Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Short Game Strategy

Over the weekend I started thinking a bit more and more about short game strategy. I like to think of it this way…play it 1 shot at a time with your swing and play 1 shot ahead with your strategy. I think the same applies with short game shots, which I’ll call shots from less than 40 yards from the edge of the green.

I feel where golfers really screw up, and I’m just as guilty about this, is that they get the mentality that they HAVE to get a shot close to the hole so they can have an easy tap in. They also get closer to the hole so they start to think they can make shots. However, I find that more often than not, no round of golf is ever easy. Even if you shoot your best score ever, you’re likely to have to make some testy 5-footers and such.

For instance, on the 4th round of this year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, the telecast started on The Golf Channel before turning over to NBC. TGC followed Bubba Watson early on and he had a chip shot that was about 35 to 40 feet in length. The announcers remarked how good of chipper Watson was. Bubba then hit a chip that ‘burned the edge’ of the cup and went about 3 feet past the cup. The announcers then stated to the effect ‘see, just an example of how good Bubba chips the ball.’

What the announcers failed to realize is that Bubba now had a downhill putt on a very steep slope. He then missed the 3-footer and they replied ‘he’s been struggling with the putter.’ My contention is that while he should make that 3-footer most of the time, he would’ve been better served not being so aggressive with the chip and leaving himself with an uphill putt.

For amateurs, we have to remember the odds of actually making the chip shot are pretty slim. Here’s a look at a chart of the PGA Tour make percentage on putts from certain distances

(credit: 2011 3Jack Top 20 Putting Instructor, Mark Sweeney at

Let’s think about this for a second. Probably the shortest chip shot we will possibly have in a round of golf is from 13 feet. Usually we don’t start chipping until the ball is a full yard off the green (3 feet) and most pins are cut from at least 10 feet from the edge of the green (3 + 10 = 13 feet).

In putting, the PGA Tour guys are making about 30% of their putts from 13 feet. But here we are chipping and I would dare say that the make percentage is probably half of that (15%). But also remember, they are PGA Tour players. The 10 handicapper may make that 13 foot chip 5% of the time if they are lucky. And also remember…that’s only from 13 feet. So the longer chips, pitches, lobs, blasts and flops probably have less than a 1% chance of going in.

Yet…we still try to go at the flag.

However, it’s not about being conservative. It’s about planning 1 shot ahead with your strategy. If I have a 45 foot chip that I feel pretty comfortable with and the green doesn’t have much of a slope…I’ll focus more on the flag than leaving myself with an uphill chip. And often times in Florida the greens are very slow so while I may have a downhill putt, if the green is only a 7 or 8 stimp (and I’ve played slower), the downhill putt doesn’t bother me much.

Since I’m a sub-scratch player, I will have more control of the ball than your typical 10 handicapper. This is still a game of assessing things. For me, I have a better chance of keeping a bunker shot from 30 feet away below the cup than the average 10 handicapper.

But, where I find this strategy particularly helpful is on the more difficult short game shots.

For instance, if one short sides themselves after an approach shot, I think they are better off hitting it to 10 feet and uphill versus going for the tough shot and hitting it close. Because if they miss and leave themselves with a 10 foot downhill putt, they’ve now decreased the odds of getting up and down dramatically. In fact, if you own some of the AimPoint Golf ‘Aim Charts’ you can see how some 5 foot downhill putts can break MORE than a 10 foot uphill putt.

There are also a couple of other factors here as well.

1. Wobble Effect
2. Difficulty of Getting the Optimal Speed

I’ve talked about the Wobble Effect on downhill putts vs. uphill putts before. Essentially, as the ball slows down it will start to wobble…like a front bicycle tire going slow up a hill. We hit uphill putts harder…thus the ball moves at a faster velocity. Downhill putts are hit softer, so the ball moves at a slower velocity. Thus:

Downhill Putts = more likely to wobble off line

Uphill Putts = less likely to wobble off line.

I also find that downhill putts are more difficult to get the optimal speed.

Theoretically, I can always hit an uphill putt the right amount of speed and have it go about 6 to 12” past the cup which would be about optimal. But with downhill putts…if they are fast enough and have a steep enough of a slope, getting that optimal speed could be next to impossible.

Between the speed issues and the wobble effect, downhill putts will often require superb sweetspot contact to go in the cup. If they are struck just slightly off center, that may eliminate your chances of making the putt completely.

So the next time you see a chip just miss the cup but leaves the golfer with a 3 foot downhill putt, think about it as a good swing…but a poor strategy.


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