The Unstoppable Golfer
THE SHORT GAME AND WINNING GOLF
By learning how to get the ball up and down, you will have mastered the art of scoring your best.
Unstoppable golf and a great short game are inseparable. If I didn’t already know this, I could learn it every April at the Masters.
In the popular mind, Augusta National Golf Club may be a course that Bob Jones and Alister MacKenzie designed to favor the heroic long hitter, a Sam Snead when the Masters began or a Bubba Watson today. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with hitting the ball a long way, especially if a golfer hits it where he’s aiming. Only a fool would say he’d rather not drive the ball 330 yards into the middle of every fairway.
But I’ve seen lots of players who can drive the ball 330 yards and
yet have never won a Masters, or even come close. Augusta National tests their short games and finds them wanting.
All the grass on and around Augusta’s greens is mowed closer than the hair on the head of a boot-camp marine. The greens are so quick that inexperienced players can and do putt right off of them. And the putts on the greens are not nearly as testing as the pitches around them. From grass so short that most golf clubs would be happy to call them putting surfaces, players have to hit pitches and lobs that fly precise distances at precise trajectories and then either check up or roll out, depending on the circumstances. Moreover, the grounds crew at Augusta generally mows so that the golfer has to chip and pitch into the grain of the grass, adding another layer of complexity for the elite player.
These conditions expose a lot of doubt and fear. No one gets invited to the Masters unless he is an accomplished player. But I have had Masters contestants come up to me in the days before the tournament begins and say, “No way am I getting in the hunt this week, Doc. I am not going to pitch the ball from around these greens on national television.”
That’s an extreme example of the debilitating fear that can infect a golfer’s short game. At other times, the effect is more subtle.
A young player I work with was thrilled one year to be invited to his first Masters. For the most part, he played very well, but he missed the cut by a stroke or two. One of his playing partners during the first two rounds sent me a message about my client. The message was: “He’s a good kid and a good player. But he needs to be able to hit a high, soft lob off a tight lie.”
The truth was, my young client could hit a high, soft lob off a tight
lie. But when he got to the Masters for the first time, he felt a sudden flash of doubt when the need for that shot arose, as it inevitably did. Mentally, he wasn’t quite ready to play the short game that Augusta National demands. He played other kinds of shots in those situations, shots from a ball position closer to his right foot, so he could be confident of striking the ball cleanly. They probably looked quite decent to the average spectator, but these shots too often didn’t get him close enough to the hole to save par or make birdie.
Physically, he was ready to play in the Masters. He had the skills. But my client still had work to do to develop the mental side of his short game. He had, quite understandably, felt a little bit in awe of the Masters. That had caused him to start to feel that he had to be able to hit perfect shots to compete there. He forgot that on lots of very good golf courses, he’d won because he’d trusted his skills and let himself find a way to get the ball in the hole.
The player who wins at Augusta loves the way the course challenges his short game. He loves showing off his skills. He loves knowing that his short game will separate him from many of the other contestants.
Trevor Immelman, who won the Masters in 2008, is a perfect example. Trevor learned the short game very naturally, the way I would hope any kid would learn it. He has a brother, Mark, who’s nine years older and himself a very good golfer (and now the coach at Columbus State University in Georgia). Mark took up the game at fourteen, when he enrolled at a school called Hottentot Holland High School in the Immelmans’ hometown of Somerset West, South Africa. Trevor, who was five, tried desperately to keep up with Mark and his friends. Obviously, he couldn’t hit the ball as far as his older
brother. Out of necessity, he learned to hit pitches close to the hole and to putt well.
The boys’ father, Johan, responded to his sons’ passion for golf by building a rudimentary putting green with a sand bunker in the family’s front yard. Neither Johan nor Mark had to force Trevor to use the green. Trevor’s competitive instincts got him started. He remembers that sometimes he would practice his chips, pitches, and putts for hours at a time. Sometimes he would do it in spurts, practicing for fifteen or twenty minutes, then going back inside the house and watching television. Eventually, he expanded his horizons, hitting pitches to the green from neighbors’ lawns. Some of them were a full wedge away and Trevor learned to hit over trees and walls. (Somerset West must have been a kind and tolerant community.)
He did not take a lot of formal lessons. Instead, he learned by watching better players, beginning with Mark. He asked questions. He started watching professionals on South Africa’s tour. Ernie Els, for example, showed Trevor how he used the bounce on his wedges.
