How to improve your short game

Chipping is the worst skill I see in most amateurs. Many golfers will argue with me and say their driving is worse but it’s not. Chipping is by far the biggest cause of high handicaps the world over. I’m willing to bet that you’re not special or any different here – chances are if you’re reading this then you’ve probably got a chipping game that could do with some improvement. Let me share a story with you.

Peter’s body is broken down. He has got a bad back, sore knees and can hardly walk. He’s well into his seventies now and has to rely on a motorised cart to get him around. If he was a pet you’d think about putting him down – I’m sorta serious here because he is always complaining about this or that. He’s a bit of a character to play with (at least I think so) but many can’t stand him. He actually drives people nuts because he’s always talking and dishing it out to his playing partners. It’s quite funny really.

His ball striking is a constant source of amusement. While he can hit it straight, he doesn’t hit it very far or that high. He struggles to reach many of the par 4’s in regulation and needs a series of drivers to reach the par 5s. It’s funny because as Peter gets older the more he complains about the lack of distance – and people like me keep reminding him.

But he has an amazing part to his game. He has a dynamite short game. Now while it doesn’t look pretty, he is able to get the ball up and down from all sorts of places. And he is able to do it time after time. In fact, I’ve been playing golf with Pete for over 15 years now and his consistency with the short shots is quite incredible. His handicap got as low as 7 and he hovers around 9 or 10. If you saw him hit the ball you’d agree this is quite an achievement.

Pete’s chipping/pitching keeps him in the game and makes him extremely competitive. He beats almost all the low markers in the club and there were some vicious rumors going around that he could be me. They may or may not be true.

Pete’s Secret

We can all learn from Peter and I would like to share with you what makes him so good around the greens. Here goes.

1. He hits the simplest shot he can. I’ll explain this in more detail below.

2. He uses smart course strategy to avoid the serious trouble (again, more on this below)

3. He doesn’t hit the miracle or hero shot. This is related to point #1. He resists the temptation to go for the high risk shot.

Pretty simple huh?

Now let me give you some more info.

Here’s a list of the possible chip shots in order from easiest to hardest. Take note.

– Putt from off the green. Yep, I count this as a chip shot and it’s the most underrated shot in golf. It’s so easy, yet golfers are afraid to use it. Peter is a master with this and uses it wherever he can.

Sidenote: Some golfers seem like it’s a dent in their manhood if they putt from off the green. The choice is yours, either play better golf or keep wasting shots around the green.

– Chip with a 5 or 6 iron. This is one of my all-time favourite chip shots. I wish more people would at least try it. It’s almost like a putt but not quite. Easy and almost eliminates the chance of duffs, shanks, chilli-dips, bladed chips etc.

– 3 wood. This is actually a very easy shot but comes in at #3 because it’s a bit different and something you’ve unlikely tried. Also like a putt, the ball comes off nicely and there’s virtually no chance to duff or stuff it up. It’s a belter! Only requires a little practice to get good at it.

– Chip with 8 – PW. These are nice little shots that get into the air but also trundle along the ground for some distance. (these are Peter’s favourite shots, he’s so good at them that it makes me sick thinking about it)

– Chip with SW/LW. The most common club for the pros.

– Lob shot. Last resort and unless you are confident and have some sort of clue it’s best you leave alone for a while. Peter almost never tries this shot, he takes his medicine and chips the ball back onto the green where he can safely two-putt. No damage done.

So there you have it. A guide to better chipping. You may notice that the easier shots have something in common – that is the ball is not getting off the ground. Once you try hitting the ball higher you complicate the technique and bring in other factors as spin and loft. While I’m not saying NEVER hit the higher chip shot, try and choose the easier option first. Be like Peter. He spends most of his time hitting his chip shots along the ground and he’s almost unbeatable.

A challenge

Don’t use your lofted clubs for chipping for the next 3-5 rounds. Go on, give it a go and report back to me with your findings. Here’s just some of what you may discover,

– putting from off the green is really easy.
– chipping with a 6 iron is easy and maybe preferable to the putter if your course has hairy surrounds.
– the 3 wood is almost like cheating it’s so easy
– you don’t duff or skull any chip shots – this saves you so many strokes
– the ball will end up considerably closer to the hole more of the time. This instantly improves your putting
– keeping the ball to the ground might look ugly/weak/soft but it’s so much easier that you don’t care
– your scores improve and it’s almost impossible for your playing partners to know why
– a better short game improves your confidence and consistency with all your clubs – you may even find yourself hitting more greens.

