Apochryphal story about Lee Trevino:
[Ed. Note: For those of you who don’t know, Trevino was hit by lightning on a golf course once in the mid 1970s.] During a thunderstorm in which play has been suspended in a PGA event, a greenskeeper sees a man standing out in the middle of a fairway. He gets in his cart and, as he approaches the man, sees that he is holding a golf club in the air. The greenskeeper arrives and sees that it is Lee Trevino holding a One-Iron in the air. “What are you doing Mr. Trevino? Don’t you know play has been called because of the rain and thunder? And why are you holding that club up in the air?” Trevino replies, “Because not even God can hit a One-Iron.”
Story told by Fred Couples:
Couples and Tom Watson became friends on the tour, and Watson invited him to stay with him and play at his home in Kansas City. Couples arrived and after a day or two of play he wanted to ask Watson a question, but was afraid of the answer. He wanted to know if Watson found it hard to hit his 3-iron. At the same time, Couples did not want to ask because it would suggest that he did have trouble (which he did), and if Watson didn’t, he’d feel like less of a golfer. As Couples tells the story, he got up the courage, asked, and was greatly relieved to hear that Watson, too, had trouble hitting his 3-iron.
…but Jack Nicklaus does, and he can use it.
Jack Nicklaus explains in his “Lesson Tee” that his teacher, Jack Grout, believed that what separated the best golfers from their competitors was their ability to hit high long irons into greens on Championship courses and have the ball land softly. (You might take the time to look at that part of the book, if you have it.) Think of Nicklaus’ shot into the par-5 15th Hole in the 1986 Masters, which allowed him to eagle the hole. Or think of Nicklaus’ 1-iron on the par 3 17th at Pebble Beach in the last round of the 1972 US Open, which hit the stick and stopped a foot away.
That kind of golf at a Championship level is largely a thing of the past. A golfer hitting a 290-yard drive on a 460 yard hole has 170 yards left, which is about a 7-iron for them. Which is sad in some way. But back-in-the-day, Nicklaus averaged about 263 yards off the tee (“Golf My Way”), which was long for the balata ball. That left a long-iron into the long par 4s. In fact, if one looks at several aspects of his swing, one can tell that it is built to hit high, lofted shots with long clubs. (We may discuss that in greater detail at some point down the line, for what it can teach us about the swing – no one of which is necessarily best.)
The Geometry of Striking a Ball
Why is it hard to hit a 1-iron? (And other things we need to know about hitting the ball…)
It turns out that a similar question is, why does a driver hit “off the deck” always slice?
The answers are fairly simple once we have a picture in our mind of how a club hits a ball.
If you want to hit the ball in the air, the club face must strike the ball below its equator. If you don’t, no matter what else you do, the ball will go bouncing down the fairway along the ground, “topped.”
The diagram below, of the soccer ball which we worked with in part one of this lesson, illustrates this. The northern hemisphere is colored differently, and it is rotated a bit so that one can conceptualize clearly the northern hemisphere of the ball. If one strikes the ball in that hemisphere (imagining a point of impact – a picture we can complicate in the notes ), the ball will be “topped.”
It will roll along the ground or bounce along the ground. It will not fly through the air. On an elevated tee, when hit off a tee, it might appear to do so. That is only because someone dropped the floor out on the ground, so to speak.
One of the functions of “loft” on a club is to enable the golfer to strike the ball with the club face below its equator. Yes, indeed. When you hit a golf ball, you are, if the ball is not topped, in some sense sliding the club face under the ball. The greater the loft, the easier it is for the club to do this given that it is coming at the ball on a downward path or path level to the ground.
Looked at slightly differently, the more loft on a club, it can strike the ball farther below its equator. A lofted club can strike it fairly far below the equator. A driver has trouble striking it below its equator almost at all, except when teed up.
Hard to Hit
Let’s leave aside for now hitting the driver off the deck. Why is a one-iron hard to hit? The reason is now easy to see. It has a fairly flat face, and you can’t get that face to strike the ball much, if at all, below its equator. If you have a blade type iron, where there is not much sole-weighting, the problem is more difficult. The lower the center of gravity of the club striking the ball, the more upward lift it applies to the ball. The higher the center of gravity relative to the point at which club and ball meet, the less upward lift that the club applies to the left.
