Any list of golf's scariest shots must include the slick, downhill chip with little green between you and the flag. Try as you might to avoid hitting your ball into such a spot, you'll inevitably face this frightening scenario from time to time.
Just ask Tom Watson, who conquered this very situation on his famous chip-in at the 1982 U.S. Open. While Watson's short-game mastery is beyond the reach of most of us, you, too, can learn to handle these delicate shots with aplomb.
First, survey the shot as you would any drive or approach, identifying where you don't want to leave the ball. Most times on a downhill chip, the worst result is failing to get the ball onto the green. Hitting too far is generally preferable, because you'll have an uphill putt coming back. For that reason, it's important not to get too “cute” or greedy with the shot; trying to be ultra-delicate or hole out is more likely to cause a mishit.
If your ball lies just off the green on short grass, the putting-style chip is a great method for hitting a shot that lands with a soft, dead thud and trickles toward the cup.
When you're in the rough, follow these steps to produce a short, soft-landing chip:
- Using your highest lofted wedge, set up with a narrow stance, playing the ball in the middle or slightly back and the clubface open a touch.
- Your hands should be ahead of the ball, with a little more weight on the left foot than the right (for a right-hander).
- Make a short backswing and bring the club down sharply into the ball.
- Focus on keeping the clubface open through impact (not letting the right hand roll over the left).
- You need little if any follow-through, since the goal is to pop the ball up and just over the edge of the rough.
One good tip is to feel as though the back of your left hand is leading the club into and through impact.
Ways to Play a Fast Downhill Chip
In a perfect world, you would always be chipping uphill when you miss the green. Chipping uphill is easier than chipping downhill because you can use the slope of the green to bring the ball to a stop. When chipping downhill, your speed control has to be perfect, which can be difficult – especially when chipping from the rough. Of course, this is not a perfect world, and you are sure to encounter downhill chip shots from time to time. In this article, we are going to offer a variety of tips and strategies to help you handle this challenging shot as successfully as possible.
Before you can think too much about how to play downhill chip shots properly, you first need to make sure your overall chipping technique is in good condition. Chipping is a key part of your overall golf game, and yet many players take it for granted. Low scores are simply not possible without solid chipping performance, so make sure this part of the game is an integral part of all of your practice sessions. Only when you have a steady mechanical foundation in your chipping game will you be able to properly use the advice offered below with regard to handling quick downhill chip shots.
It should be noted that the word 'fast' is an important part of the title of this article. While you would always rather be chipping uphill as opposed to downhill, it isn't too difficult to hit good chip shots downhill when the greens are slow or soft (or both). This shot only turns scary when you add speed to the equation. Firm and fast greens make it difficult to control your golf ball when chipping. If you do find yourself chipping downhill when conditions are fast, you can expect to be in for a challenge. That doesn't mean you have to surrender to a bogey before even attempting the shot, but you do need to pay close attention while executing to the best of your ability.
As was mentioned in the opening paragraph, you do want to avoid downhill chip shots as often as possible. To do so, you need to think carefully about your course management strategy as you make your way from the first hole to the last. Do you need to fire at every flag, or should you play away from the hole for safety in certain situations? For most players, aiming to the wide side of the green is a strategy which can pay big dividends. You will not have to chip downhill as often when you play to the big side of the green, simply because you will increase your percentage of greens hit in regulation. In addition to aiming for the wide side, you can also think about aiming for the low side. Keeping your ball on the low side of the hole, even if you miss the green, will give you the chance to chip uphill. Make smart decisions as you proceed through your rounds and you just might not have to chip downhill very often at all.
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.
Stopping the Golf Ball
The main point of discussion with regard to downhill chip shots comes down to stopping your golf ball. If you can manage to stop the ball in time – even on a downhill slope – you should be able to produce good chip shots consistently. Of course, this is a job that is easier said than done, as chipping downhill on a firm golf course will make it extremely difficult to bring your ball to a rest in time.
The following list highlights the three ways in which you can stop your golf ball while chipping. Understanding how each of these three options works – and when you can use which option – will help you conquer the downhill chipping challenge.
