Saturday, January 5, 2013

Short Game Practice Evaluation

At our WGCA Convention, we had the opportunity to listen to Trent Wearner speak to us about practice.  I've known Trent for a while, because we were both golf professionals in the Colorado Section.  I have a great deal of respect for him as a teacher.  Not only for his expertise, but because he is one of the people in the business who routinely goes beyond the minimum expectations.  He understands that helping a student swing the club better means little if the student doesn't in turn, score better.  His book, Golf Scrimmages, was written to help golfers practice the game realistically.

The one thing I took away from Trent was, we need to track our skills in practice.  Otherwise, we don't really know if we are actually improving.  With that reminder, I turned to my book shelf and another book that is very helpful to golfers, Golf's Red Zone Challenge by Charlie King and Rob Akins.  I had a student in town this week who was a perfect candidate for this testing and some short game work.

One of my student's college coaches told me that her short game wasn't sharp.  When I talked to the player herself, she felt she was inconsistent with her game within 100 yards.  We spent approximately 10 hours over the break evaluating her short game, working through a few mechanics and talking about how to practice going forward.

One thing we did was take the Red Zone Challenge found in the book with the same name.  It is a test that takes about 45 minutes if you have two people.  The book tests your skills with wedge shots, bunker shots, pitches, chips, long putts and short putts.  It then gives you a handicap that equates to GHIN handicaps.  The test mirrored what we saw in my student's game and stats.  She was a 10 handicapper with her wedge.  A 4 handicapper out of the bunker (her bunker ranking is 29th in the country).  She is about a 20 handicapper with short pitches and chips.  A big red flag!  Her putting is  good and she is about a 5 handicap according to the test. 

We now have a starting point and a way to track her progress toward her goal of being great on and around the greens.  To put this all into perspective, here are her stats and ranking according to golf stat:  scoring average is 72.67, ranking 24th in D-I.  She ranks 17th in the country in green hits and 359th in the country in non sand up and downs.  She hits, on average, 14 greens per round and makes an average of 3 birdies per round.  She gets up and down only 4 out of every 10 attempts.  In an average 54 hole tournament, she has about 7 bogies from missing greens to go with her 9 birdies.  Throw in a mistake off the tee or a 3 putt and you come up with a 72 scoring average.

The goal is to rid the score card of those bogies that come from missing the green.  We approached the goal by setting up practice that evaluated each of the skills demanded in the short game.  The first is choosing the right shot and the club needed for the shot.  For this skill, the student puts a tee in the ground where she believes is the best place to land the shot.  She then chooses the club and lands the ball on the tee to produce the shot she saw.  If she hits the target, but it isn't the right shot, she must change the intermediate point or the club choice.

Here is a video of one of our sessions.

Next, we work on actually hitting the intermediate point consistently.  We need solid contact, good tempo and speed and trajectory control to get this done.  One of the mechanics that we often talk about in this phase is swinging the club with the momentum needed to match the shot.  That sounds obvious, but so often around the green, the back swing gets too short and the hands try to create speed on the down swing.  When this happens, the hands release early to create speed or the club is pulled through instead of swung.  When you think of good mechanics in the short game, think as much about the handle and shaft of the club swinging as you do the club head.  This will help you visualize the swing and create the proper momentum.

When we can consistently hit our intermediate point, we will focus on a bit more on trajectory and spin.  Spin in the short game is mostly a result of solid contact and effective loft.  If the ball is nestled in deep rough or you have a dirty club face, you won't get much spin, because there will be grass between the ball and club.  Effective loft is a combination of club choice and shaft lean.  The most spin comes from the most loft and most level swing.  In other words, if you want the ball to spin, use your 60 degree wedge and deliver the club with a vertical shaft at impact.  I'm not advising you to chip or pitch that way, but simply explaining the most spinning shot.  The further back the ball is in your stance, the less spin you will impart on the ball.

Trajectory control is much the same as spin control in that you need control of the effective loft at impact.  Once again, if you control the shaft and handle of the club as you swing it, you can control your trajectory.  Most high handicap golfers think only about the club head and the hit of the ball.  They throw the club head and increase the loft.  This often causes them to bottom out behind the ball and hit if fat or thin.

Another video of our session working on these factors.

The final thing that we worked on this week was changing how my student views the shot.  At the beginning of the week, she routinely sent her shots past the hole and as they slowed down, they worked away from the hole.  To be great around the green, you need to work shots to the hole as they slow down.  This is a mistake I see constantly in junior and college golf.  Players are fooled by shots that go close to the hole for a split second as they sail past on the low side.  Those are not good shots.  The leave testy 8-10 footers for par instead of more makeable putts.  Learning to hit pitches and chips that get high enough to work toward the hole as they slow is a skill that separates great short games from good ones.  It is routinely done on tour and rarely done in college.

So, we had some good sessions working on short game.  We have a starting point for evaluation and some definite things to work on and ways to do it.  Now, it's the student's turn to go and work hard on mastering these skills, tracking her own improvement and watching her scores drop.

One other video working on these skills.

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