QA with John Mahaffey

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Editors Note: John Mahaffey turned professional in 1971 and recorded 10 victories during his regular PGA TOUR career including the 1978 PGA Championship and the 1986 Tournament Players Championship (now THE PLAYERS Championship). John joined the Champions Tour in 1998 and won the Southwestern Bell Dominion the following year. Born in Kerrville, Texas, John was the 1970 NCAA champion while at the University of Houston. John Mahaffey played on two World Cup teams (1978 and 1979 ' medalist in 1978) and was a member of the 1979 Ryder Cup team. John can be seen regularly on the Golf Channel where he works as an analyst on the Champions Tour.
 
A Conversation with John Mahaffey
 
Casey / Q:
John, how do you define an approach shot?

 
John / A:
I think its anywhere from 150 yards and in. But it would also depend on what the hole is. If its your second shot on a par-5, then thats an approach shot as well. A tee shot on a par-3? Is that an approach shot? I guess technically it is although I dont really think most people think of it in those terms. There are a lot of ways to define an approach shot but clearly it means a shot in to the green.
 
Casey / Q:
How do you rate the importance of the approach shot?

 
John / A:
The approach shot is absolutely critical in terms of scoring. And thats one of the things that Mr. Hogan talked to me a lot about when I first started. He taught me that you have to learn how to play your misses. You play the smart shot in to the greens. In other words, if the pin is on the left side of the green you should try to hit a draw to the flag using the slope of the green to help work the ball close to the hole. This way, if you happen to not draw it like you wanted to, you still have a 20-footer and youre not going to make worse than par. If you do draw it like you wanted to, youll have a nice putt at birdie. But you dont try to hit some crazy shot right at the flag, not pull it off, and end up in the water.
 
Casey / Q:
And with the pin on the right side?

 
John / A:
Just the opposite. If the pin is on the right side of the green you should try and hit a fade in there. But, dont overcook it. If you miss, miss to the center of the green. If the pin is up front you dont want to go long because chances are youll have a tough downhill putt. And if the pin is back, take a little more club, maybe hit the ball a little lower and let it skip back there. If you pull the shot off just like you want youll end up with a nice putt at birdie. But if the ball checks up short youll still be in the middle of the green and you wont make any worse score than par. Its one of the most valuable lessons Mr. Hogan taught me; par is a pretty good score.
 
Casey / Q:
Whats your take on working the ball? We dont seem to see as much of that out on TOUR these days.

 
John / A:
I think its all in how you grew up playing the game. The younger guys now are used to the ball flying straighter. They are more inclined to take dead aim at the flag because the ball doesnt move as much as it used to. I learned to play at a different time. A time when the ball curved a lot more than it does today. I grew up playing with Mr. Hogan, with Byron Nelson and Lee Trevino. These guys worked the ball a ton. They moved it all over the golf course: left to right, right to left, high, lowand thats how I learned how to play golf as well.
 

Casey / Q:
This is an equipment factor your think?

 
John / A:
Yes it is. Actually, its harder for me to play with the new equipment that is available today. I mean, I get the ball up in the air easier today because of the advanced aerodynamics of the ball and how low the center of gravity is and how well the perimeter weighting works. For me personally, as equipment advanced, I felt like I had to learn how to play all over again. In order to keep the ball down I had to strengthen the lofts on all my clubs by about a full club. So, the game today is different than it was when I was playing in my prime. I think we worked the ball in to the hole more with our approach shots than players do today. But, its not a case of better or worse, its just different.
 
Casey / Q:
When you won your PGA Championship, what about your approach shots worked well for you?