- Speed of the shot. Of course, the classic way to bring your golf ball to a stop on the green is simply to have it run out of speed. You can control the amount of energy that you pass from the club to the ball at impact, so hitting the shot softly is going to offer less forward momentum than hitting the shot firmly. Unfortunately, it is hard to stop your golf ball while heading downhill by using speed alone. Even a softly hit shot is going to pick up speed as it moves down the slope, so this method will be of little use as you play down steep slopes. It is always helpful to have control over the speed with which you hit the golf ball, but other techniques are going to be necessary in order to chip productively from a downhill position.
- Loft of the shot. By hitting the ball higher into the air, you can kill much of the forward momentum of your chip shot when it lands on the green. This concept is the same reason why your driver will bounce and roll significantly more after it lands than a pitching wedge. A wedge shot is coming down nearly straight into the turf, so it is going to have almost no forward momentum remaining after it lands. Your driver, on the other hand, hits a flatter shot which is still moving forward as it strikes the turf, leading to roll out. Getting back to the idea of chipping downhill, hitting the ball up into the air on your chip shots will take some of the speed off the shot after it lands. The success of this method is going to depend largely on the slope of the ground where the ball lands. If you are able to land the ball on a relatively flat part of the green before you reach the downhill slope, you can find excellent results. However, if the ball lands directly on the downhill slope, it will take a big hop and pick up any speed that was lost. Therefore, this is really only a method which will be effective when there is a relatively flat landing spot available.
- Spin of the shot. This last point on our list is where we find the most powerful option for stopping your golf ball. If you can successfully impart a high rate of backspin on the ball, you can cause it to stop rather quickly after landing – even if you are heading downhill. Of course, the ball is not going to stop as quickly as it would if you were playing uphill, but you will still have much greater control than if you hit a shot with no spin at all. So why wouldn't you just spin the ball on all of your downhill chip shots? Well, you would if you could, but using spin isn't always going to be an option. If your ball is sitting down in the rough, you won't be able to make clean enough contact to impart a high spin rate, and your shots will lack spin as a result. Only when you have a clean lie on short grass will you be able to effectively spin the ball with your chip shots.
There is actually a fourth option that you can use to stop your golf ball on downhill chip shots, but it is not one that you should count on very often – hitting the flag stick with your shot. You should always leave the flag in the hole on downhill chip shots to give yourself the chance to be saved by the pin, but you obviously aren't going to be able to take advantage of its stopping power on more than a rare occasion.
When preparing to hit a downhill chip shot, you should be thinking about all three options above. Most likely, you will want to use a combination of these options in order to do what you can to bring the golf ball to rest as quickly as possible. For instance, if you have a clean lie on fairway length grass, you might decide to hit a high chip shot with spin. In that case, you would be able to use both loft and spin to help the ball stop. Or, if you are in the rough, you may hit the highest possible soft shot to use speed and loft to bring the ball to rest. As you practice your downhill chipping, experiment with various combinations of speed, loft, and spin to find what works best in your game.
Picking a Target
Most amateur golfers think of the target for their chip shots as 'the hole'. While you eventually want your ball to wind up near the hole, you shouldn't actually view the hole itself as your target for the shot. Instead, you should be picking out a landing spot which will serve as your target. By picking a landing spot which will allow your ball to bounce and roll the rest of the way to the cup, you will be visualizing the shot in its entirety. It takes experience to learn how to accurately pick landing spots, but doing so can lead to impressive chipping performance.
To get a head start on learning how to pick good landing spots for downhill chip shots, please review the list below.
- Land on the green when using spin. If part of your plan for the shot is to use spin to bring the ball to rest, you need to be sure to land the ball on the green if at all possible. The spin you impart on the ball is going to have its greatest impact if you land on the short grass of the putting surface. If you land the ball on the fringe or in the rough instead, the spin you put on the shot will have a minimal impact on how quickly the ball comes to rest. Any time you are going to use spin as a stopping method, you need to find a way to land the ball directly on the putting surface.
- Find the flattest spot possible. This was mentioned briefly above but it should be repeated here for clarity. When chipping downhill, look around the area between yourself and the hole to see if you can find a flat spot to land your shot. It is easier to control and predict the bounce and roll on your shot if you are dealing with a flat landing area. This won't always be possible, of course, but take a moment to look around in the hopes of finding a section of green that can serve as a reasonably flat landing spot.
