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CHIPS AND PITCHES
This is a book about the swing, but it is also about golf. And that compels me to address that crucial aspect of our sport called the short game.
No lectures from me about the importance of the short ones; you already know that every shot counts one. So let’s look at several of the fundamentals of chipping every player should master.
The first rule is this: You must select the spot on the green or the fringe where you want your chip to land. This will determine what club you use.
The second rule: Nearly all chips and pitches should be played with most of the weight on the left foot. This ensures a descending blow.
I learned two chipping methods from Alex Mercer when I was a kid, and I’ve stuck with them. The first of these, which I call The Y, is very dependable for the pitch-and-run. It’s quite simple: Get the weight forward, where it belongs, then make the letter Y with your arms and the club. The goal is to keep the Y uniform throughout the stroke. Hit the ball without breaking the wrists, and power the stroke by lowering the left shoulder on the backswing and raising it on the downswing. It’s almost a putting stroke. The Y is not a powerful shot. Use it for low, running chips within about thirty yards of the green.
For the higher shots around the green, I use what I call the Break and Lock, or the Break/Don’t Break. This method is powered by the shoulders primarily, with a very small hip rotation. Break or cock the wrists on the backswing, then power them forward with the shoulders and hips without uncocking on the downswing or even after the hit; the right hand should never pass the left.
Compared to the shoulders in the full swing, the shoulders in the Break and Lock swing turn a little more parallel to the ground. This gives the club a shallower path and ensures good, crisp contact.
What club should you use? My philosophy is to pick the spot where I want the ball to land, then choose one of the fourteen. You should use the least- lofted club that will land the ball comfortably on the green, then let the ball roll to the hole. The rule of thumb on running chips is to fly the ball one-third of the distance and allow two-thirds for roll; for lofted shots, fly the ball two- thirds of the distance to the hole and allow one-third for roll.
I’ll chip with anything to get the job done, not just the wedges. I practice the basic chipping methods with almost every club in the bag. I’ll even use a three wood from the fringe, and chip the ball with a putting motion.
FOR THE ADVANCED PLAYER
When I want a shallower stroke for lofted shots, I work the shoulders. Unlike the full swing, where the shoulders go under and up, I often want my shoulders to work parallel to the ground for high, soft shots near the green. As in the Break and Lock, this makes for a shallower stroke and more solid contact.
As with chips and pitches, sand play requires an understanding of technique, then a good deal of practice.
The shot from the bunker needs to be an aggressive stroke. Enough sand should exit the bunker to fill a coffee cup, which can’t be accomplished with a mere flick of the wrists.
As you can see in the sand-bunker swing sequence, I’ve drawn a line in the sand opposite the big toe of my left foot. This is the only place from which to hit good bunker shots. With the ball that far forward, your hands are naturally well back behind the ball.
If I put you in the practice fairway in this setup, you’d probably say, “I can’t do this. I’ll hit it fat”—which is precisely the idea. You don’t have to hit the ball to get out of a greenside bunker; you hit the sand behind it and underneath it. So we want you to hit this shot “fat”—that is, to hit behind the ball.
I’m always asked how far I hit behind the ball. Your club should enter the sand close to the ball for long shots and farther from the ball for short ones. The simplest and best way to control how far behind the ball to enter the sand is to match that distance to the distance you hold the hands behind the ball. In other words, if the hands are ten inches behind the ball, your club will enter the sand ten inches “fat.” Obviously, for a long bunker shot you’d hold your hands not very far behind the ball.
How do you hit it? What is the swing motion? Good questions, because we are in fact hitting the ball fat, requiring a technique different from that for shots from grass.
The right arm is the key. Take a normal backswing, but on the downswing release the right arm early by straightening the right wrist just before and during impact. The right wrist should go under the left hand. It’s a wristy, throwing motion with the right hand. If you held the right wrist angle, as you would with a chip shot, you’d risk hitting the ball clean—and clear over the green.
