Counterintuitive Wisdom

Need-to-know tips on how to handle the contradictions that challenge all us golfers

By Evan Rothman | Photography by Danny Hurley

The game of golf comes packed with seeming contradictions - after all, it's a game in which you hit down for the ball to go up. Identifying these who-would-have-thought-it surprises and working through the challenges they pose will help you improve your play and thus lower your scores to win more matches - yes, yet another head-scratcher to ponder.

To give you the best advice on how to deal with five contradictions especially complicating the game right now, we turned to several experts who had all the right answers to help you meet the challenges head-on and fine-tune your play.

Modern club and ball technology help make your ball fly straighter via higher moment of inertia in clubs and harder-cover, lower-spinning balls. Yet you get great pleasure out of making the ball curve when you want it to, and the option proves handy when you must hit around trees or get to tucked pins.

The challenge: How do you make the necessary adjustments to get your ball to curve?

Your best bet: Curving your shots doesn't need to be that difficult, says Jason Birnbaum, a New Jersey-based teaching pro who coaches Alexandre Rocha, runner-up at last year's Reno-Tahoe Open on the PGA Tour.

For right-handers hitting a draw, for example, he says the clubface should point slightly right of the final target, and your feet and shoulders a touch more right still. By swinging the club along your body lines, the clubface-to-club path differential will tilt the ball more to the left, resulting in a draw. The opposite moves will produce a fade. Both shots will yield lower scores and the pure golf joy of making the ball do what you want it to.

You should avoid bunkers, right? Well, yes and no. You might think that hazards tell you where not to aim. But in reality, with better course design, the hazards generally lie along the garden path - and skirting them generally represents the best line of play. Whether you want to take on a hazard may be a different question, but the underlying concept is far more clearly defined.

The challenge: How should you rethink the way you see trouble?

Your best bet: In golf design's Golden Age, when Alister MacKenzie, Seth Raynor, Donald Ross, and A.W. Tillinghast ruled the day, the bunkers suggested the best line of play - they guided golfers, who wanted to get as close as possible to them without going in. This notion grew out of links layouts across the pond, where bunkers and dunes on the horizon directed players in the absence of trees, fairway villas, and such.

Then, in the Mad Men era of the 1950s and '60s, bunkers became the punisher. " ‘Modern' designers put bunkers only on the periphery, to one side of the landing area or the other, or both," says Jim Urbina, co-designer of Old Macdonald at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort on the Oregon coast, ranked No. 9 by Golf Magazine in its "Top 100 Courses You Can Play" list. "They penalized golfers who strayed from the center-line of play. I find that notion boring."

Urbina isn't alone. Many of the most popular present-day designers, such as Gil Hanse, Tom Doak, and the team of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, draw inspiration for new courses and restoration projects from the strategic bunkering of the late 19th and early 20th century.

One quick way to read a fairway bunker's meaning, Urbina notes, is its placement. "If it's central or offset maybe a third to one side either way, it's very likely strategic," he says. "A pair of bunkers opposite each other bracketing the landing area is a manifestation of the modern approach to design."
Another analytic approach frequently used by the pros but overlooked by amateurs: reading a hole backward. "Consider the green's orientation, slope of the putting surface, and the pin position, then figure out the best angle from which to attack," Urbina says.

Despite all the advances in equipment technology, you still sometimes find yourself in trouble off of the fairway and needing to flight a recovery shot underneath tree branches to get back onto the short grass. Yet, at these moments, one equipment advance suddenly seems to make your golf life harder - namely the hybrids that have replaced our long irons. With their higher lofts, wide soles, and hotter faces, they get the ball up faster and higher, not down.

The challenge: What moves must you make to keep a hybrid shot down?

Your best bet:
"Our instinct is to move the ball back in our stance," says Shawn Koch, director of golf instruction at Country Club of the South in Johns Creek, Ga. Bad idea: Changing the swing bottom isn't something you want to do without a lot of practice, as it tends to produce fat shots and flares out to the right, for starters.

Another natural impulse to overcome:
swinging down hard at the ball, born from the anxiety we feel when "in trouble." "You're more likely to mis-hit shots that way," says Koch, a former Georgia PGA North Chapter Teacher of the Year. "Even if you do make solid contact, the added ball speed and spin will lift the ball up toward the very branches you want to avoid, or likely hit the ball through the fairway and into trouble on the other side."

The needed adjustment is simple in theory but hard to put into practice: "Position the ball even with your left chest, as you normally would, narrow your stance just a touch, and make your normal swing at three-quarter speed," he advises. The slightly slower move through the ball (again, not at the ball) will lower the flight and make it easier to control distance, too. Remind yourself that the hybrid's sole glides through rough and debris, so you need not stress - just smoothly accelerate to the finish and let the club do the work.

Most players struggle with inflexibility, but women often suffer from the opposite issue: Their flexibility causes their swings to become too long and unwieldy, leading to inconsistent shot patterns. "First and foremost, this elasticity can yield inconsistent contact, as a too-long backswing leads to loose hips, the pelvis moving ahead of the ball, and the arms moving too much in unison with the body," Koch says. In sum, there's too much movement and not enough stability.

The challenge: What adjustments can you make to counteract this issue?

Your best bet: As an extra-elastic player, first check your equipment. It could simply be too heavy for you to control, so instead of you swinging the club, the club could be swinging you. The core issue comes down to, well, core strength as well as balance.

"Start a fitness regimen that employs a BOSU ball for squats, curls, shoulder presses, and the like - the added strength will allow your mobility to serve you better on the course," Koch says. He also suggests slow-motion practice swings with a weighted club not only to strengthen the relevant golf muscles but also to get a better sense of where the club is, and needs to be, during the swing. Lastly, at the range, place a club perpendicular to your toe line where you would position the golf ball and begin your takeaway. "When your left shoulder is directly above that club on the ground, your backswing is complete," he says. "Anywhere beyond that and you're over-rotating."

Practice makes perfect, which seems basic. Yet as the title of sports psychologist Bob Rotella's famous golf book notes, golf is not a game of perfect. If you're like most golfers, you have bad habits that you fall back into from time to time, and practicing those moves over and over again hinders your improvement.

The challenge: How can you best attack your weaknesses on the course?

Your best bet:
John Merrick, who won the 2013 Northern Trust Open in Pacific Palisades, Calif., for his first PGA Tour title, has always worked hard on being as neutral as possible in all facets, from grip to alignment to swing plane, all through the bag, from driving to putting. He feels this approach is easier to maintain than one based on compensatory moves. Still, his right-hand grip tends to get too weak in his long game.

"Managing our golf game means consistently retraining ourselves," Merrick says. "The knee-jerk reaction to a bad habit is to try to simply practice the ‘right' way - in my case, to be as neutral as possible. Only that won't overcome the tendency, especially under pressure, when you often revert to type."

A better approach: When balancing a scale with weight on one side, what do you do? You load up the other side. The same principle applies in golf, Merrick believes. "You need to practice by overcorrecting, or what my longtime coach, Jamie Mulligan, calls ‘working the antithesis,' " he says. "Everyone has seen Tiger Woods making that big, outside-in slice practice swing. Obviously, he's not grooving that move - he's tackling his tendency to get stuck inside."

Merrick recommends you work with your golf instructor to understand your recurring faults; then, find drills and practice moves 180 degrees in the other direction. While some might look funny, that's a small price to pay for getting better.

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