Going to great lengths

Golf Things Considered column by John Rogers
JSpencerRogers@msn.com  

Let’s face it, there are guys out there who would trade their firstborn to hit the tee ball 30 yards farther. For some golfers, success is measured not by the number of strokes, but by the number of yards. It doesn’t matter if the ball plugged in the greenside bunker as long as I can tell my buddies later that I hit my driver 300 yards to get there.

Similarly, most people approach golf as a game of hitting each shot as far as far forward as possible. The average golfer will need two shots to reach a green from 200 yards away; usually this means hitting a risky 3-wood as hard as possible and then trying to finesse an awkward little pitch, but rarely does it mean hitting two relatively easy 100-yard shots. Again, the thinking is oriented towards hitting the first shot as far as possible, rather than playing the odds.

A lady who usually plays nine holes, and shoots close to 60, took a lesson this weekend. She complained that all her clubs hit the ball about 100 yards, so she said she needed to learn to hit the ball farther. She was getting the club on too flat a plane, so she tended to hit the ball thin and to the right. I showed her how to change her path, which will lead to better, more square contact with time and practice.

The improved contact and the relaxation that comes with a better swing plane will give her better distance. But after the lesson she still seemed concerned about distance. So I asked her if she would be happy to shoot 45 for nine holes. Of course she would. Can she usually two-putt the greens? Yes. So, shooting 45 would mean having 18 putts and 27 other shots, right? Yes. Does she realize that she can cover the yardage of her course in 27 shots simply by averaging 80 yards per shot? What?

That’s right. If she would be thrilled to play bogey golf, and all her clubs go 100 yards, her only problem is that she hits it too far. She only needs 80 yards per shot. Of course, some decent chipping, pitching and course management might come in handy.

But the point remains, most people just want to hit the ball a long ways, and sometimes it’s a higher priority than learning how to play the game successfully, which means doing what it takes to shoot lower scores.

The world of distance worshipers is also the world of long golf clubs. Everyone knows that longer clubs hit the ball farther, so longer clubs are better. Along this line, the best thing that happened for golf in recent history was the fall of the Soviet Union. After the fall, it did not take long for Russian entrepreneurs to sell off the metals that once made up thousands of missile silos. By the early 1990s, there were titanium-headed drivers flooding the golf market. The lightness of titanium along with graphite shafts made it possible to make longer clubs. The standard length of men’s drivers went from 43½ inches to 45 inches. So the end of the Cold War brought us a step closer to world peace while making it possible for golfers to really bomb it out there.

But I’m not sure that longer clubs help everyone. In my opinion, the industry standards for club lengths very often cause swing problems for average golfers.

Notice that some of the guys on tour look really big compared to their clubs. That’s because they are. Ernie Els, Tiger Woods and most tour players are fairly tall people. Even when they have a long iron or driver in their hands, the clubs look short, and the clubhead never seems too far away from the golfer as it rests on the ground.

As a result, the shaft of the club starts in a fairly upright plane and can swing in a fairly upright plane. This kind of a plane requires less manipulation of the club and leads to more consistent results.

Compare this kind of setup and swing to a squatty weekend warrior with his 45-inch Turbo Transcontinental Titanium driver. The driver comes up to his chin if they’re both standing on their toes, and at address the clubhead looks like it sits in a different county. The shaft will be very flat to the ground. The golfer will now be forced into swinging in a very flat plane; be prone to hitting blocks and hooks; likely to hit the ball low and in the heel of the clubface; having to force the club through impact.

There’s a good chance the weekend warrior would actually hit the ball farther with a shorter driver that he can swing in a better plane, make center contact with, and swing with the kind of relaxation that increases clubhead speed.

I know a golfer who has shortened all his clubs and worked on his swing plane in recent years. His irons, now an inch shorter than industry standard, are a full inch shorter than they were two years ago, and he tends to choke them down a little more. He is hitting his irons 10 to 15 yards farther than before.

He also has one of those big-headed titanium drivers, but he chokes it down about 2½ inches, which means it plays shorter than the old industry standard. He is hitting the driver 20 to 30 yards farther than he used to. But the distance is a side-effect of making better contact and swinging in a better plane. More importantly, he is hitting the ball more accurately, more consistently.

Golf is a game of hitting targets to shoot a score, and golf is a game of opposites. Sometimes the pursuit of distance leads to higher scores and less distance. When it comes to seeking distance, most golfers would do well not to go to too great a length.

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