How to Improve Your Short GamePublished on 03/14/2023 · 16 min readTrying to bring that golf score down? Golf Expert Jeremy Brown gives a few suggestions and practices that will be sure to improve your short game!
Photo by Brandon Williams
The short game is one of the most important aspects of golf. For the average golfer, according to the USGA, putting alone accounts for 40 percent of their recorded shots on the course. That percentage doesn’t include chipping and bunker shots, which altogether comes out to over half (52 percent!) of your shots per round, and for higher handicap golfers, that percentage is even higher!
A 300-yard drive and a 3-foot putt are both worth one stroke, so why aren’t more golfers spending more time practicing their putting and chipping? An issue could be that there are so many different tips, tricks, and hacks out there that can be extremely confusing. So in an effort to cut through that confusion, in this article we are going to dig deeper into the short game, and how to improve it by focusing on your technical skills and mental approach.
Improving Your Putting
Putting is easily the most important part of your scoring game. You have probably heard the saying, “Drive for show and putt for dough,” and while it's a cliché, it makes sense! There have been numerous times where even PGA Tour players at the highest level of competitive golf have missed short putts that cost them a tournament win. While you may not be competing at that level, becoming a player with a “good short game” carries a certain pride among golfers, and entering that circle takes practice! So, to quickly help you with your putting, here are a few questions I want you to present to you:
1. What are you actually aiming at?
A lot of golfers, when asked what they are aiming at, say that they are aiming their putt at the hole. It is scientifically proven that when you make your target smaller, your accuracy becomes better. So instead of aiming at the hole, try aiming for a specific blade of grass on the edge of the cup. Your goal is to have the ball roll over this specific blade of grass. As a result, you will likely find that you make more putts, and that your putting actually becomes much more precise.
2. Are you using a line on your ball to putt?
Using a line on your ball to help align yourself with the putt is an awesome way to quickly improve your putting. Take your ball and put a line on it that is about 1” long (or purchase a pre-marked ball like a Callaway Triple-Track.) Then, when lining up your putt, take this new line on your golf ball and ensure that it is pointing in the same direction in which you want your ball to start rolling. Once you are confident in the starting line of the putt, ensure that your putter is lined up with that same line on your golf ball. From here, all you have to do is ensure that your speed is correct and you will absolutely make more putts. Lining up the ball before a putting stroke has been proven to improve make percentages inside of 10 feet (the putts that really matter!).
3. How is your confidence?
It has been scientifically proven that if you think “I don’t want to miss this putt,” your brain will naturally activate the muscles needed to produce the putting stroke that could cause you to miss the putt. Our brains struggle with soft concepts like “don’t,” so we tend to only respond to the “real” part of that sentence (“miss this putt”). On a physical level, our mind and muscles operate best when they don’t have to decode double-negatives, as opposed to a clear and concise message. So, if you stand over your putt and think, “I am going to make this putt” or “It’s going to fall over that piece of grass on the edge of the hole,” your brain will naturally activate the muscles needed to produce the putting stroke that will produce that result.
Many amateurs and even professionals have no idea how to use this to their advantage, and this type of mental game tune-up can have a huge impact on how you perform on and off the course. You may have experienced this yourself: during a round where you are making all of your putts, you’ll be thinking “I’m going to make this putt,”; and when you’re struggling with putting, you’ll be thinking, “I know I’m going to miss this putt.” Confidence breeds competence, and your brain is always listening!
Practicing your putting can be a lot less flashy than hitting 100 driver shots, but do I need to remind you of the percentages at the top of this article again? With these quick and easy drills, you will see a massive improvement in your putting. Recording your stroke with your phone’s camera will help you notice any inconsistencies as well.
1. Tiger’s Gate Drill
Choose a putt that is 3 to 4 feet away from the hole, and then place two tees about a ¼” from each end of your putter. Place the ball in the middle of those two tees, and practice hitting putts without hitting the tee. In order to do this drill correctly, try to feel that your putter head is moving in a straight line to and from the hole without hitting the tees.
First try hitting 10 putts with your dominant hand, then use both hands for five putts. Once you have an understanding of the drill, set a specific number of putts that you would like to make, and then complete the drill until you have made your set number of putts. Tiger often set his goal at making 50 to 100 putts total (not in a row, thankfully!), so don’t be afraid to set a lofty goal. This is how you get better!
2. 50 Putts from 5 feet
Head out to the putting green with your putter, golf balls, and an alignment stick (or a club, either one works). The goal of this drill is to help practice repetition and develop confidence. Find a relatively flat putt that is roughly 5 feet in length, and take your alignment stick or club and lay it down so that it is aligned with your target line. Take a few test putts, and make sure that you are properly aligned with your target.
