Chip, Pitch, Splash
Take it from me, short game practice is the quickest route to
shooting lower scores. The vast majority of the shots that you hit in a typical round are from within 100 yards of the hole, and so it follows that the extra effort you put into your short game will produce big dividends in terms of cutting your handicap.
That's simple logic and - perhaps more importantly - a huge return for little effort on your part.
As attractive as that prospect sounds, however, working on the short game just isn't regarded as sexy when compared to smashing drivers into the middle distance.
The talk in the bar is usually all about the guy who hit the par-5 in two, or who hit an enormous drive round the corner of the dogleg, even if he ended up three putting.
Funny how the guy who hit three shots onto the green and holed the putt rarely rates a mention.
It isn't for me to tell you how to spend the limited amount of time you have for practice. And yes, I understand that chipping, pitching and putting may not quite hold the allure of launching your latest titanium. But think of the benefits.
A tight short game helps you play well; it helps you to score even when you play badly; it makes you consistently a better golfer. I don't know about you, but all of that sounds like a whole lot of fun to me...
Week-in, week-out, I see the same basic chipping error committed by at least one of my pro-am partners. Even before they attempt to play the shot, they are clearly thinking about lifting the ball up into the air. You can see it in the set-up. The usual symptoms are a dropping of the right shoulder and a shifting of weight on to the right side, away from the target (left). Pretty well the exact opposite of what you should be doing.
Look at it this way. The lowest part of your swing arc - i.e. where the clubhead strikes the ground - is always going to be directly below your sternum, which doubles as your centre of gravity. So all you have to do is create an address position that encourages the club to make contact with the ground directly under the ball. In other words, you need to set up with your sternum level with the ball. To do that, lean into your left side (let comfort determine the width of your stance) with as much as 90% of your weight on your left foot. Then leave it there throughout your swing.
If that proves difficult, try lifting your right foot all but off the ground at address so that only your big toe is touching. I often do that when I practise. You'll soon get a cleaner, crisper, more consistent strike on the ball.
I'm not someone who chips with the same club all the time. To me, that requires too much in-swing manipulation and is just another complication to what should be a simple shot. So I chip with anything and everything, from a lob-wedge to a 6-iron, depending on how high I want the ball to fly and how much I want it to run on landing. Work on that a bit.
Pick a spot on the practice green and, using each of your chipping clubs, aim to land the ball on that spot and see how far it runs out from that landing area.
Only the club changes - the technique doesn't. As you will discover, the more lofted the club you use, the less the ball will want to run out on the green. You have to use this information to figure out which club suits a certain situation on the course. In general, I recommend you get the ball on the deck as soon as possible. It's easier to hit a target spot that is near to you, playing a low runner, than it is aiming to fly the ball with a high lob.
I'm often asked when a chip turns into a pitch. My answer is 'when the length of the shot requires you to make even the smallest pivot,' which, for me, equates to somewhere around the 60-yard mark. The best strategy is to see your pitches as 'mini-shots' that are produced by a swing that is made at less than your full speed.
Obviously the hands have to be sensitive to the shot and the wrists will hinge and respond to the weight of the clubhead, adding to the overall rhythm of your swing. But at the same time you want to at least feel that you eliminate hand action as much as possible so that you are able to consistently control your speed through the ball. Ideally, you only want to dislodge a small shallow divot after the ball has been strick. A big divot tells you that your swing is too steep.
For the desired ball-turf impact, think 'shallow' on your downswing. Which isn't the same as sweeping the ball off the turf. You still want to produce a slightly downward hit through impact. To encourage this, set up with the ball about halfway between the middle of your stance and your left heel. In other words, more forward than you might first think.
Once you are happy at address - again, let comfort dictate the distance between your feet - focus on swinging within yourself. You hardly ever want to be trying to hit the ball more than 75% of what you would consider your maximum distance. Let's say you can hit your lob wedge 80 yards flat out.
You should rarely use that club for a pitch of more than 60 yards. A little practice will soon give you a feel for how far you can hit the ball with a variety of backswing lengths.
unker play is a bit like chipping, at least when it comes to your address position. As you did for the chip shot, you want to create 'impact' at address.
So set up this time with your sternum directly above a point about an inch behind the ball. In other words, above the area of sand you want the sole of the club to enter the sand as you skim it through.
Again, you want most of your weight - about 90% - on your left side. Again, you want to leave it there throughout the swing. That has the benefit of angling your shoulders downward from right to left, which allows you to make a slightly steeper than normal backswing and forward swing and encourages you to 'skim' the club through the sand. When you get that right, the ball flies out high and soft.
Good bunker technique revolves around a good set-up position. For me, that involves letting the length of the shot
I am playing dictate how far left I aim my body at address and how much I open the clubface. It's a trade-off.
The simple rule of thumb that I follow is that for every degree I open the clubface, I open up my body by the same amount. So, for a standard greenside shot, a line along my feet will be aimed roughly 30 degrees left of the flag, the clubface opened until the leading edge is aligned 30 degrees right of the flag - as we have illustrated here (left). If I want the ball to go further than normal, I square up both my stance and the clubface.
If I don't want the ball to go as far - say, when I want a very soft pop-up type shot - I would significantly open both my stance and the clubface until I was satisfied that I had the perfect set-up for the shot (right).
One last thing. Even the briefest of glances at all the best sand players reveals that every one of them has a significant bend in their knees at address. They 'sit down' to hit bunker shots. You should, too.