In a normal golf round, you'll face far more "feel" shots than shots that simply require a standard full swing. While this is the case on many fairway shots and even some drives, it's true 100 percent of the time on chips and pitches around the green. Let's consider how our approach these feel shots can influence the results.
When amateur golfers make practice swings, they typically look at the ground and visualize hitting the ball by clipping the turf. When standing over the shot, they'll take a peek or two at the target, then return their eyes to the ball and stay focused there for a few seconds before swinging. They're often surprised to see the ball travel much shorter or farther than anticipated.
To hit the ball just the right distance, you need a more target-oriented approach. Instead of looking at the ground, focus on the spot where you want the ball to land as you make practice swings, rehearsing the length and force with which you need to hit the ball to put it there. At address, focus again on your target spot and waggle the club lightly a few times. Then return your eyes to the ball and play the shot.
This method, used by pros including two-time Masters winner Jose Maria Olazabal, is also highly useful on putts and irons shots, especially those where you're between clubs and must make a softer or harder swing than usual. It may improve your alignment, too.
Focus on Target Not Ball to Enhance Feel
It is easy to get caught up in focusing on the ball during your golf swing. After all, it is the ball that you are trying to hit, so shouldn't that be the main focal point of the swinging motion? Not necessarily. While you are going to want to focus on the ball during some of your shots, other shots will be better played when you focus on the target rather than the ball itself. This might seem like a subtle difference, but it can actually have a profound impact on your level of performance. Knowing when you should focus on the ball and when you should switch your focus to the target is a great skill that will take you a step closer to lower scores.
The main determining factor in whether you should focus on the ball or the target while making your swing is distance. From long range, you always want to focus on the swing as you do your best to execute the fundamentals that you have learned on the range. So, for any shot that takes place more than 60 or so yards from the target, keep your mind trained on the ball itself. However, when you start to get closer than that 60-yard mark, think about shifting your focus to the target in order to 'feel' the shot properly. Feel is a crucial part of the game, but it can be difficult to teach because of its individual nature. Anything you can do to improve your feel for shots that are played from around the green is a worthy pursuit, as you will make yourself a better player each time your feel is improved.
So why don't you want to think about the target rather than the ball from longer range? On your longer shots, you will be using your full swing, so you don't have to worry so much about 'feeling' the ball up toward the hole. You are going to execute your mechanics at full speed and count on your target and club selection process to lead the ball toward the hole. It can actually be bad for your technique to think too much about the target in this phase of the game – just stick to making your full swing to the best of your ability and expect great results.
The rest of the content in this article is going to deal with shifting your focus to the target rather than the ball when playing short shots. For everything from a short putt to a medium length pitch shot, you should be thinking about the target throughout the swinging of the club. The best short game players have incredible feel for the distance of their shots, so work on improving your own performance in this area and you will be rewarded with lower scores in the near future.
All of the instruction below is based on a right handed golfer. If you happen to play left handed, please take a moment to reverse the directions as necessary.
Seeing the Distance
The short game is all about distance control. Sure, you want to get the line right as well, but it is most important to dial up the distance just right on your putts, chips, pitches, and sand shots. When you get the distance right, you are almost certainly going to wind up with at least a decent result from the shot. Think about it this way – even missing your target by a couple of feet to the right or left won't be any big deal if you get the distance just right. You will still have a short putt left to finish up, and you should be able to move on with your score intact.
At first, you probably won't notice much difference in your performance when you focus on the target instead of the ball. This is a point that is going to take some time to have an actual effect on your game. Thinking about the target on all of your short shots will have a cumulative effect, as you will start to gradually get better and better at feeling the right distance. You can't really measure these kinds of shots, so it is a waste of time to think about this part of the game from a technical or mechanical perspective. It is all about feel when you start to get close to the hole. Over time you will be able to 'educate' your eyes on the way they need to see distance in the short game, and the information that your eyes send down to your hands and arms will become more and more useful as the rounds add up. An accomplished golfer, such as a touring professional, can simply look at a short game shot and instantly know how hard they need to swing. You might not ever reach that level of proficiency, but you certainly can work toward improving each day.
