Ask anyone who teaches for a living, and you’ll hear that the No. 1 thing most golfers are looking for is consistency. Equipment companies cash in by promising each successive club will hit the ball farther than the last, but in more than a quarter century of teaching this great game I’ve yet to meet a golfer who wouldn’t give up a few yards in exchange for finding the fairway more often.
As golfers, then, we’re in a bit of a conundrum. We crave consistency, but when the chips are down we put our money down on distance. And while it’s not impossible to achieve some degree of both, if we’re serious about finding the fairway more often, giving up those extra yards might be exactly what we need to do.
When it comes to consistency, ball flight patterns matter. Commenting on his preferred shot shape, Lee Trevino once famously said, “You can talk to a fade, but a hook won’t listen.” I learned that lesson the hard way back in college during my own Tin Cup moment. After being under par most of the round, I found myself walking up No. 18 with my head down, out of the match because I was out of balls after stubbornly refusing to hit a controlled fade (my natural shot) instead of the draw that would have made the hole play shorter. Trevino was right. Despite that painful lesson, however, it still took a few years — and my looming PGA Player Ability Test — to finally sink in.
I was preparing for the test by playing a practice round with an 18-handicap buddy of mine. I was still struggling with the driver, and that’s when I had a bit of an epiphany. This guy hit a short, ugly 30-yard slice off every tee, but after watching it find the fairway on darn near every hole I realized my buddy knew something I didn’t — where his ball was going. And despite the fact that I didn’t like the look of it, I knew that I could hit that shot, too. So I decided to put my ego aside and play what I called my Big Ol’ Hacker’s Cut. It wasn’t as long, but I knew where it was going, and in the end that’s what I needed to start scoring again. And I did.
Now as far as great players go, last time I checked I hadn’t made anyone’s short list, but there are a couple of great ones who you might never have heard of either if they hadn’t learned that very same lesson. The first was the immortal Ben Hogan. Early in his career, Hogan spent a decade in obscurity fighting the big hook that nearly ended his career before it began. Now Hogan loved to practice, and he eventually figured out a few things while spending a legendary amount of time on the range, but despite all his cryptic talk about his secret being in the dirt, if you really paid attention to Hogan’s interviews you’d realize his game changed when he changed his preferred shot shape. Years later, when asked if he ever tried to hit a straight ball Hogan answered, “Never. Jesus Christ can’t hit a ball straight.”
Which way did Hogan always try to hit it? Left to right, or with a little cut.
A player at the opposite end of the practice spectrum from Hogan, but one who might best exemplify the reliability of the cut, was Bruce Lietzke. Lietzke disdained practice and was the Tour’s king of taking time off, often taking a few weeks off at time during the season to go fishing in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Burned out and tired of the ups and downs of his game, Lietzke quit the game briefly after college, and when he came back to it found his swing had changed and he couldn’t hit anything but a cut. Frustrated at first, Lietzke soon realized that while he didn’t like the look of his new shot, he was scoring more consistently and his game held up better under pressure. And the real kicker? He realized he could take a week or two off — and ultimately a few months off from the game to go fishing — and his swing was still there when he got back, as reliable as ever.
The most famous story about Lietzke that highlighted this happened at the end of 1984 when he told his caddie to remove everything from his bag except the clubs because he wouldn’t be using them until the next season started, more than three months later. His caddie didn’t believe him, so he took the head cover off his driver and stuffed a banana inside. The next February, when Lietzke arrived at the practice range of his first event, his caddy opened up the bag to a stomach-turning smell. When they pulled the head cover off the driver, it was covered with nasty black fungus and rotten banana, never again playable.
Now I’m not trying to compare anything about my game to Hogan’s, or even Lietzke’s, but the common thread here is how a player struggling with consistency eventually found it in a little shot called the cut. In my case, turning professional and learning to teach the game taught me why that shot was more consistent. Mechanically speaking, there are a handful of reasons playing a hook is often less predictable, but there is one primary reason why. As Trevino said, a hook doesn’t want to listen.
Before I say any more, though, I want to apologize up front to all my Homer Kelly disciples and other hardcore swing analytics for what I’m sure you will think is a gross over-simplification. It’s important, however, to explain my point in a way that doesn’t take intimate knowledge of the golf swing to grasp.
- Swings with a lot of hands in the hitting area (read draws and hooks) require very precise timing and that usually translates into a lot of time spent beating balls to achieve a modicum of reliability and consistency.
- Swings with less hand action in the hitting area (read cuts, fades, and slices) are less dependent on precise timing of the hands because they typically have the face of the club in relation to the path and or target for a longer period of time and use the body more than the hands to square that clubface. This means swings that produce shots that cut, fade, or slice often produce more consistent results and are more low-maintenance (read less practice time), even though they don’t produce quite as much distance due to the increased spin created by the path, the slightly steeper angle of attack, and less release of the hands.
So If you’ve been looking for the road to consistency for a while, maybe it’s time to take ashortcut and stop ditch that draw. Sure, it might not look as pretty, and you might sacrifice a few yards, but in the end you just might find a shot that will actually listen to all that hoping and praying you’ve been doing while it’s in flight. And with all the newfound time that was previously spent trying to reign in that hook on the practice tee, you just might be able to pick up a second hobby. Fishing anyone?