The ability to “work” the golf ball is one key difference between average golfers and low-handicappers. To “work” the ball means to intentionally hit shots that curve in a one direction or the other, to play shots with extra height or keep the ball low when needed, and generally control the spin, trajectory and shape of your shots.
It's advanced stuff, but within every golfer's grasp. And no matter your current skill level, being able to work the ball in at least one direction can pay big dividends.
Before learning the technique needed to play these specialty shots, you must understand what causes the ball to curve in mid-air. This tutorial provides the easy-to-understand basics of sidespin:
Now let's apply this knowledge to the setup and swing techniques used to play the four standard shots in every shotmaker's repertoire: The fade, the draw, the high shot and the low shot. (Descriptions are for right-handed golfers).
Fade (soft left-to-right curve): The fade is your go-to shot off the tee of most par 4 and par 5 holes that dogleg to the right. A fade will follow the bend of the fairway, giving you a better chance of hitting and holding the short grass. The fade is also handy for playing approach shots when the flag is located on the green's right side.
- Set up for a fade by aiming the clubface at the target – the spot where you want the ball to finish.
- Place your feet slightly open (aligned left) in relation to the clubface. The shoulders and hips should line up with your feet.
- Your swing should follow the alignment of your body, on a path left of the target.
You may find it helpful to stand a little closer to the ball, creating a more upright swing plane, and to keep the back of your left hand pointed at the target through impact. This prevents the right hand from rolling over the left, closing the clubface too soon and eliminating the left-to-right sidespin which generates a fade.
Draw (soft right-to-left curve): The opposite of a fade, use the draw on dogleg-left holes and to reach pins on the green's left side.
To hit a draw, simply flip the instructions for a fade:
- Set up by aiming the clubface at the target.
- Place your feet slightly closed (aligned right) in relation to the clubface. The shoulders and hips are in line with your feet.
- Swing along your body line, right of the target.
Standing a few inches farther from the ball will create the flatter swing plane more conducive to hitting a draw. Also, focus on rolling the right hand over the left through the impact zone to impart the proper sidespin.
High shot: There are numerous instances where it's helpful to launch the ball very high in the air – hitting over trees, trying to stop an iron shot on a small portion of green, or when you're looking to take advantage of a tailwind for extra distance.
There's nothing complicated about the physics here. Hitting the ball high means utilizing as much of the club's loft as possible.
- Set up with the ball slightly forward of its normal position for the club you're using. For example, if it's a 6-iron, play it about an inch to the left of your usual ball position.
- Make sure the hands aren't too far ahead of the ball as this will effectively reduce the club's loft.
- If the situation allows, open your stance and play a fade. Fades fly higher and land more softly than draws or straight shots.
In addition, stand closer to the ball and concentrate on finishing the swing with your hands high overhead. (Think “high shot, high finish.”)
- At address, the ball should be farther back (to the right) in your stance than normal.
- Set your hands well ahead of the ball to deloft the club.
- A mild draw often works well on low shots. Close the clubface or your stance to add sidespin.
Low shot: Need to hit the ball beneath tree branches, keep it down playing into a headwind, or run the ball onto the green? Follow these rules for hitting it low.
By standing a bit farther from the ball, you'll create a more rounded swing plane that promotes a low, drawing shot. Finish with your hands at or below shoulder height. (Think “low shot, low finish.”)
There you have it – Working the Ball 101. Your setup is the most important element in controlling shots and bending the ball to your will. Master the fundamentals and enjoy the perks that come with being a genuine shotmaker.
How to Work the Golf Ball
In golf, 'working the ball' is the act of intentionally curving your shots in one direction or another. For example, if you are playing a hole that has a dogleg to the left, you could 'work' your shot from right to left in order to fit the ball into the fairway. While working the ball is something that is seen regularly on the PGA Tour, very few amateur golfers even try to work their shots – and even fewer succeed. It is not easy to accurately work the ball into your targets, but it can be very rewarding when executed correctly. By taking the time and effort on the practice range to learn how to work the ball, you will be greatly increasing your chances of shooting good scores out on the course.
One mistake that is made by most amateur golfers is assuming that they aren't good enough to try working the ball from time to time. It doesn't matter what level of golfer you are at the moment, you should always be open to the idea of trying to learn new skills. Even if your standard swing is inconsistent and ineffective most of the time, you can still work on the basics of working the ball. This kind of practice can benefit you because not only will you learn how to create some different shot shapes, but you will also learn a lot about your standard swing. You just might be surprised at how much your normal swing can improve when you decide to alter it slightly in the pursuit of new trajectories.
You don't have to work the ball on every shot in order for this skill to add value to your game. In fact, you will probably only want to work the ball a few times per round, if even that many. Most of the time, your standard shot shape will be appropriate for the hole that is in front of you. Since your standard shot is the one that you hit most consistently, sticking with it as frequently as possible makes sense. Only change your ball flight on the course when it is truly necessary to get your ball close to the target. A big part of the challenge in this area of golf is not only learning how to work the golf ball, but also understanding when the time is right to deploy this new skill.