 
John / A:
I stuck a lot of short irons close the last three days of that tournament. The first day I shot a 75 so I wasnt really hitting any of my approach shots close. I just made the cut really with even par or something like that going in to the weekend. But on the weekend I played really well. I think I shot 68 and 66, something like that (75-67-68-66). I cant really remember all the numbers but I do remember I shot 8 under for the tournament which tied for the lead and then luckily, I won the playoff. But, I do remember that on the weekend especially, I hit a lot of wedges close, a lot of nine irons close. I know I hit a 9-iron for my second shot in the playoff against Jerry Pate and Tom Watson on the second hole and I stuck it about 10-feet left of the hole and I was lucky enough to drain that putt.
 
Casey / Q:
Well, you must have been pretty sharp or you wouldnt have been in a position to win.

 
John / A:
Overall, my short iron approach shots were pretty darn sharp that week and that put me in position to make birdies and score. And I was very conscious of those early lessons I learned from Mr. Hogan in terms of approach shot strategy. Play away from some of the tightly tucked pins, make solid pars when the pins were in tough places, attack pins with approach shots where the pins allowed for that. These are things that amateurs would benefit from if they incorporated it in to their own games.
 
Casey / Q:
How did you configure your wedges when you were playing on the regular TOUR?

 
John / A:
I always had two kinds of sand wedges. At the time I was in my prime we didnt really see a 60-degree wedge out there. 57-degrees was pretty much the most loft we played with. But I always had a wedge with a lot bounce and then I had a wedge with very little bounce. If we had really heavy sand at a tournament where the ball tended to sit down I would use the wedge that had bounce. If the bunkers were more hard packed I would go with the wedge that had almost no bounce.
 
Casey / Q:
Where do you see amateurs going wrong most of the time regarding their approach shots?

 
John / A:
I think amateurs make their mistake more often than not because they get wrapped up in how far they can hit a certain club on their approach in to the green. They think a 7-iron should go a certain distance, or a 5-iron, or a wedgeand in my opinion they are almost always taking too little club which forces them to have to hit the ball too hard. I run in to this all the time at pro-ams. The amateur will ask me, Hey pro, what did you hit on this par-3? And Ill say, Well, I hit a little 6-iron. And the amateur puffs out his chest and says, Wow, I hit a 9-iron. Im really long with my irons. Now, yes, I was on the back tee so I had a little bit of a longer shot but guess what? I made a nice controlled golf swing and hit the ball to 8 feet and the amateur yanked the ball left 40 feet because he came out of his shoes to hit the shorter club. Ive got a nice little putt at birdie and the amateur will be lucky if he can 2-putt and make a par. More often than not, actually, hell 3-putt and walk off the green shaking his head and wondering what went wrong.
 

Casey / Q:
Im laughing because you have described my game so well.

 
John / A:
Well, tell me, whats the better approach? Another one of Mr. Hogans lessons to me; its not how far you hit a club its how close to the hole you can hit a club. So as I watch amateurs play golf I think thats one of their biggest faults. They are almost always a club short. The next time you play, Casey, hit more club in to the green and tell me if it helped you score better. Deal?
 
Casey / :Q
Deal. Since were fortunate enough to have you in a giving advice mood, what else should amateurs be thinking about out there?

 
John / A:
Always play the smartest shot you can. Dont try and be the hero. Amateurs will often make a very big number on a hole because they tried to pull off an impossible hero shot. They rarely pull it off and a big number results. If youre in trouble, hit out safely to a good position so that you have a reasonable chance to make a good approach and maybe make your par but at worst youll make bogie. But you wont have shot yourself out of a potentially good round of golf. If you hit a bad drive, there is nothing wrong with putting yourself back in good position for your third shot, hitting your approach to the green close and making a bogie. OK, so you might make bogie but you can recover from bogie. You start making doubles and triples or worse, you cant recover from that. So, play the smart shot and play within yourself on approach shots and I think youll see your scores go down.
 
Casey / Q:
John, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us. I for one will take what youve said to heart, try it on the course, and Ill give you a call and let you know how it works.

 
John / A:
Well, it was my pleasure, Casey. I hope what weve discussed today helps some people out there.
 
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