Compressing the ball with an iron
The number one thing that most new golfers get wrong from the beginning is how they imagine that you are supposed to hit a golf ball. A good deal of the misinformation comes from the TV and watching professional golf on TV. If you watch golf on TV and you don’t know much about it, you can come away with the idea that you need to dig up the lawn to play this game. Then if you look at an iron, especially a wedge, you think, “dig up the lawn, this looks like a shovel, I get it.” I know when I was a kid I thought I had to get the iron under the ball and sort of dig it out of the grass with an upward motion to get it in the air.
Now if you only had a passing knowledge of golf gleaned from occasionally watching it on TV, you could really get the wrong idea. The truth of golf is that you don’t dig the ball out of the lawn. Instead you strike the ball, and in effect pinch it between the clubface and the grass with a slightly downward motion. If it is done right, the ball deforms (compresses) and recoils up the club face with lots of back spin and power towards your target, then the club continuing down takes the divot of grass after the ball is already gone.
OK, that is a very different concept and you will get completely different results with each. In the first case you will hit the grass first and then the ball and as a result you will have no power on the ball and little spin. This leads to major inconsistencies. One time the ball may jump off the face and fly too far, know as a flyer, this can happen when some amount of grass gets between the ball and the clubface resulting in the ball sliding off the grass-slick clubface and going too far with no backspin. At other times it just goes nowhere, because the lawn is too fluffy to catapult a golf ball.
So if you know that you need to hit the ball first, and the lawn second, how exactly do you do that there is not a lot of room down there and the lawn is everywhere. To understand the how, let’s first look at the two ways you will contact a golf ball during a round. One way is off the tee and the other is off the grass. If you are hitting off a tee it is a bit easier because you can control the height of the ball you are going to strike and get just the right amount of space to hit down catching the ball first and taking a bit of grass afterwards. A tee is your friend, always use one, and try to be consistent about how high you tee your ball with various clubs. Of course with a driver you have the ball pretty high up on a tee and with a 5 iron you may have it a bit higher than a 9 iron, but you should be consistent in those differences.
One exercise you can go to help you get better at ball first contact is to tee the ball up, take an 8 or 9 iron and hit a small bucket of balls at your local range. Only try hitting balls without looking at them. Instead, pick a spot on the grass just in front of the ball where you are going to strike the ground with your iron, now practice hitting the whole bucket not looking at the ball. What I love about this drill is that I can really start to feel the ball compress and fly and it is fun to swing and out of the non-focused corner of your eye see the ball shoot off. By the way this technique I find so useful that some days when I am just not making good contact I will use it during a round. For the advanced course, try it with the ball not on a tee. Of course you should pick a piece of grass closer to the ball and adjust a bit. Where you look when you strike the ball is a very personal thing, but don’t be afraid to try looking in different areas to make better ball contact. I have one friend who swears by looking at a dimple on the front of the ball when he hits his driver I like to pick dimples closer to the back of the ball with my 4 and 5 iron and ones closer to the front with my 7-9 iron, it just seems to work for me.
It is a very cool feeling the first time you truly compress and launch a golf ball. I have one hole that I love to play for the acoustics alone. It is an 8 iron off the tee and when I hit it right it sounds like a fake Hollywood gunshot from an old movie, it is pretty cool and you don’t get the sound unless you compress the ball.
Once you get the hang of compressing the ball the right way you can then really begin to appreciate the differences in golf balls and golf ball design. When I first started playing I used lower priced “soft” golf balls and the softer the better. But as I improved my ball striking I moved to more professional grade golf balls, and the funny thing is that the pro golf balls feel softer than the “soft” golf balls I used before. Some of that is the improved feel of modern golf balls and more of it is making better contact and imparting more compression force as I have improved. You will likely find the same thing will happen to you as you improve.
Compressing the ball with woods
Golf is hard enough with one type of club but that is not good enough, there are two very distinctive club types, the iron and the wood. The wood is now a bit of a misnomer since they are almost all made of steel and titanium. The driver is the most unique of the woods because it has become huge over the years and the shafts have gotten longer in some cases as well. As a result, the slight differences that used to exist in the way you hit a wood and a driver have become more pronounced as the driver has evolved. The same principle of compression also applies to the driver. The main difference is that the driver strikes the ball with more speed and force creating even more compression than the iron. The driver imparts the most force and sheer power of any club in your bag as a result it is important to get the forces of compression working in your favor.
First, since the driver does not have much loft, 10.5 degrees is about the max that most armatures play with, it is very important that you hit the ball with a level to slightly upward strike. Now unlike my buddy who likes to look at the front of his golf ball, I usually pick a particular dimple on the back of the ball and try to hit it hard like I have a hammer and that is a nail. I try to drive the dimple as far into the ball as I can, that seems to give me the best overall fight if I do it right. On a good drive I can feel the ball flex and rebound, it almost feels like it bounces off the face of the club, and I feel like I am hitting slightly up at the ball. I got a chance to stand behind Phil Mickelson when he was teeing off with a 3 wood at Pebble Beach and I was amazed at how high up he teed the ball and at how much he swung up at the ball. Of course he hits it a mile but also a mile up. I am no Phil so I don’t tee it up that high. My general rule is to tee it up ½ a ball above the top of the face. I use the 2 2/3” tee and barely stick it in the ground. This seems to be perfect for me. Experiment until you find your comfortable tee height and stay with it for consistency.