Short Game Mastery Series: How to Improve Your Pitching

In Part 1 of this series, Bill S. deep dives into how to hit pitch shots to reduce the number of putts needed to get the ball in the hole.

Photo courtesy of Callaway
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How to Improve Your Short Game

When we talk about the “short game” in golf, we are referring to all of the various shots that take place within 100 yards of the hole. Generally speaking, short game shots include pitch shots, chip shots, bunker shots, specialty shots around the green, such as lob shots, and putting.

Most amateur golfers don’t fully appreciate just how important it is to improve on these vital scoring shots. Would it surprise you to learn that as many as 60%-65% of all shots taken in a round of golf occur inside 100 yards of the hole? Or that fully half of all shots are within 30-40 yards? That’s right, up to about six out of ten shots taken are short game shots! It’s not an exaggeration, then, to say that how you perform in this critical part of the game is the most important determinant of how you will score. Of course, that’s not to say that other parts of the game aren’t important as well. The statement simply recognizes the disproportionate influence that short game shots have on your scorecard.

The good news is that everyone can get much better on their short game. Man or woman, young or old, short or tall, thin or stout, all can see dramatic improvements in their short game mastery with the right knowledge of technique and a dedication to practice. Overall strength plays no role here as it does in the long game. Skill in the short game is the great equalizer.

In my 35 years of playing golf, I’ve come to understand and appreciate the outsized role that the short game plays in golf. And so I’ve put together a series of articles on each aspect of the short game. The purpose of this series is to provide you with information that will help you to improve in this vital part of the game and, in the process, to help you to lower your scores.

First up in this article series is a discussion on pitching. This will be followed by subsequent articles on chipping, sand play, specialty shots, and putting.

Part 1: How to Improve Your Pitching

A photo of a golfer on a course showing three possible swings and trajectories of the golf ball in front of him
Photo courtesy of Callaway

The entire purpose of the short game in golf is to reduce the number of putts you will need to get the ball in the hole. Whether you are pitching, chipping, or playing from a bunker, your goal should be to get close enough to the pin so that you have a reasonable probability of holing out in one or two putts at the most.

Obviously, the farther away from the hole that you are, the more difficult it is to hit it close. So, although you shouldn’t expect that your proximity to the hole on pitches from 20-60 yards will be as close as with your greenside chips, your goal nonetheless should be to hit your pitch shots to within “makeable” putt range. That will ensure that you minimize the number of 3-putts that you have during your round, which is to say that you will limit the number of wasted shots that accumulate on your scorecard.

Definitions: Pitching vs. Chipping

There is occasionally some confusion as to the difference between pitching and chipping, with some people thinking that the two terms can be used interchangeably. That is not the case, so let’s take a moment to explain how these two types of shots differ.

  • Chip shots refer to shots that are made nearer to the green than pitch shots. Typically, these are shots that occur within several yards of the green, and usually spend more time on the ground than in the air. Naturally this means that they are frequently low trajectory shots that have a short carry distance and which then roll out to the hole. Golfers can use a variety of irons to hit their chip shots, which can range from a lower-lofted club like a 6- or 7-iron, all the way up to a sand wedge or a lob wedge.
  • By contrast, pitch shots refer to shots that are taken from a little farther away (approximately 20-60 yards from the green), and this added distance necessitates that their flight to the green has a higher trajectory. As a result, pitch shots usually spend more time in the air and less time rolling on the ground after impact. Unlike the chip shot, where there are a number of club selection options, pitch shots are usually hit with either the sand wedge or the lob wedge, and for some people on longer pitches, perhaps a pitching wedge.

The Keys to Improvement: Proper Technique and Practice

To improve your pitching so that it becomes a scoring weapon for you, instead of a liability, it requires two essential ingredients: understanding and executing the proper setup and technique, and then diligently practicing those shots so that you are consistently able to hit the ball to within about 20 feet of the hole.

As noted sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella once said, “The easiest way to become less bad at golf is to become less bad at putting, and the easiest way to become less bad at putting is to become less bad at pitching.” Rotella’s quote confirms the basic and obvious truism that golfers’ odds of making putts improve significantly the closer they get to the hole, and that the path to lower scores is through an improved short game that puts you in a better position to eliminate 3-putts.

That may seem self-evident, but many golfers may not be aware of just how important it is to improve their proximity to the hole on their pitches and chips. Consider these statistics for “make” percentages by higher handicap amateurs (15+ handicap):

  • From 3 feet away, 15+ handicappers will make 84% of their putts
  • From 5 feet away, that make percentage drops down to 50%
  • From 10 feet away, this percentage drops all the way down to 20%

It’s pretty clear that your goal should be to get within that 3-5 foot circle around the hole. A well-executed pitch shot, one that puts you in a position from which you can routinely putt to within this distance, will ensure that you eliminate the dreaded 3-putt from your repertoire.

Pitching Technique...the Wrong Way

Before we talk about the proper technique for a pitch shot, let’s first take a look at what many amateurs tend to do incorrectly. Essentially amateurs exhibit three common flaws that prevent them from having consistent success with their pitch shots:

1.

Probably the single most common flaw in hitting pitch shots is trying to artificially lift the ball or to help it into the air. In an attempt to create a higher trajectory, amateurs often improperly tilt their spine away from the target, placing most of their weight on their rear leg. This is done in a subconscious effort to throw the ball up into the air.

