What you can learn from some of golf's most memorable shots
One hundred years ago this summer, a 20-year-old amateur named Francis Ouimet left a lasting mark on golf when he claimed the U.S. Open at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., with an unlikely playoff win over Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, two of the greatest golfers of their day. In his march to victory, Ouimet pulled off one crucial shot after another, none more vital than a 20-foot birdie putt on 17 that tied him for the lead during the final round. It was a shot for the ages.
In the century since, other icons have followed with major championship heroics of their own. Think of Gene Sarazen's double eagle at the 1935 Masters; Ben Hogan's epic 1-iron at the 1950 U.S. Open; Tiger Woods' runaway win at the 2000 British Open, when he played four rounds on the Old Course at St. Andrews without landing in a bunker. The list goes on, a highlight reel too lengthy to replay in its entirety. So we've edited it down to a sampling from the last 40 years. Here are 10 of the greatest shots in major championship golf history, revisited in all their glory, along with expert revelations as to what we mortals can learn from them.
JACK NICKLAUS' 9-IRON OVER TREES ON 16
Where: 1975 PGA Championship, Firestone Country Club, Akron, Ohio
Backdrop: The tall pine trees are still standing today, looming monuments to the magic Nicklaus pulled off on the par-5 16th hole on Sunday. After yanking his tee ball into a hazard, Nicklaus left his third shot behind the pines and seemed assured of bogey, if not double bogey, at best. But Nicklaus being Nicklaus, he hoisted his 9-iron up, up, up, and over the highest branches onto the green, then drained the par putt, preserving his momentum, and his lead, which held up to the end for a two-stroke win.
Takeaway: The urge most players feel when attempting a shot with a high trajectory is to "try to help the ball into the air," says Firestone's head pro David Champagne. But, in this case, he says, trying to help the ball up is the worst thing you can do; the tendency is to come out of your posture. When you do, you are more likely to strike the ball toward the bottom of the clubhead, which results in a lower than normal shot. Instead, Champagne says, place the ball forward in your stance, stay committed to the shot, maintain your posture throughout the swing, and make a downward strike, catching the ball higher on the clubface for a higher trajectory. It's counterintuitive, Champagne says, but "always hit down on the ball to make it go up."
BOB TWAY'S HOLE-OUT FROM 18TH-HOLE BUNKER
Where: 1986 PGA Championship, Inverness Club, Toledo, Ohio
Backdrop: Deadlocked in a Sunday duel with Greg Norman, Tway dumped his approach into a greenside bunker on the par-4 finisher: a hazard aptly known today as "Tway's Twap." With the green sloping away from him, Tway struck a delicate sand shot, which landed softly and rolled into the cup for an improbable birdie. A shell-shocked Norman missed his chip to tie, as well as the (meaningless) comebacker for par.
Takeaway:A lot of amateurs swing tentatively when they're in the bunker, says Jerry Howse, director of instruction at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif. But little good can come from a passive swing. In a greenside bunker, Howse says, create a stable base by widening your stance and digging your feet an inch or two into the sand. Set most of your weight onto your lead leg, open your stance slightly with the ball forward in your stance, then focus on splashing your club into the sand about an inch behind the ball. And remember: Swing aggressively, just as Tway did on his slippery shot.
TOM WATSON'S CHIP-IN ON 17
Where: 1982 U.S. Open, Pebble Beach Golf Links, Pebble Beach, Calif.
Backdrop: Runner-up Jack Nicklaus later called it a "1,000-to-1" shot. But the odds seemed even bleaker for Watson when his tee shot on the par-3 17th hole nested in thick rough just left of the flag. Chopping down into the tangle like a gardener whacking weeds, Watson popped the ball onto the green and into the cup for a birdie that propelled him to victory.
