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Can anyone learn to be a short-game legend?

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From time to time we have all marveled at the shot-making ability of golf’s short-game legends: Paul Runyon, Raymond Floyd, Ben Crenshaw, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Paul Azinger and of course, Seve Ballesteros. What they did in the primes of their careers rivaled magic in a superhuman demonstration of raw talent… or was it? Was their talent innate and special to them or was it learned? And if it was learned, can anyone learn it?

Paul Azinger, who wanted so desperately to be as good as he could possibly be at golf, discovered that it wasn’t imagination and talent that separated the best from the rest; it was choices. The best looked at the pending shot through the prism of alternatives. They could see that there were at least five different shots, three of which were “pitch shots” and two of which were versions of different “chip shots,” and each could be used from the lie and situation they were facing. All that was required was to decide which one to use, set up correctly and then execute the one chosen.

The short answer to the question, “Can anyone become really good at the short game,” is YES! The how is really simple and straightforward. Learn as many short-game shots as possible and then get really good at them.

One of the things I highly recommend serious golfers do is to program the DVR to record every televised golf tournament. Go back, stop the action and then study every relevant shot in slow motion.

For example, let’s look at how Hideki Matsuyama executes a Phil Rodgers basic pitch shot using a lofted wedge. His setup is slightly open, ball centered, hands centered and weight is centered to maybe slightly back. There isn’t a divot so the attack angle is shallow, the bounce is engaged, club face remains open, hips rotate to the left and the hands never get above the belt line. The ball flies low, but softly onto the green. It checks on the second bounce then dribbles to the pin.

Since Matsuyama is in contention what seems like every week, I have witnessed this same shot a dozen times from different lies and under many different circumstances. Skip to 44 seconds in the video below to watch him in action at the 2016 Hero World Challenge.

Using the DVR, I have identified five separate and distinctive chip shots, three different and distinctive ways to play a standard bunker shot, three basic ways to pitch the ball and any number of lobs and flops. I simply watched what the best players in the world do and then copy each shot exactly as played. On the flip side, I also saw what was attempted and didn’t work.

Another thing I have my coaching clients do is to chart each and every round they play using a special game-improvement scorecard that I developed many years ago. This scorecard asks the questions why and how shots were lost or dropped. This form of charting reveals patterns, identifies weaknesses and puts a spotlight on what needs improvement. I will be happy to share this scorecard with you if you write to me at edmyersgolf@gmail.com.

Earlier, I stated that developing a really good short game was simple and straightforward, but it isn’t easy. To be great requires dedication, discipline and an awful lot of specialized practice. I use a process I call “Perfect Practice,” which consists of individual segments I label as Remedial, Practice, Drills and Rehearsals.

Remedial is basic learning used to develop a particular skill or shot, which is best done step by step in slow motion or in a static mode. For example, you want to learn the firm-wristed, basic chip shot as taught by Hank Haney. You would learn the pieces of the basic setup: slightly open stance, feet close together but not close to touching, hands forward, weight forward and ball back. You would then learn the correct way to move the club and strike the ball. The emphasis in this segment is learning correct positions, stations, angles and locations, not on speed.

Practice by definition is repetition to improve skill. Skills are improved by moving the club and striking the ball correctly hundreds, if not thousands of times. The emphasis is placed on correctly improving speed and fluidity. Correct movement develops “muscle memory,” implicit memory, motor skills and motor programs. As the motor programs are developed, refined and habitualized they begin a process known as “feel.”

Eventually each motor program, or shot, will have its own individual feel. Once the ability to demonstrate smoothly, correctly and repetitively a particular shot set-up a “Practice Book” and move into drills. I will be happy to share a practice book in what I call “Hogan Lifetime Format,” again by email. Just ask and I will send it out as an attachment.

Drilling is the process concerned and focused on results. As the feel for each shot is developing, it becomes necessary to refine the action to determine the effectiveness of our “Repetitive Practice.” I use a system known as “Deliberate Practice” to establish a baseline and then track improvement in objective and quantitative terms.

“Deliberate Practice is an activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance by reaching for objectives just beyond your level of competence, while providing objective feedback on results involving high levels of repetition,” says Dr. K Anders Ericsson, a renowned “expert on experts.”

If a shot is to be effectively used during play, the success parameters must be known. Can I land the ball where I want? Does the ball check or release as required? In my system, drilling is the essence of the scoring process and forms the foundation for training and preparation.

Rehearsals are simulations of play where pressure, stress and consequences are introduced. This is much more than playing golf or practicing. The object, as it is in a dress rehearsal for a Broadway show, is to see what works. Just as important is to see what doesn’t work in particular situations. You’ve learned a shot, you’ve practiced and drilled it. Now, can you do it when it matters?

By the controlling of circumstances and the resulting consequences, every shot can be put to the test in a simulated pressure cooker. Rehearsing is time efficient and has proven to be a more effective training method over time than actually playing in tournaments. Failure in rehearsal results in enlightenment and then more practice and drills. Failure in competition results in severe consequences such as higher scores, embarrassment and self-loathing.

As Bobby Jones once said: “The secret of golf is to turn three shots into two.” To paraphrase, “The secret of the short game is to never turn two shots into three.” So, unless you hit 100 percent of the greens in regulation, you need a dependable, multifaceted short game.

