Jimmy Koosa looks at the roughly five-foot gap between two cedar trees, and you can almost see the gleam of anticipation in his eye.
The trees stand to the right of the Country Club of Lexington’s driving range, where on a chilly March morning, the long-time Irmo- and Lexington-based golf instructor is demonstrating the art of the hook shot – specifically, the left-handed hook.
If you watched the end of the 2012 Masters, you saw probably the most famous example of that little-appreciated skill. On the second hole of a sudden-death playoff with Louis Oosthuizen, Bubba Watson – he of the untamed hair, hot-pink driver and booming, left-handed tee shots – drove deep into trees along the right side of the 10th hole, leaving him, it seemed to some, little choice but to punch out into the fairway.
Not to Watson, though. From a bare lie, the tall, lanky lefty launched a gap-wedge shot that, he later said, “hooked 40 yards” and flew roughly 155 yards to the green. Two putts from 15 feet later, Watson, teary-eyed, was donning a Masters green jacket.
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“An unbelievable shot,” Oosthuizen said afterward.
“A crazy shot that I saw in my head,” Watson called it.
Koosa, 66 – whose past students include a young Dustin Johnson – says it was neither crazy nor unbelievable.
“That’s something I teach,” he says. “You hook it (or slice it) on purpose; make a good shot from a bad shot. Just about every (PGA Tour) player can create that shot …”
He pauses and adds, “… but maybe not in his mind.”
To prove the first point, Koosa has spent 45 minutes on the range, hitting a variety of on-purpose curving shots for a video camera. Most, alas, are gentle draws and fades, not hooks one could catch fish on. Perhaps he needs inspiration; hence, the two cedars.
With a photographer in position, Koosa sets up aiming between the trees, swings the wedge and sends his shot arcing left-to-right – hard. He darts out from behind the trees in time to see his ball rolling up to a flag, 40 yards to the right and 150 yards downrange: Bubba’s best, all but recreated.
Koosa breaks into a huge grin. “Make sure you put in that story that I made that shot!” he tells a reporter.
A great shot, no question. A miracle shot? Not even close … unless, of course, it’s to win the Masters.
LEFTIES ON A ROLL
For the first seven decades of Augusta National’s existence, the prescribed method of attacking Alister Mackenzie’s hilly creation was to hit a draw – a right-to-left ball flight that produces long, powerful shots and extended roll. That’s a draw for right-handers, which make up the vast majority of players.
But in 2003, Mike Weir, using precision to overcome his relative lack of length, played bogey-free in regulation before topping Len Mattiace in a playoff, also ending at the 10th hole. Weir became the first Canadian to capture one of golf’s majors – and the first left-hander to win the Masters.
In the 10 Masters since, a lefty has won five times: Weir, Phil “Lefty” Mickelson (in 2004, 2006 and 2010) and Watson. Anyone see a trend?
Weir isn’t certain. During a teleconference to mark the 10th anniversary of his lone major title, he all but dismissed the idea that his win broke down some sort of psychological barrier for southpaws. “I don’t think it was a confidence thing amongst us lefties,” he said. “The odds weren’t in our favor because there (were) only a couple of us playing.”
With the arrival of such long-hitters as Mickelson and Watson, though, Weir said a lefthander hitting a right-to-left fade – which many pros believe is an easier shot – has an edge. “I think there is some value in being able to fade the ball off a lot of those (Augusta) holes,” he said. “Especially on the back nine, (holes) 10, 13, 14, 17, all those holes if you can get the ball working right to left, is a big advantage.
“And sometimes it’s easier to control a fade, so there might be some value in that (which) is why we’ve done a little better.”
Watson knows it works for him. “I think (the course) sets up really good for my game,” he said. “I like to cut the ball off the tee, so my driver … No. 2 (tee shot) is a cut driver; No. 5 is a cut with a 4-wood … (No.) 8, you aim at the bunker and cut it; No. 9 is a cut … 13 is a cut, 14 is a cut … 17 is a little cut.
“So really, there (are) only three tee shots that really scare me or can get to me on the whole golf course. It sets up really well for my tee shots, and that golf course is all about your tee shots.”
Watson, one of the PGA Tour’s longest drivers, used that comfort zone to put himself in position to win with his final-round 4-under par 68 and 10-under 278 in regulation. But when his drive on the second playoff hole flew into seeming no-man’s land, Watson needed to pull off a recovery shot not everyone could execute … and only a few could envision.
How’d he do that?
CONTROLLING THE FLIGHT
Koosa is downright wonkish when it comes to golf. He wants his students – many of them youngsters just starting out – to understand the mechanics of the golf swing, and also to grasp that the purpose is to get the ball in the hole in the fewest strokes. “We try to teach ‘em to hit shots, not just swing a club,” he says.
