The biggest problem with hitting a ball out of the rough is that you often don't know exactly what the problem is. Sometimes, the thick grass will grab the club and cause a shot to come up well short. Other times, grass gets between the clubface and ball, causing a shot with no spin that flies and rolls farther than expected (the so-called “flyer.”)
So how do you know what the ball will do when playing from the rough? There's always a little guesswork involved, but do your homework first and you'll eliminate much of the unknown. Any time you find the thick stuff, examine your ball with an eye on these clues:
- Ball sitting down: If the rough is more than an inch tall, the ball will sometimes sink to the bottom. The grass will slow the club's speed and often cause the face to close through impact, sending the ball left.
- Ball sitting up: If you've lucked into a fluffy lie, caution is still merited. For one, you may catch one of those flyer lies that send the ball into oblivion if you're not careful. Second, if it's perched really high, a lofted club may slip underneath the ball and hit it next to nowhere.
- Direction of the grass: If the grain of the grass is growing against you, the ball won't travel as far. Hitting down-grain, expect the ball to “jump” and come out hot.
Whenever you're playing from tall rough, make a few practice swings near the ball to get a feel for the grass's thickness and resistance. Also, stand a little closer to the ball and focus on hitting down sharply. You want as little contact as possible with the grass, so a steeper swing is recommended.
How to Read Your Lie in the Rough
Golf would be pretty easy if you could play every shot from the short grass. Of course, that is never going to be the case. Almost every golf course is lined with some kind of rough, and playing a shot from the rough is typically more difficult than playing the same shot from a fairway lie. One of the skills that separates professional golfers from their amateur counterparts is the ability to hit quality shots from lies in the rough. By improving your ability to play from longer grass, you will be able to minimize the damage to your scorecard after one of your shots drifts off line.
In this article, we are going to address a specific part of playing from the rough – reading your lie. The way you prepare for a shot from the rough is almost as important as the swing itself. If you read your lie correctly, and plan a smart shot as a result, you will be far more likely to enjoy a positive outcome. Understanding how to read the lie of the ball in the rough isn't going to make these shots easy – but it can make them easier. You need to gain experience in order to read your rough lies properly, but the tips offered throughout the rest of this article will point you in the right direction.
A big part of learning how to read lies in the long grass comes down to understanding the course you are playing. Every course has rough which is unique based on the type of grass used, the length of the blades, the density of the grass, and more. Playing shots from the rough on one course may be relatively simple, while playing the same kind of shot on another course could be nearly impossible. When you stray from your home course to try out a new track, one of the first things you will want to do is get familiar with the rough. By understanding what you will face when your ball comes to rest in the rough, you can make the right adjustments to put your next shot back in position.
It is important to understand how to read your lie in the rough for both full swings and short game shots. The way you read your shots from the rough is going to depend entirely on the type of shot you need to play next, as chipping from the rough is totally different than hitting a seven iron, for instance. Only when you read the lie within the context of the shot you are facing will you be able to raise your level of play.
All of the content 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.
The Inherent Challenge
The challenge of playing from the rough comes from the fact that you are going to lose control over the ball on these kinds of shots. When you play from the short grass, the club is able to cleanly contact the ball of the ball without any interference – assuming you do your job correctly. With a clean strike, the grooves on your club are able to grab onto the ball, and backspin is created. That backspin both helps the ball get up in the air and help its hold its line as it flies. With sufficient backspin, you can control your shot and bring it to a stop in a timely manner when it lands.
All of that goes out the window, however, when playing from the rough. If you are in the long grass, there will be blades of grass trapped between the ball and the club face at impact. What does that mean? Simple – your backspin rate is reduced, and the ball struggles to hold its line. Have you ever seen one of your shots 'zig zag' in the air as it flew toward the target? That was the result of a very low spin rate. Without the ability to impart backspin, you simply can't control the ball in the same way that you can when playing from short grass. In the end, the ball goes in unpredictable directions, and it tends to bounce and roll a significant distance after it lands.
Golf is all about control, which is why it is so important to keep your ball out of the long grass whenever possible. You lose control when you venture into the rough, even if the rough on the course you are playing is not particularly deep. Rough doesn't have to be long in order to be penalizing – it simply has to be thick enough to cause contact problems between the club face and the ball.
