Shotmaking: What Club are you Hitting?
There’s a trend on Instagram and TikTok where a golf influencer films themselves taking a shot, puts the yardage on the screen, let’s say 140 yards, and asks “What are you hitting?” It’s intended to be fun and drive engagement, but it makes me want to yell, “You haven’t given me enough information to make that decision!”
Shotmaking is so much more than just a yardage. You need to be asking yourself a lot more questions than how far is the hole. I’m going to ask a bunch of those questions here and hopefully give you a few more things to consider before selecting your next club.
Is the hole the actual target?
Sure, it’s 140 yards to the hole, but are you actually playing to the hole? Is the pin deep with trouble beyond and you need to protect against going long? Is it short, just over some water and you need to protect against going short? Are the greens fast and have lots of slope and maybe you need to stay below the pin? Are the greens super firm and you don’t need to carry it the whole way to hit a good shot?
What’s the wind doing?
Is the wind behind us? Into us? Going sideways? Nothing?
Downwind you won’t stop it as quick. Into the wind, ball’s going to spin and climb unless you club up and take spin off. If it’s sideways, are you riding the wind, gaining yards and losing stopping power, or going against the wind, losing yards and gaining stopping power?
What’s the best shape for the shot?
A draw will fly a bit lower, travel a bit farther, and depending on the club might have significantly less spin (longer clubs will have less spin, shorter clubs might actually have more spin due to better compression and increased friction with the club face).
A fade will fly a bit higher, travel a bit shorter, and depending on the club might have significantly more spin (longer clubs will have more spin, shorter clubs might actually have less spin due to worse compression and decreased friction with the club face).
I will factor in which way I want to turn the ball for a shot into my club decision. I can get as much as 10 yards difference in carry from a draw to a fade, all other things being equal.
What are you landing on?
If I’m landing into a severe uphill slope, I may have to adjust my yardage to either play beyond the hole and spin it back, or take extra club, swing softer and create less spin to hold the shot where I want.
Conversely, if the ball will land on a downhill slope, no amount of spin will get that ball to spin up a hill, so you need to allow for a hop or two (or more) forward. Depending on the situation, you might need a whole club or two less for the shot.
In fact, pay attention the next time you watch the pros on a 230+ yard par 3. When the announcers tell you they’re hitting a 5-iron, watch where they’re landing the ball. I bet it’s well short of pin high. They probably carried it 210 with 20 yards of roll out.
What’s the temperature?
I play golf year round in Portland, Oregon, USA. In the winter, it might be colder than 40F degrees and raining. In the summer, it might be 105F degrees. Guess what? You’ll hit the same ball vastly different distances based on temperature.
It’s also important to think of your distance loss or gain in as a percentage. In the cold, your wedges are only gonna go a few yards shorter, but your long clubs may go as much as 20-30 yards shorter.
What’s the elevation?
Are you playing at sea level? Or are you playing up in the mountains? The denser sea level air will reduce how far the ball flies, while the thin mountain air at high elevations will have your shots flying further. You’ll need to adjust accordingly.
What’s the elevation change?
Little play on words there. Is the shot uphill? Downhill? Level?
A shot played uphill will play longer than its yardage, while a downhill shot will play shorter than its yardage. This has to do with the way a golf ball travels in an arc. The uphill landing area of a shot essentially cuts off some of the forward travel the ball would have had on a level shot, and vice versa on downhill.
This also affects how quickly the ball will stop. All things being equal, the uphill shot should release more because it’s landing at a flatter angle of descent, while the downhill shot should stop more quickly because of a steeper angle of descent.
What’s the lie?
Am I hitting it out of the fairway? A bare patch? The rough? Is it sitting down? Sitting up?
A bare lie might increase my spin rate so much that I now have to play the shot long and spin it back to the hole (assuming that’s an option). Whereas from the rough, I may expect no spin and find myself playing a shot to land it short and tumble it on.
With particularly jumpy lies, I sometimes find myself hitting two clubs less than I normally would. It is really fun though saying you hit a 9-iron from 180 yards sometimes.
Is it wet?
People underestimate moisture all the time where I live, where it rains half the year. Moisture on the club face or ball reduces friction. That reduced friction causes the ball to slide up the face more at impact, more energy is put into the upward forces of the ball, and less to the forward forces. This results in a ball flight that flies higher and shorter on full shots.
A similar phenomenon occurs at lower speeds on chips and pitches. Wet grass, such as the morning dew, tends to result in shots that slide up the face and jump. A dry club face and ball is important for consistent trajectory and spin. When playing out of wet grass, expect a higher flight and less spin, and for short shots potentially more energy.
How am I feeling?
Is it the first hole in the day and I’m a bit stiff? Is it late in the round and I’m feeling good? Is it coming down the stretch in a tournament and my adrenaline is pumping? How my body is feeling has an impact on what club I choose for a shot.
Is it a “good” yardage for me?
A “good” yardage is very relative and depends on many of the answers to the questions that came before this one. A good yardage means the shot at hand is one I can swing very comfortably and confidently.
A bad yardage is one that ends up directly between clubs and there isn’t an obvious solution to the problem. All the factors conspire in such a way that no choice is easy to make.
That said, if I have a bad yardage, more often than not I prefer to take more club. I believe in taking at least enough club to hit the yardage I want and taking some off with speed, fading the ball, or both. I have found since making this change that my margin of error is bigger and I make fewer misses.
I’d like to walk you through a scenario just a few weeks ago where I rapidly changed shots and clubs as factors changed.
I was playing in my regular Sunday game and had 168 yards to the flag on my approach shot into 18. I had a good lie in the fairway, ball very slightly below my feet. Temperature was warm. The shot plays a few yards uphill, but the ball will land on a slight downslope and hop at least once forward.
When I first assessed the shot, the wind was low, almost non-existent. For me, this is a smooth 7-iron, which I carry about 175 at that temp on a level shot. That club would allow me to hit my stock ball flight and easily get it to the hole.
As I set up over the ball, the wind picked up a few miles per hour, directly into me. It became significant enough that I knew my stock fade would not be able to fight through the wind enough to get there. I backed off the ball and prepared to play a draw 7-iron. As I said before, a draw would come out a bit lower and fly a bit further. This should be enough to get me to the front of the green and take a slightly bigger hop forward to the pin.
I go through my routine and prepare to hit the shot when the wind picked up even more! Now a 7-iron has no chance of getting to the green. I go back to the bag, grab a 6-iron and commit to hitting my stock shot again. A 6-iron carries around 187-188 for me, but I commit to playing it around 180. This will bring the trajectory down, and take a little spin off getting it to cut through the wind.
I step up, the wind stays steady, and I hit a great shot to about 10 feet right below the hole.
If I hadn’t been paying attention to all those factors and stepped up and hit the first shot I chose, I would have probably finished about 10 yards short and been forced to get up and down. You gotta pay attention and don’t be afraid to change your mind. Just be decisive each time you do.
There are a lot of factors that go into choosing a club for a particular yardage and shot. Don’t get fooled into thinking that the same yardage always means the same club. Every shot is a new shot. Pay attention to the factors impacting your club selection.