The Key to Learning Golf
By Paul E. Bretzger
Table of Contents_________________________________________________
Short Game: The Essence of Golf 3
Part 1: Putting 4
Can It Be As Easy As It Looks?
Part 2: Chipping 5
How to “Jump Putt”
Part 3: Pitching 6
Getting More Air
Part 4: Basic Bunker 7
Propelling the Ball Without Hitting It
Part 5: Lag putting 8
Sometimes, Close IS Good Enough
Part 6: Rules and Etiquette 9
Cruel but Fair
Short Game: The Essence of Golf
The short game contains not just one, but two absolutely essential components
of successful golf. First, the short game contains the foundation of the golf swing
in general. The long, powerful drive is largely just a pitch with a longer prelude
and an extended aftermath.
Second, the short game contains that intangible aspect which is essential to
success in all sports. That aspect is the ability to finish the job.
For instance, in baseball, the triple is an impressive feat. But it does not, in itself,
produce a run. In football, a long pass and a diving catch at the two yard line is
spectacular, but it doesn’t change the scoreboard. In soccer and hockey, getting
the ball (or puck) in front of the goal is, similarly, not enough.
Golf has its own version of these kinds of plays. A ball struck from six hundred
feet of the hole to six feet does not, in itself, post a good score or finish the job.
The program that follows herein is a sound foundation for successful golf.
Despite the vast size of a golf course, it is the area within a few yards of the hole
upon which one may learn the fundamentals of a successful all-around game.
Therein lies another reason to learn golf via the short game, it requires less
space and fewer resources than an all-around approach. Many driving ranges
will permit you to use their short game facilities for free. One can practice many
aspects of the short game on an open lot. Many golfers even practice putting in
their home and office.
Furthermore, you do not need a full complement of golf equipment to develop
your short game. A putter and two or three other clubs is plenty. A dozen balls
will do, though the more the better. All of this may even be second-hand.
Finally, the short game is, in itself, a game. Instead of approaching it as work,
think about the concepts behind other target games like horseshoes, bocce, and
shuffle board. Take those rules and apply them to your own short game practice.
This program strongly encourages you to invent games that make practice fun.
Therefore, if you’re a novice who would like to learn golf, the following program is
a perfect starting point. This is not just because the short game requires few
resources and you can borrow rules from other games to make it fun, but
because it is the very essence of golf as well.
Part 1: Putting
Can It Be As Easy As It Looks?
One can regard putting as one of the easiest acts in sports. Any adult with
normal motor skills can use a putting club (a “putter”) to strike a golf ball hard
enough to roll a few feet, reasonably close to the preferred direction.
Furthermore, it requires no significant amount of power or bodily strength.
However, one should consider the following: A three foot putt counts just as
much as a nine hundred foot drive. Putting is typically 30% - 50% of your score in
a round of golf. Any experienced golfer can recall the pain of having moved the
ball some twelve hundred feet in two strokes, only to take three or more putts to
hole out from a measly ten feet.
Hence, putting is easy. But good putting is difficult and essential.
- Putting Mechanics
Consistency is the most important aspect of good putting, as it is also crucial to
golf itself. Even bad putters get “hot” sometimes. It is the truly good putters who
maintain a successful level, day in and day out.
The best way to be consistent is to be simple. The fewer moving parts the better.
Putting requires virtually no power. Hence, it only requires one move. That move
involves only the triangle which the two shoulders and the hands on the putter
make. The putting stroke is a pendulum-like move of that triangle, and that
triangle alone. The rest of the body should remain balanced and motionless.
Not only should you limit your movement to that triangle, but that triangle should
work as one part throughout the stroke. All the relationships – the distances
between the elbows, shoulders, and all parts to each other, should not change.
The triangle should move as if it were hinged at about the player’s sternum.
The kind of putts we are working on here are relatively short putts. So first, you
should limit your practice to putts under ten to fifteen feet from the hole. To
practice putting, you may do as page three suggests and invent games based on
other games like horseshoes and shuffleboard.
For relatively short putts, the goal is to hole them out. So, any game you devise
should put a premium on reaching the hole. There is a famous phrase about the
importance of making it to the hole: “never up, never in.” In other words, you
should put a high value on having your putts at least reach the hole. In your
games, you should deduct points for putts that don’t reach the hole. Note
however, that short putts should not go more than two feet past the hole either.
Regardless, your goal should be learning to make putts and having fun doing it.
Part 2: Chipping
How to “Jump Putt”
Many of the principles that apply to good putting also apply to chipping. The main
difference between putting and chipping is simply that one “chips” from off the
putting green, not on it. For simplification, this program limits “chipping” to the
short grass comprising the fairway and fringe around the green.
While the grass of the fairway and fringe is short, it is not as short, smooth, and
predictable as that on the green. Therefore, when we chip, we prefer to fly the
ball over the fairway and fringe grass to the carpet-like green, hence the term
“jump putting” (don’t bother looking elsewhere for references to “jump putting,” it
is unique to this program). To do this, we use a “lofted” club instead of a putter.