For full swing shots, the lack of backspin is a problem for a number of reasons. For one thing, you are going to have a hard time determining the distance of your shots. The ball will not fly as high as it does on a well-struck shot from the fairway, so you may experience distance loss. However, the ball will sometimes come out 'quick' when played from a fluffy lie in the rough, opening up the possibility that your shot will travel too far. It is always going to be a bit of a guessing game from the rough, no matter how much experience you have on the links.
Another problem on full swings from the rough is getting the ball to stop. If you guess right on the carry distance, you may be able to land your shot on the green – but that doesn't mean it is going to stay there. You don't have much backspin to work in your favor when it comes to stopping the ball, and the flat trajectory of your shot means it is likely to take a big bounce. Unless you are playing on a soft golf course, shots played from the rough will often need to be landed short of the target so they can run up toward the hole.
As you get closer to the green and transition into the short game, the picture doesn't get much better. From close range, you don't really have to worry about the trajectory issue, but the backspin reduction is still a problem. Also, now that you are dealing with delicate shots, it can become hard to strike the ball cleanly enough to get it up into the air at all. A soft swing is likely to get caught up in the long grass, meaning your shot may travel just a matter of inches before coming to rest again. The ability to swing through the rough when chipping and pitching is a skill that all golfers should work hard to possess.
The difficulty of chipping from the rough largely comes down to the condition of the golf course you are playing. When on a soft course, you won't have much trouble – as long as you judge the lie pretty well, you should hit a decent shot. When conditions firm up, however, things get much more difficult. Without enough backspin to stop your chips, you will need to use elevation to do the job, meaning you will have to hit high lobs and flop shots to stop the ball. These kinds of shots are never easy, and they carry a great degree of risk along with them. When playing a firm golf course, do everything you can do keep your ball on the short grass – playing from the rough is going to be a major challenge under such conditions.
Reading Your Lie for Full Swing Shots
To get into some specifics on how you can read your lie in the rough, we are going to start with the topic of full swings. In the next section, we will discuss some of the points related to reading your lie for a chip or pitch shot around the green. For a clear understanding of what you should be looking for in the rough as you prepare to make a full swing, review the points listed below.
- Check the area immediately behind the ball. The first thing you want to do as you walk up to your ball in the rough is to check out the area behind the ball (on the opposite side of the ball from the target). This is the side you will be hitting when you make your swing. Is there a lot of dense grass behind the ball, or only a few wispy strands? Dense grass behind the ball is a bad sign, as many of those blades are going to be trapped between the club face and the ball at impact. If the grass is thick in this area, your best option will likely be to punch out safely to the fairway. However, if you catch a break and find only thin, light grass behind the ball, you may have a shot at the target.
- Check your swing path. Moving back from the grass around the ball itself, you also need to check on your swing path as you approach impact. How does the grass look approximately a foot or so behind the ball? Is there any grass which may grab onto the club shaft and twist your club prior to contact? This will usually not be the case, but it is an important point to check nonetheless. Again here, if you find that this is a trouble spot, choose to lay the ball up into the fairway with a wedge and eliminate the risk of going for a long shot from a bad lie.
- Is the ball sitting on the ground? This is an important point, yet one that many golfers overlook. If the rough is rather dense, the ball may actually be sitting up in the air, as if on a tee. In other cases, where the blades of grass are weak, the ball will nestle all the way down to the bottom. There are pros and cons with each of these situations. When the ball is sitting up, you will have an easier time accessing it at impact – however you may make contact high on the face, causing the shot to come up short. If the ball is sitting down, it will be easier to make contact on the sweet spot – but you might have more difficulty getting to the ball in the first place. Always take note of how high the ball is sitting off the ground and keep that factor in mind as you plan your shot.
- Review your path to the target. If you have strayed from the fairway and find your ball in the rough, there is a chance that you will have obstacles between yourself and the target – either in the air or on the ground. Obviously, it is trees that you will need to be most concerned with in the air, while land-based obstacles can include water hazards, bunkers, and more. Since shots from the rough tend to come out lower than shots from the fairway, you may need to pay closer attention to obstacles on the ground than you would otherwise. Once you have taken a good look at your path to the hole, you can decide whether you should go for the green or simply lay up for an easy approach.
