How to shoot low numbers
You've heard it before and you're about to hear it again: if you want to go low, you need a wicked short game. This is the area we never stop working on, and some of the lessons I have learned on tour from some of the finest exponents in the business just might help you. I hope the following ideas give you some real positives to work on - and some fun shots to try along the way.
Its not the quality of your ball-striking that wins you tournaments. All the guys on tour hit it good - some hit better than others. Some hit it further than others. But the fact remains that the short game is king. And while I consider myself to be a pretty tidy player around the greens, there's definitely room for improvement.
I am not in the Ernie Els or Tiger Woods league. For me to make the jump from the top-40 in the world to the top-10, this is where I am going to have to work on bridging the gap.
I have spent a lot of time working on my swing and it's only been in the last couple of years that I have turned up the heat around the green.
My coach, Claude Harmon, has helped enormously, and a few other players have given me a few tips that I will try to explain to you through the course of this article.
Ernie is a particularly interesting player to watch. He has a different type of technique to most players in that he plays a lot of his short shots with a fairly stiff-wristed action - even bunker shots. A lot of guys cannot pull that off the way he does. We have spent quite a lot of time together and you cannot help but pick up ideas from a player of his ability. It was Ernie who taught me the value of using a
weak left-hand grip when chipping -something you should definitely try. At the Masters this year, wedge-wizard Jose Maria Olazabal taught me a wild lob shot that I think is pretty cool, the details of which are also in here.
The main thing I have learned is that players like Ernie and Tiger allow their imagination to come out and they choose the right shot at the right time. That's the real key here. Strategy in shot selection is so important. You have to be relaxed enough to allow your imagination to come out and pick the right shot. If you are tense or tight about something, you are likely to pick the wrong shot. So, with that in mind, let's have a look at some of the ways in which I guarantee you can improve your short game and start shooting lower numbers.
Technique & strategy
I believe the smart strategy in chipping is to get the ball on the deck and running at the hole as soon as possible. I aim to land the ball a yard or two on to the green and get it rolling just like a putt. One of the most important adjustment that I make as I get set up is to run the shaft fairly high through the palm of my left hand. This is something I picked up from Ernie. A weak left-hand grip quietens hand action, and so puts the emphasis on a simple shoulder-controlled motion (sequence below). As you can see, the hands remain passive throughout the stroke.
When I find myself on the fringe, playing to a near-cut pin (above), there's only one thought in my mind: I'm trying to hole it. I'm 10 yards away, I have a great lie, I'm on good greens, I know how the ball is going to react. So, in this case using my sand iron, I'm thinking in terms of landing the ball perhaps a yard on to the green and reading the line just like a putt. In this case I'd say it's a cup to a cup and a half left of the hole.
For precision, read every chip like a putt
Once I have this visual etched in my mind, it's all about precision - hence
the reason I work on a technique that basically takes the wrist hinge out of the equation. Moving on to the set-up, over a fairly narrow and open stance, I settle my weight on the left side, just as I do to putt. And the key thing is my weight stays left while my head stays absolutely still .
One of the things I am prone to get wrong on this shot is to let my hands get too low, which
causes the heel to dig into the ground. For a precise strike, it's important that you stand the club up so that the sole is nice and flush -another reason why running the grip through the palm of the left hand is a good idea.
The stroke itself is then governed by the arms and shoulders, the hands passive. As simple a stroke as you can imagine - head dead still - so that I nip the ball off the turf.
Choose the club for the situation
One of the biggest things I have worked on in the short game is something the physiologist Bob Rotella always emphasizes: when you are standing around the green, you have got to hit the shot you feel you have a good chance of holing. Technique is the least of your worries -all of these shots are played the same way. The trick lies in 'reading' the shot and choosing the right club at the right time. Take the two shots above. On the left I have a shot of around 30 feet, and having picked out my line, I'm visualising a shot that lands a couple of yards on to the green and runs to the hole - in this case, a 9-iron gives me the perfect ratio of flight and roll. With that same, simple technique, all I am thinking about is my target.
The situation on the right is a little more complicated, and a much tougher shot. I now have to roll the ball up the slope and then judge the pace as it runs away from me, downhill to the hole. That's asking a lot, but one thing I do know is that I will have a much easier putt back up the hill than I will if I try to get too cute and leave it short. On longer chip shots like this I think in terms of using less loft - this is a 7-iron -and again read the shot like a long putt. Now I might be thinking in terms of landing the ball about a third of the way to the hole and let¬ting it roll out from there. Again, the technique is exactly as demonstrated earlier: I keep my weight on my left side, create a gentle knee flex towards the target, take one last look at the hole, and go.
