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Adjusting for Wind

If the wind blows like it's supposed to at Carnoustie during this summer's Open Championship (the British Open to you), you'll see some crazy-looking shots meant to stay low under the gusts. Even if the wind is benign, you'll see shots that you seldom see in America, because golf on true links courses like Carnoustie is meant to be played along the ground. Roll is to the British Open what backspin is to the PGA Tour.

But take it from me (a three-time Open champion): There's more subtlety and variety to these shots than you might imagine, and you'll do well to learn a few of our tricks. You'll be glad you did should you journey to Great Britain and Ireland to sample their great links, where the high-ball, by-the-numbers American game just doesn't work. But the classic links-style shots—the low-trajectory, low-spin wind cheater and the bump-and-run­—are incredibly useful if you find yourself in the woods or facing a howling wind no matter where you play.

The first principle of playing a links course in the wind is that your club selection has absolutely nothing to do with your usual distances. Zero. You may normally hit your eight-iron 140 yards, but your ball might not go half that far in a good blow. I've hit three-irons from that distance. You've got to swallow your pride on club selection or you'll have it handed to you soon enough.

The second principle is to understand that trajectory is not just a matter of the angle at which the ball leaves the clubface but also of spin. Into a stiff breeze, a ball hit low but with lots of spin will balloon as surely as one hit with a highly lofted wedge. Once the ball starts losing velocity, the wind will cruelly exaggerate whatever spin it has—up, right or left.

That's why my default wind shot is hit with soft arms. On the backswing I focus on keeping my grip and arms as light and loose as possible while still maintaining control. On the follow-through, still with soft arms, I think about finishing with my right thumb almost in my left ear (see below).

The one notion you must put out of your mind when hitting into the wind is trying to force it. If you think you don't have enough club, take a longer one, but never try to add a little oomph at the last second. That will only steepen your angle of attack, causing the ball to climb. And human nature being what it is, the next time you're in a similar situation you'll probably remember coming up short and try to force it even more. Just make a smooth, low, soft-armed pass through the ball—think of it as a controlled three-quarters shot—and rely on your club selection to get the ball to the target.

I generally don't recommend contrived ways of delofting the clubface with your hands and wrists, because they often put you out of sync and lead to inconsistent shots. But there are minor adjustments you can make. One is to strengthen the grip slightly (rotating your hands clockwise on the handle), which delofts the clubface and can help put a little wind-resistant hook spin on the ball. Another is to move the ball back a smidge in your stance. Don't move it too far back, because that starts to steepen your angle into the ball.

A third tactic—and, for the average golfer, the simplest and most reliable—is to choke down. That shortens the swing arc and alters the leverage in a way that automatically produces lower flying and more controlled shots. Go to the practice range, grip an eight-iron one inch down on the shaft and see what happens. Then grip two inches down, and then three inches down. Henry Cotton, my old teacher back in England, taught me not to be afraid to hook the lowest right finger (for a right-handed golfer) on the steel if necessary. At that point, an eight-iron will play almost like a kiddie club, but the ball will probably fly on the trajectory of a four-iron. It won't fly as far, because of the shorter swing arc, but you'll have great control.

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