When I won the Fort Worth Invitational earlier last year, I had two key up-and-downs on the back nine on Sunday. I hit it in greenside bunkers on the 14th and 16th holes – no one knows how difficult that shot on 16 was – but I was able to save par on both to hold off Brooks Koepka.
I’m not gloating. I’m pointing this out because it might have seemed like I was making the same swings in those bunkers, but I can assure you my plays were quite different. On 14, I played a chunk shot to get the ball to run towards the hole. On 16, I had to get my clubhead super close to the ball to pinch it for extra spin.
If I played a standard bunker shot from either of those lies, I might not have slipped on the winner’s tartan jacket.The lesson here is that there’s a lot more than one way to execute various shots around the greens. Sure, you’ve got to know some universal basics when you’re about to hit a chip, a lob shot, a bunker shot or a putt. But there’s no such thing as a stock play. Being a good short-game player is about being creative. It’s about assessing the lie of your ball, determining what you want it to do and employing the right swing to make that happen.
Let me show you what I mean about creativity as I discuss how I play various shots around the greens. I think you’ll find that if you adopt a right-brained approach for your game, you’ll save par a lot more often.
Since I began with an anecdote about my bunker play, this is a good jumping-off point for this article. Every greenside bunker shot starts with the same two objectives:
(1) Creating sufficient clubhead speed to power the ball out of the sand;
(2) Striking the sand before the ball.
That being said, alterations in your stance, club and swing can make the ball do very different things. For example, if I’ve got a long bunker shot and want to fly the ball a significant distance, I rely on the bounce more and make a very shallow swing. To do that, I widen my stance and lower my hands. When you lower your hands, it gets your clubface pointing left. But opening the face counters that. Also, I know many golfers make an out-to-in swing, cutting across the sand. But that kills the energy you need for this shot. Instead, I make a swing putting more energy towards the target.
Now, say I’m in a situation where I need more spin, perhaps to stop the ball quickly to a close pin. My technique changes quitea bit. I get my weight forward and chop down right behind the ball. I’m trusting the leading edge – not the bounce – to nip the ball with a good bit of spin. This also is the shot I’d typically play if there’s not a lot of sand in the bunker. The amount of sand – and the type of sand – should influence your play. For example, Augusta has this crushed-marble sand that makes it harder to spin the ball. Many links courses, meanwhile, have finer sand where you need to use more of the club’s bounce and create more swing speed.
I could go on talking about how to hit various bunker shots for quite a while, but I’d rather leave you with these basics to work on. When the sand is fluffy, and/or you need to fly the shot longer, stand wider, open the face and let the bounce do the work. Skim through the sand. You can hit several inches behind the ball and basically get the same result as long as you keep the speed of your swing up. The longer the shot, the longer the follow-through in your swing. When you’ve got a thin lie or thuddy sand, get your weight more forward and hit down on the sand directly behind the ball. Again, the longer your follow-through, the farther the ball will roll.
This is a good time to segue into high-lofted pitch shots, because one technique used here is very much like hitting a bunker shot. When you’ve got a bad lie, one where you feel like it’s going to take real effort or precision to get the club under the ball, you’re much better off playing a bunker-like shot. You should put 90 percent of your weight on your front side, play the ball a little back in your stance, lay the clubface wide open, and really commit to driving that leading edge down into the grass. For reference, pay attention to how Phil Mickelson hits his lob shots. His way requires precision, so I wouldn’t do it from a good lie unless you practise a lot. But from a bad lie, it’s the best option for getting that leading edge of your club under the ball – and that’s a must. Your greenkeeper won’t be happy with the gouge you make in the turf, but this is the shot for a gnarly lie.
The lob shot you should be hitting in all other situations is much easier to execute. When you can easily get your wedge under the ball, the feel should be to make a shallow, sweepy, draw swing. My arms and body stay very connected, What I mean is, my elbows feel attached to my sides. I play the ball forward, open the face and commit to making a full swing. Don’t worry about hitting it too far. With the face open, you’re not going to send the ball more than 30 yards.