It is important to know what to look for when stepping into the rough to play a shot. The points above should help point you in the right direction, but you are also going to need to gain experience before you can become comfortable with this part of the game. Pay close attention to the result of each shot you hit from the rough, and think about how the lie of the ball may have affected the shot. Over time, you will become comfortable with how to read your lies, and you play will improve overall as a result.
Reading Your Lie for Short Game Shots
Now that you are up around the green, you have different priorities when it comes to reading your lie. It is no longer as important to think about how easy it will be to get the ball up in the air, since the ball only needs to travel a short distance before it lands anyway. However, it is very important to think about control in this situation – specifically, you will be thinking about how well you can control the distance of the shot. As you read your short game lies in the rough, watch out for the following points.
- Air under the ball. Just as was the case back when you were making a full swing, it is still important to think about how far the ball is off the ground when playing a chip or pitch. In fact, this point might be even more important when you are around the green. If the ball happens to be sitting up a few inches off the ground, and you swing down toward the turf as you would do from the fairway, it is possible to miss the ball completely. Even if you do make contact, you will hit the ball high on the face and the shot will come up short. Carefully examine this part of your lie and adjust as necessary to make solid contact.
- Analyze thickness to pick the right club. As you know, you can pick from a variety of different clubs when preparing to hit a chip shot. From a fairway lie, you could theoretically use any of the 14 clubs in your bag to knock the ball up onto the green, depending on the circumstances. That is not the case in the rough. Many of your clubs won't work to hit a good chip shot from a lie in the rough. Generally speaking, you need to watch for the thickness of the grass when selecting a club. If the grass is rather thick, opt for your highest-lofted wedge, as it has a leading edge which will help to cut through the grass. If you find a slightly thinner lie, you may be able to go down to a gap wedge or even a pitching wedge to play the shot.
- Upslope or downslope. In addition to the grass itself, the slope of the ground under your ball is going to have a lot to do with how you play this shot. If the ground is sloped up toward the target, you will naturally get more height on the shot – meaning you can bring the ball down softly without much trouble. On the other hand, a chip out of the rough on a downslope is going to lead to a shot which comes out flat, takes a big bounce, and rolls out significantly. Playing from the rough on a downslope is one of the toughest spots you will find on the golf course.
- Any chance of spin? Accurately predicting how much backspin you are going to put on the ball is your biggest challenge when chipping from any lie. Out of the rough, you will usually struggle to get any backspin at all – but that can change depending on your lie. If you have a decent lie in the rough, and the ball is sitting down on the turf, you might get a little spin.
Experience is going to play just as big of a role around the greens as it plays when hitting full shots. To accelerate your learning curve on this topic, try to find a local golf course which offers a practice chipping area. Drop some golf balls in the rough around the chipping green and read each lie before hitting your shot. If you make this a part of your regular practice routine, your skills in reading the rough are sure to improve quickly.
Staying Out of the Rough
The one thing better than being able to accurately read your lie in the rough is being able to stay out of the rough in the first place. It will always be better to keep your ball on the short grass, so use the tips below to stay in play and away from the long grass as often as you can.
- Put away that driver. Of course it is fun to blast your driver as far as possible down the fairway, but doing so is not always going to be the smart play. Sometimes, you will be better off taking less club and playing for accuracy rather than power. When you are on the tee of a particularly narrow hole, put down the driver and choose something that you can safely put into the short grass.
- Take conservative lines with approach shots. Rather than always firing directly at the flag, try aiming to the wide side of the green in an effort to stay away from the rough. This strategy will raise your percentage of greens hit in regulation, it will take some of the stress out of your game, and it will lower your scores.
- Use your curve to your advantage. Nearly every golfer in the world has a fairly predictable shot pattern. You might not necessarily love your pattern, but you probably know what it is. Rather than trying to fight it, accept your shot shape for what it is at the moment, and use it to your advantage. By picking lines which will play to your strength, you can keep the ball in the short grass and out of trouble.
The best way to play good shots from the rough is to stay out of the rough. However, when you do venture into the long grass, use the advice contained above to read your lie accurately. A combination of the advice in this article and plenty of experience should lead you to improvements on the course in the months and years ahead. Having confidence in your ability to play from the rough will help free you up on the rest of your shots, as you will know that you can get out of trouble if required. Good luck!