Someone asked me to make a post talking about how I shape the golf ball, and it dovetails nicely with some work I've been doing with some students lately on how they can control their ball flight, so here goes.
First, some background information. Everything will be talked about in terms of a righty.
When I talk about the clubface and use the terms "open" and "closed" it's relative to the path.
When I talk about the clubface and use the terms "right" and "left" it's relative to the final target (the flag, the fairway, etc.).
When I talk about the path I'll typically say "right" or "left" and say what they're relative to (it could be a different path, i.e. "this will shift the path farther to the right.") though occasionally I might slip up and say "out to in" (to the left) or "in to out" (to the right).
Additionally, I'll use some Trackman numbers in here too. In Trackman, the target line is 0°. A positive degree number (i.e. "+3°" or "3°") means "to the right." A negative degree number (i.e. "-6°") means to the left. In Angle of Attack (AoA), negative is down and positive is up.
Knowing the D-Plane helps, but really, all we'll use here is that hitting down more sends the path more to the right and hitting up more sends the path more to the left. It's all relative - if your path is WAY left, hitting down more may not make your path go far enough to the right to hit a push-draw.
We're assuming center-of-face contact and thus no gear effect on all the shots we'll talk about. Sorry - it's generally not advisable to draw the ball by toeing it.
Ball Flight Laws: As we all know by now, the ball's initial direction is primarily controlled by where the clubface is pointing at impact. The ball draws or hooks if the path is right of the face and cuts/fades or slices if the path is to the left of the face.
There are a lot of shots you can hit. For the purposes of this discussion, this terminology in the graphic below assumes that the golfer is aligned parallel left. "Push" thus refers to shots which start out right of parallel to their stance line, and "pull" refers to shots that start out left of parallel to their stance line.
Note that a "push-fade" is a perfectly playable shot if the flag is simply located at "I". Ditto a push if the flag is at "H" or a straight-draw if the flag is at "D".
Let's operate on the assumption that my stock shot is a baby push-draw. My Trackman numbers with a 6-iron tend to be roughly:
That produces a gentle push-draw.
Now, I'm somewhat fortunate because my natural swing path is not exaggerated very much. One of my goals for shaping the ball is to keep my swing just about as similar as possible - I prefer to shape the ball as much as I can with setup changes rather than trying to change my swing. So I'm fortunate because my path is fairly neutral, so setup changes can be effective. If I played golf with a path that was +10°, for example, I'd have a hard time fading the ball with the same swing - my face would have to be well open to my body (11° or more) and I'd turn a 4-iron into a 7-iron by opening it up so much!
There are a lot of ways to change the shape of a shot. I'll start with the most basic and work up to the more complex ones.
Super Easy: Alignment
If my stock shot, when I'm lined up parallel left of the target "G" is to hit a push-draw, and I want to hit a bigger draw, I can switch to a straight draw (D) or, if necessary, a pull-draw (A). If my path is normally 4° with my feet at 0°, changing my stance to 4° will shift my path to 8°. I'll need to align my clubface roughly square to my body, though because if I keep it 2° right of my stance line it'll be at 6°, and a 6°/8° face/path relationship is not enough to get the ball to draw all the way back to the target. So I'll set it roughly square to my stance, and deliver 4°/8° face/path to the ball. The ball will start pretty straight to my stance line and draw, hence, a "straight-draw" with 4° of curve (remember: my stock draw only curves about 2°).
Note that because I've squared the face and it's no longer 2° open relative to my stance, I've taken a little loft off the club, and a straight draw will tend go a little farther.
Similarly, for an even bigger draw, I can shift my alignment even farther to the right. Let's say I go 4° more. Now my body is lined up 8° right of the target. My path, changing nothing about my swing, will be 12°. I want my clubface to be about 6° to have the ball go to the target, so I'll actually close the face to my stance 2° (remember: my stance is 8° right). Note that this club is de-lofted even more than the "straight draw" above.
Because my path is slightly right on a stock shot, baby fades are easier than big fades or intentional slices with just alignment. For example, imagine I want to hit a shot with -2°/-4° face/path relationships. A baby fade. Since my natural path is already +4°, I'll have to shift my body alignment to -8° to get my path to -4°. My natural clubface angle is 2° open to my stance, but that only puts me at -6°, so I have to open the face another 4° to get it to -2°. In doing so I'm adding a little loft to the club, but I can hit a reliable push-fade from this setup without changing my swing. You can see, though, why bigger fades are more difficult - for a baby fade I've already moved my stance a full 8° left!
Moderately Easy: Shape Keys
I'm making up the word "shape keys" but basically they're subtle ways of manipulating the swing without consciously trying to change the swing itself. The swing will change, but they can almost all be done with simple setup changes (not body alignment) or subtle changes to the swings themselves.
The first three are all inter-related:
Handle Location - If we push the handle of the club forward (towards the target) and outward (away from our body) we can subtly shift the path of the club to the right. The low point of the clubhead will tend to be later (farther forward), thus allowing us to hit a little "farther back" on the circle. Conversely if we tilt the handle back a little from the normal setup position or bring it a little closer to us, it will tend to shift the path a little to the left.
Ball Position - Ditto the above. If we move the ball position back, we're hitting down on the ball more and thus the path is a bit farther out to the right. Vice versa for a fade.
