Who hit their irons the best?

Skip to the last section if you don’t care for the analysis.

We covered the best driver a few days ago and today we’re going to discuss the irons. Same rules apply adjusting for the difference in balls between the two eras…just consider that Sam Snead was considered monstrously long because he could hit a 6-iron 160 yards. Jack’s famous shot at 16 during the 1986 Masters? A 5-iron where, from about the same distance today, guys are hitting 7′s, 8′s and 9′s (Bubba).

Onward.

Golden Era

We could probably divvy it up even more by going with just the 50′s and 60′s and then 70′s and 80′s by themselves, but whatever. Hell, we could probably even split it into two posts and talk about the difference between swingers and hitters and…damn…I should’ve done that instead. Too late now…

Anyways, there are a lot of guys I’m going to gloss over including legends like Snead, Byron Nelson, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Tom Weiskopf, Jerry Pate, Nick Price, Tom Kite, Mac O’Grady and Jimmy Demaret. Sorry, but this would easily be 3,000 words if I talked about everyone and, even then, talking about Ben Hogan, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and Jack will be lengthy as it is.

If you look at the pic above, you can get a visual idea of what the difference between a hitter and a swinger is. Hitter’s on the left, swinger’s on the right and it refers to how the clubhead is released. Don’t concern yourself with this too much because it could fuck with your head big time if you start thinking about it and there are a lot of factors that go into it that I’ll explain in a later post. I did want you to notice what the two look like though, not because one style is better than the other, but because how the golfer releases the club dictates how they play shots. While there’s a difference between the two styles, there’s an axiom that goes “good swingers hit and good hitters swing” and pretty much everyone is some sort of hybrid…and fortunately, some of the fundamentals carry over nicely.

We’ll talk about the hitters first…Hogan and Trevino.

If you’re not familiar with Ben Hogan, I implore you to read a little about him as he was a truly remarkable figure. Arguably the most iconic golfer when it comes to the swing, Hogan went into the swing in a depth never seen before in a series of five articles published in Sports Illustrated that became his landmark book Five Fundamentals*.

*I’ve said this before, but I think one of the big traps people fall into with Five Fundamentals is going too fast. It’s a short book, but incredibly detailed, and since it was written for a weekly publication, it gave people time to work on each part for a week…it’s very easy to just skip past the parts on the grip and stance, but I’d argue they’re the most important parts of the book.

Hogan had above average length but was an absolute master at every other aspect of ballstriking throughout the bag. He could hit the ball high, low, hit small draws and fades at each trajectory on command and controlled his spin masterfully. Take a look at the picture to the right and notice how the toe of the club hasn’t turned over yet, but the ball’s already well in the air. Hogan analyzed every part of his swing’s biomechanics, and one of his big keys was having a flat or supinated left wrist at impact. This is important because, if you notice his clubface, club shaft and shoulders are all on the same plane and that flat left wrist ensures that he remains on plane throughout and is the move that defines the hitter…it’s a motion vaguely familiar to a punch shot.

What this style does is allow the player to use their body to square the clubface and hitters are typically very accurate, very consistent golfers though some distance is sacrificed.

When talking about having passive hands and using the body to square the clubface, few golfers come to mind quicker than Lee Trevino. Trevino was an absolute master ballstriker who Dave Pelz said had a 5% miss percentage when the Tour average was 7% and if he were even an average putter, could’ve challenged Jack’s major record. Whether or not that’s true, Trevino was as good as there was and has many of the same traits Hogan had.

Famous instructor Lynn Blake was once asked who he loved watching hit full wedges and growled “Trevino…when he hits a wedge, you have to pull it out of the ground.” If you’re releasing your hands through impact like a swinger, you’re not sticking a club in the ground…and Trevino was a classic hitter. Take a look at the swing sequence below, specifically frames 7, 8 and 9…Trevino’s hands barely move, and now look at frames 9 (impact) and 10 (right after). That’s a flat wrist…

…but if you contrast frame 10 in Trevino’s sequence to frame 3 in Jack’s, you get a face on view of the difference between a hitter and swinger.

