Man's struggle to hit long irons well is always a difficult one and frequently a losing one. These clubs, the two-iron and three-iron, can so discourage the weekend golfer that he gives up hope of using them well. I see two main reasons for all of this trouble with long irons: 1) the great majority of golfers are trying to get along on yesterday's fundamentals when they should be attempting to master some new and proved ones; 2) too many players are using caveman tactics on a shot that requires smoothness and timing above all else. The golf swing used by the country's best players today differs radically from the one favored a decade ago. Wristy swings and complex stances that change from club to club have practically disappeared from the pro tour. Efficiency has replaced gracefulness as the measure of a swing. The touring pros have simplified everything. We now think only in terms of square and straight: a square stance for all shots and a swing that takes the club straight back and then down and straight out through the ball. The reason the tour has so many really able young players is that they have developed a swing that is remarkably simple. The amateur golfer should benefit enormously from these basic changes in the swing, for anything that makes the game less complicated helps the man who has little practice time, but the amateur does not seem to have learned them—at least, not yet.
Because the new swing promotes consistent timing it is especially valuable for long-iron shots, where there is not much margin for error. In this series I am going to explain the important elements of the new swing—some of which may seem unusual—and I am going to show you how to apply these elements when using those treacherous long irons.
The square stance: a first step to success
The initial thing you must do is forget the hallowed theory that says long irons should be played from a closed stance and short irons from an open one. Nonsense. Basically, all shots should be played from a square stance. The next thing you have to do is forget a second theory, just as popular, which says your weight at address should be on your heels. It should not. The weight should be forward on the broadest part of the feet. When you can bounce up and down off both heels while still maintaining a solid, balanced position you have your weight in the proper place.
The term "square stance" applies to more than the position of the feet. It also includes the knees, hips and shoulders. When you have a square stance, imaginary lines drawn across the toes, the knees and the hips will all point toward the target. Also try to align the shoulders in the same manner, though the fact that the right arm is reaching down and across the body to the club usually turns the shoulders slightly to the left of the target. Just as the stance no longer varies from club to club—except for the distance between the feet—neither does the grip. My grip is on the strong side. This means that my left thumb rests on top of the shaft, but just a little to the right of center. The right hand overlaps the left in conventional fashion. Thus the back of the left hand and the palm of the right point slightly to the right of the target.
At address, your feet should be no farther apart than the width of your shoulders, but they can be closer together if this makes you feel more comfortable. You should also feel that the inside edges of both feet are digging into the turf. Above all, remember that you must not plant the weight back on the heels as if you were about to sit down. This restricts the ability of the body to turn and reduces your control of the swing.
With a few unusual exceptions, which I will discuss later, I play the ball off my left heel on every shot. If you have a good pivot you can get maximum control and maximum loft when the ball is in that position. If your pivot is slightly constricted, you may get better results playing the ball slightly back toward the right. But in any event, keep it in the same position for every shot.
A final and perhaps obvious word on being comfortable: be sure that you are. If the stance I have described does not feel comfortable you must practice it and make small adjustments until it does. The stance must be so automatic that you do not consciously think about it, much less get upset by it.
The feet, knees and hips (blue lines) must all he square to the target (brown arrow), and the weight (red shading) forward on the feet.
The one-piece swing: a logical continuation of the square stance and an effortless way to insure consistent rhythm and timing
What the touring pros now like to call the one-piece swing is another of the new concepts in hitting a golf ball. As the name suggests, it, too, is a simple one. The idea is to make the various parts of the body involved in the swing do their jobs at the same time and in the same way. Instead of picking the swing apart and concentrating, say, on making the wrists break at the proper place, you think of the swing as if it were one cohesive motion. This is achieved by starting the backswing almost as if everything—the hands, arms, hips and shoulders—were part of the same block of wood. In other words, they should all move back together on the same arc, with nothing getting ahead of the other parts of the body or behind them. The club is swept back from the ball on a low plane while the hips and shoulders turn with it. The first alteration from this togetherness occurs when the hips have turned as far as they can go. At this point the process of cocking the wrists will begin naturally, while the arms continue to swing upward and the shoulders keep turning. The shoulder turn proceeds until the left shoulder is well under the chin. This will bring the club to an almost horizontal position at the top of the backswing.
