Tiger Woods' iron game, explained (in detail, in his own words)
My swing and my game have evolved over the years, but one thing has remained consistent: I’m always confident with an iron in my hand.
I’m not one of the longest hitters on tour anymore—I can’t hit a wedge 150-plus yards like some guys do—so my iron game is absolutely critical to my success at this stage. It sounds simple, but the best way to make birdies is to hit your approaches close. To do that, you need to have distance control, which is possible only with consistent contact. For example, I hit my irons so pure last year at Augusta, and because of that, I had a ton of good looks at birdie. Two specific shots from Sunday’s final round come to mind: On 7, when I needed a birdie to jump-start the round, I hit my trusted low, trapping fade to tap-in range. Then on 16, I hit a high-draw 8-iron that plopped down in the perfect spot, took the slope and finished about three feet from the cup. That birdie gave me a two-shot lead and firm control of the tournament.
Note that one of those shots was a low fade and the other a high draw. I’ve always taken pride in my ability to vary trajectory and shape the ball both ways. Very few of my iron shots look exactly the same. Still, there are a few basics I try to apply to every iron shot, and they’re principles you can use for your game.
The first thing I do is take a good look at the lie. Is it anything out of the ordinary? Is it above or below my feet?
Is it in a divot? If it’s in the rough, is it a flyer?
Once I assess the lie, I shift my focus to the green complex. I like to let the course dictate what type of shot I’m trying to hit. Where is the exact spot I want the ball to land? Generally, I tend to hit more draws to left pins and fades to right pins, but there are exceptions. For example, sometimes it’s more important to have the ball working away from a hazard than toward the flag. Amateurs don’t think enough about things like that before they start their pre-shot routine.
As far as my setup, because of all my back issues, I’ve tried to avoid side bend in my swing, and that all starts with how I stand to the ball. I like to find a balanced and athletic posture that’s free of any tension in my arms or shoulders.
A good thought for me, and one that should help you make solid contact, is to keep your shoulders, hips and knees stacked on the same vertical plane throughout the motion. My baseline is to be as neutral as possible at address, with everything square to the target—then I’ll make adjustments to my stance and clubface for a draw or a fade, or for a low shot or a high shot.
I play the ball a bit farther forward in my stance than the average tour pro—it’s just my preference—and as a result I tend to sweep my irons more than dig. I’ll move the ball one ball forward in my stance if I’m trying to hoist one up, and I’ll play one ball back of normal if I’m trying to flight it down.
When I swing, my thoughts are pretty simple and more feel-oriented than technical. I don’t watch my swing on video too often. I prefer to feel things with my hands, then confirm with my buddy Rob McNamara that he sees what I’m feeling.
My backswing has changed quite a bit throughout the years. I used to load up much more on my right side and try to create as much width as possible. As a result, my weight would move to my right leg, and my head would slide laterally away from the target. That’s how a young man swings the club. Now, to put less strain on my body, I try to keep my head and chest more stable and turn more around my right side.
To a large extent, my backswing is a function of my setup. At certain times in my career, I’ve had my hands lower or higher at address. For me, lower hands resulted in an earlier wrist set, and higher hands resulted in a later one. Now I feel like I’m quite neutral with my setup, which leads to a wrist set that happens around rib height.
Once I’ve completed my backswing—which almost always stops short of parallel because I’m concerned with hitting the ball the right distance, not the farthest distance—my main thought is to push down into the ground and clear my hips. That’s one reason my latest knee scope was so important. Toward the end of the summer, pain in my left knee prevented me from pushing hard. I was sliding a bit, which made it nearly impossible to get the hip rotation I needed to hit my cut. My other thought is to not let my hands get stuck behind me, which leads to having to save the swing and manipulate the face with my hands—that’s no good. The best way to avoid getting stuck is to not let the lower body out-race the hands on the downswing. My thought is to have everything synced when I reach impact.
I like to think that my follow-through determines how high the ball is going to launch. In reality, my follow-through is a result of my angle of attack. When I’m steeper and trying to flight it down, I feel like I cut off the swing shortly after impact. If I shallow it out to launch the ball really high, I throw my hands way up over my head and let them finish over my left shoulder.
Again, I’m a shotmaker at heart, and one of my favorite parts of playing golf is carving iron shots. I wouldn’t recommend amateurs try to work it as much as I do, but the basics I’ve laid out here will help you make better contact, which will allow you to hit the ball the right distance—and hopefully give yourself some tap-in birdies like I had at last year’s Masters. --with Daniel Rapaport