All golfers can relate to the dilemma: you’re faced with a shot where there is one side that you absolutely cannot miss it on. Maybe it’s out-of-bounds, a lake or bush, but the reality is the same: if you hit it there, you’re dropping or replaying the shot and eyeing double-bogey or worse.
The issue is, where do you aim when all you need to do is not hit it towards the trouble? That’s the question tour winner Michael Kim and three-time major champion Padraig Harrington weighed in on recently on Twitter. Of course, logic says if there is OB down the right side, you’d simply aim well to the left. Yet, that can produce a shot that curves significantly back towards the trouble.
Michael is so right here. Go on to the course when it’s quiet and try both options, if possible with a number of balls/clubs and see what works for you. I know in the above scenario if I’m aiming left away from the water I often swing with the unintentional thought of don’t go…
— Padraig Harrington (@padraig_h) November 26, 2023
Kim and Harrington reignited a popular shot-making debate, and one that Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and many others have strong but differing opinions on: should you curve the ball towards or away from trouble?
Strategy 1: Aim at the trouble and curve the ball away from it
Kim breaks from the conventional thinking that you should aim away from water or OB and curve the ball back towards it. Here’s what he says:
“Don’t always just aim to the other side of trouble. That is often tougher because you know you can’t miss it to the side with the trouble, but you also don’t have room to the side you’re aiming at. If there’s trouble on the right, more times than not, I’ll aim pretty close to the water and if anything, overdo my draw and I’ll have most of the fairway to play with.”
Kim brings up a fascinating point: when you aim away from trouble, you’re incentivising yourself to work the ball back towards the hazard. And when you’re trying to curve the ball, often you will curve it more than you intend, bringing the trouble more into play.
To illustrate his point, Kim uses the par-5 13th at TPC River Highlands, site of the Travelers Championship. Kim says that he aims at the red “T” [below], starting the ball over the water, and he tries to draw it back to the Blue “L”. The thinking is, when he knows that he needs to curve the ball, he might overdo it, and by aiming towards the trouble, he gives himself the most margin for error should he overdraw the ball.
Harrington agrees with this approach, responding to Kim:
“Michael is so right here… I know in the above scenario, if I’m aiming left, away from the water, I often swing with the unintentional thought of Don’t go right. Aiming left, trying not to go right will always end to the far left (double cross). At least aiming right and trying not to hit it right ends up left of the water and maybe still in the fairway.”
So, by aiming away from trouble, you’re inviting a two-way miss. On the 13th at TPC River Highlands, there is OB to the left, so should you aim up the left thinking, Don’t hit it in the water to the right, you might hit a double-cross, or a shot that starts left and curves further left and goes out-of-bounds.
Ben Hogan was a notable proponent of this strategy, believing that you should start the ball at the trouble and work the ball away from it. For him, this was especially true when there was trouble to the left, as Hogan preferred to hit a slight fade that he knew would never go left.
You can see Rory McIlroy using this approach on the 72nd hole at the 2019 Players Championship, when he had a one-shot lead [below]. Notice how McIlroy’s feet are aimed well up the left, over the water. He is aiming at the trouble and trying to hit a slight cut. By aiming left and making sure he hits a cut, he guarantees he won’t hit it in the water, and should he miss, he’ll curve it too much and be on the right side of the fairway or just in the rough.
Strategy 2: Aim away from trouble and curve the ball towards it
What’s so interesting about this debate is that some of the best players of all time preach the opposite strategy. In June 2022 during the Memorial Tournament, Jack Nicklaus was in the TV booth alongside Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo. As players hit on the par-3 16th at Muirfield Village, where the pin was cut close to the left edge of the green with water to the left, Nicklaus and Faldo debated what shot shape to hit.
“Don’t ever aim the ball at trouble,” Nicklaus said. “Don’t ever aim the ball at out-of-bounds. Don’t ever aim the ball at a lake. You always aim away from it. And if you have to play back towards it, make sure that you can’t hook it enough to get there or make sure you can’t fade it enough to get to it.”
After invoking Hogan and his opposite approach, Faldo asked Nicklaus, “So you’d work it with no fear of overdoing it? You never flew it over?”
“What I tried to do was not ever put pressure or make myself nervous,” Nicklaus said. “I tried to keep comfortable.”
By aiming away from the trouble, Nicklaus was taking pressure off himself because he knew that if he accidentally hit the ball straight, he would be fine. If he aimed at the trouble and hit an otherwise solid shot that flew straight, he would be in the water or OB.
Tiger Woods used this strategy off the 18th tee at TPC Sawgrass at the 2018 Players Championship [below]. Tiger started the ball well to the right and worked it back towards the lake. Since he aimed so far to the right, he knows the ball has no chance of curving back into the lake.
So, which strategy is right for you? Kim and Harrington agree that the best approach is for you to take a few balls out to the range or on the course and simply try both. Find a hole with trouble up one side and hit several balls using each strategy.
Keep in mind that you might be more comfortable using the opposite approach when the trouble is on the right vs the left. That’s fine, but recognise which strategy makes you more comfortable and produces a shot that takes the trouble out of play.