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Ed Myers is the author of Hogan’s Ghost, Golf’s Scoring Secret and The Scoring Machine. He was the Director of Instruction at Memphis National Golf Club, and he is currently the scoring coach for players on all professional tours. "The Ultimate Scoring and Performance Experience" an all day program featuring on course private instruction and unlimited play with "Hogan's Ghost." is now available. More than a "golf school"and more than just short game. Individualized evaluation determines where to start the experience. Learn and work according to your goals, preferences and ability. All practice is supervised and structured to ensure maximum benefit and verifiable results. Program runs Monday -Friday from April through October, 2018. See you in Memphis, Tenn. "The Distance Coaching Program" is now available to all level of golfers worldwide. Thanks to modern technology everyone, everywhere, can train like a touring professional. Learn more about Ed at edmyersgolf.com. He can be reached at edmyersgolf@gmail.com.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Mbwa Kali Sana

    Mar 7, 2017 at 12:55 pm

    The best short game player ever was SEVE BALLETEROS .What Butch says ,and also the well advised commentators OF this blog ,fits well with what SEVE said and wrote .Just go over what hé describes in his not so many books .Réview also THE films OF how hé ridiculed THE best players in THE world at THE various ( very difficult ) BRITISH OPENS hé won ,by the virtue OF his miraculous short game and putting .Like another GREAT short game player Phil MICKELSON ,his long game was really lousy ,but his outstanding recoveries and short game made up for his shortcomings in his driving .
    M’y advice is to keep THE Ball as low as possible ,and make it run .Forget THE high parachute shots ” a la MICKELSON” ,there are easy to miss .I saw SEVE missing Some OF them as well as sand shots hé wanted to spin too much .Évén GOD CAN make mistakes !

  2. David Ober

    Mar 7, 2017 at 9:57 am

    Fantastic article and somewhat of a crusade of mine as well.

    Lately I’ve been telling my low handicap buddies:

    1) Assess the lie

    2) Assess whether you can spin the ball or not

    3) Assess whether you can elevate the ball or not

    4) Assess the pin and where it sits on the green

    5) Take info from the steps 1 – 3 and apply to step 6)

    6) Choose a shot that fits your current lie and the current pin

    Sometimes there will be multiple options. You just need to pick one and commit to it. Sometimes there will only be one or two options. The key, though, is to go through the first few steps, which most golfers do not do every time. And you need to do it every time, or you will have blow-up short game holes.

  3. Dave R

    Mar 7, 2017 at 12:32 am

    By far best article I’ve read on this site.

  4. knoofah

    Mar 6, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    Excellent article! Thanks for the downloadable material as well. It’s something I will definitely put into practice.

  5. Thomas Cannon

    Mar 6, 2017 at 9:56 am

    I think that there is pretty clearly some inherent abilities that the first golfers named in the article do have. I do like that the article discusses the shots that the better players see when they are faced with these shots, though. I think the biggest take away for the average golfer would be that they need to see more than one way of executing a shot within 100 yards or around the greens, and out of “trouble” around the greens. Do I believe that you can learn to be like Phil? No, not exactly, and I think the biggest difference is the mental aspect, and the fact that he sees these shots, and many, many more when he steps over the ball, and that part is inherent, BUT, if a golfer can have 4-5 ways to hit a given shot, they will save themselves plenty of strokes. Next is learning to use them appropriately in a given situation.

    • TheCityGame

      Mar 6, 2017 at 1:45 pm

      Phil Mickelson had “inherent abilities”?

      Maybe the inherent ability of his parents to build a short game area in his back yard.

  6. ButchT

    Mar 6, 2017 at 9:44 am

    Very helpful article! Thanks, Butch.

  7. Radim Pavlicek

    Mar 6, 2017 at 6:44 am

    Excellent article. I want to know more about Rehearsals.

  8. rymail00

    Mar 4, 2017 at 3:03 pm

    Awesome article!!!

    Thanks!
    Ryan

  9. Philip

    Mar 4, 2017 at 11:23 am

    Really – “Failure in competition results in severe consequences such as higher scores, embarrassment and self-loathing” – I guess what you and I define as severe are slightly different. I enjoy golf, thus embarrassment and self-loathing are not a consequence of higher scores from spending a day outside with friends or competitors. The article has many good points though and myself, I have learned quite a lot from re-watching recorded shots from the tours. I find there is a tendancy (for me) to think the shots are more complicated than they really are. Watching the tours helps me to clarify what I visually want to happen in my mind before attempting or practicing a shot. It will be a fun season this year.

    • rymail00

      Mar 4, 2017 at 10:41 pm

      Ed,

      I tried to email you through the email posted in the 2ND paragraph, but I keep getting “invalid” email address.

      My question was what do you do mentally to make the “rehearsal” more important mentally vs. say running the short-game “drills”, or a normal day to day short game practice session. How do you get into the mind frame of tournament conditions (or pressure sencario) on the practice green, hope that makes sense?

      Also is there a place we can find that “short game scorecard”, and how to score it?

      • Ed Myers

        Mar 5, 2017 at 8:36 am

        Sorry for the link, it has been reported. To answer your question, I use an escalating system that “controls the circumstances” and delivers severe and certain consequences for failure. I outline that process in Hogan’s Ghost.

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Who is Leo Rooney?

Director of Performance at Urban Golf Performance
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TPI, NSCA

Leo Rooney played 16 years of competitive golf, in both college and professionally. He got a degree in exercise physiology and has worked with anyone from top tour players to beginners. Leo is now the Director of Performance at Urban Golf Performance and is responsible for the overall operations but still works closely with some elite tour players and the UCLA Men’s Golf Team.

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