Whether you have several days per week or just a few hours on the weekend to dedicate to game improvement, you should center about 75% of your practice time on the short game. High handicappers can make significant improvements in the shortest period of time by mastering a few basic shots and developing a sound repeatable putting stroke. Advanced players have known for years that they must dedicate significant time and effort on their short games to shave those last few strokes. They know that once their full swing is grooved, it’s very hard to make changes that will significantly alter their ability to score. However, there are a multitude of short game shots one can add and refine to keep the scores coming down.
Remember three major principles when practicing short game.
- Aim for the smallest target possible. By shrinking your target, you widen your margin of error which allows you to get shots closer to the hole. For short greenside chips and pitches, and every putt, the hole is your target and you must try to make it. For short or medium range putts, pick a spot on the lip of the hole that you’d like the ball to roll over. Be that precise and you’ll notice your ability to focus will improve, you’ll make more chips and putts, and your misses will be much closer.
- Roll is easier to judge than flight. Whenever possible, keep your short shots as low to the ground as you can because distance is much easier to judge with lower trajectory, and the mechanics of hitting low shots are simpler than for lofted pitches. Try this experiment. Grab three balls and pace off 50 feet from a hole. First attempt to throw a high lob and stop each ball near the hole. Next roll all three from the same spot to the hole and see which three get closer. This is an excellent drill for teaching feel that I learned in “Shark Attack, Greg Norman’s Guide to Aggressive Golf.”
- Making putts in practice builds confidence during play. Nothing builds confidence like watching the ball go in the hole and hearing it hit bottom. Putting is 90% confidence and 10% stroke. There are many golfers who putt great and use completely different strokes. Some die it in the hole, others bang it in the back, but the one thing they have in common is confidence. Whatever stroke you use, build your confidence by making a ton of putts in every practice session and it will pay off big time on the golf course. Next time out, stick a tee in the ground three feet from a hole on a flat part of the practice green. Take 50 or 100 putts from this location and you’ll be surprised how confident you are next time out on the course standing over a pressure putt from the same distance. There is no better way to groove your stroke and build confidence. Admittedly, it is probably the least glamorous aspect of short game practice, but without a doubt, the most necessary because having confidence in your putting allows you to go low when you’re hitting it close and takes pressure off your long game when your swing is off.
There are three shots every confident golfer must learn to be successful around the green.
- Low running chip. This is often played from the fringe or just off the fringe and can be executed with anything from a sand wedge to a seven-iron. Let the distance from the hole govern your club selection with your intention to minimize air time and maximize roll. To execute, zero in on a spot to land the ball that will allow for the proper run-out. Shade your weight forward, grip down for better control, play the ball back in your stance, and make the swing with just your arms by keeping your wrists firm and not letting the club head pass your hands. Take a couple of practice swings and keep your upper arms tightly connected to your chest during the stroke. Once you have the feel, address the ball and hit without delay. Fidgeting over the ball will allow second thoughts and doubt to creep into your mind and should be avoided at all costs. Getting flippy with your wrists or allowing the club to pass your hands will result in poor inconsistent contact.
- Elevated pitch. This is played from a position where significant carry is required and a low rolling shot is not possible. The shot requires more practice time to groove than the low running chip because it’s slightly more complex, but once mastered can work as an excellent stroke saver. Typically you play with the sand wedge or lob wedge and to execute, zero in on a spot where you’d like the ball to land, only this time, with minimal run-out. Open the clubface slightly to add loft and open your stance while shading your weight forward. This will promote a descending blow which is required to get the ball up fast. On the backswing, hinge your wrist quickly so that your lead forearm and the shaft make a V-shape. Swing down and contact the ball but try to keep your wrist firm on the strike and follow through so that your lead forearm and the shaft are in a straight line or in an I-shape. My swing thought is “V to I” on this shot. Others like to use “hinge and hold” but the concept is the same. Like the low running chip, you’ll gain better control by feeling your upper arms are connected to your chest throughout the swing. The shot will result in a higher trajectory and allow the ball to land softly. The length of the shot governs the length of your backswing. Once you get far enough from the green, this evolves into a different shot as the ability to hold the “I” or “hold” position is not possible and the shot becomes a mini version of the full swing.
- Explosion from the sand. This shot is not as difficult or as intimidating as most fear. Keep these fundamentals in mind and you’ll be fine. Open the clubface of your sand wedge and open your stance with your weight shaded forward. Play the ball off your front heel and locate a spot in the sand 1-2 inches behind the ball. As with the Elevated Pitch, pick the club up quickly with an early wrist break and execute the downswing by hitting the sand and follow through to a nice high finish. Once you address the ball, take care to keep your focus on the spot in the sand where you want to make contact and don’t let your eyes wonder to the ball. This will more often than not cause you to inadvertently hit the ball with the leading edge of the club (we’ve all done it) and that’s no good. The length of the bunker shot and condition of the sand will govern how big a swing you take. You’ll need to adjust in firm or wet sand and take a smaller swing and hit a little closer to the ball. In fine powdery sand, you may open the clubface a bit more, take a little more sand and make a bigger swing. Finally for buried lies, square the clubface and hit down hard a couple of inches behind the ball. You’ll basically leave your club in the sand (no high follow through) because of the severe downward motion of the strike and of the force required to expel the ball.
Experiment and get comfortable with all three of these shots and watch your scores drop! There are many other shots that require more advanced techniques that you can add to your arsenal around the green and I’ll cover those in a future post.
Finally, here’s a great short game practice routine that I use to build confidence the day before a round. It takes 1 ½ hours.
- Get to your course early before the practice green gets too crowded
- Take out three balls and play a variety of short and long low running chips with different clubs. I prefer to use the pitching wedge and 8-iron.
- Next switch to your sand wedge or lob wedge and play some elevated pitches and bunker shots to holes of different length
- Next take your putter to a hole and identify a flat three-foot putt and take a few warm-up putts.
- Hit 50 3-foot putts in groups of 10 using your full on course pre-shot routine for each putt. After each group of ten, chip 3 balls to your hole from the fringe and make the putts. Repeat with four more groups of 10 putts, continuing to chip and hole the three balls between each group.
- Wrap up by playing 9 holes with one ball from various lies and using various shots. Try to make every chip/pitch and then complete by holing your putts. Use your bunker for a few shots if possible.
Good luck! -Brian