Let me know your findings?

A little technique

Back to Peter. He’s a good person to learn from.

The ball is always back in his stance. Because he is hitting the ball along the ground there’s no temptation to hit the ball high. So it’s very normal to have the ball back in stance (like off the back foot). And this is exactly where it should be. Why?

Because when the ball is back you minimise the chance of hitting the ball fat (ground first). This might be the biggest fault amateurs make. Hitting the ground means the ball will never find the target. Then, you tend to slide/lunge to hit the ball. This results in thin and skulled chip shots. Arrgh! Ugly.

So placing the ball back simplifies the motion. It really is a back and through motion with little hand action. One way of looking at it is just like a big putt. There’s definitely no major hand action.

When the ball goes back the hands will go forward – this helps hit the ball first (and not the ground) and ensures a low, consistent ball flight.

What about pitch shots?

These can get complicated if you start adding lots of wrist action and try and hit the ball high. So my advice is don’t try. Stick with the rules above.

If you struggle with the sand iron and lob wedge leave it in the bag. Is there anything wrong with playing a less lofted club from 30, 50 or 70 metres? Your goal should be simple,

Get the ball on the green

I know the pros are masters of these shots and consistently get them close to the hole. They also practice them daily which most of us don’t have the luxury of doing. When you start getting good a these pitch and runs, you’ll then have the confidence to go to the higher lofted clubs when needed. But learn the easier shot first, the “sexy” higher shots will come second.

What about hitting over bunkers etc?

This question comes up all the time. You have a few options.

1. Play around the hazard with a low running option. (takes more courage and discipline than you’d think)

2. Use your higher lofted clubs but focus on getting the ball onto the green – not next to the pin.

There’s something else you need to consider if you continually are left with delicate little shots over hazards to the green.

a. you play at a tough course and you had better practice the lob style shots.

b. your course strategy is hopeless. You need to adjust your plan so you stop leaving yourself lots of these types of shots. This means you should play away from the bunkers, aim for the biggest part of the green and stop shooting at the pin if it’s tucked near trouble. I know this is boring but it’s important to do if you’re the type of golfer that has nightmares over a shaky short game.

The best way to change you plan is to leave the sand iron in the car. This way you’ll be forced to leave yourself chip and pitches that you’ll be able to easily get onto the green. Safer strategy equals easier shots. Easier shots equals lower scores. It’s as simple as that.

Let me know how you go or if there’s any questions.

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  • Luke

    Reply Reply May 4, 2012

    Hi Cameron,

    Couldn’t agree more with all of this. I’m exactly the sort of guy you’re talking about – my chipping game is mostly horrible, but I’m always whinging about my driving or mid/long irons instead. I always chipped everything with a pitching wedge back in the stance but this leaves me open to duffs if I’m not quite nipping them perfectly so I’m trying to find more variety and some easier methods. My new rule is get it on the green and running as quickly as you can – the less air, the better. I’ve never liked putting through long fringes or out of the first cut as I feel like there is a bit of a lottery element in there in that you don’t quite know how it’s going to react out of the longer grass. That said, I suppose you’re never going to end up more that 10 feet from the hole, where as a bad chip could end up anywhere. My solution however is to play them with my hybrid instead. Putting grip, putting stroke, and they just jump over the slightly longer grass and then run like a putt once on the green. This shot is so easy it feels like cheating and it took me all of ten minutes to learn and get a feel for.

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply May 6, 2012

      Luke: Good work here. Putting is not always a good option, especially with some long grass. But the hybrid is a great option and I agree with it feeling like cheating. We should make a “chip with a hybrid” day and report back with our results.

