When I was playing my best, my ability to shape shots however I wanted—left to right or right to left—was one of the big advantages I had over other players. Now, you may think all Tour players can shape shots however they want, and in a crunch they can. But a dirty little secret is that many of them only feel comfortable curving the ball one way or the other.
Even that, of course, is a huge advantage over not knowing which way the ball is going to curve—the case for most amateurs. But it limits the number of pins the pros can attack and even the courses on which they can be truly competitive, especially in the majors, where the setups demand every type of shot.
There is no absolute reason recreational players have to learn how to shape shots. But if you do, you'll enjoy a distinct advantage over your peers. And regardless of your skill level, when you're deep in the woods you'll be glad you learned how to make a credible effort at bending a shot around the tree that stands between you and the fairway. More important, in learning about shot-shaping, you'll also learn a lot about your swing and what may ail it.
The first shaped shot I learned, when I was about sixteen, is what we now call the "hold-off fade" (see above). Back then it was called the "anti-hook," and as the name implies, it's more a defensive maneuver than a pin-attacking tool. The idea is to keep the wrists from turning over for as long as possible through and after impact. Using this technique, I could fire through the ball as hard as I liked (which was appealing to a youngster) and pretty much count on the ball never going left, even if in my early going I couldn't control precisely how much it curved. But learning this shot so early in my career taught me the value of being able to control my shot shapes.
Practically speaking, the first step toward acquiring the skill is truly understanding the physics of what makes balls curve. I'm surprised by how many players have no clue why it happens; without that knowledge, they really have no chance of developing these skills—or, for that matter, of curing their current swing problems.
The next step is to go to a practice area and play around with your six- or seven-iron until you can manufacture slices and hooks on demand. If your normal shot is a slice, it will feel very odd to hit a hook by attacking the ball with an inside-to-outside swing path; you probably won't believe what an exaggerated motion you'll have to make. I've found that it helps to lay down a club or a few balls on the turf along the inside-to-outside angle your clubhead needs to follow as it approaches and goes through the ball. Eventually you'll realize what it feels like to hit a draw.
Spend some quality time at this stage. Most people, especially as they get older, are afraid to experiment. See what happens, for instance, when you take the club back so much to the inside it almost hits your right foot. Use your imagination with extremely open and extremely closed clubfaces. When you're doing this, you'll learn more if you're swinging with half shots and chips rather than full out. That way, you'll be able to feel what's really happening between the ball, the path and the clubface.
Once you have come to understand the swing mechanics and have experienced the sensations of hitting draws and fades on demand, you're ready to learn control—that is, to hit shots that curve to the degree you want. There are essentially two ways to do this: by modifying your setup position and by feel. I highly recommend the former for most amateurs (see page 82). Only the most advanced players really have the skill and practice time necessary to count on feel to control their shots (see page 84).
I can't emphasize enough the importance of working with clubs or other alignment aides while you practice shaping your shots. That's vital every time you practice but even more so here, because the compensations you are trying to make require knowing exactly where you're aimed (as opposed to where you think you're aimed). Without proper alignment, your body will eventually make adjustments to get the ball to the target, but it will likely be in a way that will leave your normal swing in a bigger mess than it was when you started.