The diagrams show this. It shows a 5 iron hitting a ball. The loft is what allows the club to come in below its equator. One can easily imagine, and the appendix will show, that a 10 degree loft (of a driver) makes it difficult for the club to strike the ball much, if at all, below its equator. On the other hand, a club with a 50 degree loft – a modern gap wedge – can come in well below the equator.
That is why one can “hit down” on a wedge, delofting it some but allowing the face to have a downward direction at impact to create backspin. On the other hand, with a 5 iron or clubs with less loft, it becomes a very risk proposition to hit down on the ball unless the club is teed up. This geometry explains another aphroism one often hears from professionals: off the tee, hit the ball on the upswing. Why? First, they can be sure of hitting the ball below its equator off the tee, so they “can.” Second, if one is coming up on the ball, one tends to minimize the backspin effect of striking a golf ball below its equator. This is why you will note that, when people look to fit themselves to a ball, they are looking at spin rates for their drivers that are 1/3 to 1/4 their spin rate with an iron. They want, in general, the ball hit with a driver both to fly farther and to roll more when it hits the fairway. In Tom Watson’s discussion of the 1-iron below, he say — not surprisingly we now see — that he did not like a 1-iron in general but often used one off the tee in the British Open, a tournament in which one might infer he had a bit of success. Why do you suppose this is true? It is simple. If one can tee up a ball, it is much easier to ensure you hit below its equator.
Easier to Hit
You might be asking, then, a natural question. Why is a hybrid with the same exact loft as a 1-iron easier to hit than the hybrid? It’s a good question. In fact, this question has made me wonder why professional golfers carry one or two or three irons. My own view is that it is some macho view that making something harder to do for yourself, even if it means you don’t do it as well on average, somehow shows you are a better golfer. Not so. You are as good as your score.
A hybrid is easier to hit than an iron with the same loft because its lower center of gravity helps “lift” the ball. In fact, with hybrids and woods, the design of the club puts the center of gravity of the clubhead well behind and below of where the center of gravity would be on an iron with the same loft. I often wondered when younger how irons and woods developed as separate ways to strike a golf ball.
By having the extra depth of the club head in a wood or hybrid, one can move the center of gravity both down and backward (see point A in the diagram compared to point B). As we see in the diagram, this allows one to get a lower center of gravity while having that center of gravity aimed roughly at the point of impact during the swing. If additional weight were put in an iron with the same loft to lower its center of gravity, the center of gravity would go down but not be pushed back. The result would be a tendency to increase back spin — which is not generally the goal with low-lofted clubs. The design is really quite a clever trick, which someone realized a long time ago when they designed woods differently than irons. One club (wood/hybrid) is built for a sweeping, running, shot; the other (an iron) is designed to increase spin, which helps with accuracy both in terms of direction and stopping ability once the ball hits a green.
Off the Deck
It is, to my way of thinking, pretty much silly to hit a driver off the deck. I find it hard to believe (mathematically) that anything but a magical strike of the ball will allow you to hit the driver farther, taking into account direction for sure, than a 3-wood or a 4-wood. The stop-action photograph of a driver hitting a ball on the tee, at impact, has been marked so that you can see just how far below the ball the bottom of the club travels in order to hit the ball just below its “equator.” Given this picture, it is not difficult to see that the probability of mischief far outweighs the chance of hitting a hero shot. More likely, you will chunk it or hit a big banana ball. Why?
Leave my beliefs out of the equation.
We have already described why it is harder to hit the driver off the deck. There isn’t much room to hit it below its equator because of the low loft. Why, however, does the driver off the deck almost always slice or move right? We go back to the first part of this lesson. If the club is coming in across the target line (over the top), it is impossible to imagine hitting it below its equator. You won’t slice it; you’ll top it. (This in part depends on the fact that the golfer is on the other side of the target line from the direction the club is coming into the ball.) You’re only hope then is to come inside of the target line.
“I have one superstition: I won’t use a yellow tee. Yellow is the color of cowardice. I’ll hit a 3-wood off the deck first.”