Make use of the Hamilton
Like I said earlier, good players know when to choose a certain shot. Think about what Todd Hamilton did on that final playoff hole at Troon. You know what, he was as nervous as hell, but he knew the turf was tight and that it was running as true as a green. So all he had to do was somehow judge the pace and he would hit it inside ten feet. He could have hit a career chip shot and
finished five feet away. Todd chose to chip the ball with his fairway wood - the percentage shot for the situation he was in. For its simplicity, this is a shot more amateurs should use more often. As long as the ground between you and the green is relatively smooth, it can be the ideal solution -particularly off a delicate lie or from fluffy rough like this. The loft on your 3- or 5-
wood is sufficient to get the ball to pop up and get over that grass before rolling on like a putt (with barely three or 4 degrees of loft, a putter just doesn't give you that initial flight). Technique is easy, and mostly boils down to comfort. I get my stance quite narrow, a little open. Some players grip right down to the shaft, which is fine. Find out what feels best for you.
Just take the sand out of the box...
Just like the lob shot, the key to playing a regular bunker shot lies in opening up the clubface and trusting your swing through the impact area. What I do is set the club-face up first, laying the blade wide open so that the leading edge is aimed a little to the right of the target. Then, to offset this, I set my body lines running to left of the target, leaving the arms plenty of room to swing freely.
A good tip here is to feel like you are reaching for the ball just a fraction - that gives you all the room you need and also gets your hands fairly low. Once you are set up and ready to go, remember that a still head is the secret to you delivering a consistent 'low point' through the sand.
One of the biggest problems I see amateurs struggle with is the issue of hitting a couple of inches behind the ball. They are told to focus on hitting a point behind the ball and that's exactly what they do: they hit down into the sand two inches behind the ball. What they forget is that you have to take a shallow divot of sand all the way beneath the ball.
One way to get over this when you practise is to draw a box around the ball and work on removing a shallow cut of sand from it either side of the ball itself.
Fluffy rough - Like a bunker shot
Nick Faldo once showed my what he called a 'scything' shot from fairly thick rough. It's a shot I really like and one I use often from this sort of fluffy lie - even if I have a lot of green to play with I will take my sand iron and try to fly the ball most of the way. The key is to stay aggressive through the shot.
You don't want to be decelerating through it, otherwise the grass gets caught and you get the classic goofy one that doesn't quite get out. What you have to remember is that you're not setting up to hit the ball here.
It's exactly like a bunker shot, except that you are substituting fluffy grass for sand. From the way I place the open clubface a good inch or inch-and-a-half behind the ball, it's the same drill as in the sand: open stance, hands fairly low, and a long smooth swing along the line of my toes that pops the ball out. All you have to do is focus on making a good contact with the grass. In fact, if you get into the habit of making a practice swing to the side of the ball you can actually hear good impact as the open face scythes through the grass.
Putting - Why the belly putter gives you a 'tick tock' stroke
The belly-putter doesn't suit everyone, but I like it because it teaches you to release the putter properly. With the butt-end secure in your belly, you create a pure pendulum stroke with the arms and shoulders. And whether I use a short stick or the belly-putter, that's what I am looking to achieve.
Where a lot of people go wrong with the belly version is they believe you must move your body in tandem with the putter. Wrong. The key to this is that your body must stay very still, leaving the arms to swing freely.
When I work on my putting I focus on keeping the butt-end fixed and my head perfectly still throughout. When I achieve those twin objectives I am pretty confident that I will create a repeating pendulum stroke.
Think of a grandfather clock. At the set up you want the putter shaft to be standing pretty much straight up. You also want to create a nice base here with your legs. The palms of the hands should be neutrally opposed as
they meet on the grip, and the result is a very orthodox position over the ball, which I play just forward of centre. The grandfather clock analogy helps me to create pendulum motion with the putter as it swings back and through. If you try the belly putter, put your hands on where they feel comfortable.
Monty has his quite high, Vijay (when he uses it) is a little lower. The key is that you then get this pendulum motion going, the butt-end secure all the way through the stroke. To do this, think about keeping your stomach and your body real still - all that is moving is the shaft. The result is that the putter-face remains square to the path along which the putter is swinging (correctly, it appears to be opening and closing, just like a swinging door).
A lot of people think the face must end up looking at the target, but it doesn't. It finishes square to the path, looking left. As it should in a naturally correct action.