The late, great Arnold Palmer once said, “Golf is deceptively simple, and endlessly complicated.” The goal in golf is simple–get the ball from here to there. But a golfer makes hundreds of choices in a round to accomplish the goal, which is where the complicated part of the game comes into play. Choices such as: Where should I aim? What club should I use? How high should I hit this shot? How hard should I swing? Et cetera, etc. While the process of choices is complicated, in my opinion it’s a great part of the game.
To be successful in golf we must understand all the uncontrollables (wind, lie, slopes) to best predict the controllables (club selection, speed of swing, flight of golf ball) needed to succeed. As I have written in the past six columns, these controllables and uncontrollables are the topics golfers should focus on, not on technique. Even though club selection is a controllable, the decision-making process includes the understanding of many uncontrollables. Club selection is a skill that we must learn, and the learning process for club selection is forever ongoing.
First, let’s state the obvious: club selection is different for everyone. But the process in arriving at club selection is similar for all golfers. I have never seen two golfers hit every club the same distance, and the same height. So, looking for others to evaluate if we are hitting the correct club is a bad idea.
How high a golfer hits the golf ball is a huge factor in club selection. It is important that we have a good idea how far each club travels in the air and on the ground. But how far the golf ball usually travels in the air for each club is most important, because we have some control over how far the ball travels in the air. We can estimate how far the golf ball travels on the ground based on course conditions, club being hit, ball flight, etc.
Knowing how far the ball flies in the air is undervalued by most golfers. For example, Bob and Dave both hit their 8 iron a total of 135 yards. Bob’s 8 iron has a carry distance of 115 yards, and Dave carries his 8 iron 134 yards. They both have 135 yards to the pin. There is a water hazard five yards from the front of the green, and the flag is three yards from the front of the green. Dave can comfortably choose to hit an 8 iron, but Bob will need scuba gear on his next shot if he hits 8 iron. However, I see over and over a player like Bob will pick the 8 iron, because he only considers that his 8 iron goes atotal of 135 yards. A golfer’s typical ball flight is a major factor in what club they will hit.
There are always uncontrollable factors that will affect ball flight; like wind, lies, and slopes. These factors play a major role in the height the golf ball, and must be taken into consideration on how much it will affect total distance, but more importantly carry distance. For example, if a golfer is on a downhill slope the golf ball, if struck solidly, will fly lower than the golfer’s normal ball flight on a solidly hit shot. The golf ball may roll more after it lands to the usual distance, but the carry distance will be much less than normal.
Many factors play into club selection. We must do our best to understand the uncontrollables, and practice the controllables. When practicing distance control, or discovering our distances, it is best to randomize the practice. Practice to different targets every shot. Do this both with the same club, and a different club every time.
After we have a good idea on how far each club carries, and rolls out to, we then must understand how to hit each club different distances. If a golfer can hit their 8 iron a total of 135 yards, 9 iron 125 yards, and they have 130 yards to a front pin on the first hole, how should they proceed? To become better golfers we must know the answers to these questions, and know them so well we are able to make decisions quickly.
Practicing with a launch monitor can help as well. Here at Hideaway we are blessed to have such a device. In many of my lessons we will gauge how far the student is carrying the club, and how much total distance is estimated. We will also work on hitting the golf ball different distances with the same club, and know for sure if the student is accomplishing the task.
The key to picking the correct club is to be self aware of your game and your typical ball flight. Focus more on carry distance needed for each particular shot, and how far you typically carry the golf ball with each club. Again, I implore everyone to use the time they spend trying to improve their game to work on understanding how the uncontrollable variables affect ball flight, and develop the skills to best produce the controllable. Do not be romantically attached to what worked yesterday. Observe, experiment, and fall in love with the learning process that is forever ongoing.
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.