I can still remember my eight-year-old self one early morning. At this point in my life golf was everything, and to be honest, all I really wanted was to ditch the 5 iron and the 9 iron from my Tiger Woods Golf Starter set and get my own, full set of clubs. This dream came true one morning when my dad presented me with a full set of Progression irons that one of his friends had given him. Already filled with groves and pits this set of thin, light, extensively used irons was in a less than pristine condition but I couldn’t care less. I was a real golfer now, or at least that’s how I saw it. Those irons saw everything throughout the next few years of my golf career. Every round, every tournament, every day spent practicing in my backyard, those irons would be with me. And while I eventually exchanged them for a more modern set of irons I will always think of those clubs as my first real set and I guess that is something special for every golfer.
Now that’s not to say that all of my memories with these irons were good ones. In fact, it was really a love-hate relationship with irons shots in general as a kid because honestly, I wasn’t very good with them. I was solid one the green, excellent within 50 yards, and straight and long off the tee, but I could never consistently count on my irons to do what I needed them to do and that bothered me. It bothered me so much that I would go out of my way to not use them. Eventually, this led me to play with almost as many woods as irons (I had a 7 wood and even a 9 wood for a little while) but shy away from irons only made the problem worse. It wasn’t until I entered high school that my ball striking and strength finally convinced me to give irons another chance. And thank God I did… Looking back at high school and the competitive rounds of golf I play now I couldn’t imagine my game without consistent, straight irons because they are absolutely necessary to hit greens in regulation and in turn, score well.
So let’s talk about irons…
Irons are centered around the full swing and use the different lofts of each club to change the height and distance of the ball as it travels. So we need to create a fundamentally sound swing that we can replicate for each different iron in our bag in order to be successful. For any full swing, we ever take there are three things that we need to think about.
- Stance and setup
- Ball position
- Swing plane and contact
Let’s start with the first thing on our list. For your setup, you want to focus on a solid stance with your feet about shoulder-width apart and a little more weight on your front foot (we’ll talk about why further down). We want a square stance with our feet pointed perpendicular to the target. Get a nice bend at your waist (not your back) and let your arms hang down freely. All of these things help optimize the rotation in your back in order to give you a nice swing path for square ball striking. Of course, each setup is unique to every specific golfer and you need to determine what works for you and what’s comfortable but if you’re unsure, this is a really solid template for you to start building your swing around. Over on your right, you can see it all put together and you’ll even get a chance to look at the next topic on our list, ball positioning.
Ball positioning is simply how you stand in relation to the ball. Is the ball closer to your front foot or your back foot? Do you always line it up in the middle? However small this may seem, your ball positioning shouldn’t stay the same for every shot. Each different type of shot has a different purpose in mind and ball positioning can make this easier or much harder to accomplish. Now it might seem nitpicky and I know I thought it was until much later in my golfing career but small changes really can make the difference in the trajectory of your shot. To make sure you keep the ball lined up in the right spot I’ve got an easy rule to help you remember.
Sully’s Rules #1 “The lower the flight of the ball, the further up in your stance you want to place the ball and visa versa.”
For instance, a middle iron (5,6) might be played in the exact middle of your stance, a 9 nine iron might be set back just a tiny bit, and say a 3 or 4 iron might be played slightly ahead of the center of your stance. It also turns out that as you go from lower irons to higher irons, the clubs get longer, which means you’ll also have to stand a little further away from the ball. This is demonstrated well in the picture below.
Because you might be curious… This picture shows something a little different than what I just explained. It has everything moved an inch or so forward in the stance. What this picture represents is arguably the most taught style of ball positioning and likely the method you would be taught if you had a personal lesson, but it is not the method I like or use. I prefer to shift my ball positioning back roughly one ball on length (if you’re looking at the diagram) from where they show it. For the higher irons shifting the ball back gives you a steeper swing plane when you strike the ball, which will result in more backspin (which is nice for sticking the ball on the green) and with the high irons, moving the ball back will lead to more consistent ball striking because you can take a divot more easily when the ball is in the middle of your stance. If you decide to play the ball too far up, you end up with more of a sweeping motion on your swing and that can cause you to catch a fair amount of shots thin. After trying both methods at some point during my golfing career, I heavily favor the method I use now, not just because I developed it, I swear, but because taking a divot just flat out feels better than not (it’s also an important part of good ball striking). Catching a ball thin sends a sort of shiver up the shaft of the club and nobody wants to get stingers like that. So to help prevent that I just play my shots a little further back and enjoy the lack of stingers.
