When you unexpectedly smother-hook a tee shot or hit a low liner that goes nowhere, don't panic. The common mistake is to overanalyze what went wrong and start swinging differently. But in many cases, the cause of the mis-hit was simply that you didn't hit the ball on the center of the clubface.
Introducing gear effect. That's the scientific term for what happens if you make contact anywhere but on the sweet spot. For example, if you hit low on the clubface, the ball will fly lower and with more backspin. If you strike the ball on the toe, you'll produce more right-to-left spin, and hit a hook. Gear effect is most pronounced with drivers and fairway woods but can affect iron shots, too.
My advice? Before you overhaul your swing, check to see where you're making contact. Spray your driver face with foot powder, hit a shot, then check where the ball's dimple pattern appears (above). Is it near the toe or heel? Is it low on the face? Just being aware of where you're hitting the ball on the club can improve your swing and your ball-striking. Remember that the next time you hit a bad shot and start freaking out.
Another tip for better driving is to make sure the low point of your swing comes just before impact so you launch the ball high. To do that, set your left shoulder an inch or two behind the ball at address. The low point of the swing tends to match the position of the left shoulder.
Sean Foley is based at the Core Golf Junior Academy near Orlando.