Editor's Note: This story was updated April 3, 2018 — We admit, blasting a huge drive is a ton of fun. Just ask PGA Tour long-knockers like Dustin Johnson, John Rahm and Rory McIlroy. They are blowing by doglegs and leaving wedges into greens, and we love them for it. After all, nothing beats splitting the fairway with every ounce of swing speed you have, watching the ball soar for what seems like miles in the air and basking in the success of the result. But what’s a 300-yard drive if you can’t hit the green on your second shot? Worthless! That's why our five fundamentals of iron play are so vital to learn, practice and master.
No matter how sexy driving the golf ball can be, your mammoth drives don’t mean squat unless you have the skills to follow them up with solid iron play. The same goes for putting—you can’t score if you can’t putt well, and part of making more putts has to do with how close you can hit your approaches to the hole. Put it this way: Scoring well requires a series of chain reactions. Great drives stage easier approach shots, and better approach shots lead to shorter putts, which likely lead to lower scores. Invariably and frequently, these links are going to weaken most often with the big stick and flatstick, making it all the more critical that you keep your iron game in top form.
Bend from the waist, not from your back, for better posture.
Take the club back with the arms, not wrists, during the takeaway.
Frankly, a poor setup is downright inexcusable—you don’t even have to hit a golf ball to get it right.
Begin by understanding the difference between a good setup and a flawed one. Think of a baseball player or basketball player. They flex at the knees, stand firmly on the balls and heels of their feet and do so with solid posture. Think “rock and roll” to remind you that your feet serve as a rock through your backswing and roll through the downswing. The back retains straightness, but not necessarily rigidity. The spine should tilt toward the ball, and in a correct stance and swing, this tilt remains well through impact. More importantly, the tilt occurs in the hips (solid image at left), not the waist (ghosted image). Your weight should be balanced evenly over both feet. The hands should always be above or in front of the ball and never behind (think of your left arm as an extension of the shaft).
Now, on to ball position, the most overlooked aspect of iron setup. The ball should be played no farther back than your sternum and no farther forward than your left armpit. Most golfers tend to play the ball too far forward, causing a slew of miserable contacts. Try this: Hold a golf ball at your sternum while making a regular stance over a ball. Drop the ball from your sternum and note where it hits the ground. If it lands in front of the addressed ball in relation to the target, then you’re playing the ball too far back.
How you take the club back during the onset of the backswing determines what route the rest of your swing will follow, making it crucial you get this step right. Let’s look at the 2-8-12 rule. During the first two inches of your takeaway, the club should travel straight back. This necessitates that your arms, hands and shoulders move in unison and as a single unit (hence the term “one-piece takeaway”). From the second inch to the eighth inch, the club routes its way up, but the wrists have yet to break. This is simply a natural continuation of the one-piece move. From the eighth inch to the 12th inch is when the wrists break, positioning the clubshaft parallel to the ground and your target line. The full cock of the wrists occurs when the hands are shoulder high. Also, notice how I keep my rear shoulder slightly lower than the one closer to the target. This prevents me from hanging on my front side during the takeaway. If your forward shoulder drops, then your weight isn’t going to shift properly to your back foot during the backswing.
When you find yourself in the rough, invariably you’re going to need a steeper takeaway to get your swing moving on the right arc. As the club begins moving back, the wrists should already begin to hinge and not twist, thus allowing for a steeper and shorter backswing to follow. The wrists should already be fully cocked by the time the hands reach hip high on the backswing. You should retain this wrist cock as long as you can.
Line 'Em Up
To check and make sure you’re swinging on plane and cocking your wrists at the correct time, lay a club along your feet (as shown). As you execute the first part of the takeaway, your hands should trace the line created by the clubshaft on the ground. Keep in mind that the club in your hands should not reach its parallel-to-the-ground state until the hands reach hip high. If your wrists break early, forcing the shaft to reach parallel before your hands reach your hips, you’ll be in danger of creating a too-steep takeaway. Also, the wrists should break without the clubhead moving in front or behind the clubshaft on the ground. Practice a few takeaways until you reach this position without thinking about it.
A straight left arm is ideal at the top of THE backswing, Although a slight bend also is acceptable, especially if you tend to cast the club or are unable to turn fully.
If you have a mirror, check your clubhead position and make sure it isn’t above your head or drifting too far away from your body. The proper position with every iron should be directly over your rear shoulder at the top of your backswing.
During the backswing, your goal should be to shift your weight to your rear foot, as opposed to hanging over the front (reverse pivot). The key is to remember that a proper weight shift is the result of a full turn, not a slide. So turn, turn, turn until your weight moves to the back foot and keep your hands away from your body.
