Butch Harmon's Greatest Driving Lesson
Photo by Dom Furore
Driving the ball well carries extra importance. Not only does it set you up to play a hole, but I bet you have an emotional attachment to the driver: Good driving days are your favorite days. You're not alone. Some of the top players in the world feel the same way. We all step up on certain holes and want so bad to hit a great tee shot. Sometimes it's because the hole is difficult, or the right drive might lead to a birdie chance. The trouble is, most golfers equate great driving with distance. And trying for distance often leads to your worst drives, just when you need your best. Instead, pick a shot that favors position over power, and then follow a plan to hit it. Let's talk about some situations where you press for a killer drive—and how to get one.—With Peter Morrice
SHORT HOLES: SWING TO A DISTANCE
You step up on short par 4s and your instinct is to get as close to the green as possible, so you whale away with your driver. That's OK for good players, but golfers less skilled with wedges need to look at the shot they're leaving themselves. If you're playing a 300-yard hole and you drive it 240, the remaining 60-yard shot can be one of the toughest. Add in a small green or deep front bunker—common features on short par 4s—and you can make a big number fast.
The trick on these holes is to drive the ball to your favorite wedge yardage. For some players, it's a full wedge, like 110 yards, or a three-quarter shot of 80 or 90 yards. Then you look at the length of the hole (300) and subtract your favorite distance (110) to figure out what you want from your tee shot. In this case, covering 190 yards might mean hitting a hybrid or long iron. Then just commit to covering that yardage, not swinging like you have a driver in your hands. You'll make more birdies that way than trying to pitch it close from an awkward distance nearer the green.
FROM MY PLAYER FILES
Greg Norman beat the bend
When I worked with Greg in the '90s, he was hitting a persimmon driver 300-plus yards and could put it in the correct side of the fairway. He was the best driver I'd ever seen. But sometimes his spine would tilt back a little on the downswing, and he'd get a reverse-C look in his posture as he went through. So one thing we worked on was keeping him more on top of the ball at impact, with his spine not backing up. There wasn't a whole lot to fix in Greg's driving, but we did some good work on that move.
Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images
UPHILL DRIVES: SET UP A HIGH LAUNCH
This one's a classic. You see the fairway rising in front of you and think you have to help the ball up. So what do you do? You play the ball way forward in your stance or hang back and flip your hands upward at impact. These moves are not reliable and often lead to topped drives or hitting the ground behind the ball—the dreaded drop-kick.
It's true, you want to create more carry on uphill shots, but you have to do it the right way. Take your normal address (below, left), then move your back foot four or five inches to your right, widening your stance (below, right). This will angle your upper body a little more away from the target. You'll make a good turn and be able to shift forward coming down and still be behind the ball so you can hit up on it slightly. That upswing hit creates a high launch. Remember, the tee box of an uphill hole is as level as any other; no need to adjust your swing. Just set up behind the ball a touch, and you'll get more carry.
FROM MY PLAYER FILES
Rickie Fowler learned to stick the takeaway
Rickie used to drag the grip end of the club too far inside on the takeaway, with the clubhead to the outside. That required him to re-route the club coming down, and he'd swing too inside-out. So we came up with a drill where he'd make swings stopping at hip high, checking that the shaft was parallel to his toe line. Then Rickie would return the clubhead to the ball and start his swing. Sound familiar? That checkpoint is now part of his pre-swing routine, and he has become one of the tour's best drivers.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
WHEN IT FITS YOUR EYE: LET THE SHOT HAPPEN
When you come to a hole that bends in the direction that your drives naturally curve, you think, Finally, a hole made for me. Well, you have to be careful, because the situation is tempting you to hit the hero shot. If you're a fade player, you look at a dogleg-right hole and want to just rip it. The problem is, if you aim straight and over-fade your drive into the inside corner of the dogleg, that's where the worst trouble is. You've just turned your dream hole into a nightmare.
To play a hole that matches your shot shape, aim at the outside corner of the dogleg and give your tee shot room to work back toward the middle. If you're a fade player on that dogleg-right, here's the procedure: First, aim the clubface at the left edge of the fairway (below, left); then, set your body lines—feet, hips, shoulders—parallel to the line the face is on (below, right). Now you can make your normal swing—no steering!—and your preferred shot shape will move the ball into perfect position.
FROM MY PLAYER FILES
Dustin Johnson eliminated one side
In 2015, Dustin went to a fade off the tee, and his entire game changed. He took the left miss out by aiming a little left and letting the ball slide right. I showed him the Nicklaus way of hitting a fade: Aim the clubface where you want the ball to finish, then align your body to the left of that. That let Dustin be as aggressive as he wanted with no fear of the hook. It's not a big curve to the right. I call it a "slider fade," like Lee Trevino hit—except 50 yards farther. When Dustin's driving it well, nobody can beat him.
Photo by Chris Condon/PGA TOUR
LONG HOLES: HIT IT BETTER, NOT HARDER
I started this article by saying that swinging for maximum distance gets you in trouble. But the reality is, some holes require your longest drive for you to have a chance to make a good score. There are acceptable ways to increase distance, ways that don't expose you to wild misses. You need the discipline to follow a plan, not just swing harder.
First, realize that the best way to turn speed into distance is to hit the ball with the middle of the clubface—and that comes from staying in control. Be deliberate on the backswing; give yourself time to wind up before you start down. Your instinct might be to go harder from the top, but that'll cause you to waste your speed too soon. Make your downswing from the ground up: Shift your lower body toward the target, keeping your shoulders turned, and let the club fall to the inside. Then you can accelerate through and get the distance you need.
FROM MY PLAYER FILES
Gary Woodland stopped jumping at it
Gary is a super athlete with great speed. He used to get too aggressive with his body starting down, which made the swing too narrow. The club would drop behind him, causing blocks and hooks. We came up with a practice drill where he swings his driver to the top, then pauses for a beat before starting down. This has helped him stop adding wrist hinge from the top—called down-cocking—which is what makes the swing narrow. It's a great lesson for golfers who have fast body action.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images
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