The golf ball that you play will also have a say in how much you are able to work the golf ball around the course. To work the ball successfully, you need a ball that is able to spin sufficiently to curve in one direction or the other. If you are using a 'hard' golf ball (usually a low-priced model), you might not be able to get enough spin to really work the ball any significant amount. Once you have learned the basic skills involved with working the golf ball, make sure that you are using a ball which will allow you to put your new talents to use.
All of the instruction contained below is based on a right handed golfer. If you happen to play left handed, please be sure to reverse the directions as necessary.
Your Basic Swing Doesn't Change
Learning to work the golf ball doesn't mean you need to learn an entirely new golf swing. In fact, it means quite the opposite. You want to use your regular golf swing – with only some minor modifications – in order to alter your ball flight as desired. By keeping your swing as close to normal as possible, you will make it easier to strike the ball cleanly time after time. Making radical changes to your swing technique on the fly is never going to be a successful strategy, so don't even try it. Start from your basic swinging motion and subtly change how you move the club until you are able to bend the ball in a variety of directions.
There are three basic ways in which you can alter your swing technique in order to work the ball around the course. Each of them can be effective on their own, although you may have to combine two or even all three if you want to achieve dramatic results.
- Change Your Stance. This is probably the most-common method used to work the golf ball. By altering your stance slightly, you can change the path of the club during the swing – and you will then change the spin that is put on the ball as a result. For example, if you wish to hit a right to left hooking ball flight, you will simply close your stance relative to the target line and make your usual swing. Hopefully, the club head will follow the path of your stance, and it will move through impact from inside to out – meaning the ball will receive hook spin. To do the opposite and create a fade, your stance would need to be open to the target line. For many people, adjusting the stance at address is the only change that will be necessary in order to work the ball.
- Change Your Grip. Altering your grip at address to work the ball is an advanced skill, but it can give you a valuable bit of control over your ball flight. Unlike changing your stance, which can dramatically affect your ball flight, changing your grip should be used to make subtle tweaks to the path of the ball in the air. For instance, imagine you normally hit a slight fade with your standard swing. If you would like to hit a small draw for a particular shot, you could simply strengthen your left hand grip and then make your usual swinging motion. The path of your club will be the same as always, but the ball should turn over to the left thanks to your stronger grip. To encourage a fade instead of a draw, you would weaken your grip slightly. Again, this is not meant to be a radical adjustment, but rather one that can be used to gently change the trajectory of the ball.
- Change Your Ball Position. Working the ball can come down to something as simple as changing your ball position prior to the swing. If you wish to work a lower shot in toward the target, play the ball back in your stance. Want to hit it higher? Move the ball forward and give the club time to fully release prior to impact. Also, moving the ball back will promote a draw while playing it forward will encourage a fade. Experiment with different ball positions on the driving range to determine exactly what they do to your ball flight.
It is important to avoid making drastic swing changes any time you want to work the golf ball. The last thing you want to do is ruin your regular swing technique while trying to hit a few curved shots, so be careful when altering your stance, grip, or ball position. Only make these changes when necessary to hit a certain shot, and go right back to your usual technique on the next 'standard' shot that you face.
The Challenge of Practicing on the Range
When you decide to learn how to work the ball, your first step will likely be to head to the practice range. There is nothing wrong with that idea necessarily, but it does come with a significant downside – range balls don't behave like a normal golf ball does as they fly through the air. Range balls are designed for longevity rather than performance, so they are typically made with a hard cover that spins very little. The balls that you hit on the range are unlikely to perform anything like the balls you have in your bag, so the benefit of your practice sessions will be limited. You may think you have learned how to work the ball nicely on the range only to find that your techniques aren't really working at all out on the course.
The best way to go about learning how to work the ball is to practice your mechanics on the range while mostly ignoring the results of the ball flight. You can watch the ball fly through the air, but don't put too much stock in the trajectory that you are seeing in front of you. After you have spent a little bit of time learning the basic techniques like adjusting your stance and your grip, take your new shots out onto the course to test them under real conditions. By working the ball a few times during a casual round of golf, you will start to see the effects of your practice sessions. It will take some time to gain a reasonable amount of control over these shots, but you are only going to learn that control while using a real golf ball.
It is tempting to play for your best score every time you hit the course, but playing a few casual rounds from time to time where you don't worry about the scorecard can be great for your game. If you get the chance, schedule a round sometime soon where you go out by yourself and simply work on hitting new shots. You don't even need to keep score – just challenge yourself to try new shots so you can see what works and what doesn't. Once you break free from the idea of keeping score on every hole, you might be surprised to learn how much fun it can be to play this kind of golf. You will feel more relaxed than you do when playing for a score, and you will be able to let your natural ability come through. When you do come back to the course to play a normal round focused on shooting a good score, you will have learned some lessons and hopefully discovered some new shots that can help you play your best.