The basics, Koosa says, are simple. “When you strike a ball, the flight is determined by five factors: path of the club, position of the face at impact, angle of attack, solidness of contact and speed of the club,” he says. “That’s ‘ball flight law.’ ” Those five factors also determine which of nine ball paths a ball flies. A golf shot can go left, straight or right – and each of those can draw, fade or go straight, for a total of nine.
“Once good players understand how the five factors work, chipping out (of woods) is ridiculous,” Koosa says.
All shots are not created equal, though – which brings us to Bubba Watson’s advantage on his iconic recovery. A right-handed player, trying to hit a fade from the right-side trees, would not be able to make the shot Watson did, he says.
“If a right-hander tries to bend the shot (to his right) that much, he’d have to decrease the club’s loft to bend that much.” That’s because on a fade – left- or right-handed – the club’s loft is increased by the path of the swing, cutting down the distance it will fly. Conversely, hitting a hook de-lofts the club; hence, Watson could hit a wedge that, with the face closed, traveled the needed distance, yet had enough height to stop on the green.
Clear so far? Oh, there’s one more thing – you need a Watson hitting that shot.
“(Swing) speed gives you distance, but also spin,” Koosa says. “The faster you swing” – and few swing faster and harder than Watson – “the more spin. Bubba could hit a wedge at No. 10; I’d probably have to hit 7-iron. Problem is, my 7-iron (flies) 12-15 feet off the ground, while Bubba’s wedge is 50-60 feet high.
“So his shot hits the green and stays there. My shot? Adios.”
Weir, watching a replay of Watson’s shot, reached the same conclusion.
“(As a lefty) you can get a little more on it than (a right-hander) can (with) a hard fade,” he said. “It’s still a difficult shot but probably easier for a left-hander.”
But not just any lefty; “(Watson) obviously can get the height and the speed on it to spin it, turn it that much,” Weir said. “That’s just a product of power that certain players can hit shots like that. Only a few guys on Tour can produce that kind of speed.
“For myself … I could probably hook it and get it to run all the way up there (to the 10th green). But to fly it all the way up there, with spin … (that’s) probably not in my wheelhouse.”
HARDER SHOTS EARLIER
So: Watson had the left-hander’s advantage on his shot. He also had the power/club-head speed to reach the 10th green and stay there. Anything else?
Yes. He also needed the imagination to conceive of the shot, as well as the ability to pull it off. Only a relative few players, even on the PGA Tour, have both.
Watson described the shot thusly: “I hit my gap wedge, hooked it about 40 yards, hit about 15 feet off the ground until it got under the tree and then it started rising.” Pause for effect. “Pretty easy.”
Asked recently if he had faced any “hard” shots during the Masters, Watson called the one in question “No. 4 on the (difficulty) list just that week,” and listed three others he said were more testing. During Sunday’s final round at the par-4 17th, his tee shot flew “off where the patrons walk, so it was hard-packed like mud because of the moisture.” His second shot “was the same (wedge) off of that, and go over the trees” from 150 yards to the green.
At No. 11 on Friday, sweating the 36-hole cut, his ball came to rest in a sort of pine straw “nest’ in the trees. Watson hit a 9-iron “that could only go no more than 10 feet (high) because of tree limbs,” a low hook that flew, he said, 170 yards with 40-50 yards of curve. Finally, at the seventh hole early in the week, again in trees, Watson had to hit through a gap – “it looked like five feet wide” – then over a tree and between two other trees.
“(And I) pulled it off,” he said. “Obviously the playoff shot was the most important and the most exciting, but the other ones were difficult. (It’s) just (that) nobody cared what Bubba Watson was doing those other days, or those other shots.”
Not surprisingly, Watson relishes such moments. Pulling off those shots is what separates journeymen from major champions. “You ask any pro, that’s what they look forward to,” he said. “You love the challenge. That’s why we compete.
“You want that adrenaline rush, you want that pressure. … (Athletes) want the ball in your hands on the last shot of the game. That’s what we look for.”
No less an authority than Arnold Palmer agrees. Asked about Watson’s shot, “The King” echoed Bubba’s mindset: “It was a great shot,” Palmer said, “but I don’t think it was spectacular. It was more natural for him to hit than anything in the world.
“That was one of the things that attracted (fans) to what I did and how I played. I was reckless, I was in the trees. I was everywhere. But it was part of my life, the way I lived and the way I played.”
Jimmy Koosa will tell you: Executing the Watson hook was, and still is, a matter of mechanics. Almost anyone can do it; certainly many PGA Tour regulars.
That Sunday in Augusta, though, when Watson needed to make the shot – don’t call it a miracle – he had not only the ability, but the vision and the confidence to do so.
And, of course, being left-handed didn’t hurt.