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Short game: By air or by land?

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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!

As always, feel free to send a swing video to my Facebook page and I will do my best to give you my feedback.

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum.

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Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional. Clark has taught the game of golf for more than 30 years to golfers all across the country, and is recognized as one of the leading teachers in the country by all the major golf publications. He is also is a seven-time PGA award winner who has earned the following distinctions: -- Teacher of the Year, Philadelphia Section PGA -- Teacher of the Year, Golfers Journal -- Top Teacher in Pennsylvania, Golf Magazine -- Top Teacher in Mid Atlantic Region, Golf Digest -- Earned PGA Advanced Specialty certification in Teaching/Coaching Golf -- Achieved Master Professional Status (held by less than 2 percent of PGA members) -- PGA Merchandiser of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Golf Professional of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Presidents Plaque Award for Promotion and Growth of the Game of Golf -- Junior Golf Leader, Tri State section PGA -- Served on Tri State PGA Board of Directors. Clark is also former Director of Golf and Instruction at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. He now directs his own school, The Dennis Clark Golf Academy at the JW Marriott Marco Island in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at [email protected]

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Sid N

    May 9, 2013 at 1:13 am

    As I was learning golf, I found that i got very comfortable hitting pitch shots to the green anywhere from 110 metres out. I would either hit a P, a Sand wedge or a 58 degree wedge. 50 – 60 metres out or nearer, it is always the 58 degree wedge. Depending on how far I am from the pin I would adjust how far left of the pin I aim and how much I open the club. Once I have decided on this I make sure that the ball is in the middle of my stance hands forward of the clubhead and I attack the pin almost all the time except on really hot dry days when the ball runs a lot and on those day I drop it a metre or two short of the green.

    Using less clubs and not chipping with different lofts I find makes my thought processes simpler.

    I only chip from under the trees with seven and sometimes use the P as almost a putter from the edge of the green.

    I find this has made very consistent from 110 yards out.

  2. Fadi

    Nov 20, 2012 at 11:12 am

    I never chip but I am going to try due to coming up short on all my pitchs lately. This seems like it is gonna help. At least I hope so. Ben Hogan did say he prefers a low runner to high floater.

  3. Steven Mendelson

    Oct 25, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    Best thing I ever did was take lessons from Dennis. I finally learned to not break my wrists on chips and he added 30 yards to my drives. Thanks.

  4. Vincent Dice

    Oct 25, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    Great article!
    It’s so nice to see someone write about this. I argue with my golf partners all the time about this.
    I’ve applied this philosophy for years and it’s saved many a Par for me and turned a sure-fire double into a bogey. For a golfer like me, that’s great! I keep it out of the air as much as possible near the green.

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Instruction

What you can learn from Steve Elkington

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When you think of great golf swings from the past and present time, Steve Elkington’s golf swing instantly comes to mind. His playing career has included a PGA championship, two Players Championships and more than 50 weeks inside the top-10 world golf rankings. This article will examine not only key moves you can take from Elk’s swing but learning to take your swing to the golf course.

As opposed to looking at a swing frame by frame at key positions, viewing a swing at normal speed can be just as beneficial. This can give students a look at the sequence of the swing as one dynamic motion. Research also suggests learning a motion as one movement as opposed to part-training (stopping the swing at certain points) will enhancing learning.

When viewed at full speed, the simplicity of Elk’s swing is made clear. There is minimal motion as he gets more out of less. This swing pattern can correlate to a conversation he once had with five-time British Open winner Peter Thomson.

When asking Thomson keys to his golf swing and it’s longevity, Thomson explained to Elk, “You have to have great hands and arms.” Thomson further elaborated on the arms and body relationship. “The older you get, you can’t move your body as well, but you can learn to swing your arms well.”

So what’s the best way to get the feel of this motion? Try practicing hitting drivers off your knees. This drill forces your upper body to coil in the proper direction and maintain your spine angle. If you have excess movement, tilt, or sway while doing this drill you will likely miss the ball. For more detail on this drill, read my Driver off the knees article.

Another key move you can take from Elk is in the set-up position. Note the structure of the trail arm. The arm is bent and tucked below his lead arm as well as his trail shoulder below the lead shoulder – he has angle in his trail wrist, a fixed impact position.

This position makes impact easier to find. From this position, Elk can use his right arm as a pushing motion though the ball.

A golf swing can look pretty, but it is of no use if you can’t perform when it matters, on the golf course. When Elk is playing his best, he never loses feel or awareness to the shaft or the clubface throughout the swing. This is critical to performing on the golf course. Using this awareness and a simple thought on the golf course will promote hitting shots on the course, rather than playing swing.

To enhance shaft and face awareness, next time you are on the range place an alignment stick 10 yards ahead of you down the target line. Practice shaping shots around the stick with different flights. Focus on the feel created by your hands through impact.

Twitter: @kkelley_golf

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Instruction

Dennis Clark: Hitting from the turf

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I have seen as much as 4-5 MPH increase in clubhead speed when my students hit form a tee compared to hitting off the turf. Why?  Fear of FAT shots.

First question: Are you better hitting off a tee than on the turf?

Next question: When you play in a scramble and you have the option of dropping in the fairway or slightly in the first cut, do you choose the rough-especially when hitting over water or sand?