Some golfers, in a misguided attempt to hit the ball more solidly, will make a conscious effort to shorten their back-swing when using a long iron. Do not make this mistake. A long, rhythmic backswing is vital, because it will produce a longer arc. The big arc, in turn, will produce the club-head speed needed in hitting long-iron shots, but it is speed that is generated without consciously forcing the swing. The worst way to get power on a long-iron shot is to try to overpower it. Do that and you will power it right out of bounds.
At address, Lema is relaxed and comfortable, his feet and body square to the target, his hands applying gentle pressure on the club.
As the backswing starts, the knees, hips and shoulders (red planes) are all turning together as a unit at the same rate as the arms.
At the top of the swing, Lema is in a compact, coiled position from which he can bring the club straight down and through the ball.
The heel plant: a surprising and most efficient way to start the downswing
There are two traditional ways of beginning the downswing. Many golfers like to pull the hands down toward the ball, counting on this move to get the hips turning. Others rotate the hips to the left first and let this motion pull the hands down. Which do I recommend? Neither. I use a method that I think is easier and much more effective. Without any noticeable or conscious pause at the top of the backswing, I start down by slamming my left heel, which has been raised about an inch, into the ground as hard as I can.
There are some special reasons why I prefer this method to the two more conventional ones. Starting the downswing by pulling the hands down tends to reduce the shoulder turn, and a good shoulder turn is especially necessary when hitting long irons. Also the hand motion often leads to no pivot at all. Starting the downswing by turning the hips very often overemphasizes hip action and results in a poor pivot. But forcing the heel down is almost like pulling a trigger. It is a small motion, but it produces several desirable effects that take place simultaneously and almost unconsciously. The drawings at left make this particularly clear. They are reproductions of very high-speed photographs of a split second in the same swing. You will notice that from the first drawing, where my heel is as far off the ground as it ever gets, to the third drawing, where it is firmly anchored on the ground, my hands have hardly moved. This shows how fast the heel motion is. In fact, the faster I slam my heel into the ground, the quicker a pivot I am able to make. Here is what happens when the heel goes down: 1) the flexed left knee must begin to straighten; 2) the right knee, only slightly bent but twisted well to the right, must begin to uncoil toward the left; 3) the hips must start to shift, laterally at first, then rotating counterclockwise. At the same time the shoulders start a counterclockwise motion that pulls the hands down toward the hitting area, but the wrists are still cocked and will remain so until the last possible moment.
Naturally, this use of the left heel as a trigger does not guarantee that your pivot or your shoulder turn will be a good one. These are things you must learn. But, once learned, it is the slamming down of the left heel that will put them in motion most effectively.
At the top of the swing, Lema's left heel (magnified inset) is raised an inch off the ground and his left knee is pressing to the right.
The left heel is then pushed down hard. This will force the left knee and the hips (red arrows) to star their proper rotation to the left.
The heel is now firmly planted, and Lema's hands, still fully cocked, are starting down. His hips and knees are uncoiling to the left.
The correct pivot: a vital element that links power and control with good balance
Many golfers do not have a good pivot because they do not really know what a good pivot is. Yet it is impossible to hit firm long-iron shots without a sound pivot or body turn. The correct pivot combines a lateral shift of the hips to the left with a counterclockwise rotation. Both elements are necessary. The lateral shift moves the body weight off the right foot and quickly over onto the left, thus insuring solid contact down and through the ball. The counterclockwise rotation of the hips builds up club-head speed through a controlled use of the body rather than by a violent and usually badly timed effort of the hands and arms. It also helps bring the hands far down into the impact area while the wrists are still cocked—which means the wrists really snap through as the ball is hit. Throughout the pivot the head must be held extremely still. There is so little room for error in a long-iron shot that any swaying of the head is likely to cause major trouble. Above all, keep the head from either dipping or rising as you start the downswing. There is one head motion that is permissible, however. Very often, just before impact, an experienced player's head will shift slightly to the right. As you can see from the accompanying illustrations, this is true in my case. This phenomenon is the result of a very fast pivot. My body has generated so much momentum that the head naturally moves to the right. But my weight is well over on my left side, which is where it belongs. There is one other thing I recommend on the downswing. When I take my stance, my grip on the club is comparatively loose. Since I want to feel relaxed about the shot, I do not want tension anywhere. It is only as I start the club back that I tighten the grip. I continue to tighten up to the moment of impact. At that point my fingers and palms are squeezing the club as hard as they can.