I have no scientific proof to back this up, but if you ask me, hitters have an advantage with their short irons while the lower bounce angle on the mid and long irons favors the swinger. Because of how a swinger releases through impact, their angle of attack is naturally shallower where a hitter is coming down onto the ball at a steep angle…great if you have a club with some loft to get it in the air and can control the spin, but a little trickier when you’re trying to get a low lofted club in the air.

By releasing through impact, swingers break their wrists a little sooner, add loft and create more clubhead speed than hitters. No wonder Jack is considered the greatest long iron player of all time.

Johnny Miller was another swinger, evident immediately by the picture to the right and how his right hand has already started to come over, even more evident compared to Hogan. Here’s another view where, if you look closely, you can see the toe of the clubface pointing upwards, meaning it’s turned over.

Again, there’s no set rule that one style is better or that hitters are more accurate…hitters just tend to be…Bubba Watson exhibits a lot of hitting characteristics (Jim McLean would disagree) and is as long as anyone and I challenge you to find a more accurate player with their irons than Johnny Miller.

One year during the Tuscon Open, Johnny Miller hit the flagstick 10 times on approaches, or two and a half times per round. He shot a Sunday 63 at Oakmont, arguably the hardest course on the planet. While he might annoy us at times in the booth, understand that the man was an incredible player in his own right who knows just as much about the golf swing as anyone else. While his technique noticeably differs from Hogan’s or Trevino’s, he’s right there in terms of caliber of ballstriker.

Modern Era

I know I’m going to catch shit for this, but at least admit that Sergio Garcia is an exceptional ballstriker and a prototypical hitter…seen this pic before?

Sergio is known for generating a TREMENDOUS amount of lag in his swing. Creating noticeable lag is another tell-tale sign of a hitter, as their hands are “ahead” of the clubhead all the way through impact. It’s a relatively hard concept to explain, but this picture does a pretty great job of it…look at how much the shaft is bending in that pic and that gives you an idea of what lag is. What it does, however, is deliver a very stable clubhead to the ball, leading to consistent drives, but when hitting down into the ball like with your irons, delofts the clubface, effectively turning a 7-iron into a 6-iron or, if you deloft as much as Sergio, even a 5-iron.

I have to mention, it requires a large amount of core and leg strength to swing like Hogan and Sergio. It takes a LOT of time to develop that type of strength and to learn how to hold that angle, so while you shouldn’t dive head first into trying to swing like that, it is a great way to swing if you’re willing to develop it over a long period of time. And while you might not have the muscles developed you need to swing like that, the basic tenets of having a flat left wrist at impact is a key that will get you hitting better shots not matter what because it really stabilizes the clubface.

Again, not scientific, but it seems that hitters generate their distance by manipulating the club’s loft at impact while a swinger generates distance via clubhead speed. And, like I mentioned above, most players have elements of both in their swings, swingers deloft and hitters release, but the important thing to note is that, regardless of how you release the club, ballflight is determined 85% by the clubface at impact, and that’s what you need to focus on more than anything. How you do it…via swinging or hitting…is up to you.

One of my favorite players to watch these days, when he’s at the top of his game, is Zach Johnson. He’s an elite wedge player thanks to a technique evident in his full swing that explains why he might be the best short iron/full wedge player on the planet along with Luke Donald. They’re very similar players, Donald and ZJ, in that they don’t have tons of distance, but are so deadly accurate, they make up strokes on the field from 150 yards and in, but go about it different ways, as we’ll see with Donald in a little bit.

Now that you’ve seen what a hitter’s release looks like, you should be able to tell Zach’s a hitter as well and if you watch him control his spin on low trajectory shots, you’ll see a less raw Trevino.

Luke Donald on the other hand, is a swinger, as you can see in the pic to the right. He has just a wonderful tempo, and while he doesn’t create a ton of clubhead speed, he gets himself in an excellent position at impact. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that hitters are inherently more accurate and consistent because of the examples of swingers above. Yes, not holding that angle like Trevino and Hogan means you have to time the release, but there isn’t a golfer on Earth more consistently accurate than Luke Donald. And look at the picture below…sure, he’s flipped through impact, but if you look at the thickest orange line, he’s in absolutely perfect impact position.

It TOTALLY matters how you release the club, but however you do it, the point has to be how effectively you can REPEATEDLY deliver the clubface to the ball…not how pretty it looks.