Understanding the swing is the key in the bunker; as long as you put the ball opposite the left foot, don’t worry too much about the setup. Claude Harmon, one of the greatest sand players in history, often said he didn’t care where you put your feet as long as your motion was correct. I think a little open stance is good, but I have never felt you have to swing outside and cut across to be effective.
The basic swing motion for the greenside bunker is what I call a reverse swing. For a normal shot off the tee or from grass, the club goes inside, then along the swing plane, and back to inside as you finish your swing. But the bunker swing feels just the opposite, from outside to outside.
Try to hole each putt when practicing, then move on to a different putt.
A few years ago, when Jack Burke and I were next-door neighbors, I often went to his kitchen for an early-morning cup of coffee and a chat. I’ll never forget the Monday morning when I complained to him how poorly I’d putted in the just-completed tournament. “Well, let’s go fix it,” Jack said. “No time like the present.” We left our steaming mugs on the table and drove straight to Champions.
The putting green was covered with dew, and the sun was barely peeking through the trees. I had my putter and a handful of practice balls. “Right here,” Jack said, pointing to a spot about fifteen feet from a hole. I dropped the balls, stroked the first putt, and boom, right in the heart. The ball traced a path through the dew from where I stood to the cup.
And with that, Jack walked away. “When you make another one on that exact same line, come and get me,” he called over his shoulder. “I’m gonna go get a cup of coffee.”
In the next hour, I confirmed the point that Jack was so obviously and dramatically making. Though I holed many more putts before the sun got above the trees and burned off the dew, rarely did any two putts follow the same precise line to the hole. The lesson for me then and for you now is this: We’re too often preoccupied with line. The weight of the hit—distance—is more crucial. As the lines in the dew confirmed for me, the hole opens up for putts from many different directions.
Putting is often overlooked, but I have never seen anything lower your score like making a few putts.
Before we talk about technique, consider a factor that is often just as important: attitude. When sports psychologist Bob Rotella gives a speech, he often tells his audience an anecdote about my mental approach to putting Riviera in the ’95 PGA. The greens were new, spike marks loomed like little trees to some players, and complaints were frequent. But I looked at those greens and said, “Perfect.” On perfectly smooth surfaces of unbroken green, I sometimes find it harder to putt. So at Riviera, I used the spike marks as targets, not as obstacles. I proved that you can make putts on a green that is a little rough—if you think you can.
Many of the fundamentals of full shots also apply to putting. One fundamental, however, is different. The putter should be gripped with both thumbs down the shaft. This keeps the palms opposing, which helps keep the putter face square. Especially if you use the right arm stroke, you’ll want the palm of the right hand to be flush against the handle. The most popular putting grip—and the grip I use—is the reverse overlap. Simply put the index finger of the left hand over the fingers of the right hand. It’s a very comfortable grip for putting.
Realize first that every putt is straight; the green does the breaking. So you must putt to the high point, the spot from which your ball will roll into the hole. That’s your target, not the hole.
Once you have your target in mind, you must decide which power source to apply to hit the putt. You have really only two choices: the right arm stroke or the shoulder stroke. Use one or the other; it’s not effective to combine the two.
The winning putt, the 1995 PGA at Riviera, Los Angeles. Elkington made sure not to completely surrender to celebration, because Colin Montgomerie still had a putt to tie.
In the arm stroke, the right arm should dominate. The left hand and shoulders are out of it. On the backswing, the right elbow bends, and on the downswing the right elbow straightens. Jack Nicklaus’s piston-like arm stroke demonstrates that this is a method that can work very well. I played all of’93 and ’94 with an arm stroke and won the Australian Open with it. But I’ve found in recent years that I’m more consistent with a shoulder stroke.
The shoulder stroke is the most popular on the Tour. Recall the chipping technique described earlier. This stroke is basically the same, with unmoving wrists, and power provided by lowering the left shoulder on the backswing and raising it on the downswing.