Choose the right short iron

If golf were played inside a gigantic indoor stadium -- on a course as flat as a billiard table, with a perfect lie guaranteed for every shot -- club selection would be simple. But real-life golf courses present an endless combination of lies, slopes, and weather conditions that influence the behavior of short irons -- your scoring clubs. Choosing the right club is a key part of mastering good golf. First of all, you should know how long you're normally likely to hit each of your clubs. Simple enough, but it's worth mentioning that a driving range isn't the best place to measure your club distances -- range balls are usually old and scuffed, the yardage markers are seldom very accurate, and balls tend to jump off driving mats.


The most important consideration when choosing a club for an approach or a layup is the ball's lie. If it's sitting up in the rough, and you're sure you can make good contact, remember that any grass between clubface and ball will prevent the grooves on the club from putting backspin on the ball. Result: the shot will "fly" -- go farther, and roll once it lands. Take a little less club. Hilly lies complicate matters. You probably know that the ball above your feet should be positioned slightly farther back in your stance than a regular shot, and will move in the air from right to left. But keep in mind that this type of address tends to add loft to the club, and so your shot will fly higher -- an advantage when playing to an elevated green. Figure half a club or more when playing a lie above your feet. Likewise, playing a ball on an uphill lie -- with your front foot higher than your back foot -- also adds loft to the club; and since the ball will not release, you should probably take a full club more. This shot also flies from right to left for a right- handed player. You're probably also aware when a ball struck below your feet will fly lower, fade a little (move from left to right) and roll. However, the effect of a downhill lie is less for shorter clubs than for long irons or woods. As Kevin Smith, PGA professional at Montauk Downs, Long Island, NY, says, "Basically with the shorter clubs off a downhill lie, since the ball is going vertical faster, it has less chance to go sideways -- so a shot with a seven-iron or less from a moderately downhill lie will tend only be half a club shorter." Smith advises: "The critical part of this shot is to make sure you're balanced properly -- weight on your heels -- and concentrate on making a smooth swing. And as always with the shorter clubs, don't try to hit them 'all-out.' You're just trying to get the ball up quickly and if it's possible, land softly." One last word about sloping lies: don't fight them. "Trying to play against a lie brings in too many compensations, and under pressure these are hard to keep together," says Smith. "Basically you should play the shot that's presented to you -- if it's a draw lie, play a draw." And, since draw shots tend to run more than faded shots, factor this into your calculations.


Remember, when we say "a club more," we actually mean "a lower- numbered club" -- and if thinking in terms of "half a club" is confusing, keep in mind that there are many other factors. It can help think of club selection as a few simple calculations. When in doubt, take more club. Kevin Smith comments: "Probably about 95 percent of shots that amateurs hit to greens come up short. Most players think they can hit the ball further than they really can -- but just as importantly, for some reason they're fearful of knocking the ball over the green. The reason I teach golfers to err on the side of more club when playing short irons is there's almost always less trouble on the back of the green than in front."


Most of us know how to play against a headwind: take more club, position the ball farther back in the stance -- weight favoring the front foot slightly -- and be careful to take an easy, smooth swing. Remember to factor in everything. Smith recalled facing a 100- yard approach shot against a two-club wind, a couple of days after a soaking rainstorm: "The landing area was soft, so I couldn't run it up -- the ball would have stuck in the apron. So instead of adding one club and hitting a run-up shot, I took an 8-iron and hit a three-quarter punch shot that landed on the green and stopped." Try to use conditions to your advantage. Sure a rainy, wet course generally plays longer but such these conditions can also reward higher-lofted shots, since these will tend to "hold" better on a green. A word about wind and elevated/lowered greens: If you understand the flight path of a golf shot it's easy to see why uphill targets require more club and downhill targets, less -- it's because as much as 15- 20% of the distance a ball travels comes as it descends. A general rule of thumb is one more club for 10 yards of higher elevation, and one less for 10 yards lower. Yet even here there are nuances to consider -- for instance while it's generally true that you should take less club to a downhill green, this is NOT the case if there is a wind in your face, because the wind will negate much of the ball's forward progress as it continues its descending arc. That's one reason why most downhill par-threes into prevailing winds incorporate bunkers right in front of the green. Remember: It doesn't matter how sweet your swing is if you haven't got the right club in your hands.


Here's a general guide to choosing short irons for approaches. For example, say you're facing an approach shot from a uphill lie into a 10-mph breeze -- and a sprinkler head tells you you're 140 yards from the pin, which is exactly the length you usually hit your seven-iron. Subtract one club-number for the uphill lie and another one for the wind: it's a five-iron shot.

Situation How much club? How will the ball release?
Ball in rough take less club (-1 1/2) ball will run
Sidehill-uphill (ball above feet) take more club (-1) ball will run slightly
Sidehill-downhill (ball below feet) take more club (-1/2) ball will run
Uphill lie take more club (-1) ball will not run
Downhill lie  take more club ball will run slightly
Elevated green take more club (-1) for every 10 yards of elevation ball will run slightly
Downhill green take less club (+1/2) for every ten yards of elevation ball will not run
Wind in face take more club (-1) for every 10 mph ball will not run
Wind at back take less club (-1) for every 10 mph ball will run


It's to your advantage to get the most accurate yardage measurements to your targets. Sprinkler-head and flagstone yardage markers are almost always measured to the middle of the green, unless the scorecard indicates otherwise. Another notable exception: courses where the use of caddies is encouraged will sometimes mark yardages to the front of greens. Be on the lookout for signals on the flagstick that indicate where the hole is located on the green. These range from different colored flags, to pennants placed on the pins (higher up the flagstick for deep pin-placements, lower for pins up front). Distance-measuring devices, once verboten, are now sanctioned by the USGA for posting scores (although they're still not legal for tournament play). Many courses will offer to rent players a laser-siting device which can be used to hone in on a reflective cylinder placed on each flag, yielding an exact measurement. Also, rangefinding devices are becoming available at many pro shops. Position is just as important as distance -- especially if you're a little rusty. If you're feeling any doubt, don't go for the pin -- instead, aim at a place where if you've misclubbed, you'll have an easier chip. Every player should chart his round -- it's the best way to pick up where your game and strategic thinking need to be worked on. After you've played, sit down and go through each hole, shot by shot. Are you always left of the green when you're hitting a ball above your feet? Do your approaches tend to land short, or long? You'd be surprised how many consistent mistakes charting your round can catch.