Hopefully you had the chance to watch Tiger Woods win the Masters this past weekend. Even though it came almost 11 years after his last Major win in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, it was clear to everyone watching that one thing has not changed; his ability to control the distance with his irons. More than any other course in the world, Augusta National demands precision on approach shots. If you miss a pin just a couple of feet long or short, it can be the difference between having a good look for birdie and making double bogey. No one was more precise than Tiger this past week and the result speaks for itself.
In his book, How I Play Golf, Tiger stresses the importance hitting shots pin-high. What he means is that more often than not, the serious trouble on your approach shot is either short or long. If you’re like most amateurs, it’s only on your best days that you’re able to dial in clubs and hit shots the correct yardage consistently. If you have trouble controlling your distances, you’ve come to the right place. As always, we sought out the opinions of some of the best teachers around and have laid out their ideas on how to improve below.
Learn Your Carry Yardages
Whether you’re just starting out or you purchased a new set of irons, your first priority should be learning how far you carry each of your irons with your normal driving range swing. Unless you’re lucky enough to own a Track Man or some other type of launch monitor the best way to learn your carry yardages is to hit consecutive shots with the same club and calculate the average yardage of the cluster of the balls closest together. By dialing in your carry yardages, you develop a baseline from where you can make the necessary adjustments on the course when you find yourself in between clubs.
It’s Time For Wedges
Whether you lay up on a par 5 or come up short on a par 4, chances are you’re going to find yourself with what golfers call “awkward yardages” at least a couple times a round. These are the yardages from 30 to 70 yards where a full swing with a wedge is going to travel too far and you’re forced to take something off. If you don’t take the time to learn these shots, they can make you look silly and lead to big numbers.
The pros we talked to all agreed on one thing. Most amateurs know the importance of controlling distance with their wedges but they go about it the wrong way. The tendency for most golfers is to try and control distance by how hard or soft they swing. This rarely works and leads to inconsistent contact and mishit shots. If you want to hit your wedges crisp and consistently control your distances, learn to vary the length of your swing while keeping your speed consistent and always accelerating through impact.
The Clockface Method
The best method to learn these short shots was popularized by world-renown teacher David Leadbetter. The clockface method takes some practice but once you have it down, you’ll be able to approach those awkward shots with the confidence to get it up and down more often than not.
The premise of the clockface method rests on imagining your golf swing as a clock where the address position is 6:00, halfway back is 9:00 and the top of your swing is 12:00. With each of your wedges, spend some hitting shots where you feel like your backswing stops at 9:00, 10:00 and 11:00. As you get more and more comfortable with each different swing length, carefully note how far you carry each shot.
If you’re like most golfers and carry three wedges, when you successfully implement the clockface method you’ll be armed with nine different shots that you can reliably hit a specific yardage. With enough practice your confidence will grow and you’ll quickly turn those scary in between shots into a shot-saving strength.
When Tiger Woods warms up for a tournament round he goes through a 9-shot progression to ensure he’s comfortable hitting any shot the conditions ask for. The 9 shots are high, middle and low trajectories with shot shapes of straight, cuts and draws. While you probably won’t be able to master all 9 ball flights like Tiger, having the ability to control trajectory alone will help you to be able to hit the ball pin-high with greater consistency.
Hitting it Low
When you’re hitting shots into the wind, the harder and higher you hit it the more the wind can affect it. If you’re able to hit a lower shot that stays out of the wind, your chances of hitting it the right distance greatly increase.
The first step to successfully hitting low or flighted shots is to make sure you get setup correct. Start by placing the ball slightly farther back in your stance than you normally would. Next, choke down on the grip 1/2” or so and lean the shaft forward to decrease the clubs’ loft ever so slightly.
From here make your normal golf swing but feel like you’re hitting a ¾ shot with an abbreviated follow through. By hitting a ¾ shot you take some spin off the shot and allow it to penetrate the wind.
Hitting it High
When you’re hitting an approach shot downwind, a higher shot might be what’s called for. Just like hitting shots low, successfully hitting shots high starts with the setup. Since you want to use the wind to your advantage and hit the ball higher, move the ball a little up in your stance from center.
Now feel like you make your usual golf swing but finish with your hands high. This promotes a shot that launches high and lands soft allowing you to stop the ball quickly around the hole.
Choosing the Right Shot
It should be pretty apparent by now that there are plenty of ways you can control your distance and different shots you can hit. Once you’ve put in enough practice to learn a few different shots and yardages, it’s time to put them into play on the golf course. To help you better understand what type of shot to hit in a specific situation, let’s look at a couple of examples.
You’ve got 60 yards to a back pin, with a deep bunker immediately behind the green and the shot is playing into the wind. Through your practice using the clockface method you know that an 11:00 swing with your 60-degree wedge flies 60 yards on the dot. Seems like the perfect club, right? Maybe not. Because the shot is playing into the wind and your 60 degree flies pretty high, your going to have to hit a shot up into the wind, hope it flies all the way to the back of the green and doesn’t spin back which into the wind shots have a tendency to do.
A better option might be swinging your 54-degree wedge to 9:00 because you know that it goes 60 yards too. Because this club has less loft, it will come out lower and with less spin. This shot gives you a lot more room to land the ball short and run it up to the pin effectively eliminating many of the variables that come with hitting your 60-degree wedge.
For the second scenario let’s say that you’re faced with a shot of 120 yards to a front pin with water right in front of the green and out of bounds just over the green. Normally your 9-iron goes 120 yards but because the shot is down wind it is only playing 110. If you hit your normal 9-iron you’re going to have trouble stopping the ball on the green let alone pin high. The best option for this shot is probably a high pitching wedge you play slightly forward in your stance that rides the wind and comes down soft. This club is safe because you know it won’t come up short in the water if you hit it solid and it won’t get to the out of bounds either.
Make Your Practice Fun
Learning to control your distance with short irons and wedges doesn’t just help you shoot lower scores, it can be a lot of fun as well. One of my favorite ways to practice is to go to a driving range that has plenty of targets inside 150 yards. I’ll pick one target and hit five shots to it with three different clubs. Then I’ll move to another target and repeat the process again. If you make a habit of practicing your distance control in this manner you’ll quickly find that you’re capable of hitting more shots than you originally thought and that confidence will translate to the course and lower scores.
There’s no denying that the best players of all time were masters about controlling their distances. Johnny Miller and Ben Hogan were so precise they regularly had their caddies measure yardages to the ½ yard. While us mere mortals will probably never be quite that precise, being able to reliably hit your shots the right distance will give you a lot more chances for birdie and allow you to save par when you get out of position off the tee. If you’re willing to dedicate the time to learn different shots and incorporate the proper fundamentals, learning to hit the ball pin-high is something can accomplish quickly.