That Sinking Feeling
When your world goes sideways
By Lee Pace
It’s a golf shot, as Ebenezer Scrooge might say apropos of the holiday season, that reeks of an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.
All is right with the world — the sun is warm, the sky is crystalline, the perfume of freshly mown grass permeates the air. The foursome’s in high gear — the bets are made, the jabs are flying, the competitive juices flowing. One-fifty to the green, nice lie, pull the 7-iron, imagine crisp contact and visualize a perfect ball flight, a waggle, a trigger, good extension, sweet tempo . . .
And then a nauseating clunk.
Instead of boring high into the wild blue yonder, the ball flies out of the right corner of your field of vision, into oblivion and certain death.
Silence from the guys.
Golf’s version of Armageddon: the shank.
It happens to the best of them.
Webb Simpson was on the eighth hole at Medinah on the final day of the 2012 Ryder Cup. He needed to hit what he termed would be a “smash 8,” got a little ahead of the ball and shanked it way right, in the direction of the fourth hole.
“I did the math and figured out that was about where Tiger was,” Simpson says. “I thought they’d have to move all those people and make a big scene. It would make no sense to Tiger, and he’d have this on me for the rest of my life. We were in the locker room afterward and Tiger came up to me and said he had a question.
“He said, ‘The wind was tricky today. Where was it blowing on eight?’ He was smiling. I knew he had me. We still talk about that.”
Ian Poulter has hit more shanks than he cares to remember, many of them on the biggest stages in golf. There was the el hosel while in contention at the 2015 Honda Classic, the duck slice at the 2017 Players Championship and the wide right in front of an unforgiving gallery at the 2018 Waste Management Phoenix Open. You can find them on YouTube if you care to venture into that cauldron of horrors.
“I’ve had a number of them at inopportune times,” says Poulter, who’s actually a good sport in talking about a shot that many golfers refuse to address by the s-word name. “I’ve hit a shank on almost every par-3 at Augusta. I tend to move my head slightly forward and my weight gets a little too close to the ball.”
Jack Nicklaus hit a shank on the 12th hole in the 1964 Masters that flew so far right, it didn’t even get wet in Rae’s Creek as it crossed the fairway.
“I’ll never forget the tension in my right arm,” Nicklaus says. “When I swung, my right arm just dominated. It never broke down.”
Johnny Miller hit a shank in the 1972 Crosby Clambake and it haunted him for years. When he won the U.S. Open at Oakmont the following year, he played the back nine while shooting a 63 with one swing thought, “Don’t shank it.”
Miller says the hardest shot in golf is the one after a shank.
“The clubface looks the size of a pea while the hosel looks as big as an elephant,” Miller says. “I contended in tournaments probably 50 times after that, and every time I was worried about shanking.”
Tommy Bolt was once playing in a pro-am with a man who was very nervous on the first tee. He managed to get his first drive in play, but he shanked his second shot. Bolt gave him a word of advice, but he shanked his next shot as well. Bolt gave him something else to try, but the result was yet another shank.
“Tommy, what should I do?” the man wailed.
“Pards, just aim to the left and allow for it,” Bolt said.
Charles Smith was warming up on the practice tee before his semifinal match in the 1960 North and South Amateur at Pinehurst. He hit a shank with his wedge. Then another. Then another.
“Your hands start to sweat and you get that awful feeling in your stomach,” Smith says.
Smith refused to pull the wedge out of the bag the rest of the day. From a hundred yards in, he either hit a choke-down 9-iron or a hooded sand wedge all day. He won the match and went on to collect the title the next day.
“I wasn’t going to risk hitting a shank,” Smith says. “God, what an awful feeling.”
Former PGA champion Jerry Barber designed and manufactured a line of irons that were supposedly shank-proof. Instead of having a round hosel connecting the clubface and shaft, the front of the hosel was flattened. So even if you connected hosel-to-ball, the ball presumably would go forward instead of sideways. The company is now out of business, but the 800 number used two decades ago still gets calls from the afflicted.
Purvis Ferree, the longtime head professional at Old Town Club in Winston-Salem, was hounded by the shanks in older age as his swing flattened with the inevitable rounding of the body and lessening of flexibility. He eventually played with two of Barber’s “Golden Touch” wedges, a no-shank 7-iron for chipping, and a bag full of fairway woods.
“Father was such a wonderful teacher, but the shank almost reduced him to a spectator,” says son Jim, himself a club professional and tour pro on the PGA Tour and Champions Tour. “There were times he could not hit a solid golf shot. One day at Roaring Gap, he gave his irons away to a caddie when he got to shanking.”
In one celebrated story they still tell around Old Town, Purvis went out for a regular match with Malcolm McLean, the trucking magnate and owner of Pinehurst Resort for a decade in the 1970s. The bet was that if McLean could win any one hole, he won the match. On the first hole, Ferree shanked several shots around the green and wound up in the very divot he made with his first shank. He picked up and conceded the hole and the match to McLean.
Jim Ferree was a club professional in Pittsburgh in the 1980s when one of his members, a doctor, saved his golf game by acquiring a set of the Barber irons. When the member read in Golf World that Barber’s company was going out of business, Ferree helped him acquire a backup set in case something happened to the original clubs. Several months later, Ferree was at the doctor’s home for a cocktail party and wondered if the man still had the irons. The doctor led Ferree into a walk-in vault in his bedroom, where the irons were tucked away along with his wife’s jewels and furs.
Just goes to show you the lengths a man will go to protect his cure to the abominable shank. If you’ve never hit one, count your blessings. If you have, please don’t let this harmless little narrative pollute your mind the next time you address a 100-yard approach. PS
Lee Pace has written about golf in the Sandhills for three decades. His newest book, Good Walks — Rediscovering the Soul of Golf at 18 Top Carolinas Courses, is available at area bookstores and through UNC Press.