In 1998, when he was eighteen, Trevor came to America and won the U.S. Public Links championship, which carried with it an invitation to the 1999 Masters. He remembers being dazzled and intimidated that year by the speed of the Augusta greens and their slopes. But right away, he felt confident about his pitching and chipping capabilities. Trevor also could see that the best players at the Masters knew where to put the ball on those complex greens. They gave themselves putts they could hit confidently.
When he returned to the Masters as a professional some years later, Trevor set about mastering the subtleties of those greens. His
strong short game gave him an edge at Augusta, and he had a sixth-place finish to his credit when he returned for the Masters of 2008. But he was on almost no one’s short list of favorites. He had to deal with an additional irritant that year when his swing coach decided not to go to Augusta. I told Trevor that the same thing had happened to Tom Kite in 1992 at the U.S. Open in Pebble Beach. It hadn’t proven to be an insurmountable problem—Tom won.
“Let’s decide it’s going to help,” I said to Trevor. “Your job is to find a way to play great golf even if your coach doesn’t come. Just get into trusting your golf swing and playing golf.”
Trevor had, by then, developed a very smart game plan for playing Augusta, particularly the two pivotal par fives on the second nine, Nos. 13 and 15. The plan depended on his confidence with his wedges. Basically, he decided that on those two holes, he would try to reach the green in two shots only if he had a 4-iron or less for his second shot. Otherwise, he would lay up and rely on his short game.
The plan was more complicated than that, of course. The spot from which he wanted to hit his wedges to each hole varied with the possible hole locations. For some locations, he might want a high shot with lots of backspin that hit the green and spun back. That would dictate a lay-up to a certain yardage. For others, he might want a lower pitch that bounced once and then checked. That might dictate a different yardage or a different angle.
Not every player would, or could, formulate such a plan. As I’ve said, there are contestants at the Masters who fear and avoid the shots Trevor was putting into his game plan. But the history of the Masters, while it has its share of long hitters, also shows that the short game can be the key to success. Recent winners like Mike Weir and Zach
Johnson were not overly long. Past champions like the Spaniards Seve Ballesteros and José Maria Olazábal were geniuses with their wedges. Tom Kite had always shown well at Augusta.
Trevor, I thought, had that kind of short game. More important, he had precisely the attitude toward his short game that I love to see in a player. It was an attitude that would help him regardless of the shot he was hitting. If a golfer has confidence in his short game—if he looks forward to opportunities to show it off on the golf world’s greatest stage—it helps him to accept calmly whatever happens on the course. It relaxes him. No shot, no mistake, is going to upset him. His short game is an emotional shield.
Knowing that, it was easy to help Trevor when I talked to him during that week. I simply reminded him to do the same things he always tried to do—stay focused on his targets, visualize his shots, commit to his routine, and accept completely whatever happened to the golf ball. They’re simple rules, Trevor says, but they’re not easy or simple to follow. It’s been my experience that tournament winners, even in major championships, more often than not are people who simply do those things. They stick to their normal routines and fundamentals while other players let the pressure of the moment persuade them to try something different.
I recall particularly one shot Trevor hit during that Masters. It came on Saturday at the 13th hole, a hole that Masters winners quite often birdie. Trevor drove the ball superbly all that week, but his tee shot on the 13th left him with more than a 4-iron to the green. So, true to his plan, he laid up to 80 yards. But he still intended to get his birdie.
The hole that day was cut in a small plateau on the back-left portion
of the green. It’s a very demanding spot because the player has maybe six or seven feet of landing area on the plateau. In front of that there’s a steep bank. It’s very tough to sink a putt from off the plateau because of that bank. But a player can’t miss long if he tries to get the ball onto the plateau. The ensuing chip or bunker shot would have little or no chance to stay on the plateau, leading most likely to a two-putt bogey. Most players who lay up at No. 13 when the pin is back-left settle for a par, because their pitch to the green winds up short of the plateau.
Trevor’s plan was to hit a low pitch into the bank in front of that back plateau. It was a shot that had to be precise, and I suspect that a lot of players would have left it short. But Trevor had been planning for the shot, practicing it on the range and rehearsing it whenever he got to No. 13 during a practice round. His mind was clear and his confidence was high.