It is important to note that you shouldn't ditch the driving range entirely, despite its limitations. No, you aren't going to learn much about your ball flight on the range, but you can still sharpen the mechanics of your swing and make yourself more consistent before you head onto the course. Repetitions are crucial when trying to improve your technique, so feel free to visit the range regularly. As long as you don't expect to see the same ball flight on the course as you do on the range, you can still gain a nice benefit from your time spent on the practice tee.
Knowing When to Work the Ball
Even after you have learned how to work the ball through a period of trial and error on the golf course, you will still have to learn how to apply your new skills properly. It would be a huge mistake to try working the ball various directions on each shot that you hit – that would lead to wild inconsistency and frustrating results. At the same time, there is no point in learning a new skill if you are never going to take it out of the bag. The ability to pick and choose your spots is the big key when it comes to proper use of working the ball.
The following list includes a variety of situations when it would be acceptable to work the ball in order to get closer to your target.
- Get Around a Big Dogleg. On course that have plenty of trees guarding dogleg fairways, you might have no choice but to attempt to work the ball around a corner in order to find the short grass. Hitting the fairway should always be a priority, even if that means going for one of your 'specialty' shots to do so. Take a look at the fairway in front of you and decide if your normal shot can fit the hole as it is laid out, or it you will need to work the ball. Only when you really need to work a specific shot into the fairway should you attempt to do so. Even then, don't attempt anything too risky if there is water or out of bounds guarding the hole. Keeping your ball in play is always the top priority, so pick the option that gives you the best chance at avoiding penalty shots while moving toward the green.
- Limiting the Effect of the Wind. Playing golf is the wind is always a challenge. During the round, you are sure to face a number of uncomfortable shots that require you to rise to the occasion in order to hit the target. If playing on a windy day, you might find the need to work the ball into the breeze to keep it on line. For example, if you are playing a hole where the wind is blowing hard from left to right, you might want to work a draw into that wind to counteract its effects. If you didn't choose to play a draw, you would be forced to aim out to the left and let your ball ride the wind – which is always a difficult option to get just right.
- When You Need to Hit It Close. If it is getting late in your round and you absolutely need a birdie to shoot your goal score or beat your playing partner, go ahead and work the ball in an attempt to get as close to the hole as possible. You might not be able to hit your standard shot and get close to a hole on the far right of the green, for example, but you could maybe work a fade in there to set up a birdie putt. This isn't the kind of strategy that you want to use all throughout a round, but there is a certain point where it makes sense to 'go for broke'.
- Avoid a Big Hazard. As mentioned above, keeping your ball away from major hazards is a big part of shooting a good score. To that end, you can use your skills in working the golf ball to steer clear of things like water hazards and out of bounds stakes. When standing on the tee of a long par four with out of bounds right, for instance, feel free to set up for your draw in order to keep the ball well away from the trouble. Even if you miss in the left rough, you should still have a play toward the green – and you will be much better off than had you blasted the ball out of bounds. There is nothing wrong with playing smart and curving the ball away from trouble from time to time, even if that means taking a conservative path.
As you gain experience working the ball around the course, you will get a better understanding for when you should use this skill, and when you should keep it in the bag. A round of golf is a non-stop barrage of decisions that have to be made one after another. The player who makes the best decisions, and then is able to execute on those decisions, is the one who will come out on top.
Finding the Right Golf Ball
Playing the proper golf ball is a big part of this equation. If you don't have the right ball on the ground in front of you, it really doesn't matter how much you practice – you aren't going to be able to work the ball as you wish. So what is the right golf ball for you? That is a question that no one else can answer for you. It is important that you test out a variety of golf balls until you find the one that proves the right amount of spin – both backspin and sidespin – when coming off your club. Spin rates with specific golf balls can vary wildly from player to player, so you can't just look at the results for other golfers and assume that they will apply to you as well.
If you are playing a golf ball that doesn't spin enough, you won't be able to work the ball successfully. Instead, the ball will fly mostly straight on the majority of your shots, unless you make a particularly bad swing that sends the ball curving dramatically to the left or right. On the other hand, a ball with a spin rate that is too high for your game could fly far off line even when you make a pretty good swing. If you are going to have success working the ball while maintaining control over your standard shots at the same time, you need to find the ball that strikes a perfect balance.
It should be noted that you don't necessarily have to play the most expensive ball on the market to have success working your shots. While the high-end golf balls typically do offer the biggest spin rate, you can still work shots with a less-expensive model that matches your swing nicely. As you are learning how to work the ball, try acquiring a few different golf balls models that you can test out on the course. Rotate through the various options and you should quickly find which ones perform well for your swing, and which ones don't. Consistency is a good thing on the golf course when you can find it, so try to stick with one model of golf ball once you locate a brand that performs well coming off your clubs.
Working the golf ball is a skill that doesn't have to be limited to just the best players in the world. In fact, all golfers can try to work the ball to some degree, as learning how to turn the ball right and left can help you become a better overall player. Feel free to work on your skills on the driving range, but remember that the ball flights you see on the range aren't necessarily reflective of what will happen on the course. Add new shots to your bag, while keeping your standard shots in place, and you can lower your scores by being better equipped to handle everything the course throws at you.