The tendency for amateurs on lob shots is to set up in a narrow stance, swing down too steeply, and let the club exit hard to the left. But that makes your swing bottom so inconsistent – it creates a deep, V-shape crevice. You have to be so precise with your contact this way. That’s why setting up in a wide stance with the face open is more appealing. Your club can bottom out behind the ball, just like in a bunker shot, and you’ll still hit it pretty well.
There are many chipping techniques, but I think you can boil it down to two styles – the way Seve Ballesteros hit chips and the way Phil Mickelson does it. I’m transitioning to Seve’s style and will explain the difference in a moment. First, let’s review the two most important facets to chipping. The first is to understand where the club will bottom out in relation to the ball. Assuming you didn’t move up or down from your address posture, the club will bottom out directly under your left armpit. That means if you play the ball behind that position, the low point will be ahead of the ball. And if you play the ball forward and the handle of the club back, the club will strike the ground before it gets to the ball. Where the club bottoms out will greatly impact how the ball reacts, so if you want predictability in your wedge game, make sure you know the location of the swing bottom. The second thing you need to remember is that whatever position you got into with the club at setup, that’s the position you want to be in at impact. That means it’s super important to stay still over a chip. If your body sways, the low point will move and you’ll assuredly mis-hit the shot.
Now that you understand the fundamentals, here are two techniques to consider. Seve’s way of chipping might be easier for you. He held the club very softly, opened the face and let the club slide along the turf, even contacting the ground before the ball. That was perfectly fine, because the bounce of the wedge skimmed along the ground. There was no digging. This produces a shot where the ball comes out soft and rolls once it lands. I prefer Seve’s technique, and I control distance by altering the radius of my swing. My left arm feels long on longer chips – but my elbows crack, and my radius gets shorter when I don’t want the ball to go very far. The key is to move the body, arms and club together. If you want to use this technique, you have to trust that even though the club might hit the ground before the ball, you’re still going to hit a good shot.
Phil’s approach is effective, too, especially if you get the heebie-jeebies about hitting the ground before the ball. In his method, the club hinges in the backswing and stays hinged as the body rotates towards the target. Phil drives the club down into the ball – it’s not skimming along the turf. It’s a hinge and pinch. My only issue with this approach is, you have to be spot-on every time. If you’re a player whose body moves a bit, the margin for error is too great with this technique.
Three things really matter in putting. The first is building a good picture in your mind about the putt – seeing the path that the ball needs to take. I picture a tube or channel on the green that establishes the first couple feet of my line. I don’t aim my putter. I picture getting the ball rolling down that tube. When I’m getting ready to putt, my eyes are dead still on the ball, but my awareness is on the hole. That’s when I know to pull the trigger.
The second thing that matters is really three things: rhythm, tempo and speed.
The temptation is to take extra time over an important putt, and then try to steer the ball into the hole. But that’s going to add tension to your stroke. If you want to make it, you just have to let it flow. The rhythm of the putt also is important. My ratio of backswing to through-swing is about 1.8 seconds-to-1. They say 2-to-1 is ideal, but the important thing is that these numbers stay consistent. My bad putts happen when I get too slow going back and then too quick going forward. Make sure you pay attention to rhythm.
The third thing that matters is making a stable stroke. I went to a claw-style grip, where my right hand is extended and the grip rests between my thumb and forefinger. My hands are super sensitive, and with a traditional grip, I feel every little movement of the club. That’s distracting. The claw helps quiet my hands in the stroke, which lets me roll the ball on my intended line a lot better.
One way I’ve grooved a better stroke is with a drill where I tuck my shirt slightly into my left armpit. This gets that arm and chest working together. It’s a pretty cheap training aid and one that can help you if you’re handsy with your putting. You want your stroke to be more shoulder-driven.
I think putting is the most creative part of the game, which gets me back to what I was saying about trying not to be so robotic in how you approach shots around the green. Seve might have had the best short game of all time, but you’ll never hear anyone labelling him as a technician. If you want to save par more often, channel your inner Seve.