by Lawrence Martin
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Step 6. Become a Short Game Maven

Consider Bill, a newcomer to golf who has been taking lessons from his club pro, has gone to the driving range many times, and as a result has achieved a reasonable swing. He drives the ball without losing it out of bounds, and can get within 50 yards of the green after two shots on most Par 4 holes. But then what happens?

Here is Bill on a par-4 hole a day that I played with him. It was a long par 4 for high handicappers, 412 yards from the white tees. Bill's drive was super, going 200 yards to the left of the fairway. He then hit a 5 iron at least 170 yards but the angle was off so the ball ended up on the far right of the fairway, an estimated 50 yards from the center cup. Bill's 3rd shot, a half pitch with his pitching wedge, went over the green and plopped into a sand bunker. He uttered the usual expletive.

He didn't follow through with his sand shot swing and the ball dribbled only a few feet, remaining in the bunker. Bill's next shot -- his 5th -- was hit thin and the ball scooted over the green into another bunker. He took out his putter and putted from the sand, not an unreasonable thing to do. He got out of the bunker, but the ball rolled way past the hole, and ended up in the fringe of the green, above the cup; his return putt was now 30 feet downhill. Bill's putt from the fringe (his 7th shot) was stroked too hard, and the ball ended up rolling 15 feet below the hole. It took him two more putts to hole out. Total score for this par-4 hole: 9.

Poor Bill. He came close to the green on a long Par 4 after two decent shots. Then he took seven more shots to hole out! This, dear reader, is no exaggeration. This is hacker golf, short game style. It happens all the time.

You've probably often heard the term "greens in regulation". It means landing on the green after the tee shot for Par 3 holes, after 2 shots for Par 4 holes, and after 3 shots for Par 5 holes.

Hackers and high handicappers seldom hit "greens in regulation". Instead, on hole after hole, we end up around or near the green when we should be on it. As a result, we have lots of opportunity to play the short game. More opportunity than better players.

So What is 'The Short Game'?

The short game is defined differently by different teachers, usually based on distance from the hole. The most comprehensive definition is 'any shot within 100 yards of the hole, including putting'. Thus the short game includes a full swing with pitching or sand wedge. However, most short game shots are, in fact, less than full swings, and this makes them very difficult for most golfers. How far do you swing the club back? How much follow through? Very difficult.

Dave Pelz, in his comprehensive Short Game Bible, points out that 80% of the high handicapper's handicap comes from short game shots. Thus if your handicap is 30 shots over par, then 24 of those 'extra' shots come from within 100 yards of the green.

There are profound implications for such a statistic. First, you cannot get better at golf without improving your short game. Second, the skills required to get better are altogether different than those needed off the tee; the short game cannot be learned on the driving range. Third, unlike the drive or the long fairway shot, the short game does not require strength or athleticism to really excel. As Pelz says in another of his books, you can learn to putt like the pros. You can also learn to play the rest of the short game as well as any low handicapper.

The following table lists the most common short game shots, with definitions. Each of these shots could take years to master, but you have to start somewhere. In the aggregate, these shots are the short game - and likely 80% of your handicap.

Pitch General term for a ball that flies high and has little roll The Golf Channel's "Academy"-- Golf Tips [Short Game]
Full pitch shot Full swing with lob, sand or pitching wedge. The Golf Channel's "Academy"-- Golf Tips [Short Game]
Partial pitch shot Partial swing with wedge; distance depends largely on length of back swing and follow through. One of the most difficult shots in golf. The Golf Channel's "Academy"-- Golf Tips [Short Game]
Lob shot Partial swing with wedge; ball goes high and short distance, with little or no roll. Useful when your ball is near the green and there is a hazard in the way. The Golf Channel's "Academy"-- World of Golf-- Golf Tips [Short Game]
Chip shot Used within yards of the green, with no intervening hazard; ball in air 1/2 or less of the total distance and rolls the rest of the way. Can use any iron, depending on distance you want the ball to roll. The Golf Channel's "Academy"-- Golf Tips [Short Game]
Sand shot around the green Usually with sand wedge; always hit sand first, so that ball leaves bunker along with the sand. The Golf Channel's "Academy"-- Ben Crenshaw Tips-- Golf Tips [Short Game]
Putt See Step 7 The 19th Hole-- Ben Crenshaw Tips-- The Golf Channel's "Academy"-- Golf Tips [Short Game]

Subtle Shift in Teaching Emphasis

Golf pros and top amateurs have always understood the importance of the short game. That's how they win tournaments. All pros and top amateurs can drive the ball well, even if not long. Thus they hit a large percentage of "greens in regulation." And when they don't hit greens, they come awfully close -- usually ending up in a bunker or near by grass. The difference between winning and losing, in most cases, is the short game (including putting). Putting is so special I have devoted Step 7 to it.

Hackers and high handicappers have rarely grasped the importance of the short game, partly because it is seldom taught or emphasized to them. I speak from experience and observation. In the first few years I was so fixated on "hitting the ball," particularly off the tee, that I seldom practiced the short game on driving ranges, and no instructor really emphasized it. Out of three week-long golf schools we attended, the majority of the time was spent on the full swing -- and nobody complained. High handicappers want to learn to hit the ball long and straight (and who can blame us?).

In the golf schools practically all of the short game shots were covered, of course. But there are so many different shots (see Table above) that one can't cover them reasonably in a week's instruction. Also, only practice will make a short shot repeatable, and practice is what you do after golf school (or after an individual lesson).

We have also been told by teachers that "all swings are the same; learn the full swing and you've learned the others." To which I would now reply: "yea, if you started playing at age 8 and hit a zillion golf balls." The fact is, the short game is different than the full swing: in feel, in finesse, in tempo, in stance, in practicaly everything. The fact is, the short game must be approached as a separate discipline in teaching golf.

This is now widely recognized, and represents a subtle shift in teaching emphasis. There is a spate of new books devoted to the short game (see Golf Bibliography). Now in any general instruction book, you will find short game emphasis as well, as the following quotes attest:

Break 100 Now! From Hacker to Golfer in Just 90 days, by Mike Adams and T.J. Tomasi
"What makes the short game so simple? We didn't say it was simple: we just said it was simpler than a lot of other things in golf. However, the short game is an ideal place to begin the renovation of your game, because it is the area in which you will most quickly and readily observe positive changes in your game. More specifically, you'll start to see some lower numbers in a hurry."

Golf for Women, by Kathy Whitworth
"Although women do not have as much strength as men in their upper bodies, arms, or hands, they can still play with a lot of feel around the green. Women who are good at chip shots and pitch shots can play and score well. I'm a firm believer that if the average player uses the right technique and the right fundamentals, she can learn these shots."

The Elements of Scoring : A Master's Guide to the Art of Scoring Your Best When You're Not Playing Your Best, by Raymond Floyd
"For the high handicapper, improving the short game is the quickest and easiest way to cut strokes from his game. It's the place you can turn three shots into two. For any player, it's the key to being a scorer."

Table of Contents/ Go to Preface/ Go to Step 1/ Go to Step 2/ Go to Step 3/ Go to 4/ Go to Step 5/ Go to Step 6/ Go to Step 7/ Go to Step 8/ Go to Step 9/ Front Nine Quiz/ Back Nine Quiz/ Golf Bibliography/ Internet Sites Listed in Book
Lawrence Martin
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