Dustin Johnson has been among the PGA Tour’s elite since his first full season in 2008. A victory in every year of his career is testament to that. But closer inspection of his game reveals that D.J. has gotten better in recent years—a lot better—because of his ability to fade the ball, a consensus of experts say.
“Dustin can make the ball do whatever he wants, but the reality is, he almost exclusively plays a fade,” says his coach, Claude Harmon III, citing Johnson’s perennial top-10 presence in the PGA Tour’s strokes gained/tee-to-green stat as evidence that shaping the ball left to right has helped him win majors and become the top player in the world.
Adds Johnson, “I used to draw it all the time, but about six years ago, I had a stretch where I couldn’t keep the ball on the planet. So one day I said, I’m only playing a cut today—and I shot 61. Next day, hit a cut, shot 62. Next day I shoot another 61 or 62. I was like, OK, I’m always playing a fade. I found that my misses got tighter and I wasn’t losing any distance.”
Setting distance gains aside for a moment, what if you could turn a weak slice into a reliable fade? What if your misses were just off the fairway instead of in deep rough? What if you could borrow from Johnson’s swing? How much better would you be?
“If slicers copied a handful of things Dustin does, their ball-striking would improve a lot,” says instructor David Leadbetter. “Dustin is a gifted athlete, he could probably bowl a 200 left-handed. You might not think copying his swing is realistic, but there are many facets of it that aren’t too difficult to employ. And the reality is, the closer you can get to copying those things, the closer you will get to controlling your ball flight.”
Photographs by Jensen Larson Photography
We asked Harmon, Leadbetter and fellow instructor Jim McLean to identify parts of Johnson’s swing that would turn a slice into a reliable fade for the average player. There are several, they said, and if you copy them, you’ll get more than just better accuracy.
“If your ball curves less, it’s probably going to travel farther up the fairway,” McLean says. “Combined with contact closer to the center of the clubface, that means more distance without swinging harder.”
CHECK THE ALIGNMENT OF YOUR FEET AND YOUR SHOULDERS
It’s sometimes indiscernible, but Johnson typically sets up aligned slightly left—or open— in relation to the target line (above). That alters his swing just enough to keep the clubface a little open in relation to his swing path at impact, and that’s what makes the ball fade. Unfortunately, an open face also can produce a wicked slice if you don’t adjust your stance. “It’s fine to have the feet a bit open, but you need closed shoulders to cool off that severe, out-to-in swing path that’s causing a slice,” Harmon says.
“The average right-handed slicer swings on a path 10 degrees left of the target line. D.J. swings 5 degrees left. If you could cut your left swing path in half, you’d be OK.”
GET OFF TO A WIDE START
Most slicers limit body rotation as they take the club back, which narrows the arc of their swing.
Johnson turns away from the target with his arms and body moving in unison (above), which keeps his swing arc wide—poised to deliver a more powerful and reliable downswing.
“This is something any golfer can copy,” McLean says. “His body motion in the takeaway is perfect.” If his swing arc were to narrow, like it does in an amateur swing, he would have to regain its original width during the downswing or he’d mis-hit it. He also wouldn’t be able to consistently generate good power without staying wide, McLean says.
MAKE SURE YOUR LEAD WRIST DOESN’T CUP
Slicers get to the top of the backswing with a cupped lead wrist, causing the clubface to open. Johnson’s clubface is shut at the top (above), meaning he doesn’t have to alter anything about it in the downswing to avoid a slice.
“Note his bowed left wrist—that’s key to his power fade because it’s what keeps his clubface from opening,” Leadbetter says. “Hitting the ball with a square or shut clubface is going to feel really solid, especially to slicers who are used to hitting the ball with a glancing blow. And when the closed clubface at impact makes them miss the fairway to the left instead of to the right, they’ll then intuitively start improving their swing path to straighten out their ball flight.”
MOVE MORE VERTICALLY INTO THE BALL
Johnson’s right shoulder drops as it rotates toward the target and his right elbow tucks into his side in the downswing (above). “If you look at a slicer’s swing, the right shoulder is moving out, not down, and the elbow is away from the body,” Leadbetter says. The closer you come to copying the look of Johnson’s downswing, the more you will limit the outside-in swing path that’s causing the big slice. You’ll also keep the club in position to accelerate through the impact zone. “Slicers are often decelerating as they approach the ball, which is a real distance killer,” Leadbetter says.
DON’T TRY TO CURVE IT, JUST HIT IT HARDER
“Your goal should be less about how much the ball is curving and more about how solidly you hit it,” Harmon says. “D.J. compresses the ball and produces a lot of ball speed, but his ball curves a lot more than you’d think—and that’s OK if you pick a specific start line left of the target, so the ball ends up where you want it.” You might not be able to hit it as hard as Johnson (above), but any improvement in solidness of contact will start to transform a weak slice into a power fade, Harmon says.
FULLY EXTEND YOUR ARMS AND CLUB THROUGH IMPACT
“You need full extension through the ball. That’s a difference maker for power,” McLean says. The radius typically narrows in a slicer’s swing, resulting in the classic chicken-wing look of the lead arm around impact. If you have maximum extension through the hitting area (above), your drives will straighten, and you’ll pick up yardage at your current swing speed, McLean says. To get a feel for extension, hold a club upside down and swing it, trying to make a swooshing noise as it passes over the ground. Re-create that noise when you hit shots, and you’re swinging more like D.J.