      Thanks for posting,


  • Gregor

    Reply Reply May 4, 2012

    I like this advice, very practical. Not so much how but why. What is easiest and what to avoid. Just need to remember this on the course. I have seen me lately taking out a utility club and getting to within inches on one hole and then taking out my SW on the next hole and being 12ft away. No real reason, I suppose it’s Pesky telling me to go for glory. Anyway, just about to head to the course and will put this into practice on every hole 🙂

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply May 6, 2012

      Gregor: Anything interesting to report? How’d you go today?

      • Gregor

        Reply Reply May 8, 2012

        I’m noticing a trend. I’m not getting to practice due to work/family commitments. I start off shaky on the first few holes and then as I get into the round I tend to play much better. My short game in particular needs a few holes to get going. I really don’t need any tricky shots until about the 5th or 6th.
        My medal round on Saturday seemed poor judging by the score, but if I take my 11! out of the equation it wasn’t so bad. Total disaster/ red mist etc in a bunker when an easy par looked certain.
        I also tried to apply some thought to my short game. I mean what is the right shot for the situation. Will a putter do the job or do I need some loft. Do I need to go at the pin, or is on the green good enough. It seems that this gets the ball closer than worrying about technique.

        • Cameron

          Reply Reply May 8, 2012

          Gregor: Any sort of practice is going to help. I know it can be hard with all the other stuff going on.

          Re shaky: You can still play well when you’re shaky and feeling nervous. Everyone feels a bit uneasy early on. The idea here is to play the shots you’re comfortable with – no need to do anything silly. For most this will mean keeping the ball close to the ground and leaving the sand iron in the bag.

  • Lukey

    Reply Reply May 6, 2012

    I played yesterday with really mixed results.I basically through caution to the wind and did my utmost to swing without fear which I think to a degree I got right but my worry from the round was figuring what was auto and what was maybe just plain careless.Is there a possibility you can go too far the other way (careless)I would really appreciate your thoughts.
    Cheers Lukey

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply May 7, 2012

      Lukey: Automatic doesn’t mean you play slap happy. You need to plan, prepare and then execute.

      The thing I stress the most is execution because most can’t let go and hit the ball – but if you don’t know what you’re trying to do (have a clear intention) then you’re in trouble.

      In a strange way, carelessness might be pretty close to the correct mindset you’re after – I haven’t ever met a golfer who doesn’t care, we tend to care too much.

      Work out where you want the ball to go and then hit the stupid ball.

  • allan kenny

    Reply Reply July 5, 2012

    i practice chipping in my back yard its about 10 meters from back to clothes line and i do reasonable well picking spots to aim at it but get to the course i either land short no run or land short of the green altogether.any suggestions.fhanks allan

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply July 5, 2012

      Allan: If you are successful in the backyard but fail on the course then it’s a sign of interference (Pesky). So you’ve gotta make sure you practice playing automatically and keep doing the same thing on the course.

      Have you tried changing clubs? Maybe this will help get the ball onto the green? Chipping with a 6 iron is my favourite way to get golfers back in the game.


  • toks

    Reply Reply March 19, 2013

    This is really good stuff.thanks

  • Lewis

    Reply Reply May 7, 2013

    People are looking to improve their short game… that does not indicate what level of golf they play. You said ” if you’re reading this then you’ve probably got a horrible chipping game”. I don’t think that’s very fair to say. I am reading this to improve my short game HENCE the title “How to improve your short game”. I don’t have a horrible short game but I would like to improve it. This doesn’t matter what level your at, You must always look for ways to improve. Therefor, you suck! P.S after reading the first part I didn’t even read the rest of your page. After sending this message I will never return… Peace!

    Lewis 22 from Scotland (16 handicap)

    • Cameron

      Reply Reply May 7, 2013

      Lewis: The opening was a little harsh and I have removed the word “terrible”. Writing/coaching is a work in progress and each day I strive to improve. So thanks for the feedback.

      By not reading the full article you miss the benefit. That doesn’t make sense. Why let one word upset you so much that you don’t keep going? I don’t understand it. It’s actually a good article and a popular too 🙂

  • Masoli

    Reply Reply May 19, 2013

    Incredible, I have never heard anybody talk about the short game that way and it really make sense, and I am going to try it. This is perfect for all senior and amateur, the problem is getting them to listen to apply it to their game.

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