Once you know you are properly aligned, continue doing the drill until you've made 50 putts. If you make 50 putts rather quickly, change your goal to 100. A variation of this drill would be to see how many putts you can make in a row, and set a goal for yourself. Try to achieve that goal from 5 feet, and continue increasing the distance and your goal as you make more putts.
Dialing in Your Chipping
Chipping can be extremely difficult to improve at, especially when you hear conflicting advice everywhere! With a few key points that are outlined in this part of the article, I am confident that you will see a quick improvement in your chipping abilities around the green. Chipping is a very simple part of golf; however, most amateur golfers tend to overthink their chip shots, causing them to hit shots that have a higher probability of a negative outcome. When reading through the tips below, take a moment and think about your own golf game, and think about how your chipping methodology stacks up to these tips.
1. Use Less Loft
Most amateur golfers go straight to the 58° or 60° wedge when they are faced with a chip shot on the edge of the green. Shorter shot, higher loft, right? However, it has been proven that wedges with less loft, such as a Pitching Wedge, or a 50°, 52°, or even 54° wedge make it easier to get the ball closer to the hole on a more consistent basis.
Golf is a game of percentages, and study after study tells us that higher-lofted wedges make for wider dispersion and less room for error. The leading edges of both lob and sand wedges are very prominent and more likely to dig into the ground on delicate shots around the green. A lower-lofted (and mid- or high-bounce) club is the perfect greenside tool—something with a predictable response and less need for precise speed, finesse, and needless risk.
Try a club with less loft and see how it goes! It’s more than likely that you’ll find a new favorite greenside club.
2. Pick a Landing Area
In my time as an instructor, I often come across players who are chipping the ball and only focusing on getting it close to the hole. Yes, that is the desired end result. However, there is one factor that you need to take into consideration first: where does the ball need to land before it runs out and comes to a rest next to (or preferably inside!) the hole?
When reading a chip shot, focus on the desired landing spot, and how much the ball is going to roll after it lands. In most cases, it will be necessary to read the green slope and chip to the side above the hole so it will run toward the cup (which will increase your chances of sinking it!). This will also, more importantly, help you stop the ball closer to the hole.
A great short game drill starts with taking a scorecard and some tees with you to the practice chipping area. Once you have determined where you are chipping from and what hole you are chipping to, place the scorecard in the spot where you believe the ball should land and tee it into the ground, especially if it’s a particularly windy day. Then, focus on landing it in that spot for every chip. Try to change things up about every 5 or 10 minutes. You should see an improvement right away in your short game.
3. Swing Through the Ball
Most golfers tend to chip in a “controlling” type of way. This means that just before they hit the ball, they subconsciously slow their swing down in an effort to control the trajectory and direction of the ball (you may have been told that you “decel’ed” before. We all have!) Even though to some golfers this may sound like a good idea, it actually will increase the chances of you chunking it or blading it. The fastest part of your swing should feel like it comes after you hit the ball, ensuring that the club is accelerating through the ball and your left arm is moving through impact, rather than decelerating. This allows the bounce of the club to do its job, preventing you from chunking it! Trust the bounce!
When setting up for a chip, take your practice swing in a way that is identical to the way you want to hit the ball. Use the practice swing to help judge the speed of the clubhead through impact, and find a feeling somewhere between taking a divot and just brushing along the grass. There is a happy medium where the bounce of the club will contact the ground but not dig in. That is what you want to feel. Once you feel confident that you’ve got the club speed down, make the identical swing with your chip, ensuring that the fastest part of your swing occurs after impact with the ball, not in the downswing, and definitely not in the backswing. In general, the majority of your weight should be on your lead foot (the left side for a right-handed golfer, the right side for a left-handed golfer), and the ball position should be between the middle of your stance and your lead heel. Some players pick a dimple on the back of the ball to aim at and swing through. The shaft should point directly through the middle of the triangle between your forearms. The wrists can tend to get loose when chipping which can cause thin and fat shots, so try to keep the shaft in the same position relative to your forearms throughout the stroke.
Also, take a look at your grip pressure! If you are holding the club as if you were trying to strangle a goose, your grip is too tight!
The Bump-and-Run Shot
The bump-and-run may be the most under-utilized shot in golf. There are several circumstances in which a lofted wedge introduces too much risk to a short shot. The pros know this, and you should too. Take Tiger Woods, for instance, at Augusta National in 2022, chipping from a downhill lie around the green with a 4 iron to get up-and-down for par; or Louis Oosthuizen chipping with a fairway wood to get up-and-down in that same Masters! It takes a bit of imagination, but there is no reason not to consider an iron (or even a wood or hybrid) the next time you’re just off the green with room to get the ball running. Just make sure you practice it first!