As we learned, if the club is coming inside of the target line, it will spin the ball right or left depending on the direction of the face of the club relative to its path. In practice, to get hook spin, the club face has to move across the ball at impact from inside to outside; it is not enough for the club to be crossing the target line from inside to outside. If the clubface, even if coming inside of the target line, is moving to the inside of the path of the club’s direction, it will naturally cause the ball to spin in the opposite direction. In the case of a driver, the natural tendency of a golfer is to accentuate the loft of the club to ensure maximum lift. That gets the face to strike the ball farther below its equator; it also leaves the face open relative to the path of the club at impact, cause slice, or left to right, spin.
This is a point worth emphasizing from the first part of this lesson. The spin one puts on the ball at impact depends upon the face’s angle relative to the direction of the clubhead. You can be coming from inside to out and still hit a fade or slice. In fact, you will often see golfers who hit a fairly straight ball and, if you watch closely, it will trail off to the right at the end. They have put some slice spin on the ball at impact, ever so slightly, as they come inside to out. The in-to-out clubhead path keeps the ball moving on a fairly straight path, but a slight “cutting action” of the clubface on the ball gives it that slight sidespin.
So if you must hit a driver off the deck, don’t even think about trying to hit it straight. The chance that you will hit it fat or top it will go up several fold.
What does this teach us in general?
We did not just learn about a one-iron and hitting a driver off the deck. We learned some important principles about what we can do with a variety of clubs, depending on their loft and the type of shot we want to hit.
The general principle we learn here is that you must have the club face contact the ball below its equator for it to rise.
It is easier to do this with a club with greater loft, because you are, imperceptibly but clearly, able to slide the leading edge of the club underneath that equator.
It is almost impossible to get low-lofted clubs below the equator unless they are on a tee. When on a tee, you can often put hook spin on them if you hit the ball above its equator, producing a low, pull-hook, line-drive.
You can hit down on a lofted club but it is very difficult to do with a club without much loft unless it is teed up.
It will be harder to hit low-lofted clubs with hook spin, unless they are teed up. Conversely, when hitting low-lofted clubs off the fairway, it is relatively easier to put slice spin on them.
The limiting principle for applying hook spin to a lofted club occurs when the downward strike of the club begins to be more pronounced than the sideways strike. Both are present, but vary in degree as the loft of the club and length of the shaft (and therefore angle of attack on the ball) vary.
Where’s Your One-Iron?
Hitting a one-iron or a driver off the deck is for either the courageous or foolhardy. You decide for yourself.
Here is what Tom Watson had to say the year he was honored at the Memorial Golf Tournament:
“Tom Weiskopf was awfully good, but Jack was awfully good with the 1-iron, and he ruined more people’s games because they had to be like Jack. They had to have a 1-iron rather than the hybrid,” said Watson, who won eight majors and famously got the best of Nicklaus in the Duel in the Sun to win the 1977 British Open at Turnberry.
“When I grew up I had a hybrid in my bag when I was a kid. We had this Wilson 3½ wood, had a sole plate. It was beautiful. And I used that until I wanted to be like Jack, and I had to hit a 1 iron. I could never hit a 1-iron. There was only one guy that could hit it, and it was Jack.
“So he ruined a lot of people’s games, and maybe that was part of his thought process: I’m the only guy that can hit a 1-iron, everybody is trying to be like me, and that’s good.”
Watson’s game wasn’t exactly ruined, as he was smart enough to know soon enough that he couldn’t hit the 1-iron. But the club did help him a few times.
“Actually, I only hit the 1-iron off the tees most of the time, and it helped me at the British Open,” said Watson, who won five Opens. “I used the 1-iron off the tee a lot over there.”
Aside from teaching us a bit about ball flight, clubface position, and clubhead direction at impact, what else have we learned? We have learned that you should leave your 1-iron, and 2-iron, and probably 3-iron, in the garage.  For forever more. And so should the professionals. (The hybrids will also enable you to get through taller grass in the rough easier.)
This type of effect that leads to what professionals call a “double cross” — they line up for a fade or draw, and end up hitting a hook or slice — because while their club path was on track, the angle of the clubface at impact relative to that path left them high and dry – left or right. We’ve all done it. We think we’ve set up to hit a slice around the tree….and we pull hook it way to the left of the tree.
Impact by a Sand Wedge: