The other day, I got to thinking about why the Short Game is so difficult for the average player. It’s the single best place to start if you want to shave strokes off your game. Roughly 60-65% of all strokes take place from 100 yards and in, (driving the ball accounts for 25%, leaving just 15% for all other shots) and 43% of that 60-65% is putting.
One of my classmates recently asked me about my teaching philosophy. While my methodology is still very much in the developmental stages, I told him I thought I would start by teaching a new student the proper grip first before heading over to the Short Game area. When he asked me why, I told him that I thought if a player could learn to conquer the shorter swings of pitching and scoring wedges, then he could play the game reasonably well… and also really enjoy himself! Golf is not a game of perfect, and the best players on the PGA Tour are proof of that. They hit just 12-14 greens per round (65-75%). The difference is that the best players in the world get up and down 70% of the time. That’s Short Game.
The average golfer will hit fewer greens in regulation than the pros and will have many more opportunities to get up and down. If a player misses 12 greens but is able to make par or better just half the time, he has saved himself at least six strokes. There’s no doubt that the Short Game is the area where all golfers have the opportunity to lower their scores, and quickly.
The Short Game is difficult because, as you’re about to read, there are so many nuances to each shot, and most of those shots require nearly exact execution. There are five main components to the Short Game: putting, chipping, pitching, greenside bunkers, and scoring wedges.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Putting is hard. It involves controlling both the distance and direction of the golf ball, and the main objective is to make the simplest and most efficient stroke that gets the ball to finish close to or in the hole. For most players, this is the most neglected part of the golf game. Putting is like shooting free throws. It’s boring. But you can’t score if you can’t get your ball into the hole.
I would start by making sure that the putter is properly fit to the player. A putter that is too long will cause the player to be out of balance, and he will want to pull the putter outside-in, pulling, or cutting across the ball. A putter that is too short will move the eye line beyond the golf ball, causing the player to hit inside-out, push, or even hook the ball. There are also weight considerations. A putter can be face-balanced (putterhead balances evenly or flat from heel to toe), heel-toe weighted (putterhead rests at a 45-degree angle when balanced), and toe-down or toe-weighted (toe of the putterhead points straight down). The way a putter is balanced really influences face angle at impact (see below). If a player consistently misses putts to the high or to the low side, it could be an issue of weighting. I started out the semester putting with a toe-down or toe-weighted putter. When I switched to a heel-toe weighted model of the proper length, I immediately started making more putts.
When gripping the putter, the hands should be placed close together. The club is held primarily in the palms, so from behind, the shaft appears to disappear into the forearms. I prefer a reverse overlap grip, the most common grip on the PGA Tour, in which the forefinger of the leading hand overlaps the little finger of the trailing hand. But this is a personal preference, and there are plenty of successful putters who use a different grip. It has to be comfortable. The wrists should be firm, but the hands should be relaxed. You want feel, but you don’t want any wrist hinge. Putting is a single-lever motion. As with the full swing, the body is aligned parallel left of the target. The most important alignments occur with the upper body, and the stroke is directed (started) by the shoulders and the arms. The eyes should be over or just inside the edge of the ball. The forearms will be parallel to the target line.
The face of the putter should be lined-up squarely to the target, and here’s why: face angle is responsible for 83% of the initial direction of the ball in putting. The other 17% comes from path. The feet should be a little less than shoulder width apart, and the weight should be evenly distributed across both feet or even slightly favor the leading side. The player should tilt from the hips so that the arms hang freely down from the shoulders with the elbows slightly flexed. The hands will be positioned directly below the shoulders, and the arms and putter will form a “Y” shape when looking at the player face-on. Ball position is determined by the upward motion of the putterhead and should be 1-2″ in front of the bottom of that arc.
The putting stroke is a rhythmical motion similar to a pendulum. The backswing takes approximately twice as long as the forward swing (to impact). The longer the putt, the longer the stroke. A consistent tempo at a 2:1 ratio backswing to forward swing helps maintain a consistent force through the impact area. The shoulders turn around a centered spine angle, and the putterhead should come slightly inside the target line on the backswing and slightly inside the target line after impact (inside-square-inside).
Reading greens comes from experience, and putts are affected by the elements gravity and friction. Gravity pulls the ball to the lowest point in the area, and friction causes it to slow down. The faster the ball is rolling, the more it will overcome the force of gravity. This reduces break. As putts slow down, they are even more susceptible to the forces of gravity. Downhill putts lose speed less quickly and will tend to hold their line longer. As a general rule, play more break.
Probably the most important aspect to putting is believing that you’re a good putter. Developing a consistent pre-shot routine can go a long way toward keeping your tension level at a minimum. You can see that this was the longest and most complex portion of our first semester Short Game textbook, and that’s because it’s the most important.
