Firing on All Cylinders

Shifting Smoothly from Long to Short Clubs

March 17, 2005

One of the most common complaints I hear from golfers about their games, along with the usual desire for more consistency, is that they cannot seem to get the different kinds of golf shots to work at the same time. If they are hitting the tee ball well, then the irons are off the mark. If they are hitting the irons well, then the putter gets a little bulky. As a result, golfers can only dream about the scores they would shoot if all the pieces came together.

In particular, a lot of golfers get frustrated because they seem to be able to hit either the driver or the irons well, but not both. They want to know why there is such a difference between the big stick and the irons.

The first thing to think about is swing plane. The longer shaft of a driver naturally sets up on a flatter plane, and will need to swing on a flatter plane than the shorter irons. If a golfer tends to swing on a flat plane, he will hit the tee ball better than the short clubs. On the other hand, an upright plane tends to work well with shorter clubs, but not so well with the driver. The point is that different clubs require different planes, and a golfer who tends to swing one way or the other, flat or steep, will have more success at one end of the spectrum in terms of the lengths of clubs.

firing1This difference between the driver and irons has become more dramatic in the era of titanium driver heads. The lightweight metal allows clubs to be built with longer shafts, which golfers love because they know longer shafts mean longer shots. Or at least that is what the longer shafts are supposed to do. Newer, 45-inch drivers (and sometimes longer) provide more leverage than the classic drivers; that is true.  But the longer shafts can create problems as well.

I have found that many golfers hit shorter drivers better. They do not have to work so hard to find a manageable swing plane, they tend to make better contact (which means they often hit the ball just as far as they would with a long driver), and even their balance tends to be better with a shorter club. In a sense, over-length drivers are so disproportionately long that they require their own swing—which makes it harder for many golfers to transition between the big stick and the other clubs in the bag.

Another difference between the driver and most irons is the amount of loft. Sometimes a golfer will come to the driving range claiming that he hits his irons straight, but has a huge tail on the end of his driver shots. I will have him warm up with an iron, and nine times out of ten, there will be a small but noticeable fade on the ball. The amount of spin on the ball with a fairly lofted club is so small that he calls it straight.

I explain to the golfer that he is actually cutting all of his shots, but that the flat face of the driver increases the amount of sidespin. A nine iron will not fade much, but a 5-iron will, and a driver will produce that sickening rightward banana. Our job at that point is to work on the swing until we remove, or at least significantly reduce, the sidespin. Then all the clubs will produce fairly straight shots.

Another possibility if the driver and irons are producing different results is that one shaft fits the golfer better. Like a lot of players, I only carry one graphite-shafted club—the driver, because it is the one I rely on to produce maximum distance (with the other clubs, I just want to know how far they consistently go). My driver shaft is very different from all the other shafts in the set. If this shaft happened to fit my swing better than the shafts in my irons, then I would likely hit the driver better.

Shaft fitting is probably the most underrated factor when golfers purchase clubs—it is extremely important when it comes to performance, and in some cases it might explain why a golfer hits better shots with one type of club.

firing2Because they are different shots, the tee ball and iron shots require slightly different setups as well. A longer club usually requires a slightly wider stance. Since the driver is hitting a ball on the upswing, from a tee, the ball needs to be further forward in the stance than it is for an iron shot. For the same reason, good players tend to have more rightward spine tilt (for right-handed golfers) during a tee shot. And the flatter swing requires a more upright posture for shots with the big stick. If a golfer uses one setup for all clubs, there is a good chance he will hit some better than others.

So drivers and irons usually have, or require, different shaft lengths, shaft types, swing planes, amounts of loft, as well as different postures and ball positions. With all those variations, it is not too shocking that people often see a varying amount of success from one club to the other, especially if they try to do the same thing with all clubs. And then there is the short game, which introduces even more kinds of clubs and techniques. But with an understanding of some of these factors, and with a little help from a teaching pro, a golfer has a good chance of getting his game firing on all cylinders.

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