Short game: By air or by land?
When I’m working with students on their short games, I see too many players who are trying to play high shots around the greens. It’s a thing to behold when Phil or Tiger hoists a greenside shot straight up into the air, but I’ve found that most golfers benefit from the “land route.”
Generally speaking, there are two different kinds of shots golfers can play around the green, the chip and the pitch. Here’s an easy way to remember the difference between the two shots:
- A chip: a low shot that takes a low swing
- A pitch: a high shot that takes a high swing
If you elect to run the ball along the ground with a chip shot, you need to think of a short, low takeaway with little-to-no wrist break. If you elect to play a shot that flies higher with a pitch shot, you need to think of a short, higher takeaway with more wrists in the backswing. These are broad descriptions, but a lesson or two on technique will help you if you are struggling around the greens.
But what you probably want to know is when to play each shot. When should golfers put the ball in the air and when should they run it on the ground?
I teach this philosophy, and also used it successfully during my days as a competitive player:
When I miss the green, I PUTT whenever I can. I CHIP if I can’t putt and PITCH only when I must.
In golf, we are always trying to get the odds on our side. Because of the the swing involved, a chip is a much easier and much more predictable shot to than a pitch. It is a smaller swing with less wrist action, less body motion and less follow through. The good old “bump and run,” and even lower flying chip shot, is the real go-to guy under the heat. You should use it whenever you can.
You hit a bump-and-run shot by moving the ball back in your stance. You then take the club back low and keep the hands in front of the clubhead through impact. The ball comes off the club very low and runs on the green. Practice this shot every chance you get.
But some times you cannot run the ball onto the green. In any of the following situations, a pitch shot might be the only option:
- A shot over an obstacle (water, sand, or tall grass)
- A shot to a very eleveated green
- When the hole is located close to the side from where you’re playing your shot (no green to work with)
In all these situations, the golf ball has to go up in the air. Choose a lofted club, position the golf ball toward the center or slightly forward in your stance and swing the club more up and down. The golf ball will fly high and stop more quickly — because of trajectory not spin by the way. Most times, there is not enough speed in the swing to spin the ball, but trajectory is just as effective.
Another advantage of chipping over pitching is you can learn one basics swing and vary the club selection. You can take anything from a sand wedge to a 7 iron depending on how far you want the ball to run out. When pitching, you are pretty much limited to 55 degrees or more of loft on your club to get the desired trajectory. To hit different pitch shots, you have to vary the length and pace of the swing more than you do when chipping.
Another reason for not pitching the ball unless you have to is the unpredictability of the outcome. Remember, just because you choose a lofted club doesn’t mean you MUST pitch; short chips can and should be played with lofted clubs as well.
So think low to help your short game; chip more often when you miss a green and don’t try to play the heroic shot when a higher-perentage one will do. If you are 20 to 30 yards short of the green to a middle or back hole location, you DO NOT have to lob the ball all the way to the hole.
One more thing: I’m often asked, “How can I spin the ball and get it to check?”
Well, there are a lot of factors involved in getting that result: a good attack angle, a soft cover golf ball, perfectly clean grooves and usually a tight lie. The professionals you see on TV can hit this shot pretty much any time they want. But the average golfer does not always have all the criteria I listed. If you’re playing a distance ball off fairways with spotty lies (especially in the rough) and you have not cleaned your grooves in a few holes, forget about “checking it” But the good news is you don’t have to!