By Grant Martin
At first glance, a golf ball appears to be an easy target, but as millions of weekend golfers can attest, hitting an accurate tee shot can be one of the most difficult and frustrating challenges in sports.
The problem lies in the sheer size of the driver. "The longer a club gets, the more difficult it is to control," says Brad Smith, a member of UAB's golf team. "So it's hard to get your swing on the right path with a driver, which is easily the longest club in the bag."
Some casual golfers never learn to use a driver, preferring to sacrifice distance in favor of the more predictable long irons. But to be competitive at a high level, an effective drive is a must. "Most NCAA golfers have to use a driver; otherwise they would be too far out," says Smith. "For anything longer than a straightaway par 4, you would want to use a driver to get as close to the hole on your first shot as possible."
Smith recommends that beginners learn to swing with shorter clubs, such as the sand wedge, then work their way up through the irons before tackling a driver. "The loft on the shorter clubs makes it easier to get the ball up in the air, which is the most important thing for someone learning the game," he says.
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In any swing, proper alignment of the feet and body is critical to ensure that the club face strikes the ball squarely—the key to an effective shot. "Lining up, you want to have the club face pointing at a target, and your feet should be parallel to that down the left-hand side of the target," Smith says. Unfortunately, a lot can happen between lining up and actually striking the ball, and identifying and eliminating the mistakes in a swing can sometimes be a lifetime pursuit.
"Everyone has flaws in their swing," says Smith. "I have a tendency to sway, for example. When I swing back, I tend to move too far to my right, which means I've got to make up for a lot of movement coming back to the ball. When you have that much lateral movement, it's hard to match up your hands, your body, and everything to get the club square. That's a big flaw of most beginning golfers: There are just too many moving parts."
Smith is clearly far beyond the beginning golfer stage, but he says that even the best mechanics can get better. Tiger Woods has changed his swing twice during his career, both times when he was the world's top-ranked golfer. "You can always improve your swing," Smith says. "Sometimes you pick up bad habits when you learn to play, and you keep them your whole life. It's just a matter of trying to minimize those flaws to get the best drive possible."