Photo: Bill Fields

Golf's Most Embarrassing Shots

Your guide to what's behind the double-hit, the shank, the cold-top, the bladed bunker shot and the (shudder) whiff

August 2008

Oakland Hills, site of this year's PGA Championship, is also the scene of the most famous double-hit in golf history. Leading the final round of the 1985 U.S. Open by four strokes, T.C. Chen (thereafter known as "Two Chips" Chen) double-hit his fourth shot from heavy greenside rough at the par-4 fifth hole (right). After a penalty, a chip and two putts, Chen made an 8 and finished a stroke behind winner Andy North. T.C.'s travails made us wonder: What are the most embarrassing shots in golf? And what causes them?

In their legendary work, Search for the Perfect Swing, authors Alastair Cochran and John Stobbs offer this theory on what they call the ultimate horrors: "They are all so straightforward and wholly calamitous as to need no precise investigation. . . . All of them are simply the result of the player swinging the clubhead through the ball so far from the position from which he drew it away into his backswing, that contact with the ball is not merely off-centre, but not even wholly on the face of the club."

With the help of Golf Digest Teaching Professional Chuck Cook and our Technical Panel, we provide cures for the most embarrassing shots -- we would have included the yipped 18-inch putt, but that's the stuff of books -- with a red-face meter for each.

The Double-Hit

Not that it'll make T.C. feel better about a 23-year-old double-hit now that he's 50 and attempting to play the Champions Tour, but here's an explanation from John McPhee, a member of our Technical Panel:

"You have to have a situation in which the club gets 'stuck' [in T.C.'s case, the long rough] at contact, followed by a rapid acceleration of the shaft. That's the only way that the clubhead can catch up to the ball. The ball has to be moving fairly slowly for that to happen."

Says John Axe, another member of the Technical Panel: "Experience suggests chip shots of approximately 10 yards are the most susceptible to double-hits, which correspond to low clubhead speeds. I'm not aware of anyone ever being penalized for a double-hit on a full shot."

"The player accelerates the club after hitting the ball," says panelist George Springer. "Try it: With a little practice you can do it every time. It's a neat trick -- but don't do it during a tournament."

Adds panelist Martin Brouillette: "Combining the requirements of a steep swing plane with a high-lofted club explains why this occurs most exclusively with wedges and would be impossible with the driver."

Of course, even a putt can be double-hit. "My partner," Axe says, "once managed it twice in successive holes on crucial two-footers."

CHUCK'S TIP: Problem is, the clubhead is going to the target and runs into the ball. To avoid it, play a cut swing, where the club swings left after impact.

The Cold-Top

You recognize this one: Your tee ball looks like a topspin forehand for a winner at Wimbledon. Years ago, Mark Calcavecchia told us his 2-iron into the water at Kiawah Island's 17th hole on the final day of the 1991 Ryder Cup wasn't technically a cold-top ("I had the club so delofted, I smothered it -- a diving, topspin slice"), but that gives you a mental picture.

Here's the explanation from Search for the Perfect Swing on a "full-blooded top" with a driver: "The bottom edge of the clubface has sunk into the top half of the ball, driving it into the ground." That's game, set and match.

CHUCK'S TIP: Topping comes from trying to lift the ball. As a drill, stick a tee in the ground in front of the ball and hit shots, clipping the tee out of the ground.

The Bladed Greenside Bunker Shot

In 1961, Arnold Palmer appeared on his way to becoming the first back-to-back winner of the Masters, but he bladed a greenside bunker shot at the 72nd hole, made a 6 and lost to Gary Player by a stroke.

In a standard greenside bunker shot, the ball pops out not by direct contact with the clubface but by the sand being displaced by the clubhead. When the clubface meets the ball directly, you've got a scorcher screaming over the green . . . which is especially embarrassing if it's the most solid contact you've made all day.

CHUCK'S TIP: This shot comes from trying to open the face a little extra on the downswing. It causes the clubhead to drop under the plane and the hands to get too high. To steer clear of it, open the clubface at address and keep the handle low and left through impact.

The Shank

We had some disagreement in-house about how embarrassing a shank is. On the one hand, you can be close to hitting a decent or even a very good shot. On the other hand, have you ever seen a golfer become an emotional puddle faster than after a case of repeated shanks?

Johnny Miller was contending in the Crosby at Pebble Beach in 1972 when he hit "a perfect shank" at the 16th hole and lost to Jack Nicklaus in a playoff. Nicklaus could relate: As the defending champion in the 1964 Masters, he shanked his tee shot at the 12th hole directly over Augusta National co-founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts while playing with Arnold Palmer. And now that you're really queasy, Rex Caldwell remembers shanking three consecutive chip shots in his PGA Tour debut. But our favorite shank story is from a round at Prestwick, just down the road from Troon, during British Open week in 1997. The first hole runs parallel to railroad tracks on the right, and when a member of our group shanked his approach, the ball squirted directly into an empty rail car of a passing train. After we all did double takes -- what's a shank without a double take? -- the shanker rebounded with a line he has used ever since: "I hit one that's still going."

In his book, The Pro: Lessons from My Father About Golf and Life, Golf Digest Teaching Professional Butch Harmon recalls this explanation on shanks from his dad, Claude, the 1948 Masters champion and a legendary teacher at Winged Foot: "Dad watched my student take one swing and said, 'To stop shanking, you've got to understand what causes a shank in the first place. Most people assume that the clubface is open and that the hands are in front of the ball. They think this causes you to make contact where the clubface meets the hosel. In fact, the opposite is true. A shank is caused by a closed clubface. You release the club early, throwing it at the ball on the way down. This shuts the clubface and traps the ball between the hosel and the ground, causing it to shoot to the right -- a shank. Because people think they've got the clubface open, they work hard to close it, which only exacerbates the problem. The more closed you try to get it, the more likely you are to hit a shank.' "

Says Axe: "As I understand Harmon's explanation, it's a special case of a double-hit, first off the clubface and then the hosel. I feel sure that this is not the only way to cause a shank. In about 15 minutes on the far end of the range, I taught myself to shank about two out of three balls by addressing the ball on the heel of the club and making a normal swing. (It was hard to force myself to make a full swing without shin guards and an athletic cup, but I emerged unscathed.) I feel sure that I did not make any large change in the clubface orientation at impact between shanked and unshanked shots."

CHUCK'S tip: Most shanks are hit with the face closing, the hosel swiveling out into the ball. So play a fade. The open face brings the hosel away from the ball.

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