I have often had people ask me to help them with their chipping. When we get to the short game area they proceed to get their 7-iron out and begin hitting bump and run shots all over the place. When I ask them what they are doing, they have a bemused look on their face.
The conventional advice that people who are struggling with their chipping often receive is that the safe bet is to take less loft or even their putter and keep it on the ground unless there is no other alternative. There is no doubt it is a far safer option but it certainly is not the answer to becoming good around the greens. In fact, it is the sort of advice you take on board when you have given up all hope of ever becoming successful at chipping and now you just want to make things less stressful on yourself.
A select few of the top professionals have learned to chip using all the clubs in the bag, often using similar technique and just changing clubs to get the desired ball flight. Most of the top players now, however, will do the majority of their chipping with their most lofted clubs. Phil Mickelson said he uses his lob wedge for almost every shot around the greens and changes the trajectory by altering the ball position and technique rather than changing clubs.
Chipping was always one of my strengths – as a kid I spent endless hours having chipping comps around the practice green. It was always more convenient to have just one club and as a result I too learned to play most of the shots with my most lofted clubs. By doing this I developed an unwavering trust in my lob wedge. I was so confident with it that I loved taking it out of the bag and when it was in my hands I felt like a magician wielding their wand.
When you have two methods that can both potentially be successful there will always be conflicting schools of thought. Those who have problems around the green lose confidence and when this happens you tend to revert to the safest option. If you are reasonably competent around the greens however and not lacking confidence then I would implore you to spend the majority of your time practicing with your wedges and getting comfortable lofting the ball.
During a round of golf, the flags are rarely in the middle of the green; more often than not they will be tucked away in the corners. This means that a poor shot into the green will generally result in either a long putt from one side or a short- sided chip from the other.
If we miss the green and short-side ourselves, it will be a stressful walk to our ball if we are secretly hoping in our mind that we will have a neatly manicured piece of surrounds with nothing impeding our route to the flag. The reality, of course, is that most times when we short-side ourselves we are faced with a little lob shot that requires soft hands and a deft touch. If you have spent time practicing this shot and built some confidence, then it really isn’t as difficult as some people think. But if you have spent all your time with your 9-iron practicing your bump and run shots whilst avoiding your lob wedge, then you are going to be very intimidated–and that’s when disaster looms.
All the great short game players have two things in common. One: they all have wonderful imaginations; when they arrive at the ball they immediately see the best option in their mind. Two: that they are very good at weighing up the risk/reward of the shot. There will be times where they would like to loft the ball but if the lie isn’t good enough or the penalty for an errant shot is too high they know to play conservatively.
The biggest advantage that a good player gets from using a wedge to play a low shot from back in their stance is that they impart far more spin on the ball than you would with an 8- or 9-iron. As a result, the ball is checking and slowing down as it approaches the hole. This makes it far easier to gauge the distance than if they get the ball rolling for the majority of its journey.
In short, the safest option is not always the best. A good comparison would be if you have ever played a round of golf in a country area, you may have found yourself in a bunker with a shallow lip. Your immediate thought is ‘great, I don’t have to worry about the lip or throwing it high.’ The problem is that a successful bunker player has an open stance, an open clubface and takes an aggressive swing. The second you are not faced with a lip and begin to think ‘well I don’t need to throw it high’ then that’s when you’ll end up hitting a poor shot and scratching your head.
In chipping it’s similar: when you arrive at your ball and see you have plenty of green to work with, you may start to think ‘well, it would be silly not to utilise it’. This is not the thought process of a good player. A good player thinks positively and hits the shot that will get them closest to the hole most often rather than the shot that has the least perceived risk.
The point I make is not that it is always about throwing the ball in the air. The reality is there will be times where a bump and run 7-iron will definitely serve you better–or perhaps a putter or hybrid from a difficult lie off the green is your best option. I’d simply ask that you ignore the advice that it’s ‘always’ best to get the ball on the ground and rolling as soon as possible.
Practicing with your sand iron and lob wedge will be time well spent; you will find that you have far more options available on the easy shots and the required arsenal and confidence to combat the difficult ones.