The Golf Academy has an adage when it comes to the Short Game: putt whenver you can, chip when it’s not possible to putt, and pitch when there’s no other option. It makes sense if you think about it. Putting is a one-lever stroke that keeps the ball on the ground. Poor contact, at worst, creates a fair result. Like putting, chipping is a firm-wristed, single-lever motion that maximizes roll while minimizing airtime.
Club selection when chipping is key and can vary greatly based on the lie of the ball, the required carry distance, the slope of the target area, and the speed and firmness of the green. A player can use virtually any club in his bag to chip the ball close to the hole.
The idea in chipping is to use the simplest stroke possible to produce the desired result. The only spin produced by this type of shot should come from the loft of the club. The club is held primarly through the palms like a putting grip. This takes a little getting used to. If you use this grip, try resting the toe of the club on the ground rather than the entire sole of the club. Then stroke the chip like a putt. It won’t go as far as you might think, but it will come off dead. The player who grips the club the same way he does for the full swing often creates a second lever, adding complexity to the stroke and making consistency more difficult to attain.
The player should grip down on the club a half-inch or more. The weight should be balanced across the middle of the feet, with the player keeping his shoulders as level as possible. This address position creates a “Y” shape when looking at the player face-on. The player should set his weight toward his leading side to encourage a descending motion, and the tempo should resemble that of a putting stroke. There should be enough force to carry the ball at least three to four feet onto the putting surface. The ball is played in the middle of the stance for a good lie and moved closer to the back foot as the lie worsens. The club also needs to be slightly de-lofted with the leading edge perpendicular to the target. Moving the ball back creates a steeper angle of approach, but because the club is even more de-lofted, the resulting roll-out will be greater. It’s necessary to use a more lofted club to produce the desired result. Depending on the length of the shot, the thickness of the grass, and the lie, a slight hinging of the wrists on the backswing may be necessary to get the additional force required to carry the ball onto the green.
The basic chipping stroke is one-lever. The player swings the arms, shoulders, and club back in a fluid motion without hinging the wrists. The tempo for a chip shot should be close to the 2:1 ratio that it is for putting.
Chipping Cheat Sheet:
* Grip down a half-inch or more
* Weight balanced across the middle of the feet
* Weight favoring the leading foot
* Feet slightly open
* Tempo like a putt
* Ball middle of stance, back for bad lie
* De-l0ft club slightly with leading edge
* One-lever stroke without hinging the wrists
* Swing “Y” shape back and through
Pitching (10-30 yards)
Pitching too often becomes the preferred choice for many players even though its the most difficult shot to execute consistently. I think this is because pitching, like scoring wedges, requires less than a full swing, something most players have a difficult time with. Players like to hit every shot with full force and effort.
Pitching is a two-lever motion that generates a more lofted ball flight to produce maximum airtime and minimum roll, opposite of chipping. Because the levered motion occurs with a higher-lofted club, it demands even greater control of the clubface. The grip, aim, and set-up need to be more exact, and with this type of shot, it’s easier for the player to mishit the ball, hitting it fat or thin.
Using a more lofted club to get the proper trajectory, the grip that a player uses for pitching should be the same one that’s used for the full swing. The second lever addes enough force to carry the ball the correct distance and loft the ball high enough to stop it fairly quickly. Strength and power are not needed for this shot, and gripping down on the club a half-inch or more allows the player to swing the club at a slower pace while maintaining the needed control.
The player should set-up to the ball with the weight on the leading side (about 60-70%). The stance should be fairly narrow, 8-10 inches, but slightly open to the target. Using an open stance restricts the amount of body turn so most of the motion for the stroke comes from the shoulders, arms, and hands, and it keeps the player’s weight predominantly on the leading side. The player’s spine angle should be neutral (not tilted toward or away from the target), and balance should be over the middle of the feet. The hands should be positioned slightly ahead of the ball, giving the shaft a slight forward lean. The basic ball position should be in the middle of the stance.
The pitching motion is just like a full swing, only shorter. It’s a smooth, flowing motion where the club, arms, and body work as a single unit. The motion begins with the arms and shoulders moving the club back. There is a slight transfer of weight from the leading to the trailing side and then back to the leading side. The tempo for the pitching stroke will more closely resemble that of the putting and chipping strokes. The length of the backswing should be based on the length of the shot. The forward swing length should closely match the backswing length. Any backspin on the ball should be the result of clubface loft, angle of approach, and clubhead speed. The player’s weight transfers toward the target and finishes over the leaving foot at impact. This puts the swing center, the bottom of the swing, slightly in front of the ball, ensuring the club is still moving slightly downward at impact.
