When you stand on the first tee next Saturday, ready to outhit everyone on the golf course, the middle of the fairway may look like an inviting place, but I have a word of advice for you. Don't aim at it. By hitting at the center of the fairway and trying to split the watering-system pipeline you leave yourself only half the fairway as the margin for any error that may occur in your swing. And who has a perfect swing? I haven't seen one yet.
This means that you are left with two alternatives: 1) starting the ball out to the right and hooking it a little or 2) starting it out to the left and fading it back in. In either case you will have the whole fairway as a target for your drive—not just half of it.
The idea that golf is a curve-ball game is hardly new. But the question that now presents itself is which way you should try to curve the ball, and this matter deserves much more thought than it has received in the past.
It has long been assumed that the draw, or the tail-end hook as it used to be called, is the ultimate in tee shots. The reason is that the hook has over-spin. When it hits the ground it rolls and rolls, theoretically adding to the distance of the drive. To be sure, some of this rolling is toward the rough and the out-of-bounds fences, but that was a factor the worshipers of the hook were always inclined to ignore. The fade, meanwhile, was for duffers. A gentle shot that bends slightly to the right as it begins to fall, the fade was considered to be what happened when a chronic slicer made a strong effort to hit the ball properly, that is, when he tried to hit a hook.
Right there is the notion that I think every weekend golfer should challenge. It is the hook, not the slice, that has driven more would-be golfers to take up tennis than any shot I know. And it is the fade, the poor maligned fade, that is the best shot in the game. At least, that is my theory, and a lot of touring pros are beginning to agree. Jack Nicklaus, after giving up the fader's swing that had taken him so far, returned to it after he missed the cut at this year's Masters, and he promptly won the U.S. Open. He did not hook one shot in the entire Open, and was proud of it.
I may be more qualified to talk about the hook than most because I played one—a real live one, not just a little draw—for 28 years. About all it won me was a few amateur tournaments around Kentucky when I was a boy, a reputation for being a big hitter and a total of $30,000 in five years on the pro tour, which is barely enough to meet expenses. I do not care to recall all of the times during my early years on the tour that I was among the leaders in a tournament after the second or third round and then hooked myself not only out of contention but out of the money. One example should suffice. In 1956 I was tied for the lead at the Canadian Open after 36 holes and then shot an 80 in the third round by hooking 14 tee shots.
The evils of the hook deserve thorough examination because the benefits of the fade are so easy to state once the hook is recognized for what it is. First, as I said earlier, the hook has overspin, so it rolls. On a good, closely clipped fairway a slight hook might outroll a fade by as much as 20 yards. But how really valuable is the extra distance, except to your ego? Not much, in most cases, because it is not very often that the design of a hole will place great strategic value on 20 extra yards with a tee shot. Added distance is nice, but hardly worthwhile when it involves the risk of getting into serious trouble. Now let us say the fairways are not ideal, or it is August and the course is beginning to burn off. Suddenly, even the best-controlled tail-end hook just keeps rolling to the left until it gets into trouble. The overspin is not an asset. Instead, it is a factor that has left you quite at the mercy of whatever bounces, bumps, twists and turns happen to be in the fairway. This is as true for you, the weekend golfer, as it is for the touring professional.
Another difficulty common to all golfers who hook the ball is that the swing itself is difficult to control. It tends to give way under pressure, and it does not matter if the pressure is the last round of the Masters or a $1 foursome bet on a Sunday morning.
There is a physical reason for this. As the strain of a round increases, every golfer has an instinctive tendency to try to strengthen his grip, to get his hands set more firmly before beginning his backswing. This means that the golfer, unconsciously, is tending to move his left hand more tightly into the right, thus turning the left hand slightly to the right—which increases the possibility of a hook. If the player has been hooking to begin with, he is now in serious difficulty, for he knows he is swinging at every shot with the possibility of pulling it out of bounds.
These are two big problems that the man who fades the ball does not have to worry about. The fade stays put. It has backspin on it, and once it lands that's where it wants to stop. Even at its worst—when the fade turns into a slice and goes curving far to the right—the ball won't reach as much trouble as the corresponding hook would have. And the harder a fader squeezes the grip, the more control he gets.
Finally, there is another advantage to the fade, one that applies especially to weekend golfers. It is almost too obvious to mention, yet it is often overlooked. All golfers agree that iron shots should fade. When a ball is hit into the green it should have backspin on it. But why does the average golfer, who has a limited time to practice, try to play the game with what amounts to two different swings, hooking his woods and fading his irons? How much simpler it should be to hit every shot the same way, fading the five-iron in the classic fashion, and fading the driver, too, even if that is not considered so classic.
The most forceful testimony I can offer concerning the advantages of the fade comes from my own experience, of course. In 1961, my sixth year on the tour, I decided I either had to revamp my swing and get rid of my hook or get off the tour. It took me almost five months to complete the changeover. Bear in mind, however, that I had to get my scoring down to pro-tournament levels—the average golfer can manage the change in a few practice sessions.