Some golfers in recent years have gotten into the habit of 'walking off' their short game shots in order to get a distance that they can use in an attempt to calculate how hard they need to swing. This is a technique that you should avoid. The actual distance between your ball and the hole is only one of several variables in play in the short game, so it doesn't really mean as much as it does in the full swing. Since green speeds can vary so dramatically from one course to the next – and even one day to the next on the same course – knowing the distance to the hole isn't going to do much good. Also, having that number in your head will cause your stroke to become too mechanical, when it should be free and relaxed in nature. Allow your eyes to do the work of measuring up the shot while you also work on picking out a good line that you can pair up with the speed in order to hit a successful shot.
Of course, while your eyes are taking a good look at the distance between yourself and the hole, you should also be noting any elevation change that is going to influence the shot. Are there mounds between yourself and the hole, or it is a flat trip all the way? The slopes that are built into the course will have a lot to do with the kind of shot you can play, so never forget to take note of this point as you are trying to feel what kind of shot is going to be a winner.
A Feel Drill
In this section, we are going to take a quick look at a drill that can go a long way toward enhancing your feel in the short game. This drill can be completed during any practice session, and you don't need any special equipment outside of your normal set of clubs. Drills are a great way to improve your performance in this game, as they can isolate one specific skill that needs to be sharpened. If you can collect a list of drills that you can use during practice sessions to address various parts of your game, you should be able to keep yourself on a steady path toward better scores.
This is a drill that can be completed either while putting or while chipping. The step-by-step directions below are going to walk through the putting form of this drill, but you can easily translate this process out into the rough with a wedge and your chipping swing.
- To get started, take your putter from the bag and drop four or five golf balls on the putting green. For the first putts, set yourself up about ten feet away from a hole. The putt that you are facing should be relatively flat and straight just to keep things simple. Later, if you wish, you can move on to more difficult putts from a variety of positions around the green.
- Although you have selected a relatively straight putt, you should still pick out a specific target line before you set up to hit the shot. With your target line in mind, stand over the ball and position your putter face properly. Of course, you don't want to cut any other corners either, so make sure your stance is solid and your grip is light around the handle of the club.
- With all of the pre-putt checks out of the way, it is time to actually roll the ball toward the hole. However, before the club goes in motion, there is one last adjustment you are going to make – you are going to look up from the ball and focus your eyes instead on the hole itself. All throughout the stroke, you are going to look at the hole while swinging back and through. By looking at the hole during the stroke, you are going to be giving yourself constant feedback on how hard you should hit the shot in order to have it reach the target.
- Work your way through a number of putts while using this modified technique. Once you have rolled several consecutive putts while looking at the hole, bring your eyes back down to the ball and hit a few more. Hopefully, after using this drill to improve your feel, you will be able to hit great putts even when looking at the ball once again.
Of course, you have probably seen this drill before, except not in drill form – you have probably seen it when watching Jordan Spieth compete at the highest levels of the game. Spieth famously looks at the hole on many of his short putts, although he takes his eyes back down to the ball when he gets farther away than a few feet. Obviously, Spieth has used this technique to great success on the putting greens, as he is one of the very best putters in the world. It is clear that Spieth has tremendous feel on and around the greens, and that is likely due at least in part to his willingness to look at the hole while hitting short putts.
So, should you follow Spieth's lead and try to use this technique out on the course? No, probably not. While it is a great drill to help you improve your feel, there is tremendous talent required to hit the ball consistently on the sweet spot while looking up at the hole. If you don't hit the ball solidly, you are never going to control your speed properly, even if you are looking directly at the hole. Jordan Spieth has the mechanics and talent necessary to pull off this approach, but it is likely beyond the reach of the average player. Your best bet is to keep this as a drill that you use in practice before going back to your regular approach during your rounds.
New Feel Each Day
Another one of the great challenges that comes along with developing feel is that your feel is going to be different each day. No two rounds of golf are exactly the same, as conditions are always changing depending on weather, maintenance, and more. If you are going to play well regularly, you have to be able to adapt your feel to the course as quickly as possible upon starting a new round.