For balls that are in high grass, the ball should be moved back to create a steeper angle of approach. Moving the ball back in the stance de-lofts the club. Because of the reduced spin and loft, it’s important to choose a club with more loft. Hardpan or bare lies present less margin for error, and contact must be exact. Trust me, it’s okay to play the ball further back.
Pitching Cheat Sheet:
* Grip down a half-inch or more
* Same grip as full swing
* Use higher-lofted club
* Weight on leading side (60-70%)
* Narrow stance (8-10″)
* Open stance
* Weight balanced over middle of feet
* Hands ahead of ball, shaft forward
* Ball middle of stance, back for bad lie
* Like full swing, only shorter
* Tempo like chipping and putting stroke
As a general rule, the smaller the particle size of the sand and the sharper the edges, the better the sand will pack and the more consistent it will be from which to play. Firmer sand is easier to play from because the club doesn’t make contact with the ball on a well-played bunker shot. The club should enter the sand 2-4″ behind the ball, meaning the ball is thrown out by the cushion of sand. Because the sand absorbs a lot of the energy of the motion of the clubhead, the club will need to be swung harder than for a similar length shot from the fairway.
Bounce is an important consideration when playing out of bunkers. Bounce is the angle on the sole of a club from the leading edge to the back edge of the club. The higher the bounce, the more the club will glide through the sand instead of digging in too deeply.
The way the player grips the club is really important here. The player should grip down on the club a half-inch or more, roll the face open, and then re-grip the club. In order to hit the ball toward the target, the player has to adjust his body alignment. The easiest way to do this is for the player to open his stance until the clubface points toward the target. This will align the body left of the target (for a righthanded player). The player’s weight should be over or just inside the leading leg, with the ball positioned slightly forward in the stance. The spine angle should be neutral, and the player should dig into the bunker with his feet.
Putting the weight over the leading leg limits the amount of body movement for the shot and helps create a swing that is more “V-shaped” than “U-shaped.” Bunker shots require a steeper swing. The club is swung along the player’s body lines.
With a buried lie, the club will need to go deeper into the sand to get the leading edge of the club below the ball. There are two ways to achieve this – a stance and a clubface more square to the target or just a more square clubface. Longer shots require longer finishes.
Greenside Bunker Cheat Sheet:
* Grip down a half-inch or more
* Club enters sand 2-4″ behind ball
* Swing harder
* Open the face, then re-grip the club
* Point clubface toward target
* Open stance
* Weight over or just inside lead leg
* Ball forward
* Dig-in with feet
* Swing along body lines
Scoring Wedges (30-100 yards)
This is a distance where less than a full swing needs to be used by the player. Most players have a difficult time finding the correct backswing length to produce the desired distance outcome.
One of the most effective methods for playing scoring wedges is to hit less than full-shot distances with a series of three to four wedges, controlling the distance of the shot by changing the length of the backswing. The goal is to maintain a 4-5 degree increment in the lofts between clubs.
I prefer the clock method to attain the proper backswing length. Imagine a clock with the player’s feet in the six o’clock position with the player playing toward three o’clock. The length of the backswing would go to 8:00, 9:00, and 10:00. The follow-through would go to 4:00, 3:00, and 2:00. Again, the length of the follow-through should match the length of the backswing.
The grip and the swinging motion used for scoring wedges is similar to that of the full swing. Gripping down on the club a half-inch or more increases the amount of control the player has during the swing. The basic posture is also similar to that of the full swing, except that the player should spread his feet far enough apart to maintain his balance for the length and force of the swing. A longer swing requires a wider stance. A short swing requires a narrower stance. The player should set-up with his body aligned parallel left of the target. The ball should be positioned in the middle of the stance for the basic scoring wedge shot. However, the player should always err on the trailing side because it ensures cleaner contact even if that means lower trajectory.
Playing the ball back slightly helps lower the trajectory of the shot and keeps the ball down when playing into the wind. Many of the adjustments that the player will need to make in scoring wedge play will be in different club selection rather than in trying to alter the motion and pace of the swing.
Scoring Wedges Cheat Sheet:
* Grip down a half-inch or more
* Similar motion to full swing
* Longer swing = wider stance; short swing = narrow stance
* Body aligned parallel left
* Ball middle of stance; err on trailing side
* 8:00, 9:00, 10:00 backswing lengths
* Finish should match backswing (8-4, 9-3, 10-2)
* Tempo like pitch shot
* For a lower shot, play the ball back or use a different club
If you really want to delve into the Short Game, I highly recommend Dave Pelz’s Short Game Bible. While I don’t know how much of his teaching philosophy I will adopt personally, this book will definitely be in my golf library wherever I end up.