Once you’ve begun your backswing with the correct takeaway, the next crucial element to be wary of is where you stand at the top of your backswing. It’s all downhill from here, making it all the more important that you’re in the right place to avoid a series of bad chain reactions during the downswing.
As you can see at the top of my backswing, my upper body has turned away from the target and most of my weight has transferred to my rear foot. My head and left shoulder are also both behind the ball relative to the target, further proving that my weight has moved back and I’m ready to release through the downswing transition. Lastly, look at my clubface. See how it’s facing you? That’s where it should be. From this position, I’m ready to start turning toward the target, allowing my hands to drop underneath my head as I begin naturally shifting my weight toward my forward foot. This chain reaction is how I unwind the stored energy I created during the backswing sequence of events.
Move It Over
If you struggle with a wild front knee (left), and many golfers do, consider this simple tip. With either a broom handle-sized stick or a golf shaft, address a ball as you normally do, but with the stick inserted into the ground along the outside of your forward leg. Now, take the club back as usual and pause at the top of your backswing. As you initiate the downswing, do so in slow motion and concentrate on not allowing your forward knee to protrude beyond the stick. Continue making slow downswings until you feel comfortable making a downswing without jutting your knee forward. This will help you get a feel for what it means to turn toward the target as opposed to sliding toward the target on the downswing. In time, this drill will make you a much more consistent player, and maybe help with some added distance as well.
Head behind the ball, hips open and the forward arm, leg and shaft stacked over the golf ball—this is where you want to be at impact.
Alas, the moment of truth. Pending all the right chain reactions, where you are at impact dictates what kind of shot you’re going to hit.
Great golfers know that the key to solid ballstriking is to achieve what’s called the “stacked” position at impact. This position requires a full release of the wrists and a straight line drawn over the forward leg, left arm and the club as if all these elements are stacked over one another. Most of my weight has already transferred to the forward foot at this point, and because of my solid left side and the momentum created by my body and arms, my wrists have no choice but to unhinge directly over the golf ball. A common misconception among amateur players is that the impact position should resemble the setup position at address. After all, everything is lined up perfectly at address, so the impact position should be the same, right? Wrong. As you can see by the correct impact position shown, my hips are open, my weight has transferred to my forward foot, and my rear shoulder is considerably lower than my forward shoulder. This is a very different pose from the static, balanced position at address.
Unlike the driver, your irons should never approach the ball on an ascending arc. Most irons require a descending blow, which means the lowest part of the swing arc is reached after you make contact with the golf ball. If you tend to catch the ball fat or thin, consider cocking your wrists sooner on the backswing to steepen your arc immediately and help you obtain that crisp contact we all want, especially with the shorter irons. With longer irons, allow for a slower wrist cock. This will widen your swing and provide you with the flatter arc that’s needed for longer iron shots.
Notice the difference in the two photos to the right? Everything is the same except for the release of the hands. The photo to the immediate right shows too much hand release and wrist breakdown, while the one above is evidence of a more stacked position at impact.
The finish should be the most comfortable position in the entire swing. see it before you swing and hold it until the ball stops moving.
Just because you’ve made contact doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods yet. The finish position is actually an important ingredient to a great iron swing, as it can tell you a lot about what’s going on during your motion. The correct finish ends with the body weight primarily on the front foot, the club behind you, and your head, chest and belt buckle facing the target. You should be balanced and able to hold this position indefinitely. From a solid finish position, you can determine two things: 1) The majority of your body weight has successfully shifted to your forward leg; and 2) your body has fully rotated without excessive sliding through the downswing, which can produce the gamut of poor shots.
Here’s one of our all-time favorite tips: Hit an iron shot and purposely hold your finish. Then, retrace your swing in reverse, all the way through the downswing, to the top position, the takeaway and back to the address position. Even in reverse, the sequence should lead to a steady address position. If there’s a flaw in the process, it’s easy to see if you try this technique. Once you’ve worked these five fundamentals into your iron play arsenal, forget them and concentrate on shooting lower scores! You should have ingrained them into your swing, allowing you the opportunity to concentrate on the shot at hand and not the fundamentals you already know. Mahalo!
The brothers Castillo are longtime golf instructors hailing from the island of Kauai in Hawaii. Ron (in red) is former director of golf Kiahuna Golf Club and is now a member of the Southern California section out of Mission Viejo, California. Michael (in blue) is former director of golf at Princeville at Hanalei Golf Resort (www.princeville.com), and now an instructor at Plantation Golf Club in Indio, California.