Developing a Short Game Strategy

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The Golf Season is Upon Us! Is Your Short Game Ready? The better players have a knack for making two shots out of three, whereas higher handicap golfers routinely make three shots out of two. Even the best players only hit about 65-70% or 13 of the 18 greens in regulation (GIR). In order to post a decent score, these players are getting the ball up and down on the majority of those holes. But for every player who plays an otherwise average game but makes up for it inside 100 yards, there are 10 others who pay scant attention to this part of the game. And it shows! The keys to making this part of the game work for you are (1) developing a strategy to guide your shot selection (2) selecting the correct club (3) practice. This article focuses on short game strategy development and some practice techniques.

A Game Within a Game–What is Your Strategy? Many people consider putting especially but the short game in general a game within a game. Regardless of where you believe it fits, it is generally true that the higher the handicap player, the less time they spend on the short game. The lower handicap players likely divide their time between the long and the short game. There is a reason for that and it should be obvious, but if you hit the ball 300 yards off the tee or if you sink a 3 inch putt, each counts as 1 stroke. No more, no less. There are those instructors who believe we should learn the game from the green back to the tee as a way to reinforce the importance of this principle. What is your general strategy for the short game and for part shots, and how effective are you at the elements of your strategy? Do you always blast away off the tee, or do you consider taking less club in a situation where it’s a shorter hole and you want to leave yourself a favorite yardage? If you are wondering what is meant by these questions, let me provide an example and see if it matches or is similar to your own approach. All things being equal (ATBE), if I can’t reach the green without some type of risk on a second shot to a par 5, for instance, I like to hit a club that will position the ball to a point where I leave myself a 100 yard or 70 yard shot.

This distance corresponds to my normal sand wedge and my 60 degree lob wedge distances, respectively. I practice these shots every time I hit golf balls, so ATBE, I am much more likely to get it within a sinkable range or within 10 feet or less from these distances than from a shorter distance of say, 85 or 55 yards. These distances are based on a so called 1030 swing or a three quarter swing (e.g., my lead or left arm for a right handed golfer would be parallel to the ground for a 0900 swing position and all the way to the top would be a 1200 O’clock swing. Halfway between the two is the 1030 position). I find it is just bad strategy to leave an odd distance if I can avoid it and on a layup shot such as that described above, you have ultimate control over how far you hit it. To use another example, if you don’t quite catch it off the tee and you end up in a position where you can’t reach the green but you can get within 30 yards of the green by hitting a 3wood or a long iron, I would prefer to hit a middle or short iron such as a 5 or 7 iron to reach my ideal layup distance.

To belabor a point, this assumes that you have worked out your distances and practiced your wedges so you know your ideal target yardage. So the first part of improving is having a similar strategy where you look for deliberate opportunities to get the ball to yardages that play to your strengths. I should note that if you are really good at getting the ball up and down from 30 or 45 yards, then that is the target distance you should shoot for all the time!

Deliberate Choices–Not a Coincidence! The above outlines a strategy that gets you to the scoring clubs and you should pursue that option whenever you have the opportunity. To be more specific, the way to make two shots out of three in this situation is to lay the ball up to a distance and a club you have practiced. Then it is mere execution to get the ball within range to sink the resultant putt. Three strokes and a putt is just as good a par as hitting the green in regulation and two putting: the scorecard does not care. Of course, Lee Trevino observed that “two things that don’t last are dogs chasing cars and pros putting for pars”, so we are ideally talking about those instances where you can’t hit the GIR or for a longer par 5. This technique would not generally be applicable for a par 3. If you are wondering how you can work it so your sand wedge hits it 100 yards, it is not a coincidence that I hit my sand wedge and lob wedge 100 and 70 yards. In fact it is the furthest thing from a coincidence!

I adjusted my wedges and bought specific clubs to fit these yardages after practicing with similar clubs to work out the yardages. In fact the golf ball goes further every year, or so it seems, so I am playing with a sand wedge that has been weakened almost two degrees over the last three years to keep the 1030 swing at 100 yards. If I hit my sand wedge with the 0900 swing, ATBE, it goes about 75 yards and the lob wedge about 52 yards. If I am a little bit off with my calculations I have a club that will cover the distance. I do not like hitting a 0730 swing with these clubs as a matter of personal choice. The confidence you will gain over time through the combination of the practice of these shots and the strategy to find opportunities to take advantage of your new found skill will lead to lower scoring.

Summary. Develop a strategy as part of your overall course management objectives to lay the ball up to distances you like. Hit practice shots from the distances so you get more and more comfortable over time. In two previous articles I discussed how to employ the knockdown swing and also how to work on your swing speed and distances. The item being added in this article is the strategy piece, without which the other aspects are somewhat incomplete. It does little to no good to know your swing speed and your distances if you lack a strategy that lets you take that advantage to the course. When you have a chance to reach the green but it is a risk reward shot, the added confidence of having dialed in wedges can make a big difference in how you approach these situations. With that confidence you will notice an improvement in your scores and you will find you can get more aggressive in situations where you have a comfortable yardage. Practice with the wedges will improve your overall game by expanding your options. It all starts with the development of a strategy for how you play your approach shots and how you work to your strengths in those situations where you are trying to make two shots out of three!