2005: Features - Real-life lessons with the driver

The driver is golf’s romance club.

We love drivers, we hate drivers. We can’t live without them, we are very emotional about them, we believe they will change our lives.

Maybe they will.

“Drive for show and putt for dough” should have disappeared years ago from the golf lexicon. Driving is more important than putting because it determines how the remainder of most par-4 and par-5 holes will be played.

So I decided to question several club professionals and teaching professionals about driving the ball. The issue: What are some real-life tips – learned on the course rather than the practice range – that relate to driving the golf ball?

For example, veteran pro J.D. Ebersberger said golfers should pick a driver that doesn’t go left and a 3-wood that does (for righthanders). In other words, use a driver that allows you to swing as forcefully as you desire without the threat of a duck hook. If you need to hit a draw off the tee, use your 3-wood.

Fred Couples was one of the first touring pros to talk about this philosophy. Many years ago, Couples found an old 3-wood with a whippy shaft that allowed him to easily draw the ball. Meanwhile, his driver had a much stiffer shaft and was virtually impossible to hook.

“Why fight it?” Ebersberger asked. “It’s a huge advantage to feel absolutely confident that you can hit the longest clubs in your bag just the way you want.”

I started my driver quest during the week of the 2005 Nissan Open. This marked a special anniversary for Pat Fitzsimons, because it was exactly 30 years ago in the same tournament that he recorded his only PGA Tour victory.

Many avid golfers believe the best teachers are the ones who have played at a high level and understand the everyday challenges of the game. Fitzsimons lives in an elite instructional neighborhood that is reserved for former PGA Tour winners and those who, for at least a moment in time, were among the very best golfers on the planet.

Today he is director of instruction at The Palms Golf Club, where he and 38 other professional golfers are dues-paying members.

In the grill room at The Palms, the discussion turned to drivers. Popping in and out of the conversation were other well-known PGA pros, including former Met Section (New York) Professional of the Year Rick Vershure, former PGA National Professional of the Year Jerry Mowlds, Palms head pro Frank Heinen, PGA Tour and Champions Tour winner Bob Wynn, and two pros who won both the stroke-play and match-play championships of the Aloha Section (Hawaii) – Ebersberger and Dick McLean.

The result was a series of suggestions, observations and insights on driving. All were presented from a skilled player’s point of view:

Fitzsimons has thought long and dutifully about the golf swing. He believes all golfers can be taught one basic swing – a swing that will work, with adjustments during the setup, for virtually any type of shot.

In other words, a driver swing isn’t that different from a mid-iron swing. “It is absolutely the same swing,” Fitzsimons declared. “The position of the ball is at the bottom of the arc, or slightly forward of the bottom of the arc.”

This one-swing philosophy is intriguing in today’s environment of big-headed titanium drivers and skyscraper-length tees. Many modern instructors advocate what amounts to a separate driver swing, featuring a sweeping motion in which the golfer feels as if he is hitting the ball on the upswing. Maximum arm extension, both away from the ball and through impact, is a key element of this method.

That arm extension worries Fitzsimons. “You want people to get their arms fully extended, but, if they hit up on it, they don’t always get their arms extended. I think the reliance on one swing is a much more consistent way to go.”

Because today’s tees are as long as 4 inches, it is important for every golfer to know his swing and know the consequences of teeing the ball too high.

“The steeper your swing, the lower you need to tee it,” said Fitzsimons, using former Masters champion George Archer as a prominent example of a player who teed the ball extremely low.

“The more you bend over, the lower you need to tee it, too. Just because your buddy tees it way up in the air, that doesn’t mean you have to do it. Teeing it high isn’t the answer for everyone.”

More Fitzsimons: Those who insist on teeing the ball at a maximum height should consider this thought at address: Posture, posture, posture. Standing taller on a drive can be very important for some golfers.

Heinen recalled an old adage about teeing the ball lower to hit a fade or higher to create a draw.“It’s still true today,” he said. “Teeing the ball higher will promote a hook. The higher you tee the ball, the more it will round out your swing.”

Heinen also recommended that golfers pay close attention to the firmness of the turf and the height of the grass in the teeing area. Both can make a big difference in what length tee a player chooses.

Mowlds added an observation about swing plane. His personal driver is 47 inches long, and he said he sometime sprescribes an extra-long driver to golfers with a steep swing plane.

“That will round them out right away,” he said. “It’s difficult to be steep with a driver that long. For all golfers, swinging a long ball retriever is a good drill for achieving the proper plane. I recommend it all the time.”

Vershure talked about a punch-drive specialty shot that seems to be gaining popularity.

“You kick up the turf, or gash the ground with your spikes,” he said. “Then you place your ball on this turf tee. You don’t use a regular tee. You stand right on top of the ball (closer to the ball) and hit a trap (“holding on” to the club with a follow through that feels “down the line”). It will never hook, I promise you.”

Don’t be afraid to hit a deep-faced titanium driver off the fairway, Fitzsimons added. “I can take these modern drivers and hit them off the ground, no problem,” he said. “You lose power because you’re not hitting the hot spot on the club, but the ball still goes surprisingly far.”

Try to find two favorite drivers with two different lofts. Sometimes, particularly when playing in a strong wind, it is easier to bring the trajectory down by switching drivers.

It may sound elementary, but another way to hit a lower drive is to tee the ball at a lower height.

McLean observed that golfers often can find older drivers that perform quite nicely. The ceiling on driver performance has remained unchanged since 1998, when the U.S. Golf Association first enacted legislation to limit spring-like effect in driver faces.

Despite trying several new drivers, McLean still uses his trusty Callaway Big Bertha II driver with a stock shaft. And the old TaylorMade 360 is still a legendary driver.

Wynn talked about the necessity of being creative with the driver. “Learn to hit all kinds of different shots,” he said. “Learn to hit it high and low.”

This figures, coming from a guy who regularly teed his ball on a pencil while playing the PGA Tour. “I used to carry a box of pencils in my bag,” Wynn said. “I would pull the eraser out of the end and place the ball in that metal cup. The sharp point of the pencil would go in the ground.”

Wynn taught the shot to many golfers, although his evangelism ended after funnyman Harvey Korman tried the shot. Korman took a mighty swing, and the pencil flew out of the ground like a missile. It embedded itself in his face, not far from one of his eyes.

“I decided right then that the pencil trick wasn’t such a great idea,” Wynn said.

Anyway, using a pencil as a tee is now illegal under a rule enacted in 2004. Under the new rule, anything used as a tee must be designed as a tee.

On the range, do not pound ball after ball with the same club. “I like short iron-long iron-driver,” Fitzsimons said. “I like the idea you are moving from one club to another, just like a real round of golf.

“What you get is a sense of making the same turn even if the ball position is changing. I highly recommend this.”

When Fitzsimons won the Nissan Open, then called the Los Angeles Open, he used a Walter Hagen laminated wood driver. He bought the club in the golf shop at Salem (Ore.) Golf Club.

“Looking back, we realize that buying clubs off the rack wasn’t such a bad deal,” he said. “I would never buy a driver without trying it first. This isn’t easy today, because many shops don’t stock a lot of clubs. Regardless, I think it is very important to try before you buy.”

“I definitely have people visualize holes they are having trouble with,” Fitzsimons said. “When they’re hitting balls on the range, I tell them to picture a tough driving hole. The whole swing changes so quickly with an added degree of tension, and visualization helps recreate the whole experience.

“Things get too relaxed on the range. That’s why I call it the nonconfrontational arena. And that’s why there are so many pros on the driving range.”

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