He relied on his routine. He took his sand wedge from his bag, envisioned the shot he wanted, and struck it crisply. The ball landed in the bank, took one hop up, and settled within tap-in distance of the hole. The crowd erupted in applause. It was as fine a birdie as you will ever see, and it gave Trevor momentum that carried him through to the 54-hole lead.
It’s not easy to play from the lead at the Masters. A player who had never won a major would be inhuman if he didn’t find that on Saturday night, he began to think of all the ways in which a victory would change his life. When I visited Trevor that evening, he was nervous. I could only try to help him minimize those thoughts and refocus his attention on the same ideas that helped him birdie the 13th hole and get the 54-hole lead: target, routine, acceptance, commitment.
We discussed trying to give each shot the same equal and relatively low emotional weight, staying calm whether the outcome of a stroke was good or bad. When he left the practice green early Sunday afternoon, I gave him a high five and a grin and told him to go get it—but to stay in the present moment.
Trevor did. He misfired only once that Sunday, when he pulled a 6-iron into the pond left of the 16th green. His short game and his attitude got him through. He didn’t know at the time where he stood in the tournament, since he tries to avoid looking at leaderboards. He didn’t know whether the Masters was on the line or not. (As it happened, he had a 5-stroke lead.) He responded just as he might have done if he’d hit the same shot on Thursday morning, rather than Sunday afternoon. He reminded himself to stay calm. That 6-iron shot was gone, and he had to accept it just as completely as he’d accepted the brilliant pitch to the 13th green on Saturday. He dropped a ball on the front of the tee box and relied again on his short game. He hit a 9-iron over the pond, two-putted, and moved on.
It wasn’t until he had marked his ball on the 18th green that Trevor decided to find out where he stood. He asked his caddie, Neil Wallace.
“You’re three ahead of Woods,” Neil informed him.
Instantly, Trevor went from having complete peace of mind to wondering how he could avoid five-putting. It was a good lesson for him in staying in the moment. He gathered himself, though, two-putted, and claimed his green jacket.
I’ve coached the winners of 74 major championships on the PGA, LPGA, and Champions tours. Trevor was the first, and to date the only, one who hit the ball extremely well all week long. He was
near the top of the driving statistics and the greens-in-regulation figures that week. Even given that, I would say that Trevor’s short game and his mastery of those daunting Augusta greens were largely responsible for his victory. The critical role of the short game has been even more apparent with most of the major winners I’ve worked with. They have all hit the ball badly at least occasionally during their triumphant weeks. They have won because of their short games, their mental toughness, and the fact that few contenders in big events play their normal games.
In fact, most weeks on the PGA Tour, the winner does not win as he might have once dreamed he would. He doesn’t hit every fairway, knock every iron shot close, and sink a lot of tap-in birdie putts. Instead, he scrambles and putts well.
As I write this, the Tour leader in greens hit in regulation is David Toms, averaging a bit less than 13 greens per round. Tied for 100th are Woody Austin and Steven Bowditch, averaging 11.5 greens in regulation per round. These statistics are typical, though the names change. Almost every player on the PGA Tour hits between 11 and 13 greens per round. What separates the consistent winners from those who struggle to keep their Tour cards? The short game.
I see the critical importance of the short game all the more in amateur competition. I work with college players who can hit the ball as well as any professional—on their good days. But all days are not good days, particularly for young players. Some days they can’t find the fairway. On those days, college players with great short games find a way to scrape the ball around in 70 or 72 strokes. They stay in the tournament. They help their teams. Players without good short games shoot 79 on days when their long game deserts them.
The importance of the short game does not diminish as the level of play goes down. On the contrary, average players need a good short more than elite players do. According to the United States Golf Association, the median handicap for American men is about 14. This means that the average club player likely shoots a bit under 90. For women, the median is around 27, which suggests that the average female player shoots a little over 100.
When I watch or play with golfers at this level, I see that they generally keep the ball in play and get it somewhere around the green in the prescribed number of strokes. But they don’t hit many greens. If a good pro hits 13 greens a round, an average player might hit three or four. The average player’s skill with the wedges is tested more often than the pro’s.
In fact, the scores of average players generally reflect their short-game skills. If they pitch a few close to the hole, play their bunker shots decently, and convert a few of their many up-and-down opportunities, they can shoot a score below what their handicaps would suggest. On the other hand, if their short games produce a lot of skulled and chunked shots, they’re going to post an embarrassing number and wind up paying for too many of their opponents’ lunches.
