When you stand on the first tee next Saturday, ready to outhit everyone on the golf course, the middle of the fairway may look like an inviting place, but I have a word of advice for you. Don't aim at it. By hitting at the center of the fairway and trying to split the watering-system pipeline you leave yourself only half the fairway as the margin for any error that may occur in your swing. And who has a perfect swing? I haven't seen one yet.
This means that you are left with two alternatives: 1) starting the ball out to the right and hooking it a little or 2) starting it out to the left and fading it back in. In either case you will have the whole fairway as a target for your drive—not just half of it.
The idea that golf is a curve-ball game is hardly new. But the question that now presents itself is which way you should try to curve the ball, and this matter deserves much more thought than it has received in the past.
It has long been assumed that the draw, or the tail-end hook as it used to be called, is the ultimate in tee shots. The reason is that the hook has over-spin. When it hits the ground it rolls and rolls, theoretically adding to the distance of the drive. To be sure, some of this rolling is toward the rough and the out-of-bounds fences, but that was a factor the worshipers of the hook were always inclined to ignore. The fade, meanwhile, was for duffers. A gentle shot that bends slightly to the right as it begins to fall, the fade was considered to be what happened when a chronic slicer made a strong effort to hit the ball properly, that is, when he tried to hit a hook.
Right there is the notion that I think every weekend golfer should challenge. It is the hook, not the slice, that has driven more would-be golfers to take up tennis than any shot I know. And it is the fade, the poor maligned fade, that is the best shot in the game. At least, that is my theory, and a lot of touring pros are beginning to agree. Jack Nicklaus, after giving up the fader's swing that had taken him so far, returned to it after he missed the cut at this year's Masters, and he promptly won the U.S. Open. He did not hook one shot in the entire Open, and was proud of it.
I may be more qualified to talk about the hook than most because I played one—a real live one, not just a little draw—for 28 years. About all it won me was a few amateur tournaments around Kentucky when I was a boy, a reputation for being a big hitter and a total of $30,000 in five years on the pro tour, which is barely enough to meet expenses. I do not care to recall all of the times during my early years on the tour that I was among the leaders in a tournament after the second or third round and then hooked myself not only out of contention but out of the money. One example should suffice. In 1956 I was tied for the lead at the Canadian Open after 36 holes and then shot an 80 in the third round by hooking 14 tee shots.
The evils of the hook deserve thorough examination because the benefits of the fade are so easy to state once the hook is recognized for what it is. First, as I said earlier, the hook has overspin, so it rolls. On a good, closely clipped fairway a slight hook might outroll a fade by as much as 20 yards. But how really valuable is the extra distance, except to your ego? Not much, in most cases, because it is not very often that the design of a hole will place great strategic value on 20 extra yards with a tee shot. Added distance is nice, but hardly worthwhile when it involves the risk of getting into serious trouble. Now let us say the fairways are not ideal, or it is August and the course is beginning to burn off. Suddenly, even the best-controlled tail-end hook just keeps rolling to the left until it gets into trouble. The overspin is not an asset. Instead, it is a factor that has left you quite at the mercy of whatever bounces, bumps, twists and turns happen to be in the fairway. This is as true for you, the weekend golfer, as it is for the touring professional.
Another difficulty common to all golfers who hook the ball is that the swing itself is difficult to control. It tends to give way under pressure, and it does not matter if the pressure is the last round of the Masters or a $1 foursome bet on a Sunday morning.
There is a physical reason for this. As the strain of a round increases, every golfer has an instinctive tendency to try to strengthen his grip, to get his hands set more firmly before beginning his backswing. This means that the golfer, unconsciously, is tending to move his left hand more tightly into the right, thus turning the left hand slightly to the right—which increases the possibility of a hook. If the player has been hooking to begin with, he is now in serious difficulty, for he knows he is swinging at every shot with the possibility of pulling it out of bounds.
These are two big problems that the man who fades the ball does not have to worry about. The fade stays put. It has backspin on it, and once it lands that's where it wants to stop. Even at its worst—when the fade turns into a slice and goes curving far to the right—the ball won't reach as much trouble as the corresponding hook would have. And the harder a fader squeezes the grip, the more control he gets.