Short Game Mastery Series: How to Improve Your Chipping
In Part 2 of this series, Bill S. explains how to improve your chipping, including proper technique and distance control.
Would it surprise you to learn that the top PGA Tour players only hit, on average, about 12-13 greens in regulation each round? This means that, in most rounds, they actually miss almost one-third of the greens! That’s probably a shocking statistic to many, particularly when you consider that these pros nonetheless routinely shoot under par.
How do the pros score so well despite missing all those greens? It’s all about the short game, and more often than not, it’s a result of incredible chipping.
When higher handicappers miss a green, there is a strong likelihood that the result will be a bogey, or worse. When the pros miss a green, on the other hand, the odds are pretty good that they will get up and down to save their par.
Most golfers are probably familiar with what it means to get “up and down,” but for those who aren’t, getting up and down means that the player will take just two strokes to get the ball into the hole from anywhere around the green. The first shot (your chip) puts you “up” onto the green; and then making your second shot (your putt) puts you “down” into the hole.
The main key to a better up and down percentage is to improve your chipping. Amateur golfers make about 80% of their three-foot putts and 50% of their 5-foot putts but, beyond that range, their make percentages decline rapidly. Consequently, it becomes crucial that you improve your chipping skills so that you can put the ball to within that 3-5 foot range, where you have at least a reasonable chance to convert the up and down...and save what would otherwise be a wasted stroke. That is what the pros do remarkably well, and what most amateurs need to work on.
Why is Chipping So Important?
Clearly, chipping is a vital part of a PGA Tour player’s game. They can’t afford to be sub-standard in this aspect of the game or they’ll find themselves missing a lot of cuts.
But it could reasonably be argued that, relatively speaking, good chipping is even more important for the amateur. That may sound odd, but consider this: higher handicap golfers miss at least twice as many greens as the pros do. And the more greens you miss in a round of golf, the greater the need to have sufficient chipping skills to minimize 3-putt greens and the resultant bogeys and double-bogeys. In other words, improved chipping can have a greater relative impact on an amateur’s scorecard than it can for the pro. Naturally, getting better at chipping is critical for everyone, but even more so if you miss a lot of greens.
So now that you know why good chipping is so important to your overall score, let’s look at how you can improve yours. Good chipping is a result of two distinct, but obviously related, skills: 1) having the proper technique and, 2) having excellent distance control. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Proper Chipping Technique
When you think about it, the chip shot is one of the easiest motions in golf. Usually, these shots occur very near the green, requiring a swing that is very short. The normal objective, unless you’re facing some unusual circumstance, is to fly the ball a very short distance onto the green from where it then rolls like a putt to the hole. Sounds easy, right?
And yet, many amateur golfers routinely struggle with their chipping. So let’s look at the proper stance, setup, and stroke that the most successful chippers employ:
Stand fairly close to the ball, with a narrow stance. There should only be about 4-6 inches between the insides of your shoes. Then open both toes slightly, about 20 degrees toward the target. A stance that is too wide inhibits the natural (although small) body rotation that is needed for successful chipping.
Put approximately 65% of your weight on your front foot. The proper technique for chipping calls for the swing to have a slight descending angle of attack into the ball, and having your weight distribution favor your front foot will make that descending angle of attack easier to achieve.
The ball position should be a little back in your stance, perhaps 2-3 inches behind the center of your stance, and position your hands slightly in front of the ball. But take care that your clubface is aimed properly at your target line. With the ball back in your stance like this, it can be easy to unknowingly have your club face open at address, which could lead to shots that start out to the right (for right handers). Along with having your weight favor the front side, this ball position will also make it easier to hit slightly down on the ball.
Keep your wrists fairly firm through the motion, but not tight. You should try to minimize any breaking or cocking of the wrists during the backswing. This is particularly important for the left wrist (for right handers). Once the left wrist breaks down at impact, resulting in a “cupping” action, the loft on the club face changes, along with the trajectory of the shot. It’s hard to make consistent contact if you have this swing flaw, and just as hard to manage your distances.
At the same time, though, your grip pressure should be light. The tighter you grip the club, the more likely it is that your hands will become too “active” at impact, which is probably the single biggest reason for poor chipping. Active hands result in “flipping” at impact, with both chunked shots (fat) and skulled shots (thin) as possible results. You need to avoid the temptation to “hit” a chip shot using the muscles of your hands. The proper chipping motion calls for what can best be described as “dead hands.”