The importance of the short game also grows with a player’s age. When I watch my dad and his buddies playing in Rutland, Vermont, I see that none of them any longer have the power to reach most greens in regulation numbers. But they hit it straight. So their scores depend on how well they handle the pitches in the 40- to 60-yard range that they generally leave themselves. For some reason, these seniors all seem to have an acceptable score in mind when they start a round. It might be 85. It might be 100. It’s their idea of respectable,
enjoyable golf. If they match or go below this number they’re happy. If they don’t, they mutter about giving up the game. Sadly, some of them eventually do give it up. They could still be enjoying themselves if they had reasonable short games. Age may deprive us of the distance we had in our youth. It doesn’t deprive us of the physical ability required to hit a 40-yard pitch.
In general, it’s my observation that a golfer’s long game—his woods and his long irons—determines the highest number he can shoot. His short game—short irons, chips, pitches, and putts—determines the lowest number. This principle operates at all levels of the game.
If a professional has a good day with his long game and hits 15 greens, the highest score he’s likely to shoot is about 75, assuming he bogeys the holes on which he misses the green and has a poor day with his putter. If he has a great day with his short game, he could go very low, way down into the 60s.
At the amateur level, a player of average length who keeps the ball on the golf course and doesn’t hit many, if any, fat shots is probably not going to score much above 90, even if he only hits three or four greens. But only with a comparatively excellent short game will that player break 80.
No matter what level a golfer plays at, the majority of his shots will be taken from 100 yards or closer to the hole. And every hole (barring holes-in-one and double eagles, which are so rare that they don’t matter) will end with either a putt or a short-game shot: a chip, a pitch, or an explosion from a bunker.
Despite these obvious facts, when I travel to courses on and off the PGA Tour, I see evidence that most golfers don’t understand the
importance of the short game. Even at facilities with good, modern short-game practice areas, I see far more players on the range working to get an extra 10 yards with their drivers than I see players trying to sharpen their pitch shots.
One reason for this is that the golf industry sells power and the long game. Power and distance move new clubs and golf balls off the shelves. And a lot of people like making full swings and watching the ball soar high and far. I like that, too, and I completely understand it. It’s one of the essential pleasures of the game.
But at some point, if you want to improve at golf, you have to accept the fact that it’s a game with a score. If you want better scores, you have to improve your short game. The easiest way to take 5 to 15 strokes off the average player’s handicap is by taking fewer strokes on and around the greens. Your short game will win you tournaments and Saturday-morning four-balls.
What’s truly ironic is that a lot of the golfers I see sweating over drives on the practice range could spend their time so much more productively on the short game. Let’s face a fact. If you’re a person with average coordination and strength, and your tee shot currently flies 200 yards or so, you’re not likely ever to hit the ball as far as the shortest hitter on the PGA Tour. Maybe if you buy a new, fitted driver, you’ll add a few yards. And maybe lessons, swing improvements, and practice could add another 10 to 20 yards. But maybe not. And there’s a very real possibility that in your quest for extra length, you’ll mess up the perfectly serviceable swing you now have. I’ve seen it happen more than once on the Tour.
But try this experiment. If you’re sitting in a room at home with this book, look around and pick out a target maybe 8 to 10 feet away
from you. It could be a throw pillow on a sofa or the middle of the seat cushion on another chair. Now close the book and toss it at your target. (If you’re reading this on an airplane, I suggest you wait until later and try it in your hotel room.) Don’t think about how hard to toss it or the mechanics of tossing. Just look at the target and do it.
If you can hit your target with the book—and most people can—you have all the innate physical ability you need to have a good short game.
What’s more, you already have the other basic tool required to have an excellent short game—your mind. Your body may not be able to swing a club fast enough to hit a ball 300 yards. But your mind can be every bit as good as a professional’s. Your attitude toward your short game can be every bit as good as a pro’s. Your confidence can be every bit as good as a pro’s. Your patience can be every bit as good as a pro’s.
If that’s true, if nearly all golfers have the innate tools to have excellent short games, why do so many players throw away so many shots around the greens? I can think of several reasons.