That summer I won my first pro-tour tournament, the Carling Open, and I did it by shooting 66-67 on the last two days, the same rounds I had been blowing up in earlier. I won two more tournaments that year and eventually earned $31,000, almost three times as much as I ever had before. Since then I have averaged $35,000 a year, and I am hoping to top $100,000 this year, all with that nice little fade.
On the following six pages are what I consider to be the fundamentals of a fader's swing. Following these rules will not make you swing the way I do—I have a loop in my backswing that was caused by an injury when I was a boy, and you don't want to copy it—nor will they make you swing the way any other given pro golfer does. Instead, the rules are to be applied to the mechanics of your own swing, and thus enable you to fade the ball while essentially swinging your way. Once you master the fade I am sure you will feel that you, too, are hitting the best shot in golf.
This is the distinctive Brewer loop. It is caused by the need to counteract an old elbow injury and has nothing to do with hitting a fade.
Since there is a basic theory behind most golf instruction that the novice has to be saved from the slice, the majority of weekend players have been taught what is known as the "strong" grip—which simply means the I ft thumb is on the right side of the club, as at right, and the V of the left hand is pointing toward the right shoulder.
But one frequent result of starting with the strong grip is chronic hook trouble. The first move toward hitting the ball with a controlled fade is to develop a "weak" grip. This is achieved by turning the left hand so that the thumb is on top of the shaft, as at left, and the V points at your nose. A weak grip opens the club at the top of the backswing, setting up a fade. The grip may feel awkward at first, so you must give yourself time to get used to it.
Certain simple adjustments are necessary at address to set yourself up for a fade. The driver is the club that is being used below and at right, but the same principles apply to everything up to the short irons. The ball is played more forward than normal—in the case of the driver, this means it is all the way up off the left toe. The stance is open, so that a line drawn from the ball of the right foot through the left toe would point toward the hole. The hands are behind the ball and the face of the club is open, not drastically, but noticeably. Now, just before starting the backswing, squeeze the hands on the grip quite tightly and continue this pressure as you swing. This is necessary because the weak grip is harder to control at the top.
The first 12 inches or so of the backswing is the part to concentrate on. After that, assuming your grip is sound, you can even have a Brewer loop and still get into the proper hitting zone at impact. During those first few inches as you start back you must make a small move to close the club face. This is achieved by rolling the right hand ever so slightly to the left (small red arrow), so that the toe of the club turns in. Closing the face is necessary in order to keep the club from opening too much during the backswing. Now, with your left arm perhaps a little more relaxed than you might usually have it, take the club back (solid line) inside the normal backswing arc (dotted line). Only someone as strong as Jack Nicklaus can take the club back on the outside and still fade. As most weekend golfers go back, they turn their hips away from the ball. I am against this, and use a very simple lateral hip slide (triangle), just as Byron Nelson did. But if you prefer a slight rotation of the hips both going back and coming through, there is no need to change. It will not hurt your ability to fade.
Despite what most golfers might think, the man who fades, the ball contacts it just as solidly as the man who hits a straight shot. If he merely swiped at the ball or cut across it the result would be a severe slice. At impact (red arrows) the club face is indeed slightly open—not at an exact 90° angle to the ball—because the weak grip has opened it at the top of the backswing. But this does not mean you hit a less powerful shot. You must concentrate on two things: 1) let your left arm and left elbow lead the club head into the ball, and 2) don't let your wrists break at all until well into the follow-through. By the time you hit the ball your weight should have moved with a lateral hip slide (triangle) over to your left side. But after impact your hips turn open in the standard fashion so that your belt buckle faces the hole. If you do not complete the hip slide with this turning motion you will have committed the mistake the pros call "blocking out." This is a very common error that will cause you to push the shot to the right instead of getting the desired tail-end turn to the right, which is the true fade.
Here is an antihook secret that can do as much as anything to make a controlled fader of you. As you come through the ball (top) the right hand is under the left. Now all that you have to do is just keep the right hand under (center) as you follow through. This contradicts the classic golf theory that you should roll the right-hand over on the follow-through (left), but if you never let that right hand start to roll there is almost no way to hook.
There might seem to be no reason to apply the mechanics of a fader's swing to short shots, because you certainly do not want a 50-yard approach to start curving to the right. But I have found that an extension of the weak grip has greatly increased my accuracy and sense of touch with a pitching wedge, and it may do the same for you. What I do is open the club face slightly (right) and grip the club with the left hand turned even farther to the left than before, so that its V now points toward my left shoulder (below). The result is a shot that is softer, higher and has more backspin than the normal pitch. One reason for this may be that the work is being done by the right hand. A right-handed golfer will get more feel for a short shot when he controls it with his right hand, though this right-hand emphasis must not be tried with long irons or woods.