We’ve seen two modern hitters and a modern swinger, but like I’ve mentioned repeatedly…most golfers are hybrids, and two modern swings that deserve mention are Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott.

You’ll see this above with Rory and below with Adam, but you’ll notice they’ve fully extended their arms, have flat left wrists (Adam’s is just beginning to fold over as he’s more past impact, but is still pretty flat) and the clubface has started to turn over. You’ll see elements of both hitters and swingers in their swings, and while both styles show up, the purpose of their fundamentals and swing keys are to hit the ball on line and generate the most clubhead speed effectively into the ball.

So Who’s the Best?

This is incredibly hard…long-irons go to Jack, mid-irons to Hogan, Trevino and Jack, short-irons to Hogan and Trevino. Shit…those three get the nod. Jack hit his long irons so well with such a high ballflight that came down like a feather that he’s widely considered to be the best of all time in that very specific category, and absolutely OWNED the 1-iron. Much like Nicklaus, Hogan was stellar throughout the bag, but left an indelible mark on the game with his perfectly shaped, controlled irons. Trevino was preposterously accurate with his short irons and full wedge approaches and, despite his relative lack of distance, made up for it by being one of the best shotmakers of his era, carving in weird 6-woods (seriously).

So what should you take away from this?

  • Flat left wrist – If you keep that wrist supinated you stabilize the clubface and keep your hands in front of the clubhead. That’s a great way to ensure the clubface is being delivered properly and you don’t have to time a flip. Even in a swing where we pointed out a flip, having that flat left wrist ensures the clubface will be where you meant it to be. Chances are good if you slice the ball, your wrist is bent, and while it takes time to get the feeling of having a supinated left wrist, even having “less bend” will give you a more stable clubface.
  • Ball first contact – A swinger takes less of a divot than a hitter, but you want to hit the ball first and then take some kind of divot even if you just brush the grass. By keeping a supinated left wrist, you ensure your hands will be ahead of the club, helping to ensure that ball first contact, and while we recommended getting more behind the ball with the driver, we’ll reference the Hogan stance chart again.
  • Low point – The difference between hitting a driver and an iron is that, with an iron, you get your hands a little more towards the target at address and the narrower stance means you’ll deliver the club at a steeper angle (less of a sweep), pick a spot on your target line a couple inches in front of the ball and imagine that’s what you’re trying to hit, kind of tricking yourself into making a downward attack.
  • Ballflight laws – Remember…ballflight is determined 85% by where the clubface is pointing and will start on that line. The other 15% of the ballflight, how it curves, is determined by swingpath. The key to developing a swing is getting that clubface pointing at your target at impact.

Hope you enjoyed…thanks for reading.

7 thoughts on “Who hit their irons the best?

  1. As for best long iron hitter-I’d say that you must compare LOFT as much as balls. Hogan”s famous 1 iron at Merion? 24*. The modern 4 iron. There are a lot of guys who hit 4 iron as good as Hogan hit 1 iron. I spent a lot of time with Mr. Hogan (Hogan is my son’s name). He always said that Trevino was the biggest underachiever ever. that every course should have been par 66 for him, as accurate as he was inside 160 yards.

    awesome…and you’re totally right, i should’ve mentioned the lofts on the club too. pelz’ stuff on trevino in his book is fantastic…trevino was such a fantastic ballstriker and wedge player that im really looking forward to talking about him in the short game section (along with seve and gary player).

    regarding the sergio release picture…here’s a better one showing how he’s got a hitter’s release from down the line. look at that clubface after impact…absolutely stunning.

  2. last point re: your comments on lag…i also have a theory as to why sergio’s been such a shitty putter despite being reknowned for it when he was younger. he has so much lag in his swing that when he tries to load the shaft differently with his putter, he gets hung up on mechanics and loses his feel.

    homer kelly confused a lot of people with TGM, for sure…but at least he mapped out the mechanics for a swinger as well. personally, i think TGM is a good piece of literature but is poorly delivered and isn’t keeping up with the times. i like to use it almost like an encyclopedia where, if im confused with a certain aspect of the release or grip, i can reference it just for a landmark.

  3. If it were only as easy as you make it sound. :D

    As always, great stuff Spencer.

Comments are closed.