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Flagging your irons

Make good use of your truest offensive weapon

By Tiger Woods and Golf Digest

Whenever I get an iron in my hands, my first instinct is to be aggressive. The irons are the true offensive weapons in golf.

I always feel a surge of excitement just pulling an iron from the bag, because that's were the process of making birdies really begins. If you're capable of hitting the ball close to the hole, you're capable of shooting low scores.

The basic equation

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From a scientific standpoint, golf is a game of opposites. I think that's what makes it such a hard game for some people. A lot of the things that occur when the club strikes the ball are just the opposite of what your instincts tell you should happen.

The best example falls in the area of iron play. In order to get the ball airborne, you must hit down on it. Countless golfers try to help get the ball in the air by swinging up on the ball. That makes it go down -- a topped shot, or a thin one at best.

Hitting down not only gets the ball in the air, it imparts backspin and enables the ball to fly true.

A primer on ball position

The golf club travels in a circular path during the swing, with the lowest point of the circle occurring directly below your sternum. To make the clubhead contact the ball while it's still moving downward (before it reaches the bottom of the circle), you need to position the ball correctly in relation to your body.

The Driver: The ball is placed opposite my left heel. The clubhead will be moving level to slightly upward when it contacts the ball. The driver is the only club you want to hit slightly on the upswing.

The 5-iron: The ball is positioned slightly forward of center at address. Nevertheless, I still can hit down on the ball because my body moves forward laterally on the downswing, which moves the bottom point of the swing closer to the target.

The Pitching Wedge: I want to hit down a bit more sharply on the ball with my wedges. Therefore, I play the ball dead in the center of my stance.

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I have less lateral body movement on my short irons because the swing is shorter, so I don't want to position the ball forward of center.

Keep your chin up

Good posture is important on every shot. At address I make sure my back is fairly straight and that I have a bit of flex in my knees. My body is now prepared to move freely in any direction during the swing.

One of the most important aspects of good posture is to hold your chin high at address. You want your chin well off your chest so your left shoulder has plenty of room to turn under your chin on the backswing.

Think 'wide' on backswing

The proper backswing is a combination of horizontal and vertical movement. Most amateurs err on the vertical side -- they start the swing by lifting the arms straight up and cocking the wrists immediately. Because the backswing is too vertical, the downswing is too vertical as well. The tendency is to chop down on the ball instead of swinging through it smoothly.

Don't forget the "horizontal" part of the backswing. That means establishing a nice, wide swing arc as soon as you move the club back.

I have the feeling of stretching my hands and arms away from my body early in the backswing, my wrists beginning to cock naturally after the clubhead reaches about knee height. That helps me accumulate power and also ensures that my downswing won't be too steep.

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While I believe in a nice, wide backswing, I don't like one that is too loose. I don't want my arms running away from my upper body.

That would lead to a "fake backswing" -- the club reaching parallel, but only due to excessive wristcocking or the arms swinging back too far. That leads to a weak downswing in which you slap at the ball with your hands and arms alone.

I try to swing the club back with everything -- hips, shoulders, arms and hands -- working together. When I turn my shoulders fully, they accommodate the swinging of my arms to create a strong, unified package at the top of the backswing.

Start down slow

When good players talk about "getting too quick," they're almost always talking about the first move down from the top of the backswing. The beginning of the downswing can't be rushed. You want your swing to gather speed gradually.

If you start down suddenly, all your speed and power are gone by the time you reach impact. Your timing and mechanics are shot, too.

Remember, there can only be one fast moment in the swing, and it had better be when the club strikes the ball.

Down and through

0ne of the keys to good ball striking is to hit through the ball, not at it. In my mind, the ball is merely an object that is in the way of the clubhead as it tears through the hitting area. I don't try to end my swing abruptly after the ball is struck. I try to keep the clubhead accelerating down the target line as long as I comfortably can.

A sweet finish

The look of my follow-through serves as sort of a road map for what happened earlier in my swing. My arms are extended, showing that my swing was real wide, with good extension through the ball. My shoulders have unwound, showing that my swing was predicated on a full shoulder turn.

The toe of the club points straight down, proving that I didn't rotate the club excessively with my hands through impact. For it to arrive at this position, I had to release the club naturally.

Finishing thoughts

0ne of the secrets to good iron play is keeping things simple. The number of situations I encounter may be endless, but the same sound, no-frills swing is sufficient to deal with almost all of them.

Here are the keys to hitting the irons solidly and consistently:

The longer the iron, the farther forward I position the ball in my stance.

I sweep the longer irons, hit down on the rest. I trust the club's loft to get the ball airborne.

My backswing with the irons is shorter than with the woods.

To promote good timing, I start down slowly from the top of the backswing.

The clubhead strikes the ball first, the turf last. I don't begin to take a divot until the ball has left the clubface.

I swing within myself. On standard shots, I never expend more than 80 percent of my effort.

The worse my lie, the farther back I position my ball in my stance.

I always tee my ball on par 3s. You want every edge you can get.

• The; perfect divot is the same size and shape as a dollar bill.

From the book "How I Play Golf" by Tiger Woods with the editors of Golf Digest. Text copyright (c) 2001 by ETW Corp. Reprinted by permission of Warner Books, Inc, NY, NY. All rights reserved. Distributed by New York Times Special Features.

BOX: BUILDING BLOCKS TO MENTAL TOUGHNESS

A player can become mentally tougher by learning from his experiences -- both positive and negative. Rallying to win three consecutive U.S.

Juniors and as many U.S. Amateurs taught me the value of a never-give-up attitude.

Take ownership of your mistakes. Every shot is your responsibility.

When I drive it into the junk like I did on the last hole at Dubai in 2001, I can't blame anyone but myself.

Never make the same mistake twice. It took two visits to the tributary at Augusta National's 12th hole to convince me never to be short of that green again. Both times the wind got me -- but the wind is always a factor there.

Never beat yourself up; there are plenty of people who'll do it for you. I'm my own worst critic, but I will never do anything to undermine my confidence. Nor will I be influenced by anyone's criticism of me. You must be tough enough mentally to handle all potential distractions.

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