As Lema's downswing starts, his hips are coiled and to the right of a vertical line extending from the ball, which is opposite the left heel.
As his hands reach the hitting area, his weight comes off his right foot, his hips move as far to the left as they will go and they begin to rotate.
At impact, the lateral shift of Lema's hips has brought his weight well to the left, and the hip rotation has built club-head speed to a maximum.
The common pivoting errors
All shift and no turn fail to generate good club-head speed and will often cause a push or slice because the club face is open when it hits the ball.
All shift and no shift result in the weight remaining on the right foot, a lack of consistent timing and a gala spectrum of disastrous golf shots.
The caddie dip: fluid knee action is the way to insure good footwork
When pro golfers talk about footwork they are referring to the action of the feet as the weight moves to the right on the backswing and to the left on the downswing. Though it is often overlooked, proper footwork is especially important when hitting long irons. I have found that the best way to be sure of agile, balanced footwork is to get my knees working properly. Ever since my caddie days in Oakland and San Francisco I have been an advocate of something known as the "caddie dip," a sort of exaggerated knee action often seen in the vigorous swings of teen-agers. The caddie dip adds up to little more than keeping the knees very mobile throughout the downswing. I try to imagine, as I come down, that my knees are a single unit and that I am snapping this unit at the target almost like snapping a towel. This action automatically rolls my weight off the right foot and onto the left at the proper time. It also promotes a full pivot and even seems to get the wrists into a more powerful position at impact. This fluid action of the knees becomes an instinctive part of the swing fairly quickly and is a lot easier than trying to concentrate on shifting weight from one foot to the other as you come down.
When Lema starts his downswing his knees are tensed, like a contracted spring. As he turns toward the left, his weight starts to shift to the left.
Lema's knees now begin releasing tension and sliding toward the target. His right heel is raised and he is pushing hard on the ball of his right foot.
At impact, both knees are almost being "snapped" at the target. Lema's weight has moved off his right foot over to the outside edge of his left.
Shoulder rotation: turn like a tilted wheel
Just before the 1963 Masters I played two practice rounds with Byron Nelson. After we had finished I asked him what he thought of my swing. "You are staying down and under the ball so well," he said, "that you just have to play well in the tournament." His prediction, happily, was accurate, and I finished second. What Nelson was speaking of is one of the most important parts of the golf swing, the shoulder turn. By "staying down and under the ball" he meant that my right shoulder was low when I came into and through the shot, as in the drawing at upper right. It is a fundamental thing to learn, and yet many golfers never manage it. The common mistake is to let the right shoulder rise during the downswing until it is level with the left, and instead of the shoulders turning together like a wheel pitched at a steep angle, they turn like a wheel lying flat on its side. The correct up-and-down rotation achieves several things. First, it concentrates leverage and force directly behind the ball, the spot where power does the most good. Second, it keeps the club head square and moving out toward the target, thus increasing loft and control. Finally, the proper shoulder turn will help the body remain steady—which is going to give you increased consistency, even during a swing that happens to be faster than usual. A good way to get a mental image of the plane the shoulders should be rotating in is to check the position of your left shoulder at the top of the back-swing (above left). Now you should attempt to get the right shoulder into that same position at the bottom of the downswing.
At the top of his backswing, Lema's left shoulder (black box) is almost directly underneath his right.
At impact, the position of the shoulders has reversed, but they are in the same plane as before.
SUBTLETIES AND WARNINGS
Next week Tony Lema analyzes some long-iron trouble shots, shows a stroke-saving stance for high-handicap golfers, disputes a myth and tells when not to use long irons.