Despite the chip’s very short swing length, you should nonetheless incorporate a small body turn away on the backswing and a small turn through on the downswing. Even though the chip calls for a very short swing, it still needs to be an athletic motion. Staying too rigid could lead to overemphasizing the role of the hands in the swing.
To be a good chipper, you have to be able to control the distance that your ball travels, both in the air and then on the ground. Failure to control these distances can result in chip shots that come up either too far short of the hole or too far past. Having a good setup and good technique, as described above, will go for naught if you’re then unable to manage how hard to hit the ball so that it flies the proper distance, and on the right trajectory, to end up relatively close to the hole. Good chippers do both.
Mostly, this air-time vs. ground-time formula is determined by how hard you hit the ball and which club you elect to use. Obviously, chipping with a 7-iron will produce a different ball flight than chipping with a sand wedge. So which club should you choose when you chip?
Club Selection When Chipping
For routine, standard chips, most amateur golfers should settle on just one or two clubs that they feel comfortable, and confident, with when chipping. Beginner and higher handicap golfers in particular should adopt this practice.
You’ll read and hear lots of advice that suggests that you should vary the club used when chipping, using as low as a 6-iron to as high as a lob wedge, depending on your distance from the hole. If you’re chipping to a back hole location and you have a lot of green in front of you, this theory goes, you should endeavor to get the ball onto the putting surface as quickly as possible, and allow it to then roll out like a putt to the hole. A lower lofted option in this scenario (perhaps a 6- or 7-iron), they suggest, would be an appropriate choice. Conversely, they would suggest that when chipping to a near pin, with very little green between you and the hole, you would be better served by selecting a high lofted club (e.g., a 56° or a 60° wedge).
That concept is good in theory but, in practice, high handicappers who don’t get to practice their chipping as much as they’d like, may find it difficult to use a different club every time they chip and still have the touch needed to get the ball to within the magic 3-5 foot circle around the hole with each one of them. For these golfers, it will be easier, and much more consistent, to figure out which one or two clubs provide them with the most consistency and confidence, and then to use them on the vast majority of their basic chip shots.
Of course, there will be situations where the circumstances call for the use of a different club (e.g., a difficult lie in thick greenside rough, a shot that requires a higher than normal trajectory to carry a mound, etc.), and in those types of situations, the lie and circumstances will dictate the appropriate club to use. But for normal, straightforward chips, it is advised that beginners and high handicappers should work to gain skill and confidence in just one or two clubs when chipping, so that they are comfortable with the trajectory and amount of rollout that can be expected on each shot. Then, as their skills develop over time, they can begin to introduce different club options to their chipping repertoire.
Towel Drill for Practicing Distance Control
The Towel Drill is a great way to ingrain the feel for how hard you’ll need to hit a chip shot so that it carries the right distance in the air, and rolls out the right amount on the ground. Again, unless you get both of these two factors right, you’ll end up with chips that end up well short of the hole, or well past the hole. In either case, the likelihood of 3-putts increases, which can add a lot of wasted strokes on your card.
To do this drill, place a small towel on the green on the target line between you and the hole. Practice hitting chips so that the ball lands on the towel, and then watch how far the ball rolls out toward the hole.
With practice, you will be able to determine, for any given chip, how far onto the green the towel should be, so that the ball then rolls close to the hole. Your focus should be on the towel, not on the hole. Fly it too far (beyond the towel) and it will roll past the hole. Fly it too short (in front of the towel) and it will end up shy of the hole. This is a great drill to get your distance control dialed in.
The statistics don’t lie. Amateurs make only a small percentage of their putts beyond 5 feet from the hole. From three feet, they’re really good, making over 80%. From 5 feet, the percentage goes down to 50%, but that’s still not too bad. But after that, the odds go way down. The moral: if you want to save strokes, and have at least a 50/50 chance of making the next putt, get the ball to within 3-5 feet of the hole.
That is the entire reason for improving your chipping. The goal of a chip shot is not to merely put the ball on the green; it’s to put it within the 3-5 foot circle around the hole as often as possible so that you can make more putts and save more strokes.
It takes some practice, both on the proper technique and on improving your distance control, but it will be practice that will pay huge dividends for you. It’s a lot of fun getting up and down from off the green, but it’s even more fun posting lower scores.
To explore more articles in the Short Game Mastery Series, please see: