Tip #12: You Can Spin the Ball Back

There's an old story about the budding golfer who asks the old pro how he can get more backspin on his five-iron shots.

"How far do you hit your five-iron?" asks the pro.

"About 110 yards," says the pupil, to which the pro replies, "Then why do you want to make it come back?"

You Can Spin the Ball Back
The harder and more crisply you can apply the club to the ball, the faster you'll make the ball spin back.

The fact is, if you hit your five-iron only 110 yards, you do not have the strength or ability to make your iron shots spin back. If, however, you can hit a five-iron at least 160 yards, then that suck-back shot you've seen me and other pros hit on television or at tournaments is definitely within your capability.

It's a wonderful shot to have, particularly when you're playing hard greens, or when you need to get close to a pin that's positioned just beyond the lip of a front bunker. And the way I see it, if I can spin the ball back and they can't, I have a big advantage on my opponents-they can only make the ball go in from the front of the hole, while I can use either the front door or the back!

The gallery loves to watch these shots, and I admit that I do too. One of my favorites came in the Italian Open many years ago. They were offering a Lamborghini Countach that year for the first player who could make a hole in one on any of the par-threes. When I teed off for my second round, no one had done the deed.

At the second hole I hit an eight-iron that landed 15 feet past the pin, took one hop, and sucked back straight into the hole. Boy, was I excited. Fast cars are one of my greatest loves, and at the time I had never driven a Lamborghini.

Well, when I got to the clubhouse, I was informed that a young Italian club pro had aced one of the other par-threes 10 minutes before I had made mine. That $100,000 car had pulled out of my pocket just as quickly as it had parked. And what did I get for making the second ace? A leather carry-all!

But I still have the memory of that hole in one, and of countless other shots that I've been able to hit into or near the hole because of an ability to apply extra backspin.

To play the shot, you need to have a combination of factors working in your favor, only one of which is your swing. First, it's absolutely vital that you have a firm, clean lie. The ball can be sitting on tightly clipped fairway, on hardpan, even a good lie in a bunker, but that's about it. Don't even think about making the ball back up from the rough.

Second, the shot should not be a long one. Since you need a fair amount of loft, don't try this shot with any club longer than a 7-iron. Third, the green should be firm -- not hard like a sidewalk, but firm. If it's hard, you'll be lucky to keep any shot on it. If it's wet, the ball will just plug. What you want is a green that is soft enough to accept the shot yet firm enough to let the spin take effect. It also helps if the green slopes toward you. If it slopes away, you'll have no chance of backing the ball uphill.

Wind conditions also play a part. The shot is much easier when played into a wind. A headwind will increase your backspin. But don't try it in a tailwind, which will propel the ball forward.

Finally, be aware that certain balls enhance your ability to apply backspin. Any wound golf ball or any two-piece ball with a cover designed to give maximum backspin is better than any solid-center or hard-covered ball.

So if you have the ideal equipment working for you, you have a clean lie, and you're hitting upwind at a firm green that leans in your favor, your chances of backing up your shot are very good. Now all you have to do is hit it.

That, I'm afraid, is easier said than done. Basically, backspin comes from hand speed through impact. The harder and more crisply you can apply the club to the ball, the faster you'll make the ball spin back.

It's also important to hit slightly down on the ball. One of the reasons I'm able to apply so much spin is that I have a fairly upright swing which enables me to hit down rather steeply on the ball. When I want to, I'm able to make impact with the top-back quadrant of the ball. I actually squeeze the ball down against the turf, applying enormous friction and backspin. I don't take much of a divot; it's more like a crease in the turf or a slackening down of the grass.

To get this sort of impact, you have to play the ball a bit back in your stance. But not a lot. Some people think you should position the ball well back, as you would for a punch or low shot. That, however, just produces another low shot that may skid and stop; it won't suck back. Instead, you have to play it just a bit farther back than normal, so that you can pinch the ball rather than crashing down on it. My best advice is to experiment with your ball position. When that pinch begins to be a smother, you've got the ball too far back.

You must grip the club more firmly for this shot, because although it demands fast hand speed, it doesn't require a lot of wrist action. The swing must be aggressive with the entire body. Keeping the wrists firm, swing forward forcefully with your arms, and lead through impact with your legs and lower body moving toward the target. Strive for that pinching impact, with as little divot as possible.

After a while you'll know by the feel of the hit whether you've put "juice" on the ball. It's a great feeling and a great sight to see the ball land past the pin and come back close to the hole.

One other tip on this shot, something I learned on the final hole of the 1986 PGA Championship. Bob Tway and I were tied when we came to that hole. After he put his second shot in the right-hand bunker, I saw a chance to birdie the hole for victory. From a good lie in the fairway, I hit a wedge shot that landed next to the hole but had so much backspin it sucked right off the front of the green and into the collar of rough. Bob went on to hole that miraculous bunker shot for a birdie of his own, and with my ball in the thick grass I had almost no chance of tieing him.

So take a tip from someone who has learned the hard way. When you have all the conditions going for you, take enough club to land your ball past the pin.

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