A wise old poet once wrote, “Variety is the spice of life, that which gives it all its flavor.” If it’s variety you’re looking for, come to a golf course for all the flavor you can handle.
With the exception of shots off the tee, golf courses are places of nearly limitless variation in terrain, requiring golfers to adapt to different lies played on every shot. Even the best fairways in the world offer some variety, as manicured to perfection as they are. But it’s still nature, and unpredictability comes with the territory. On more than a few courses in Southwest Florida the rough can offer incredibly good lies where the ball sits up more than it does on the fairway, making it easier for some golfers to make solid contact. But usually that ogre we call “the rough” also provides “interesting” lies that leave us scratching our heads. To compound the problem, there are all kinds of different lies — very thin fairway grass; longer fairway grass; the ball sitting up or sitting down in the rough; teed up like you could hit a driver out of the rough; and different lies in the bunker.
Today, we will focus on all lies, except for bunker shots.
If we set up and swing the same as we do on a nice, even fairway lie at a ball buried in the rough we will inevitably fail. If we do not adapt to the conditions of each lie, the results are usually very bad golf shots. So Rule #1 is: We must adapt to the lie. Our first observation should center on the grass and how the growth surrounds the ball, because we first must understand that we can’t fight the grass — if we do, the grass wins. We must try to determine how the golf ball is sitting on the grass, and how that might affect impact. This understanding of the possibilities of how the club head will interact with the grass and the golf ball are paramount, because the golf ball does not perform the same as when contacted off the center of the club face, or more specifically off the center of gravity (CG) of the club face.
Our analysis of the lie will help us attempt to predict where the golf ball is going to most likely come in contact with the club, because hitting low or high of the CG the golf ball will react differently off the club face. That difference is called vertical gear effect. When the golf ball strikes the club face lower than the CG, the ball starts off lower than it would if impact occurred towards the center of the club face. Same goes if the golf ball contacts the club face higher than the CG, it will launch higher than if hit on the CG.
This information helps us understand that the lie is going to have a major effect on how the ball travels out of the lie, because the lie conditions play a major role in where it is possible to hit the ball on the clubface. For example, hitting offa tight fairway lie it is much more probable to contact the club face lower than the CG. On the other hand, a golf ball teed up on top of the rough will give us a greater probability on hitting higher on the club face.
Based on this information we can now make adjustments to hit the best shot possible, one major decision being shot selection. We must decide on the shot to play, and then how to play that shot based on the lie. Our thought process should determine if we should change our set up, golf swing, club selection, and/or shot selection to give us the best chances of succeeding.
For example, on a golf ball that is in the rough sitting down in the grass, we must decide how much grass will be caught between the golf ball and the club face at impact. Since there might be no way around that interference, we can reasonably assume that the ball speed off the club face will be slower, and the golf ball will not travel as far. Under those conditions, there are adjustments that can be made to make sure we have the least amount of grass behind the golf ball as possible, resulting in more ball speed off the club face. To do this, a steeper club head swing working on a more downward angle into the golf ball at impact will help. We can do this by placing the golf ball back in our stance, trying to steepen the angle with our swing, etc. There are many adjustments we can make to handle this variable, but it takes practice to recognize the problem at hand and make the adjustments necessary to carry out the shot.
I realize there will be readers who are blown away by the amount of decision making, and how many variables we must consider for a non-typical lie. I encourage everyone to practice more of these situations and variables rather than spending time working on the technical aspects of the golf swing. This is a skill we can acquire, but it takes work, experimentation, and more experimentation based on the failures we will certainly encounter. And after that, even more work. I could sit here and write about all the ways we can adapt to situations like lies, but readers’ heads would spin. But at the very least, if we try to understand interference to friction because of grass, how gear effect works, and how we deliver the club head onto the golf ball given the lie the golf course has given us, we then can understand our successes and failures when practicing.
Take a view of my videos on YouTube. They will help with practical adaptations we can make for a few situations. However, after reading this and watching the videos, the only way to get better is to put in the work to develop another skill.
Todd Elliott is the Head Golf Professional at Hideaway Beach Club on Marco Island, Florida. Todd is a PGA and CMAA member. Todd is Titleist Performance Institute Level 3 Golf Certified. To contact Todd email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @elliottgolfpro.