The fairways at Merion Golf Club are anything but spacious. (Hallowell/Getty Images)
By Jorge Parada, Head Instructor, TOURAcademy TPC Sawgrass
As with all U.S. Opens, there will be a premium placed on hitting fairways this week at Merion. The course may be the shortest in recent U.S. Open history, but the fairways will be just as tight and the rough every bit as long and punishing as before. Some fairways will be as narrow as 24, 25 yards--just wide enough to hold an 18-wheeler--and much like last year’s venue, The Olympic Club in San Francisco, they will also have a lot of slope and curves to them. This will require players to shape the ball around the doglegs or into the slopes to keep the ball in play.
Don’t be surprised if a few of the longer, less accurate hitters crank it out there as far as they can and take their chances wedging it out of the rough, but most players will try to position the ball shorter in the fairway and avoid the rough at all costs. This will afford them the ability to hit their approach shots with more spin and height into Merion’s smallish greens.
For the amateur golfers to hit more fairways, they need to first work on their centeredness of contact and avoid the mishits that so often plague them off the tee. The player who strikes the ball in the center of the clubface consistently has much greater control over their ball than the player who hits it all over the face. In robot testing with a 100 miles per hour driver swing, contact one-half inch off the center of the face, toward the toe, resulted in about 23 yards of hook, whereas impact one-half inch in the other direction (toward the heel) generated 16 yards of fade, or slice. And this was with a neutral swing path!
Most amateurs tend to contact the ball toward the heel, or their clubhead path is so far out-to-in that they slice the ball anyway, even when they locate the center of the face. If your tendency is to slice the ball or hit it toward the heel, try the following drill: Place a headcover down just to the outside of your ball and behind it, and make several swings, contacting the ball each time without hitting the headcover. Try this during practice or on the range prior to playing a particularly demanding course. It not only encourages you to hit the center of the face more often, but it gets you to swing the club more consistently from the inside by keeping your arms closer to your body on the downswing.
Another thing I do with my students is spray the face of their driver white with Dr. Scholl’s Foot Powder Spray. This will show you exactly where you’re hitting the ball in relation to the center of the face, and the powder stays on for two or three shots.
In addition to the point of contact, you also need to pay attention to the starting direction of the ball, which is controlled primarily by the clubface and where it’s pointing at impact. Most golfers are only concerned with where the ball finishes, which is why they get very tense and end up guiding the ball. Forget about the outcome and aim the face at an intermediate target where you want the ball to start, not finish, and let your natural swing take over from there. If you do that, your clubface control at impact is going to be much better throughout the round, and you’ll hit more fairways.
Finally, I’d recommend that you play with your natural shot shape, or the swing you brought to the dance that day. If you’re hitting a 20-yard slice, don’t suddenly try to hit the ball dead straight because the hole is narrow. Aim the face at an intermediate target 20 yards left of the center of the fairway and let your slice bring the ball back into play. Conversely, if you’re hitting a 10-yard draw, aim the face 10 yards right of your target and bring it in from right to left.
If your shot shape isn’t so predictable, then hit 10 drives on the practice range beforehand to see what the ball is doing. If most of your drives are fading 10 yards, then play a 10-yard fade that day.
One of the players I teach on the PGA TOUR , Sweden’s David Lingmerth (T2nd at THE PLAYERS Championship), recently qualified for the U.S. Open by following this strategy. In the morning round he was missing all of his drives to the right, but rather than fight it he simply aimed farther left than usual and played for the fade the remainder of his round. He still shot 2 under. After the round he was able to fix what was ailing his swing, and he went out and shot 7 under in the afternoon (9 under overall) to qualify. David was able to drive the ball accurately and stay in contention in the morning because he adjusted for his ball flight; he didn’t try to fix it right there, which many amateurs do.
Just because the fairway is tighter than usual, don’t change what you normally do. Maintain the same swing keys, the same rhythm and tempo, and the same pre-shot routine. Adjust for your ball flight if you have to, but try to keep things as normal and consistent as possible. If you do this, you should find yourself in the short grass more often.
Jorge Parada is Head Instructor at the TOURAcademy TPC Sawgrass. To book a lesson or learn more about the TOURAcademy Golf Schools, go to www.touracademy.com