The first is that players either don’t recognize or choose to ignore the importance of the short game. Maybe they’ve never reviewed a round, analyzed their strokes, and counted the number that they made on and around the greens. More likely, they’ve done that, but they tell themselves they’ll focus on their short game after they’ve fixed that slice and learned to hit the ball farther.
Another reason is that some professionals don’t like teaching the short game. Maybe they don’t feel comfortable with their own short games, or maybe they prefer to teach from the practice tee and focus on the mechanics of the full swing. Their pupils get the impression
that learning to play better golf is learning to swing better. Swinging better is part of it, but it’s by no means the most important factor in lower scores.
Finally, some golfers have developed such a phobia about their short games that they prefer not to think about them or practice them at all. They’ve effectively given up and surrendered to what they call the yips.
When I first started counseling golfers some three decades ago, I worked with a lot of players who told me they had the yips with the putter. Nowadays, because of long putters, belly putters, claw grips, and the like, golfers who start to miss a lot of short putts have workarounds they can use to address their problem. Bernhard Langer is an example of a professional who has been successful for almost 40 years by resorting to different putters and grips. Nowadays, I have a lot more clients come to me with cases of what they call the chip yips. Later on in this book, I’ll teach you how to cure this problem.
For reasons I will also go into later, I don’t care for the term “yips.” Right now, suffice it to say that there are a lot of golfers out there who play in fear of one or another aspect of the short game. For high handicappers, it’s likely to be sand shots. Better players tend to find sand shots relatively easy but have mental problems with delicate pitches from tight lies.
Why have the demons of golfing doubt and fear lodged themselves in the wedges? There are a couple of reasons. One is that there’s no work-around for these shots, the way there is for putting. You can’t walk into the pro shop and buy yourself a belly lob wedge that will prevent you from skulling or chunking the ball. You could change the way you grip your wedges, but you’d be unlikely to get much relief from that.
The only work-arounds that have developed for the short game are the ones that relieve anxiety over chips. Fairway grass is maintained very well at most courses these days, so it’s quite possible to putt from well off the green, or take a hybrid club or fairway wood and bump a shot with a putting stroke. But when you’re faced with a bunker shot or a pitch over a bunker from a tight lie, there’s no way to work around it.
These days, players see those unavoidable shots more and more often. That’s because of modern trends in golf course architecture.
I sympathize with golf architects. They’ve got the economy to worry about, for one thing; fewer developers are building courses. And they’ve got to satisfy clients who tell them they want courses that are “fun and accessible for players of all abilities, but challenging for the pros.” That’s like telling Detroit you want a car that gets great gas mileage for your commute to work but will also be competitive if you decide to enter the Indianapolis 500.
Architects, trying to respond, have only a few options. They can’t generally get enough land to build holes that would play long for someone who hits a tee shot 330 yards. They can’t make the fairways too tight, because that would severely affect the average player. So they try to build wide fairways with lots of tees and put most of the difficulty of the course into the green complexes. Greens these days, whether they are on new courses or remodeled courses, have plenty of tiers and swales and humps. They’re often steeply elevated, and they’re surrounded by deep bunkers and tightly mowed chipping areas. It’s hard, or impossible, to run a ball onto them. A slightly mishit shot will leave a player with a very challenging pitch or bunker shot.
Thus, the short game and the golfer’s attitude toward the short game become ever more important. Fear and phobia become ever more prevalent. And I get more and more clients complaining about their pitching yips. In golf today, nothing will measure your mental toughness like your ability to handle these shots and short putts. You’re going to need your short game many times during every round of golf. You’re going to find out if you trust what you’re doing.
This book will teach you how to master this challenge.
I am not saying it will be easy or that I have a quick fix. It very well may not be easy. Nothing that I teach has anything to do with whether it’s easy or hard to do. But if you want to become the best golfer you can be, if you want to have a great short game, one of your motivations could well be that you want to master something most of your friends and peers never become very good at.
My life has been about studying the psychology of greatness, of being extraordinary. I am enthralled with the challenge of showing people how they can separate themselves as performers—not as human beings, but as performers—from all the other people on Earth who play this wonderful game. I love helping ordinary people do extraordinary things. The ordinary comes easily to people. By definition, the extraordinary doesn’t come easily. It requires will. It requires discipline. You will have to muster your will and discipline to take advantage of what I know about the psychology of the short game and great performance.
First you’re going to have to reflect on how you see yourself.