The answer to all these the same: Because the vast majority of golfers do not have a bottom of the swing arc safely in front of the golf ball consistently.

Consider a PGA Tour event, Korn Ferry, Champions Tour, LPGA Tour, whatever…You might see missed fairways, missed greens, hooks, blocks, etc. but we rarely, if ever, see a FAT shot. They simply do not hit the ground before the golf ball. Of course, there are exceptions, into the grain on short pitches, for example, but they are just that-rare exceptions. On the other hand, go to any golf course and watch average golfers for a while. Fat shots are not uncommon. In fact, they, or the fear of them, dominate most golf games.

The number one mistake I have seen on the lesson tee for over 35 years is unquestionably a player’s inability to control the bottom of the golf swing. I have seen everything from hitting 4 inches behind the ball to never reaching the bottom at all It has been my experience that that hitting fat shots is the number one flaw in most golf swings.

Let’s start with this fact: elite level players consistently reach a swing bottom (low point) some 3-4 inches in front of the golf ball-time after time after time. This happens for a variety of reasons, but the one I’d like to look at today is the position of the golf club at impact with the golf ball.

The club is leaning forward, toward the target, the hands are ahead of the club head, never straight up over it, never behind it-always, always leaning forward is the only way to consistently bottom out in front of the golf ball.   

A player cannot hit a ball consistently from the turf until he/she learns this and how to accomplish it. For every golfer I teach who gets into this position, I might teach 50 who do not. In fact, if players did not learn how to “save” a shot by bailing out on the downswing (chicken wing, pull up, raise the handle, or come over the top, (yes over the top is a fat shot avoidance technique) they would hit the ground behind the golf ball almost every time!  Hitting better shots from the fairways, particularly from tight lies, can be learned, but I’m going to be honest: The change required will NOT be easy. And to make matters worse, you can never play significantly better until you overcome the fear of hitting it fat.. Until you learn a pattern where the bottom of the swing is consistently in front of the ball, the turf game will always be an iffy proposition for you.

This starts with a perception. When first confronted with hitting a golf ball, it seems only natural that an “up” swing is the way to get the ball in the air-help it, if you will. The act of a descending blow is not, in any way, natural to the new player. In fact, it is totally counterintuitive. So the first instincts are to throw the club head at the ball and swing up to get the ball in the air; in other words, it makes perfect sense. And once that “method” is ingrained, it is very difficult to change. But change if you must, if your goal is to be a better ball striker.

The position to strive for is one where the left wrist (for a right-hander) is flat, the right is slightly dorsiflexed, and the handle of the golf club is ahead of the grip end. Do your level best to pay attention to the look and feel of what you’re doing as opposed to the flight of the golf ball. FEEL that trail wrist bent slightly back, the lead wrist flat and the hands ahead. It will seem strange at first, but it’s the very small first step in learning to hit down on your tight lies. If some degree of that is not ultimately accomplished, you will likely always be executing “fit in” moves to make up for it. It is worth the time and effort to create this habit.

My suggestion is to get on a Trackman if possible to see where you’re low point actually is, or perhaps you may just want to start paying close attention to your divots-particularly the deepest part of them. I’m sure you will get into a pattern of bottoming out consistently in front of the ball when you begin to learn to get the hands ahead and the club head behind. And best of all, when this becomes your swing, you will lose the fear of hitting the turf first and be free to go down after the ball as aggressively as you like.

Ok, so how is this accomplished? While many players are looking for a magic bullet or a training aid which might help one miraculously get into a good impact position, I dare say there is not one. It is a trial and error proposition, a learn-from-the-mistakes kind of thing achieved only through repetition with a thorough understanding of what needs to be done. The hardest thing to do is IGNORE the outcome when learning a new motor skill, but you must do it. A couple of things you might try:

  • Start with 30-50 yard pitch shots, paying close attention to the hands leading at impact. Again ignore the outcome, look only at the divot.
  • Hit a TON of fairway bunker shots. Draw a line in the sand 3-4″ in front of the ball and try to hit it.
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Instruction

What you can learn from the rearview camera angle

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We often analyze the golf swing from the face-on view or down-the-line camera angle. However, we can also learn how the body moves in the swing from the rearview or backside view.

When seeing the swing from the rearview, we can easily see how the glutes work. The trail glute actually moves back and around in the backswing. This means the glute moves towards the target or towards the lead heel. Note the trail glute start point and endpoint at the top of the backswing.

To some, this may seem like it would cause a reverse weight shift. However, this glute movement can enable the upper body to get loaded behind the ball. This is where understanding the difference between pressure, and weight is critical (see: “Pressure and Weight”).

This also enhances the shape of the body in the backswing. From the rear angle, I prefer to have players with a tuck to their body in their trail side, a sign of no left-side bend.

This puts the body and trail arm into a “throwing position”, a dynamic backswing position. Note how the trailing arm has folded with the elbow pointing down. This is a sign the trailing arm moved in an efficient sequence to the top of the backswing.

Next time you throw your swing on video, take a look at the rearview camera angle. From this new angle, you may find a swing fault or matchup needed in your golf swing to produce your desired ball flight.

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