Iron Out The Kinks

Better iron play is a matter of making a few quick fixes

The hard part is over, right? You've boomed a 300-yard drive right down the middle, leaving no more than a short iron into the green. The last thing you want to do is shank, duff, hook or slice, especially considering how well-struck your drive was.

To avoid making a mistake from the fairway, there are a handful of quick tips that ought to become second nature to you so you don't waste that well-struck drive. Although they may seem simple and minor, these changes can have a profound effect on your ability to not only hit the green, but also shape shots into tight pin locations and avoid making critical mistakes that will end up costing you strokes. So, let's get started, shall we?

The first tip is the easiest one to master: course management. In this photo, I'm 185 yards from the center of the green, with water to the left and bunkers to the right. Now, if you were me, what club would you choose to hit, and where would you aim?

Tricky, isn't it? The right choice in this scenario is to do two things. First, add some extra club to make sure you clear the water, in case you pull it. Second, aim slightly right of the target. Yes, this puts the bunkers in play, but hitting a bunker won't cost you penalty strokes like a water ball will. The key with every shot is to carefully plan out where you want the ball to land. If you pay more attention to your course management, you may find yourself worrying less about your swing, which will help you hit better shots. You owe it to your great drive to follow up with a solid approach.

Often, golfers seem to think that how they address their feet determines what type of shot they'll be likely to hit. And while that's true, in part, how you adjust your feet also affects how your body swings–not just the way the ball curves. Consider this: If the target line of the golf ball remains constant, then your feet can be adjusted three ways that will affect the way your body rotates. First, the feet may be positioned parallel to the target (shown left). From here, the body will make a free turn in both directions (away and through), thus providing the perfect blend of power and accuracy. Second, the feet may be positioned slightly left of parallel (bottom left). This position will help golfers restrict their backswing length and, in turn, help them make a more complete rotation through the finish position. It's a good feet position for golfers who over rotate on the backswing.

And finally, the feet may be situated to the right of parallel. This will help the golfer make a bigger rotation on the backswing and help you feel more "loaded" at the top of your swing. This positioningof the feet is very helpful for golfers who tend to take quick, short backswings without fully loading their right side at the top of the swing.

Target Line Target Line Target Line

START FROM THE GROUND...UP If you situate your feet left of parallel to the target line, you'll be more likely to make a restricted backswing, but with a more thorough rotation through the golf ball and into the finish.

With the feet positioned right of parallel to the target line, the body will make a greater turn on the backswing, but will end with a more abbreviated finish.

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MIND YOUR GRIP AND BALL POSITION How you grip the club is critical. In fact, I'd go so far to say that there has never been a great player in the game of golf who didn't have a solid grip. As Homer Kelly wrote in The Golfing Machine, the grip has several pressure points in order to unify the hands into one cohesive entity. The first pressure point is in the last three fingers of the left hand. Keeping pressure contact here is key for a smooth and controlled backstroke. The second pressure point is where the right hand presses against the thumb of the left hand (reverse for southpaws). This helps maintain a solid extension through the swing. Finally, the way the lower hand (your right hand) grips the club also is important.

Often called a "trigger finger," the index finger of the right hand has some separation from the rest of the grip. This serves to pull up on the shaft and direct the force of the club back and through. Lose control of any of these three points in your grip, and you'll have a tough time controlling the unity of your grip.

As for where your hands are to situate on the grip, consider the type of shot you're trying to hit. Gripping lower on the shaft will slow down your clubhead speed, enabling you to hit shots in those in-between distances without having to consciously slow down your swing. If you grip low and swing normal, the smaller arc will slow down your swing automatically. Some players, such as Anthony Kim, actually prefer gripping low on the shaft for all their iron shots, since the counterbalancing feel helps with rhythm and tempo. Experiment with what grip positions work best for you. Sometimes gripping low feels better.

What about ball position? Well, if you're a better player, having one ball position with your irons is acceptable. But that's only if you're good enough to pivot consistently. As for the rest of us, I suggest you play the short irons in the center of your stance (right down your sternum). Your middle irons ought to be played just below your shirt logo on your left side, and the longer iron just under your left armpit. Using the body's landmarks instead of foot positions will help make it easier to repeat the same ball positions as needed. Also, remember this: Your ball position is likely to change from time to time. Sometimes it's forward in your stance; sometimes a little more back. The key is to allow for some flexibility and not to get stuck. As the swing changes, allow how you position the golf ball relative to your body to adjust, as well.

Seek The Plane

SIMPLIFY Jack Nicklaus had it correct when he said it's best to allow each club to "seek its own plane." What that means is, the longer the iron, the flatter the lie angle and the flatter the swing at the top. My take on all this? Forget about it! Don't get bogged down in worrying about your club plane and the lie angles of your irons. Instead, focus more on what YOU do during the backswing with each of your clubs. For instance, you'll find that it's easier to hinge your wrists faster with shorter irons than with longer irons. So allow some extra time in the backswing with your longer clubs. Think more of YOU and not your club's lie angle or plane. You'll focus a lot better on swinging the club rather than manipulating it.