Now humor me for a moment. Think back to an iron shot you’ve taken before that has just felt amazing. One where it feels like you didn’t do any work on the swing and the ball sort of just jumped off the club head. If you’re anything like I am, I can guarantee you took a nice sized divot on that swing and that’s something you’re more likely to miss out on the further up you play the ball in your stance. In the end, try them both out and see what feels more comfortable for you, and if it’s mine, send me an e-mail or something so I know I should start writing a book…
Moving away from that tangent, we’re on to our final part of the list. It’s time to talk about the actual swing you’re going to be making. But one disclaimer first… The swing is complicated, or at least it can be if you go out on the internet looking at hundreds of different coaches and pros, each telling you something different or telling you how one small change could give you 20 yards of extra distance or something. I don’t want to do that to you. In fact, I don’t want to tell you anything besides how to achieve solid, consistent, ball striking because honestly, that is what you really need to score well. It doesn’t matter if you can hit an 8 iron 130 yards or 150 yards. In the end, if you have good ball striking your score will be much better off because your swing will be reliable and consistent. Plain and simple. Glad that’s over, now for the actual swing.(For real this time)
Think of the entire golf swing as a circle. It starts next to the ball, from there half of the circle is made on the backswing, and the other half on the follow through (it’s not perfect, but just pretend). On the takeaway, keep the angle in your hips that we talked about earlier and focus on letting your spine rotate. This will turn your body into a coiled spring which is where you’ll get your power from. Continue to bring the club up to a comfortable level above your head, although I would personally not recommend going past 180 degrees from where you started just because that will cause your whole body to start turning.
Now let’s talk about the way back down. On the backswing, we can think of our swing having produced an arc. Now as you return to the ball you want to retrace that same arc. In other words, the plane that you took the club away at is the same plane that you want to follow as you go to strike the ball. If you take the club away on one arc and then return to strike the ball following a different arc you going to get shots that are either offline or curve in the air or both and neither of those are our goals. shipsticks.com
So, we’re following the path we laid out on the backswing as we return to the ball, now we need to “transfer our weight”. Remember earlier when I told you to put 55% of your weight on your forward foot, well now I’m about to explain why. This is an easy way to help facilitate transferring your weight, which sounds scary, but it is honestly just putting the power of your body into the ball. As you come down you want the forward side of your hip to slid towards your target just slightly which will make your point of contact in front of the ball. When you do this correctly, not only do you get power from the turn of your spine but you also receive momentum from your entire body moving forward which is can only lead to more distance on your shots. You’ll know you’re doing this correctly when you start to see your divots in front of where the ball was positioned. This is sometimes referred to as compression and it happens when you make contact with the ball first before you strike the ground. This does two things, it prevents you from losing power to the ground but more importantly, it stops the ground from changing the path of your club head (which would change your ball flight) until after the ball is already in the air. All of this means that you have a lot fewer things that will cause inconsistencies in your swings, which means, better overall ball striking.
You now know everything about the basics of hitting better irons. As always there are little nuances that you can use to tweak your performance but they’re not all incredibly important. With these few tips and a little practice, you’ll be well on your way to scoring better by hitting crisp, consistent irons. Irons may not get the glory in the end but if you think of how often do you drive the green on a 400-yard hole? Or how often you reach a 550-yard par five in two? You’ll start to realize that you can’t score well if you don’t hit good irons on these holes. Irons are like the putting of the long game because on almost every hole you will hit an iron shot and if you can’t consistently place iron shots in the right location you are only halting your own improvement. So next time you have an afternoon off, hop over to the range, leave the driver on the back burner and fire some iron shots down range. You will be amazed at how quickly your scores will drop once you can make 150-yard iron shots snuggle up on the green consistently. This is where my work ends and your practice begins. And so, until next time, enjoy the links.