Tip #20: Perfect Your Alignment

Of all the things you do before you play a golf shot, setting your alignment is the most important. And certainly, it requires the closest attention.

After all, for 99 percent of the shots you play, your grip, posture, and overall stance will fall into place. Once you've mastered these things, you don't really have to concentrate on them. But for each and every shot you play you will have a different target requiring careful and precise aim. Good alignment takes work.

Perfect Your Alignment
On a tee shot, an error in alignment of five degrees can usually mean a ball in the rough rather than the fairway.

Unfortunately, many players fail to realize this. They may think about alignment once or twice during a round, but more often they simply swagger into position and swing.

Consider what can happen when you're inattentive to your alignment. Remember, you're trying to hit a 1.68-inch diameter ball a distance of 250 yards or more into a 4.25-inch diameter hole, with a clubface moving at a speed of 90 miles an hour or so. On a tee-shot, an error in alignment of five degrees can usually mean a ball in the rough rather than the fairway. An error of 10 degrees may mean a hazard, a lost ball, or out-of-bounds.

Alignment is my No. 1 priority when I begin to play a golf shot. And because accurate alignment is a demanding and sometimes elusive quality, I try to simplify the aiming process as much as possible. I focus everything on my clubface.

Once I've decided upon the type of shot I want to play, the first move I make is to set my club position behind the ball, so that it's facing squarely at the target. Holding the club in my right hand only, I approach the ball from behind, sighting up and down that imaginary line that extends from the ball to my target. I then assume a wide-open stance, half facing the target, still tracking that line from the target to the ball. At this point, I set my club down behind the ball and swivel the clubface minutely back and forth until it's in exact position, facing dead at the target. Only after this is set do I proceed with the other elements of the grip and address.

I think this clubface method keeps alignment simple. After all, it's far easier to orient yourself to something right next to you than to try to aim at something two or three hundred yards away.

Another way I keep things simple is to play virtually all of my shots from a square stance. Once I have my clubface aligned squarely to the target, I simply set my body so that my feet, knees, hips, and shoulders all align exactly parallel to that imaginary line that extends from my clubface to the target. Note that I do not align my body at the target because of the fact that I am standing to the side of the ball. I must therefore aim at a point just inside the target. This is why I align my body parallel to that clubface-to-target line.

The old image of the railroad tracks is a good one, where the outside track is the clubface-to-target line, and the inside track is the line along which you align your body. Combine this square alignment with a square grip, and you'll make life easy for yourself. You'll eliminate a slew of bad tendencies while giving yourself the best chance of hitting the ball consistently solid and straight.

A closed stance can lead to hooks, pushed, and fat shots, an open stance to slices, pulls, and topped shots. Any time you deviate from a square alignment, you create what Ken Venturi calls "angles" and you introduce extra wrinkles and complications in a game that is already sufficiently difficult. The only time to play a full shot with a closed or open stance is when you're in some sort of trouble or are trying to maneuver the ball in some way.

It's a good idea to have a friend or, better yet, a PGA professional check your alignment from time to time. Often your stance can look and feel square to you but your hips and shoulders will be several degrees off line. Traditional instruction suggests you set a club down along your toe line to check alignment. But I don't agree with that for the simple reason that I flare out my left toe slightly at address. This brings the toe back slightly from that parallel alignment. If I were to lay a club down on my toe line, it would appear that I was aimed left when in reality I'm square. So to avoid such confusion, I feel it's wiser to lay the club down along the heels.