Takeaway: In the aftermath, some commentators suggested the chip was lucky. But can you really call it luck when, like Watson, you've practiced for the moment thousands of times? Though no two lies in the rough are the same, some basic truths apply no matter how your ball sits. "You want to keep the clubface open and the clubhead moving through the grass," says Brady Riggs, one of Golf Magazine's Top 100 U.S. instructors. To do that, Riggs says, open the face at address, press the handle of the club forward, and maintain that angle throughout the swing. By keeping the handle ahead of the clubhead, you will keep the face open, even as it's moving through thick grass, and you'll have a better chance of landing the shot softly on the green.
BRITTANY LINCICOME'S HYBRID ON 18
Where: 2009 Kraft Nabisco Championship, Mission Hills Country Club, Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Backdrop: Trailing by one when she arrived at the par-5 18 on Sunday, Lincicome nuked her drive and, instead of laying up, striped a 210-yard hybrid to set up a clinching, four-foot eagle putt. The shot made quite a splash, and so did Lincicome herself. She punctuated the dramatic win with a plunge into the greenside pond.
Takeaway: Though the shot presented her with watery perils, Lincicome says she never thought of playing it safe. It was Sunday at a major - no risk, no reward. The thought process was clear, and so was her execution. Most amateurs, Lincicome says, try to sweep the ball with their hybrids, a natural but counterproductive approach. To get the ball airborne, with an appropriate amount of spin, she says, play the shot slightly forward in your stance and focus on hitting down on the ball. Hybrids are designed to be more forgiving, so you've got that in your favor. "Swing as smoothly and naturally as possible," Lincicome says, "allowing the club to do the work."
GARY PLAYER'S 9-IRON FROM THE ROUGH ON 16
Where: 1972 PGA Championship, Oakland Hills Country Club, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Backdrop: Battling near the top of a bunched-up leaderboard on Sunday, the Black Knight was fighting his emotions, having just missed an 18-inch putt on the 15th hole. To compound his problems, he sliced his drive on 16 into the rough, behind a giant willow tree. "Luckily," Player says, "I recognized a divot from one of my practice rounds that ended up in a similar spot. That shot had required an 8-iron. But now the grass was wet, and I knew the ball would jump, so I knew it would take a 9-iron this time around." And so it did. Player's approach landed within four feet of the pin for a birdie and the lead, which he did not relinquish.
Takeaway: On the one hand, Player says, a short memory goes a long way in golf. "You cannot get caught up in a missed short putt or a bad drive," he says. On the other hand, he adds, it's critical to learn from past mistakes, "as I did by relying on my divot that day." Despite the intense pressure, Player had the presence of mind not only to recognize his own divot but to recognize that the conditions were different. Wary of "catching a flier" (a shot that jumps high and far out of the rough) from the wet turf, Player switched to a shorter club, which proved to be the right one. Bottom line: Player knew the yardage, but the most important distance was the space between his ears.
LARRY MIZE'S CHIP-IN FOR BIRDIE ON SECOND PLAYOFF HOLE
Where: 1987 Masters, Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.
Backdrop: "I was just trying to hit a good, aggressive chip or even an aggressive pitch-and-run and put it around the hole," Mize said later of his shot from the right of the 11th green. Mission accomplished. As Mize exulted, his opponent, Greg Norman, the Great White Shark, looked as if he'd swallowed a bad sardine.
Takeaway: Chipping requires sound fundamentals, like "maintaining your arms and shoulders in a triangle and moving as a unit, without getting too handsy," says Jeff Peterson, director of instruction at DeBary Golf & Country Club in DeBary, Fla. Equally important, he adds, is not trying to be too precise. "A lot of mid-to-high handicappers will get over a chip and think, ‘I've got to hit a brilliant shot here.' They put so much pressure on themselves to hit a perfect shot that they wind up hitting a lousy one. Like Mize says, just try to get it somewhere around the hole. You'll be amazed how many good things can happen when you do."
PAYNE STEWART'S 15-FOOT PAR PUTT TO WIN
Where: 1999 U.S. Open, Pinehurst Resort, Pinehurst, N.C.
