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 may...
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--Darren Clarke, The 2011 Open Champion