When you arrive at the course prior to a round, one of the first things on your mind should be working out your feel for the day. Many golfers just assume they will pick up their feel over the first few holes, but taking this approach means you could waste a few shots before you really get going. That is a mistake in a round that only lasts 18 holes. Instead, you want to have your feel dialed in before the round even starts. Preparing to play well right from the first shot on the day is crucial if you want to live up to your potential on the course.
Many golfers make the mistake of spending most of their time on the driving range rather than the practice putting and chipping green prior to teeing off. Most players launch a number of drivers into the distance in order to 'warm up', but they spend very little time – if any – putting and chipping. This approach is completely backwards. Instead, you should be spending the majority of your time working on the short game and developing a feel for the day. It is great to make some full swings to get ready to play, but you don't need to hit nearly as many balls as you would during a practice session. Hit just enough to feel loose and ready, and then spend the rest of your time chipping and putting.
To make sure your short game warm-up session is as useful as possible before your next round, make sure to include the following points –
- Long putting across the green. This is the one that most people miss, and it usually comes back to bite them – often on the very first hole of the round. You need to hit several putts across the length of the practice green to get a good idea of the speed for the day. Don't assume you know the speed because you have played the course previously, as green speeds change all the time. Work your way around the putting green hitting as many long putts as you can in a period of a few minutes before moving on to other parts of your warmup.
- Bunker shots. If there is a practice bunker available, be sure to visit it as part of your preparation. The amount of sand in the bunkers will vary from course to course, as will the kind of sand they have used. The only way to know what to expect on the course is to practice a few shots before your round starts. In addition to teaching you about the feel of the bunkers, this kind of practice will also help you loosen up your hands and wrists for the day.
- Chip shots from the rough. Again, this is another point that is all about learning the feel of the course. How does the rough feel when chipping? Does the ball shoot out quickly, or does it come out 'dead'? The only way to know is to try it out for yourself. Find some rough around the practice chipping green and hit a few shots to the target at various distances. You don't even have to be thinking too much about anything during this part of the warmup – just hit the shots and feel how they respond. This information is going to be extremely helpful later when you find yourself in a similar position during the round.
- Short putts. As a last step before heading to the first tee, return to the putting green and hit a few short putts from a round three feet or so. These are the putts that are largely going to determine your score for the day, as you need to be able to convert these time after time in order to have your score add up nicely for all 18 holes. If you miss a few short putts, your score is going to be disappointing even if you play a good round otherwise. Knocking in several short putts right before you head to the tee will give you confidence to do the same once the round has begun.
Once you have built a short game warmup routine that you are comfortable with, use it in the same manner round after round. The best thing you can do prior to any round of golf is establish your feel for the course that day, so take this part of the game seriously and you are sure to be rewarded.
Adjusting Your Feel On the Course
By thinking about the target instead of the ball, and by warming up properly, you will hopefully hit the first tee with a great feel that will last you all day long. Of course, it rarely works out that way in the real world. Your feel is likely to come and go over the course of a round, so you need to be able to get it back as quickly as possible in order to shoot a good score. Obviously you are not allowed to practice during a round, so you will have to go about regaining your touch in a different way.
The best option for getting your feel back on track is to think about your previous shots and look for patterns that might be popping up. For example, if you have been struggling on the greens, think about what is going wrong with your putts. Are you hitting them too hard, or are you leaving them short? By taking notice of your mistakes, you should be able to adjust your feel on the fly nicely. If a majority of your putts have been coming up short of the mark throughout the day, make a point of hitting the ball slightly harder than you think is necessary on your next putt. In fact, if you would like to use your eyes to help make this change, try looking at a spot two or three feet past the hole as you prepare for the shot. Thinking about hitting the ball long can work perfectly when you have been coming up short all day long.
It is nearly impossible to play good golf without having a great feel for the course, specifically on your short shots. Use your eyes to improve this part of your game by focusing more on the target than the ball when playing putts, chips, pitches, and bunker shots. This is a subtle change, but it has the potential to make a profound difference in your game. Give this concept some effort during your upcoming practice sessions and look for improved short game performance in the near future.