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Don't Hit it Straight!
"What's up with that title," you say? "I thought that the reason we practice our golf swings is so we can hit it straight! Who is this crazy guy and why is he putting out course management instruction?"
Straight-er, yes. But not totally straight. If you ask just about every professional golfer, they will tell you that every full shot they hit has a tendency to curve in one direction or another.
Now why would anybody advocate hitting a ball with some curve every time? Wouldn't it be better to just hit it straight? The answer to that question is, well, yes it would be, in a perfect world. But golf is far from a perfect world. See, to hit a perfectly straight ball at your target, the clubface must be pointing EXACTLY at the target--not even a half-degree of deviation--at impact. Further, the club must be traveling on EXACTLY the same path as the target line at impact. Then there must be absolutely no wind to either side (an EXACT headwind or tailwind would be okay, but any deviation to the side would not work).
The chances of those things all coming together at once are practically nil. And if they don't, which is usually the case, you will never be sure if the club will be open or closed at the time of impact, and you can't be sure if you'll catch it slightly from the inside, down the line, or from the outside. This means you are opening yourself up to every miss. It is FAR easier to have the club come in slightly open, or slightly closed, on every swing. Now, the degree of which it is open or closed will undoubtedly vary slightly from swing to swing. But if you intend to hit a fade, for example, you can be reasonably assured of the clubface coming in open to some degree. In short, you know more or less how the ball will fly, and that means you can start to play for it. Now, let me say this: The shorter the clubs get, the less they will draw or fade--they may go right or left, but it will be a much straighter ball flight. This is due to the fact that a ball can only spin in one direction on any shot. It will have a certain amount of backspin and a certain amount of sidespin...and since the shorter clubs cause the ball to have more backspin, there physically cannot be as much sidespin. So you won't really be curving it much with a pitching wedge.
Let's use an example to illustrate the advantages of "shaping it." Say you've got a narrow fairway with water on the left and a bunker on the right, both the same distance from the tee. Now, everyone here (I hope) would rather err to the side of the bunker rather than the water. Now, if you just aimed down the middle of the fairway and hoped for a straight shot, you would only have 10-15 yards on either side to miss. And since, when attempting to hit it straight, you have no idea if it will tend to the left or the right, you are bringing BOTH hazards into play. But if you can hit a left-to-right shot, then you will know that the ball will always be curving AWAY from that water on the left. You are effectively taking out one side of the golf hole. So aim at the left side of the fairway and hit a left-to-right shot. If you hit it well, you'll be in the fairway...if it moves right a little more than you wanted, you'll be in the rough or the bunker...no big deal compared to a water hazard penalty. The only danger is the double-cross (hitting a right-to-left shot instead)...but you simply can't play golf by planning for the double-cross miss. Just do what you can to hit it left-to-right in this situation, and play golf.
Another advantage to having curvature on your ball is the ability to play in the wind, especially crosswinds. You hear all the time people saying how Tiger is such a great wind player. There's a reason for that...he can hit the "opposite shot" into a crosswind, which holds the ball on its line. Let me explain: Say you've got a strong right-to-left wind. If you can hit a left-to-right shot, the ball will be trying to curve right while the wind tries to push it left. The result is a shot that holds its line very well. In fact, these are exactly the conditions that I had when I scored my first (and still only, to this point) hole-in-one. I had about 190 yards to the hole, with a strong right-to-left wind. I aimed directly at the flag and hit a left-to-right shot (for me, a right-hander, a fade). I knew that the wind would help it hold its line, and sure enough, it never left the flag...a one-hop-and-in!
Hopefully I've made the case for hitting every shot with some curvature. For further evidence in the case, watch this video of Seve, and notice what the announcer says. "If you have to bail, bail left." That's the 13th hole at Augusta, and we all know that creek runs up the right side. So he's saying that whatever you do, don't hit a shot that moves right. Put some draw on it and don't let it start slipping towards the creek. You'd rather be left of the green in the rough than right of the green in the creek.
Also, watch this one of Nick Faldo hitting a fade into a right-to-left wind on 17 at St. Andrews. Notice how the announcer says "hold it back against the wind." And look how beautifully the ball holds its line!
Next time, I'll talk more in detail about which shot works best in which situations, and how to use your predominant shot shape to plot your way around the course. Until next time, keep golfin' your ball!
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