“Lofted” means the club face angles skyward so that when it strikes the ball
properly, it propels or “lofts” the ball upward as well as forward.
You will find, if you examine a set of clubs, that the higher the number it is, the
greater the angle of loft it has. For instance, a nine-iron has more loft than an
eight-iron and substantially more so than a four iron.
Use the seven-iron to chip for this program. When you strike the ball properly, the
loft of the seven-iron should pop the ball just inches in the air and fly it around
two to five feet, just enough to save it from the influence of the longer grass.
- Chipping Mechanics
In this program, there are only small differences between chipping and putting.
The “jump” of your chip should be only a small fraction of the shot. If you think
you are ready, you should work on setting up with more weight on your front foot.
This helps you swing down to the ball, or in other words, perform a descending
blow. Such a swing helps prevent the club from striking the ground before the
ball. Ball first, ground second: This is an essential aspect to golf in general.
Perhaps a descending blow and making the ball jump seem contradictory.
However, you should find that the amount of loft on a seven iron will more than
offset any amount of downward club movement. Never try to make the ball
airborne by swinging up at it. That is a major error known as “scooping.” Always
let the loft of the club face lift the ball, not the swing.
- Chipping Practice
The main difference between the objectives of short putting and chipping is that,
in chipping, it is more important that the ball stop near the hole, not necessarily
reach it. Of course, we’d love the ball to go in, but if it stops within two feet of the
cup we are happy, even if it is two feet short of the cup.
So, invent yourself a game or games that reward shots which are closest to the
hole, and don’t penalize shots too severely for being short.
Part 3: Pitching
Getting More Air
If chipping involves jumping, then pitching involves flying. To learn pitching, we
take a few more steps away from the hole.
As we move away from the hole, we find terrain that is more varied and less
predictable. Inevitably, we find tall grass called “rough,” pits of sand called
“bunkers,” and even lakes, ponds and streams called “water hazards.”
It is now time to strike the ball in such a way that it flies over these obstructions to
a safe landing on the green, where it can roll. But unlike chipping, the “pitch” shot
flies so high that it travels farther through the air than it does on the ground. Just
like when we changed from a putter to a seven-iron to get more “loft” for
chipping, we will now gain even more loft by switching to the “sand wedge.”
- Pitching Mechanics
Because of the sharp loft of the sand wedge, it is critical to understand that, just
like chipping, we need not employ any lift in our swing. All we need to do is
strike the ball soundly on its lower half. The club head should be traveling on a
slightly descending path at the moment it strikes the ball. Again, let the
equipment get the ball in the air, not your swing path.
When we go from chipping to pitching we add two elements to our swing. The
first is hip rotation. The second is wrist hinging. Instead of keeping your lower
body still during a pitch shot, turn your hips toward the target as you strike the
ball. Also, hinge your wrists as you take the club back and release them on your
forward motion through the ball. However, if you release your wrists too early,
you have committed the aforementioned cardinal sin of scooping.
By turning your hips and flipping your wrists, you have executed miniature
versions of the basic power moves that one employs in a full swing.
You may start by placing the ball on top of the rough so there is some air below
it. You may even use a tee until you develop a more precise swing. Under these
enhanced conditions, you should quickly see that the club’s loft, combined with a
solid strike, will send the ball skyward. Just remember that, eventually, you need
to learn to hit it where it lies.
Start from about twenty yards off the green and propel the ball so that it flies all
the way to the green yet stops on it. Compete with yourself or a friend to make
the ball stop as closely to the hole as possible.
You will find that executing a high, soft pitch that magically comes to rest near
the hole is one of the most satisfying sensations in sports.
Part 4: Basic Bunker
Propelling the Ball Without Hitting It
The bad news when you have to play out of a bunker is that you are playing from
a “hazard.” That is, bunkers are parts of the golf course someone put there to
impede your progress toward the hole. The good news is that the technique of
hitting from a greenside bunker is one that requires less precision than most
other shots. Specifically, instead of having to strike a minute part of the golf ball,
you have inches of tolerance for your swing.
This is because when implementing a greenside sand shot, one uses the sand
near the ball to propel it. You don’t touch the ball with the club. Bunker shots use
a “splash” effect to pop the ball out of the sand and onto the green. Instead of
having to precisely guide the club to a small part of the ball, one disturbs an area
of sand about as large as a dollar bill to flop the ball from the bunker to the green.
- Sand Shot Mechanics
The sand shot has a lot of similarities to the pitch. It employs a substantial
backswing and wrist hinging. You may use some hip turning and weight shift, but
that should be minimal because the sand is an unstable foundation for your body.
Your first goal is to find the swing that splashes the ball out of the bunker.
Because the sand absorbs a lot of the swing’s energy, this swing will be firmer
than a regular pitch, but it should not be a full power swing.
Draw a line in the sand three to five inches behind the ball and aim for it. After
you take the shot, look at the crater you made to see how close you came to it.
You may find you came too close to the ball or actually hit it. If so, the ball should
fly too far or fast. If you find you are hitting farther behind the ball than desired,
the ball will not move enough.
Follow through. Do not leave the club in the sand. Remember also, that you may
not touch the sand before your downswing (we draw lines just for practice).
It should take a while to get the right feeling and aim for this swing. But when you
do get it, it becomes surprisingly easy.
We should set high standards, but give ourselves a break when it comes to
bunker shots. Just getting the ball out of the bunker and on the green (not over it)
is a successful shot for now. See how often you can do this in every ten
It is one of those mental ironies that, the better you become at sand shots, the
less afraid of bunkers you will be, and the fewer shots you hit into the bunkers.
Remember to rake the sand smooth when you are done.
Part 5: Lag putting
Sometimes, Close IS Good Enough
Lag putting may be the most difficult aspect of golf. It is the act of hitting long
putts so that they stop near the hole, making the next putt as easy as possible. It
is one of golf’s ironies that many putts are farther from the hole than some chips,
pitches, or bunker shots.
When this happens, distance is usually more important than direction. Anyone
can mindlessly swat a putt so that it speeds past the hole, or even over the hole.
But then it speeds by like a train making only express stops, and finally comes to
rest hardly closer to the hole than when it began. Similarly, the fear of doing that
may induce you to make the opposite mistake. That is, you tentatively tap the ball
with such delicacy that it moves just a fraction of the distance to the hole, leaving
a second putt that is embarrassingly similar to the original.
There is little a teacher can tell a student, in words, about how to leave an eighty
foot putt within two feet of the hole, other than practice is an absolute necessity.
However, there are sound principles one can use to be consistent. And
consistency is essential to having both a good short game and overall golf game.
-Lag Putting Mechanics
First, the player should have good balance, just as in short putting. Also as in
short putting, the player should minimize the number of body parts the stroke
employs. The more parts there are, the more that can go wrong.
Finally, the device for controlling the distance one rolls the ball should be the
length of the swing. A longer putt should entail simply a longer backswing and
follow-through. Do not change things such as your grip, stance, or other
fundamentals for different length putts. Simplicity is the key to consistency.
Remember that every green is different. Although good courses should have
consistent quality on all eighteen greens, some courses have “fast” greens (the
ball rolls longer, like it would on glass), and some have “slower” greens (like a
shag carpet). There are uphill, downhill, breaking and relatively straight putts. But
try this exercise on an available large putting green.
Lay down some pieces of string, like rungs on a ladder, three feet away from
each other. Use any range of distances, like eighteen to forty-two feet or another.
Repeatedly try to “lag” putts between specific pieces of string. See how many out
of ten or a hundred you can make. See how many you can make in a row.
This should be a fun and effective way of developing both a touch for lag putting
and a feel for different distances.
Part 6: Rules and Etiquette
Cruel but Fair
The phrase “play it as it lies” summarizes the rules of golf as well as any five
words. It means that in golf, you live with the shot you made, regardless of where
it came to rest.
There are essentially no “do-overs” in golf. Also, improving the position of a ball
at rest (the “lie” of the ball, in golf terms) is illegal. Some hackers call “do-overs”
“Mulligans,” as if it was an official term. They also justify improving their lies by
muttering about poor ground conditions, using terms like “winter rules.”
Will it be easy for you to kick your ball out of a divot or bush and get away with it?
Yes, but integrity is the very spirit of the game. And there are but a few things
more satisfying than recovering from a bad lie to make a good score.
So, between the tee and the green, you essentially may not touch the ball with
anything but one of your fourteen (maximum) clubs, and every time you do touch
it so, it counts as at least one stroke.
There are several situations, however, which make it necessary to move the ball
by hand or replace it. For these times there are penalty strokes. That is, if the ball
is in a water hazard or otherwise unplayable location one may drop the ball or a
new one into play, no closer to the hole. When one does this, one incurs a
penalty of one stroke. This is an oversimplification of the rules but will do for now.
Worse than hitting the ball in the water or a bush, however, is either losing it or
hitting it out of bounds. When this happens, the penalty is not just one stroke, it is
a stroke “and distance.” This means is that one must play the new or retrieved
ball from its original place. That is, the player charges him or herself with a
penalty stroke and returns the ball to where it started.
This is time consuming as well. So, when you hit the ball in such a way that it
might be out of bounds or lost, you should hit a provisional ball. This means you
play another ball from the original spot in case you later confirm the first to be
lost or out of bounds. If you are still on the tee, you should wait for the other
players to make their tee shots before playing a provisional.
This brings up the matter of etiquette. Etiquette is part of golf’s official rules and
for good reason. That reason is not arcane ritual, but courtesy to other players.
Most importantly, do not distract or disturb other players as they make a shot.
In summary, etiquette exists so the game is fair and fun for all. Similarly, this
program’s intent is not just to teach essentials of golf, but to make the process
fun and competitive from the beginning for everyone.