Unfortunately, this rearward spine tilt often results in several unwanted outcomes. By leaning away from the target and thereby placing the mid-point of your upper body behind the ball, it’s not uncommon to make contact with the turf before the ball (the dreaded “fat” shot). Conversely, with a subconscious recognition that a fat shot is likely from this setup position, many amateurs will try to avoid striking the ground behind the ball by prematurely flipping their hands at impact, which often produces the opposite result, a thin or skulled shot.

2.

On their takeaway, many amateurs will bring the club back too far to the inside. This results in an artificially flat backswing, the result of which, again, is to make it more likely that they will make contact with the ground before the ball.

3.

One final common flaw exhibited by many amateurs is failing to make a proper turn on the swing, both back and through. By failing to incorporate some rotation into the motion, albeit less than you would use on a full swing, the tendency is to make an all-arms swing, which can introduce a lot of inconsistency in the strike, as well as in overall distance control.

Setting Up for Success

Now, having reviewed what not to do in your setup and swing, let’s take a look at the proper way to prepare for and to execute a pitch shot:

1.

The proper setup for a pitch shot requires a “neutral” stance, not one in which your upper body is tilted away from the target. Your shoulders should be level, which allows you to make the proper slight downward angle of attack into the ball. But, even though you do want to have a descending angle, that does not mean that you should be taking a big divot. The best pitchers strike the ball with a descending blow but they barely bruise the ground through impact. Think of swinging through the ball, not at the ball.

Bill S. on a course demonstrating a neutral stance
Photo courtesy of Bill S.

2.

The ball should be positioned centrally in the stance. Having the ball further back in the stance will create too sharp of an attack angle and will make it far more likely to dig the club into the ground. Also, the ball will tend to launch lower than normal from a back-of-center ball position. By putting the ball in the center of your stance you will be able to generate a true, normal trajectory for the specific club that you use.

3.

Your lead foot should then be turned out towards the target by about 30 to 45˚. This pulls your lead side back from the target line, which will encourage your hips to turn through impact without resistance from your lower body.

4.

Make sure to incorporate some turn into your pitching motion. Because these short pitch shots don’t require a full swing, many amateurs often incorrectly make an all-arms swing. Even on these shortened swings, there should be a natural rotation away from the target on the backswing, and a rotation back toward the target on the through-swing.

Bill S. on a course demonstrating a pitching swing
Photo courtesy of Bill S.

5.

An all-important element of pitching success is being able to control your distance. There are two things that enable you to improve your distance control: the length of your backswing and the speed of your through-swing.

Length of backswing

Clearly, for a 20-60 yard shot, a full swing is not necessary. But how do you determine just how much of a partial backswing to take? One method to do this has proven to be very effective.

As you are addressing the ball and preparing to hit your pitch shot, imagine that you are standing in the middle of a clock face, with your feet being at the 6 o’clock position and your head being at 12 o’clock. By then taking a backswing in which your lead arm points to the various numbers on the face of the clock, you can produce fairly precise and predictable shot distances.

Bill S. on a course demonstrating a backswing
Photo courtesy of Bill S.

For example, for a particular golfer, a backswing that goes halfway back (pointing to 9 o’clock) will generate a certain distance. By lengthening the backswing to, say, 10 o’clock, that golfer will generate a little more distance.

With practice, you will become very good at understanding how much of a backswing (e.g., 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock, etc.) you will need to produce specific distances.

As you continue to improve on this technique, you can start to experiment by combining different irons with different backswing lengths. For example, a 9 o’clock backswing with a 56° wedge will fly approximately, say, 35 yards. However, the same backswing length with a pitching wedge may produce a 50 yard shot. You’ll discover through practice what distances and trajectories can be dialed in by using different club and backswing combinations.

Speed of through-swing

As with the backswing, your through-swing pace on a pitch shot will obviously be far less than it is on a full swing. The key to producing consistent and repeatable distance is to avoid having any “conscious acceleration” in your swing. On a shot of this short length, there just isn’t a need to be consciously thinking about generating speed in the swing.

That is not to say that there should be deceleration. It is simply to say that there shouldn’t be conscious acceleration.

Then, when this control of your through-swing pace is paired with the clock face backswing lengths mentioned above, you will become very proficient at producing the precise distances that you want for any given pitch shot.

Conclusion

As stated at the outset, the purpose of the short game (and that obviously includes pitching) is to get the ball as close to the hole as possible so that you have the best possible odds of holing out in the next one or two putts. Too often, amateur golfers hit pitch shots that either miss the green altogether, or end up far enough from the hole so that 3-putts become far more likely.

By adopting the setup and swing concepts that we’ve discussed, and by spending time in every one of your range sessions practicing them, you’ll find that your proximity to the hole on your pitch shots will improve dramatically. You’ll also find that the number of 3-putts you have in each round will decrease and, most importantly, that the final number on your scorecard will be a lot lower.

To explore more articles in the Short Game Mastery Series, please see:

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I have been an avid golfer for over 30 years, and am fortunate to be able to maintain a single-digit handicap. I indulge my passion for the game by not only playing frequently, but by regularly consuming everything I can about the game – staying current on all of the manufacturer’s equipment offerin...

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