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When we talk about the “short game,” we’re actually referring to play that is within 60 yards of the putting green, as well as play on the putting green itself. These are golf shots that include short pitches, chip shots sand bunker shots and, of course, putting. The variety of challenges you face from 60 yards to the hole realistically accounts for more than half of your strokes in a full round of golf. Your wedges and your putter are your “scoring” clubs. Astonishingly, the vast majority of weekend golfers spend precious little time practicing their chipping and putting. Unsurprisingly, the pros and scratch golfers spend a lot of time practicing their short games. If you are truly committed to jacking up your game with a real golf makeover, you’ve got to sharpen your short game. It takes mastering technique, lots of practice and some imagination.
Let’s start with greenside chipping. (Bunker shots and putting will be covered in future articles.) Consider the shot you must play when your ball is a few yards off the green, sitting in medium rough with a decent lie, perhaps 60 feet (20 paces) from the pin. You have several options to consider quickly and thoughtfully. One option is to take a sand wedge, play the ball back in your stance, hit down on the ball, landing it halfway to the hole with a little “bite” (spin) and letting it roll the rest of the way. Delicate variations may be needed if the ball is sitting on top or lodged way down deep in the rough. When there is very little green to work with, I like to take a high lofted lob wedge (58 degrees) and land the ball just on to the green surface. The mistake many high handicappers make is thinking they have to lift the ball and then try to scoop it and it goes nowhere. You need to identify the exact spot the ball needs to land between where you’re chipping from and the hole. The only way to do that with confidence is practice.
You also have the choice of taking a 6 or 7 iron, for example, and making a very abbreviated swing that amounts to almost a long putt. This is the “bump-and-run” shot, where you are landing the ball just onto the green surface and watch it simply roll most of the way to the hole. Another option, if the ball is sitting up in the rough or in the fairway grass, is to take a hybrid or a fairway wood and essentially create a long putt. The 21 degrees (or so) of loft will lift the ball out of the grass and get it running low and fast. This is also a good shot from very tight lies with little or no grass under the ball. Lastly, from a good lie you can almost always putt the ball. There’s an old adage that your worst putt will be a lot better than your worst chip. Putting and bumping it with a hybrid will take the dreaded bladed or “skulled” mishit out of the equation. It will spare you the embarrassing chunk or duff as well.
If your ball is on the fringe (“collar”) of the green and up against the longer rough, you can do what many of the pros do – hit what they call a “bellied wedge,” where they use a putting stroke with a sand wedge and strike the middle (equator) of the ball with the club’s leading edge.
Pitch shots from 40, 50 or 60 yards to the middle of the green may require you to launch the ball high so it carries over deep rough or a penalty area with a lofted sand wedge. This is a shot that amateur golfers struggle with, mainly because they haven’t learned this difficult shot and they don’t practice it. You are simply letting the club slide under the ball, without digging down too deep, and letting the club’s loft take over. Making an assertive swing is what’s needed.
Naturally confidence around the greens comes from hundreds of instances where you have executed these shots properly with good results. Good shots are stored in the recess of your long-term memory and reside there as accumulated unconscious evidence that you know how to do it. Hours and hours of practice, and perhaps some lessons, will prepare you to transfer your learning and confidence to the golf course when it really counts.
Dr. Charlie Blanchard is a licensed psychologist specializing in sports and leadership. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.