Sunday, April 10, 2011

Using the Ground

A beautiful green complex at Royal Aberdeen, Scotland.  Can you visualize rolling the ball up this slope to a hole where the golfers are standing?  That option seems more appealing than pitching a shot in the air from the tight lie of the closely mown turf. 
Golf can be played using the ground or using the air. If you are 50 yards from the green, with nothing between you and the hole, you have a choice to make. Should you hit the ball in the air or should you roll the ball along the ground? How we make that choice often has a lot to do with our background. Did we grow up playing on windy links courses or on courses with lots of rough and elevated greens? These are some of the conditions that will cause you to choose whether to use the ground or the air.

Perhaps the only hole at North Berwick that doesn't allow a running approach.  #13, The Pit, is guarded with a low wall and forces the Scots to pitch.

Most of us in the U.S. are in a close relationship with our lob wedge. It is the sexiest club in our bag and even though we don't really understand it as well as say, our 7 iron, we want it in our hands. The problem is, most of us in the U.S. aren't very good at controlling our angle of attack and club release, so that sexy lob wedge causes us heartache after heartache. Learning to use your lob wedge successfully is a good goal and as a teaching professional, I would be happy to help you learn. Until you do so, how about taking out that safe, stable 7 iron and rolling the ball to the hole.

Putting is the art of rolling the ball along the ground. We always putt when on the green. We sometimes putt when we are on the green's apron. We rarely putt when we are further off the green. While watching the Masters this week, I have seen many pros putting from far off the green. On fast greens, it is easier for them to control the speed of the shot. They can, in fact, use the ground to slow the ball's momentum. When you watch the British Open, you will usually see players using the putter from far off the green. Most links courses in the UK are built on firm, seaside turf. The greens are rarely elevated and the undulations around the greens are closely mown. Add to that high winds and you have a perfect opportunity to use the ground to predict the path the ball will travel. Using a putter whenever possible might seem like a cowardly response to a perfect opportunity to pull out the sexy lob wedge, but the game of golf rewards predictability and control, not style.

A beautiful hole on a beautiful course, Kingsbarns in County Fife, Scotland.  This approach shot could be hit using the air or rolling along the ground from a long distance away.

If you can't putt because of a slope, a sprinkler head, or some other obstacle, you can still use the ground, but you will need to chip. There won't be a long discussion about chipping technique here, but chipping is a simple stroke of swinging a club up and dropping it on the ball. That downward motion will cause the ball to jump up in reaction and then roll out to the hole. You can use any club in your bag to chip, although a driver and a putter are rarely used by any golfer. The more loft you use, the more the ball will fly in the air. Learn what your clubs will do for you by figuring out landing spots and roll outs and then computing the ratios. For example, my pitching wedge will fly about halfway to the hole and roll the other half on a simple chip shot. That is my starting point. From there, my 9 iron will roll out a bit more than it will fly. When I get to my 7 iron, the ball will fly 1/4 of the way to the hole and roll out 3/4 of the way. When I need a chip that requires more fly than roll, I can use my sand wedge or lob wedge. The technique is the same with every club. The ball is back in the stance, the hands are forward and delofting the club, the club is swung with rhythm and the ball is struck with momentum.

This is a very simplistic discussion of a shot that can be adjusted with ball position, hand position, swing speed and angle of attack. All these variations are what makes chipping one of the most useful shots to master for a golfer. Once you learn the basic shot, you can then become an artist and your chips will reflect the visions you have for the ball's jump and roll. That brings us to the most important factor to rolling the ball. Envisioning what the ground will do to the ball. On links courses in the U.K., the land is very distinguished and as I said above, firm. There is fun to be had to look at the earth and visualize your ball rolling over it. The prediction of the shot is a large part of the eventual success of the shot. When you use the ground, you need to see how the ball will roll over each knoll and through the swale.

Tiger predicts, visualizes and executes a chip shot in the 2005 Masters.

Choosing where the ball lands when chipping is very important. If you can find a dry, firm, flat spot to land the ball, you are in business. Now, calculate the distance to that spot and the roll out that will take place from there and choose your club. If it is 1/4:3/4 (air to roll) it would be a 7 iron for me. When you learn your ratios, your decision making for choosing a club will become easier. There is no distance from the green that doesn't work for this type of shot, as long as you have nothing in your way and the turf is fairly firm. However, this shot is much easier to hit on bent or blue grass and much tougher to hit on bermuda. If you chip into the grain on bermuda grass, the ball will bite into the turf and will not roll out. Once again, where you learned the game will guide your tendencies and very few players from Southern states in the U.S.A. will be comfortable chipping from 100 yards off of the green.

Olazabal hits a chip shot over a bunker successfully.  Watch his technique closely and you will see it is a chip.  The handle of the club is not released until well after the ball is gone.  

Most players I see on the lesson tee have little confidence in their lob wedge, but feel compelled to use it whenever they are within 40 or 50 yards of the green. Whenever the opportunity presents itself to hit a running shot, they should jump at the chance. Their scoring will improve, their confidence will improve and they will start to visualize what they want with ease instead of hoping and guessing with the sexy lob wedge in hand. Players of any level will benefit from learning and practicing putting and chipping from off the green, no matter how far.

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