Weight Location - It's easiest to send our path to the right with our weight the farthest forward, and to shift our path left with our weight the farthest back.
Now, those three can be combined. If you wanted to hit the BIGGEST pushes that still draw a lot with a fairly square setup, you could put the ball back in your stance, lean the handle forward, and put more of your weight forward throughout the entire swing. You could send the path +15° or more and play BIG pushes and hooks. Yes, the face will be de-lofted because it's back in your stance and the handle is forward, but you've also got to point the face 7 or 8° to the right, adding loft, to hit a playable push-draw in all of these situations.
Conversely, I can move the ball position a little farther forward, put the handle back a little, and keep my weight back. These things will all tend to shift the path a little to the left - enough that I can play a fade (typically a straight-fade to a baby pull-fade) without trying to change my swing a whole lot. Obviously the danger of shifting weight, handle, and ball position to hit a fade is that we're going to move our low point closer to the ball, and possibly behind the golf ball, so you don't want to do these things so much that you hit shots fat and thin.
There are additional "shape keys" that I don't consider really truly affecting my swing. A few of them might be:
Eyelines - Tilting your head to the right or left can change the way the shoulders work and their natural alignments on the downswing. Tilt your right eye down so your eyes line up more to the right and your path will tend to shift out to the right.
Pressure Points - For me, I'll commonly feel that I attach my left upper arm more solidly to my chest at setup, ensuring that I'm more likely to keep my arms on my chest during the downswing, which shifts the path left a little. If my left arm "flees" my chest and detaches from my chest, that will send the path right, and I can set up for that by having it less attached at address.
Finish Feel - It ties into pressure points as well, specifically your left armpit pressure point (PP4), but if you feel like you finish with "higher" hands your path will be shifted to the right, and if you "bury the handle" or "swing the handle around your knees) you'll shift the path left.
Harder: Swing Changes
Body Rotation vs. "Hands Down" Rate - If I need to hit a big cut, I might try to feel that my body rotates and my hands and arms are very late to "come down" across my chest and into impact. Delaying the arms coming down has my shoulders pointing more to the left at impact, they're more "open," thus shifting the path left. Conversely, if I try to get my arms and hands down quickly from the top of the backswing, my shoulders will be a bit more "closed" to the target and thus my path will be slightly more to the right.
Downswing Path - I hinted at it above but you can do it in a more extreme fashion too. For example, on the downswing, if you shift your left arm well out away from your body (chest) and then "bury the handle" low and left (swing "low and left"), you'll shift the path well to the left. This is the move most slicers make (in conjunction with some others, like having their weight back too far). Conversely, if I want to change the path to be more rightward, I might keep my left arm tight to my chest and then explode it off my chest high and towards first base at impact.
Wrist Conditions - If you can cup the left wrist during the downswing slightly, the path will tend to shift left of the face - the shaft will be back slightly, the clubhead will be outside the hands at A6, etc. Fades and pulls. Again, conversely, if you arch (palmar flex) your left wrist throughout the downswing, the path will shift out to the right and keep the face closed to it.
Third Accumulator Release - If you want to keep your wrist conditions the same, you can mess with how far you roll the left forearm and wrist. There's no set way to feel this, though: some players who roll it a lot and tip the clubhead under the plane will maintain that condition and send the path to the right, while others will make a last-minute hard roll of the forearm and wrist to send the path left at the last instant. It's a tricky one.
A Quick Word on Shaping the Ball
95% of the shots a pro plays (Tiger Woods may be one of a group of very small exceptions, and even he isn't as different as many think) are their stock shot. They don't curve much, but if a player is a drawer of the golf ball, 95% of their shots draw. It's the most reliable, dependable way to play - with a pattern.
Kenny Perry (a pronounced drawer) was playing at Doral a few years ago and someone asked him what he does with a pin on the right side of the green. He said he aimed at the flag and if his ball didn't draw, he got lucky, but otherwise he was content to have a 25-footer for birdie.
Then the person asked him what he did when the pin was on the left side of the green. "I make birdie" he said. :)
You'll get better, faster if you develop a pattern. Shaping the ball is over-rated - not even the pros do it all that often. Shaping the ball can get you out of trouble. It can be a good shot when the ball needs to be worked around an obstacle (reaching a par five in two, the tee shot on a dogleg, etc.). But if you've got a look at the flag, take the Kenny Perry approach: aim for your shot cone and play your pattern.
So that's that.
If the language above is a turn-off, ask me specific questions and I'll help you to understand what I mean. Some of the things above are intended for advanced golfers, and I think that if I first try to put them in really simple terms, things can get confusing pretty quickly.
But if anything was confusing above, and after a few minutes of thinking about it or re-reading it still doesn't make sense, quote the part that's confusing and I'll clarify and give you a different approach.
Also note that there are other ways to accomplish some of these things, specifically by changing your swing. But that's best avoided, IMO, and honestly per my Kenny Perry example, shaping the ball in general is best avoided when possible. These are just a few things to get you started.
And last but not least, again, remember the ball starts where the face is pointing and curves away from the path. So you can change the path all you want doing the above stuff, but if you don't control the clubface at impact, your planned big cut around the tree and onto the green can turn into a double-crossed duck-hook in no time flat!