Backdrop: Not all 15-footers are created equal. Not with a national championship on the line. Presented with the test, Stewart, dressed in his trademark plus-fours, poured it in the heart to preserve a victory over Phil Mickelson. The celebratory fist-pump of a man who would die in a plane crash just four months later is memorialized in a statue at Pinehurst today.
Takeaway: "Most of us tend to get too mechanical over big putts," says DeBary's Peterson. "We're so intent on trying to control the result that we fail to make a nice, smooth stroke." Forget mechanics. Focus instead on your preshot routine: reading the putt, making a rhythmic practice stroke, and striking it solid. Then free your mind and let your body take over. "Once it leaves the putter face," Peterson says, "you can't control it anyway."
PHIL MICKELSON'S 6-IRON FROM THE PINE STRAW ON 13
Where: 2010 Masters, Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.
Backdrop: Part stuntman, part escape artist, "Lefty" is known for self-inflicted wounds, which explains why many cringed when he lined up his approach from the pine straw on a par-5 where so many green jackets have been won and lost. Others would have punched out, but not Mickelson. He flushed a 6-iron between two trees and over Rae's Creek, and the ball made a beeline for the pin. Though Mickelson missed his eagle putt, his tap-in birdie all but sealed the deal.
Takeaway: From pine straw, or any other loose surface, the goal is to hit the ball first, says Mission Hills' Howse, "because any shot hit slightly heavy will come off with no zip." Howse suggests taking one extra club, placing the ball slightly back of center in your stance, and striking it with a descending blow to pick it cleanly off the surface. Voilà, Howse says: "It should come off the loose surface just as it would from the fairway."
LOUIS OOSTHUIZEN'S DOUBLE EAGLE ON 2
Where: 2012 Masters, Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.
Backdrop: Since 1935, when Sarazen struck his famous "shot heard 'round the world," only two other players had notched a double eagle at the Masters. And no one had ever done so on the second hole. Then, on Sunday, came Oosthuizen's 4-iron from 253 yards. "I had a bit of a downhill lie, so I was just thinking about staying focused and hitting a little fade there," the South African said. Little fade indeed. The shot snaked between two fronting bunkers and swept, left to right, across a buckled green before dropping dramatically into the cup.
Takeaway: A two-time Tour winner turned instructor, Brian Henninger played in the final group on Sunday at the '95 Masters, so he knows the quirks of the course well. Sloped fairways like the second at Augusta make long irons a challenge, Henninger says, unless you learn how to work with the lilt of the land. "Get your body and center of gravity in concert with the slope. Feel it in your feet, toes curled and dug into the ground, weight centered and pressure pushing down." The average amateur, he says, tries "to assist the ball into the air," and, as a consequence, often comes out of the shot producing a weak fade. Oosthuizen, by contrast, "is using his legs and pelvis to compress the ball," Henninger says, which results in a powerful but gentle fade.
SANDY LYLE'S 7-IRON FROM THE FAIRWAY BUNKER ON 18
Where: 1988 Masters, Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.
Backdrop: Tied with Mark Calcavecchia on Sunday, Lyle played a conservative-minded 1-iron off the tee at 18, intending to land short of the steep-faced fairway bunker. Doh! The ball rolled into the sand. The bunker loomed so tall that Lyle couldn't see the flagstick on his approach, but his 7-iron shot had eyes for the target, flying straight over the flagstick before trundling back to within some 10 feet of the cup and setting up a clinching birdie putt.
Takeaway: Having been told over and over to try to pick the ball cleanly from a fairway bunker, most amateurs slip into the same mistake, says instructor Riggs. "They place the ball back in their stance so they can hit the ball first, but that promotes a steeper angle of attack, which causes you to dig the club into the sand." Better to play the ball slightly forward, which helps flatten the bottom of your swing arc. Rather than thinking about picking the ball cleanly, focus on keeping your eyes, shoulders, and knees level throughout the shot. "Do that," Riggs says, "and you'll catch the ball clean without thinking consciously about it."