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10 Essential Short Game Lessons
Tommy Horton

Teaching the graduates of the Challenge Tour at San Roque during MacGregor Week earlier this year highlighted to me once again the importance of the short game and the drills and checkpoints you need to stay sharp around the green. Let me take you through 10 key scoring lessons I believe every player must learn.

1. Sand school - work on the depth and accuracy of the strike

The reason professionals make sand play look easy is that they have such incredible control over the delivery of the clubhead and the depth of sand they remove from beneath the ball. Here's a useful drill to work on improving these skills.

Once you understand the basics of greenside bunker play, find yourself a practice bunker and spread out a few balls, as I have done here.

Draw a line in the sand approximately two inches behind the row of balls and work on thumping that line as you splash them out one by one. As you will quickly discover, the less sand you take (i.e. the closer you hit to the ball) the farther the shot will carry; the more sand you remove the less height and distance you achieve.

Don't be afraid to experiment with the degree to which you open the clubface (that determines the amount of 'bounce' you get from the sand-iron) and the amount of sand you take. Pretty soon you will find that you are able to produce a range of different shots - all based on basic principles.

2. Sand school - learn from the depth & direction of divots

In the last issue I talked about the basic bunker technique - i.e. the need to open both your stance and the clubface, and to swing along the line of the toes. Later on in this feature I will explain how to cope with some of the toughest sand shots, but first let me explain how your divots can help you to monitor the quality of your technique.

Clearly, the way you set-up to play a regular bunker shot encourages you to swing across the ball-to-target line. When this is accomplished correctly the divot of sand that you remove should be seen to point to the left of the target -i.e. it agrees with the line of your swing. If the divot you have taken is not going in the same direction as your feet, then either your shoulders have got out of position, or your wrists are not working correctly during the swing.
Use this visual feedback when you practise and keep an eye on both the alignment of your body and the general line of your swing.

Monitor both the depth and the direction of your divots when you practise.

3. Plugged ball - bury the clubhead in the sand.

One shot that does not require you to take a shallow cut of sand with a lofted clubface is the plugged ball. Quite the opposite, in fact. The challenge here is to get the leading edge of the club beneath the ball in order to get it out. You have to dig, and often the pitching-wedge - with its sharper leading edge - is a better option that the sand-iron. Either way, shove the handle forward until the leading edge is aimed at the sand behind the ball, and play the ball fairly well back in your (still open) stance.

Then make a full and fairly aggressive swing, and thump the sand behind the ball. This is a dig, not a splash, so don't worry about a stylish follow-through. The ball will come out low and run - but it will come out.

4. Pitching - set up revolves around the clubface

The basic rule of short-game work is this: the loft you require on the clubface must be pre¬set before you complete your stance, whereupon the butt-end of the club should be seen to point to the left of your belly-button.

Naturally, to play a low shot you would push the handle of the wedge forward to de-loft trie clubface. Bearing in mind what I've just said about the position of the butt-end, if I complete
my set-up you can see that the ball is played back in the stance, opposite the inside of the right foot.

If you follow the same procedure to play a higher shot - in this case with the clubface open - you will see that the ball is played forward in the stance, opposite the inside of the left foot. So, the golden rule in all aspects of the short-game is to set the loft on the clubface before you complete your set-up, making sure that the butt-end points to the left of your belly-button. Then you're ready to play.

5. Low hands better than high hands

The way you position your hands at address is very important in terms of your ability to hinge your wrists correctly and make a good swing.

If your hands are too high the wrists are effectively locked, and, as a result, you often see the club guided inside the line too quickly. There is no setting of the wrists, real feel for the shot.

Far better to hold your hands relatively low at address, so that you create a nice angle at the back of the left wrist. This enables the wrists to hinge correctly in the backswing and thus set the club on plane.

One more thing. As I start to swing, you will notice that as the wrist hinges, the initial loft I set on the clubface is retained.

This is very important: skilful players retain the loft they have created by setting the wrists and maintaining that angle through the shot. They don't uncock their wrists to the extent they do for the most powerful shots.

Retaining that angle in the wrist guarantees loft on the clubface. Work on this.

