Hybrids are definitely the "it" club these days, and for good reason. Compared with the long irons they’re replacing, hybrids are extremely forgiving and easy to hit high, and from the rough they are massively better. The guys on Tour are using them to hit shots we never dreamed of hitting in my day: In certain lies from two hundred yards out, we considered ourselves lucky to punch the ball back into the fairway halfway to the green; from the same lies these days, the players can sometimes fly the ball the full distance.
But there is still a place for long irons in the game, albeit a smaller place, and it’s useful to know how to hit both types of clubs. As Tiger Woods proved last summer at the British Open at Hoylake, long irons are terrific for hitting low shots that stay under the wind and run a long way on hard fairways. Using a two-iron off of nearly every tee in the last three rounds, he gave up a bit of distance but hit almost every fairway and gained a lot of confidence on his subsequent approach shots because he had a great rhythm going. He was swinging freely rather than protectively, as he would have had to do with a driver. The strategy was brilliant, and it’s one that amateurs should consider whenever they’re struggling off the tee, even when they’re not playing a links course.
The key to hitting a three- or four-iron well (for most amateurs, two-irons no longer make sense) is the tempo of the takeaway. You want to make a conscious effort during those first two feet back from the ball to move the clubhead at a deliberate pace and keep it lower to the ground than you would with a shorter iron. If you snatch the club away, you’re dead before you start. With a longer club, you can’t afford to get out of sync early on, because it’s almost impossible to rescue the swing on the way down. With a shorter iron, by contrast, you have a far better chance of correcting the angle between your wrists and your arms on the way back down and forcing a decent shot. Never hurry a long-iron swing: Build your momentum slowly on the backswing and then fire smoothly through the ball.
Because long irons have less loft, a lot of amateurs make the mistake of trying to help the ball up by leaning back to the right just before impact. The result is usually a topped or thin shot. To fight this, I’ve found it helpful at address to "see" the arc between eight o’clock on the backswing and four o’clock on the follow-through and to visualize my arms swinging through that area fully extended (see previous page). This helps create the long, sweeping motion you want with long irons—both approaching the ball and, equally as important, after impact. Think of trying to keep the clubhead moving low and straight down the line for as long as possible through the ball.
A good way to get a feel for this leveling-out swing is to practice hitting balls with a long iron off a high tee. Your goal is to hit the ball as sweet as possible on as low a trajectory as possible. Hitting it off a tee, you’ll feel your misses. If you hit down on it, you’ll clunk it high on the blade. If you swing up, you’ll feel the thin and a sting in the hands. Doing this into the wind is a bonus, because you can tell when the ball really penetrates.
Hitting a hybrid is a bit more like hitting a mid-iron. You can be a little steeper with your angle of attack because of the characteristics of the club. The bounce on the bottom will prevent the club from sticking to the ground should you hit it a bit fat, and the low center of gravity all but guarantees you’ll get the ball properly airborne.
Another beauty of hybrids is how adventuresome you can be with them. To convince yourself of that and to familiarize yourself with the club’s abilities, spend some quality time hitting balls out of a divot or off of a bare spot on the range. Initially you’ll probably try to help the ball up or make other adjustments, but suddenly you’ll realize that you can make a normal, smooth swing and the ball will fly beautifully. Once you learn to let the club help you rather than you trying to help the club, you’ll become as much of a hybrid fan as I am.
Next, familiarize yourself with how hybrids behave out of different lies. The next time you find yourself on an empty hole during a practice round, drop three balls, say, two hundred yards from the green—one in the fairway, one in the first cut of rough, one in deep rough—and see what happens. From the fairway the ball should carry to the green, from the first cut it will likely come out a bit lower and roll onto the green, and from the rough it will come out much lower with less spin—but it will come out. Get used to this so you know what to expect during play.
Hitting a hybrid from the rough requires some compensations. You should generally try to hit a fade, with the clubface slightly open through impact and with a sense of your hands getting to the ball before the clubhead does. This gets the ball aloft more quickly and helps prevent a disastrous low hook should the thick grass grab and close the clubhead before impact. Experiment also with making three other compensations (but not all three at once): Put the ball a bit farther back in your stance so the clubhead gets to the ball sooner and encounters less grass; put a bit more weight on your left foot to promote a steeper angle into the ball; or hoist your right shoulder up a bit for the same reason. With just a little experience, you should learn what combination of ingredients works best for you.
Getting to know your hybrids is an important part of hitting them well, because unlike irons they come in many different shapes and sizes. When hybrids first appeared, they were primarily game-improvement clubs for higher handicappers, but now there are many options for low-handicappers, including models that create low, boring shots not that different from shots hit with traditional long irons (except the hybrids are much more forgiving). As a result, configuring the long end of your bag to get the distance gaps and ball trajectories you desire takes some work, but I encourage you to do so. Hitting shots of 170 yards and longer with confidence may be a new experience for many amateurs, but these days it’s definitely possible.