If you were to look at both these swings from the waist up, it'd be hard to tell which one produces solid results and which one doesn't. But check out my lower half. Better golf shots require a solid base. And a solid base comes from making a good rotation away from the ball, not a sway. A good lower body rotation frees up the upper body to coil even more, resulting in greater power and control. Be sure to rotate and keep your weight centered during your swing.

CONTROL YOUR BALLFLIGHT To hit a draw, moving the feet right of parallel isn't enough. The entire body needs to reorientate in that direction. As you can see, my entire body is rotated, meaning I'll make a pass through the ball from inside to outside the target line. The key is to not force the hands to rotate. Let them do their job naturally.

To hit a fade, just do the same, only in reverse. Open your stance relative to the target line and, again, don't force the hands to under- or overrotate. Keep them aiming at the target. The club will travel from outside to inside through impact, imparting slice spin to help curve the ball from left to right.

Forward Neutral Back

To hit the ball higher, let your ball position handle it for you. Adjust your ball forward of where you'd normally play it. This will cause additional tilt in your shoulders away from the ball, as well as eliminate any forward shaft lean. The result will be a longer, lower swing that sends the ball on a higher trajectory.

To hit the ball lower, play the ball farther back in the stance than normal. Make sure the clubface is square to the target (it may appear more closed than usual) and keep the hands in the same place as they'd be with a normal shot. Then, swing all the way to the finish! You don't have to finish low to hit it low!

SAND CONTACT DRILL Finally, the last quick tip that I hope you try is one geared to help you perfect your impact with the ball by honing in on your weight shift and ball position–at the same time. To do this, grab your 7-iron, and draw a line in the sand just as I have.

Position the line in the correct ball position, and practice making divots on the target side of the line. If you find yourself hitting behind the line, you're sliding too much on the backswing. If you aren't making a divot at all, you're pulling up too much through the hit. And if you're hitting too far out in front of the line on the target side, your body is outracing your arms through the downswing.

The trick is to practice this drill until you can consistently hit the target side of the line without making an effort. Practice it until it comes naturally, and you'll be amazed at how well this drill will help you improve your ballstriking!

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ONE ON ONE WITH TOM STICKNEY 1. What are some of the most common swing flaws you've seen from watching people try to hit consistent iron shots? Most people seem to play the ball too far back in their stance and then try to help the ball into the air by falling back and scooping. This only causes poor contact and very inconsistent distances. Placing the ball in the proper position of the stance allows the body and club to work more in conjunction each other, resulting in more solid contact.

2. You're a big fan of Homer Kelley's The Golfing Machine. Care to elaborate on why you find that book to be so instrumental in your teaching? Homer Kelley's book is the bible of the golf swing. All swing models have come from this book, and the golf swing's motion is described in great detail by Homer. The book categorizes only the 24 motions that every golfer utilizes (from Bobby Jones to Tiger Woods) and the variations of those motions. For example: Everyone must have a good grip. There are only five variations of the basic grip, each one serving a different purpose. That's the way the book lays out the golf swing. It describes the golf swing in parts, but the parts are interconnected to make up a whole golf swing. It's also loaded with options as far as what's considered the right way to develop the golf swing. In other words, there's more than one way to get it done. The Golfing Machine helps me build golf swings around what people can do, instead of forcing them into a swing pattern that they can't do.

3. How often should golfers practice? Practice comes in many forms: mirror work, slow-motion swings, Internet study, hitting balls, playing practice rounds, etc. It would be nice to involve as many of these practice ideals as possible, but let's be realistic! Most people can hit balls or play only on the weekends, so I recommend folks use the weekdays to do mirror work and practice swings at home. On the weekends, head to the practice facility. Also, it's not a good idea to practice in one sitting for over 30 minutes. It gets too monotonous, and often golfers will begin trying different things instead of honing in on core fundamentals. And by the way, nobody cares if you can bust range balls over the fence. Practice ought not to be a long-drive contest. Get out there, pace yourself and take breaks to stay focused. Do that and you can practice all day if necessary. 4. How did you become a teacher? Like several other instructors, I first began as a competitor, playing in college and on mini-tours. And it was during my competing days that I realized that my passion wasn't so much for winning tournaments, but rather helping people get better at golf and in studying the golf swing. Golf is a great game, and golf instruction has been a wonderful way to make a living. Bighorn and Cordillera are the best places in the world to work! I really get the best of both worlds–out in the desert and up in the mountains. I've been asked before about what I'd do if I hadn't become an instructor, and if I could have done anything, professional wrestling would have been fun. But, I think I was skipped in the gene pool for that one! 5. Any favorite swings on the PGA Tour? Am I allowed to answer "all of them"? If you're on the PGA Tour, you obviously have a great golf swing that can be repeated over and over again to produce steady results. I really like Stuart Appleby's fundamentals, in particular. He has no extra movements in his golf swing, and it's so compact and powerful. He'll win more, as soon as he gets that putter working again. Tom Stickney, PGA, is the director of instruction at Bighorn Golf Club in California and The Club at Cordillera in Colorado.

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