6. Length of swing controls distance

I advise you to work on the principle that the length of your swing controls length of shot. Let's say you hit a sand-iron 90 yards with a fullish (not flat out) swing. What do you do for 75 yards? For me that's a three-quarter swing - i.e. the left arm swings back to about 10 o'clock.

Fifty yards? That would be a half-swing, which I regard as a swing that sees the left arm travel no more than to parallel with the ground, as you see here. Anything less than this and I would either use a more

lofted wedge or swing shorter still. The key is to swing nice and easy for control. Think in terms of the efficiency of your movement, rather than power.

Here's another point to keep in mind. Players with soft hands tend to swing slowly, and with feeling (think of Fred Couples, or Phil Mickelson, magicians in the short game). The only way you really know where the clubhead is is to have soft hands, so grip lightly.

7. For a consistent path and plane,keep your lower body passive

Now I want to stress one of the most important short-game lessons of all: you must keep the legs and lower body as quiet as possible as you make your swing.

Golfers who are prone to shanking the ball, or who get too much 'bounce' into their pitching and bunker shots do so because their lower body moves first in the downswing, rather than upper body. If the lower part of your body moves forward (i.e. towards the target) the upper body will move backwards (away from the target), and you will end up swinging towards the ball too much from the inside.

To correct this, think "hinge, set and turn". Once you have set the angle in your wrists, the key is to work on the rotation of your upper body through impact. (And the only difference between a pitch shot and a sand shot is that with a pitch shot you hit the ball and on a sand shot you hit sand.) When you practise, replicate the drill I used in the sand earlier to check the quality of your strike with a wedge. Score a line on the ground and monitor to see where you strike the ground in relation to the ball. All the people who do this correctly move the upper body through over passive legs; those who don't tend to use their lower body excessively in the downswing.

8. Swing left through the ball for better strike, greater control

Here's a tip that will have you looking like a pro in no time. When you want to play a controlled punch-pitch type shot, focus on the way you finish your swing. Make sure that you control your swing with the rotary motion of your upper body, so that you finish with your elbows tucked in close to your stomach, the club matching the general line of your feet and body (not the line to the target).

If you watch a good player executing this type of shot you will notice that the angle in the wrists is held as the upper body unwinds and the hands and arms pull the clubface across the ball (that's why divots go left). The follow-through is 'held off- i.e. the clubhead never passes the hands. At the finish, the left arm is close to the body. That's a good sign.

9. Downhill - lean your body towards the target

For the average player this would be a nightmare. In fact, I know several good players who find this sort of shot extremely awkward. The problem, almost without exception, is that a player will try to apply normal rules to what is clearly an abnormal situation; he stands straight and sticks his hands forward.

The shoulders are too level, the swing is too wide, and the club gets caught on the bank on the way back. The solution is that you need to work with the slope, and adjust your set-up until your shoulders are parallel with the slope upon which your ball is sitting. Leaning your body in that fashion enables you to hinge your wrists and swing the club back without interference - as you can see, in the correct position it's an effort to reach the bank.

Having settled into a comfortable and balanced position, with my weight clearly on my left side, hingeing the wrists enables me to make a fairly normal swing and splash through the sand just behind the ball. The key is to then 'chase' the clubhead down the slope so that you remove a shallow divot of sand. The follow-through sees my hands and the clubhead finish low to the ground. By no means an easy shot, but one that is made possible with an understanding of the correct set-up.

10. Uphill - lean away from the target, and swing the club up the slope

If you try to stand normally to a ball that is sitting on an upslope in a bunker, your swing will be destined to deliver the clubhead at much too steep an angle in relation to the sand. As a result you drive the clubhead beneath the ball but fail to create the necessary upward momentum that gets it flying towards the target.

Again, you need to adjust your set-up to accommodate for this. The first thing to do is build a stance. The Rules allow you to shuffle your feet into the sand for balance, and, with the ball in the middle of your feet, you should wiggle your stance about until your shoulders are approximately parallel with the slope. Naturally, on the upslope the majority of your weight will be supported on your back foot. (As is the case here, sometimes it is necessary to stand with one foot outside the bunker!).

These adjustments to your set-up .position now make it possible to swing the club up the slope and remove a shallow divot of sand. Naturally, when you do this, you effectively add loft to the club, so bear in mind that the ball will fly on a much higher trajectory than normal.

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