Over the past five years playing on the Champions Tour, I can't tell you how many amateurs I've seen during the weekly pro-ams who struggle to hit iron shots from the fairway. Many even said they'd rather play from the first cut of rough than tightly mowed fairway grass. Water conservation and modern agronomy practices are only going to make these tight lies more a part of the game. So instead of waiting for the grass to grow, it's time to learn how to play shots from today's fairways.
To hit a good iron off the deck, you have to make ball-first contact, then catch the ground in front of that spot. My research indicates that the average tour player's swing bottoms out four inches in front of the ball's position. That means the clubhead is still moving downward through impact. Most amateurs I've tested bottom out at the ball or an inch or two behind it. That leads to fat shots or thin hits on the upswing. It's no mystery why these golfers would rather have a little cushion under the shot. To improve your iron play, we'll talk about getting rid of some common misconceptions, like Keep your eye on the ball. I've asked golf professional David Beck to demonstrate three drills I've developed that will get you loving the short grass.
1. LEAD WITH THE LOWER BODY: SHIFT YOUR HIPS TO START DOWN, THEN LET YOUR ARMS FOLLOW
In an effort to steer the club into the ball, many golfers over-use their hands and arms on the downswing. This might feel like it adds control, but an armsy motion tends to shift the low point of the swing back, often behind the ball.
One important element in keeping the swing bottom forward is the hip action--moving the hips laterally and rotationally as you swing down. I call this blended movement the "workhorse" of the swing, as it provides the oomph at impact. Get it right, and you'll hear the difference compressing the ball makes.
DRILL: Stick an alignment rod or golf shaft into the turf, and set up so it's a few inches ahead of your front hip (above). Using a middle iron, make practice swings--no ball. Your first move down from the top should be to bump the rod with your front hip and then rotate into it with your back hip. The clubhead should strike the turf noticeably after this hip action has occurred. Groove this feel.
2. DON'T FLIP IT: KEEP YOUR WRISTS SET COMING DOWN
Many golfers think they need to release the wrist hinge they created during the backswing as early as possible coming down. The hope is that by quickly unhinging the wrists, you can square the clubface to the target by the time it reaches the ball. Unfortunately, this early release causes the clubhead to hit the ground too soon, sometimes a few inches behind the ball. To correct this mistake, delay the release of your wrists on the downswing for as long as you can. You'll know you held on long enough if the club's shaft is leaning toward the target at impact. A forward-leaning shaft is the master key to making ball-first contact and taking a proper divot--after the ball.
DRILL: To get a feel for how the hands and wrists should swing into impact, grab a towel, roll it up and grip one end as if it were a club. Now simulate your swing and try to prevent the other end of the towel from passing under your hands as you swing over the impact zone. The loose end should trail well behind your hands through impact. That feeling in your normal swing will keep the shaft leaning forward.
3. THINK AHEAD: KEEP YOUR FOCUS IN FRONT OF THE BALL
Telling golfers to keep their heads down and watch the ball has been a staple of bad advice since the game was played with wooden clubs and goose-feather balls. Trying to keep your eye on the ball pretty much ensures that your club will bottom out too soon. If you want to hit crisp irons from the fairway, your focus should be well forward of the ball. Think of how martial-arts experts split a wooden board with a punch or kick: They don't focus on the front side of the board; they concentrate their energy on the far side. They punch through the board, not at it. Your swing should be the same.
DRILL: Place a tee about eight inches in front of a ball, then take your address. Practice hitting shots where your goal isn't to strike the ball but to see the clubhead pass over the tee. The ball just gets in the way. If you move your focus up, you can rip it off any fairway.
Bobby Clampett is the founder of Impact Zone Golf (impactzonegolfacademy.com). David Beck (pictured) is a golf professional at The Old Collier Golf Club in Naples, Fla., where these photos were taken.