The bump-and-run is unique, as it is half chip and half putt. The goal is to get the ball over the fringe (or sometimes run it up the fringe) and get it rolling like a putt on the green. Those lies where a putt would catch too much in the grass to get through are perfect for a bump-and-run.
Set up to a bump-and-run the way you would set up to a putt, with the clubface square to your target line. Club selection is important here. Typically, a level lie around the green will require a 7 or 8 iron. The rule of thumb is more loft for downhill lies and less loft for uphill lies. Grip down a bit on the iron you’re using, and use a putting stroke to brush the grass. This may feel strange at first since the shaft is likely longer than your putter. It’s a safe bet though, and it should pop the ball right out of the grass and get it rolling on the green. All you need to do is dial in the distance!
Definitely work the bump-and-run into your practice or warm-up routine next time you’re out at the range.
The Flop Shot
If you need to get over an obstacle and stop the ball quickly on the green, there is usually no better way than with the flop shot. Made famous by some of the most skilled players of the game, it is not a shot for the faint of heart. It introduces a lot of risk, plain and simple. It is not a high percentage shot, even for professionals, but sometimes we are left with no other option!
To effectively pull off a flop shot, setup is key.
You’ll need a lob wedge, or your most lofted club in the bag. You’ll set up with your feet wide, squatting lower than a usual chip shot, with most of your weight on your lead foot. You’ll open the club so the clubface is facing the sky, as flat to the ground as possible, then take your grip. The ball will be inside of your lead heel. From here, speed is key. It is essentially an 80-percent to full-swing shot, which is where much of the risk comes in. You’ll want to drive the face underneath the ball with speed, and accelerate through to a full finish. With any luck, the ball should pop into the air, very high with lots of spin, and land softly, without running very much.
It is easy to thin a flop shop, which is why it is usually out of the question off of a tight lie. I recommend aiming for a large part of the green, or even aiming away from the hole entirely, over the obstacle you’re trying to clear as you’re learning how to hit flop shots more consistently. Flops work best in that unique scenario, over an obstacle to a tight pin location, but introduce too much risk almost anywhere else. That being said, have fun! Flops are one of the most satisfying shots to pull off—when you know what you’re doing!
The greenside bunker shot seems to be one of the biggest enemies of the amateur! The good news is that the setup is essentially the same as for a flop shot. The only change in setup for a bunker shot is to dig your feet into the sand a bit until you feel stable.
The execution of a bunker shot is slightly different as well. We want to hit bunker shots fat, or behind the ball a good 2 or 3 inches, because, contrary to everything you’ve probably learned about golf so far, our clubface isn’t what carries the ball out of the bunker. You need to create an explosion of sand underneath the ball (without digging the club in) with speed so that the sand lifts the ball out of the bunker. If we hit our bunker shots the same way we chip, the leading edge will dig right under the ball and stop the club. Muscling the ball out of the bunker this way is inconsistent at best, and disastrous at worst. The only time we want to dig the leading edge into the sand is on a fried-egg lie where there is no other option!
Remember that the goal of a bunker shot isn’t to hit the ball, it’s to explode the sand underneath the ball and send some sand onto the green. This is how you’ll know you’re on the right track!
Here’s a great video on escaping bunkers by PGA Professional Rick Shiels!
If you’re lucky enough to have access to a practice bunker, that’s a big plus! If not, try to find a quiet hour at your local course and spend some extra time in a bunker during a round. What you’ll do is set up normally to a bunker shot, but draw a line in the sand parallel with the shaft of the club, 2 or 3 inches behind the ball. Your goal is to enter the sand on or even behind this line with lots of speed and not worry about hitting the ball. Just thump the sand and watch the ball fly out!
Bunker shots are challenging, but only when we don’t know how to handle them, or practice them correctly!
Your goal is to be confident with your putting, chips, and bunker shots. Developing confidence takes practice. The one true way to get better at your short game is to practice more, and practice efficiently. Practicing efficiently will help you see results extremely fast. If you are truly committed to seeing results quickly, and you are devoted to getting better, then you should ensure that you are always practicing the right way, and never “giving in” to old bad habits. Practice will lead to confidence, and confidence leads to lower scores. So get out and practice these drills, even if it’s only for only a few minutes a day! And if you need any short-game gear or further advice, be sure to hit up your Curated Golf Expert!