see how tricky long-iron shots can be, come out to a PGA tournament sometime and watch us touring pros butcher them.
Unless you are an exceptionally skilled player, do not use a long iron out of any lie that is not good, even in the fairway. If the ball is sitting well down in grass or clover, a wood or a middle iron should be used. Also forget about the difficult finesse shots, such as trying to hit high long irons. Only a golfer who plays in the 70s can carry these shots off with any consistency.
But, above all, don't be discouraged. If you can recognize the limitations of long irons while still appreciating their potential, you can start enjoying the use of clubs that too many players have come to hate.