- Farther may be better. This next point connects with the previous point on finding a flat landing spot. Usually, when chipping downhill, you will automatically think about landing the ball as close to the edge of the green as possible. After all, it only makes sense to give the ball as much room as you can to slow down as it rolls to the target. However, if the edge of the green is sloped significantly, you might actually want to fly the ball closer to the cup in order to give it a better chance to stop. This is often an effective strategy if you have hit your approach shot over the green, as the back of the green is frequently the steepest section. From the rough behind the green, you may be able to carry your chip shot over the steep part in order to land it on a flatter surface. Even if you can't stop the ball completely by the time it reaches the hole, opting for a landing spot farther onto the green may be your best bet.
- Land in the rough only when necessary. The safest option when chipping downhill is always going to be to land the ball on the green. You can predict the response of the ball fairly accurately when it lands on the putting surface, which is not the case if the ball lands on the fringe or in the rough. You can opt to intentionally land the ball in the rough from time to time, but know that this is a risky venture. You may get a nice hop out onto the green, or you may get stuck in the long grass. Of course, if your ball gets stuck in the rough, you will still be facing a tough downhill chip and you will have wasted a stroke. Unless you are confident in the way the ball will react, stick with landing your shots on the green in most scenarios.
There is an art to picking out a landing spot which can only be mastered through experience. Spend plenty of practice time working on your chipping, and be sure to pick out landing spots for each of those practice shots. Of course, you need to be adept at actually hitting those landing spots once you select them, so make sure to work hard on the fundamentals of your technique as well.
Missing the Sweet Spot – On Purpose
If you are chipping downhill from a spot which is close to the green, it can be difficult to hit the ball soft enough for the shot at hand. You know that you need to swing softly in order to gently knock the ball onto the putting surface, but swinging too soft will bring in the risk of a miss-hit. So how do you swing hard enough to make clean contact while still providing the ball with minimal momentum? Intentionally missing the sweet spot is one idea which has served many players well over the years.
This technique is actually quite simple. When you set up to hit your chip shot, you are going to address the ball out toward the toe of the club, rather than on the sweet spot. Once you have lined up toward the toe, go ahead and hit the shot as usual. You will be able to swing a bit harder than you expect because the intentional off-center hit is going to take plenty of speed out of the shot. The impact you make with the ball won't feel great, but the result just might be what you needed to set up a makeable putt.
It should be noted that this technique is not to be used when you are trying to spin the ball. If backspin is one of the ways in which you can going to attempt to stop a chip shot, you will want to hit that shot from as close to the sweet spot as possible. Only use this off-center method if you are planning on just 'dumping' the ball onto the edge of the green before it runs down the slope toward the target.
Believe it or not, you can actually use this method when putting downhill as well. Make the same adjustment with your positioning at address placing the ball out near the toe of your putter. Then, make your usual stroke, being more aggressive through impact than you would if using the sweet spot. It will take some practice to get comfortable with this putting option, but the end result is a stroke you can use when you need to make a scary, downhill five-footer to save your par.
Keep the Ball on the Ground
When you are faced with a downhill shot from off the green, you don't automatically need to resort to hitting the ball high up into the air. In fact, if your lie allows, your best bet may be to keep the ball down on the ground from start to finish. Controlling the speed of your shots is going to be easier when the ball stays down, so think about this option anytime you are stuck off the green on the high side.
If your ball has come to rest on short grass, consider simply using your putter to play the shot. While the ball isn't going to roll quite as smoothly on the fringe as it does on the green, using your putter is a great way to take some of the risk and skill out of the equation. Even a poor result with your putter from off the green is likely to be decent, whereas things can to terribly wrong when you try to execute a challenging chip shot.
For occasions where it will not be possible to use your putter, you could instead reach for a fairway wood or even a hybrid club. Just bumping the ball toward the green with these long clubs will allow the shot to pop quickly up off the turf before it rolls out the rest of the way. Again, these are shots that give you a big margin for error, reducing the changes that you wind up with a terrible result.
As is always the case in golf, be sure to practice this low shot at least a few times before you give it a try during an actual round of golf. Unfortunately, keeping the ball down on the ground is not an option you can consider when your ball is in the long rough. You need to use a lofted wedge to carve your ball out of the rough successfully, so the bump and run shot is one that should be ruled out. Work on hitting low chip shots from various lies during practice to determine when this option is and isn't a viable choice.
Chipping downhill is never going to be an easy task. Most golfers would love to avoid this situation when at all possible, especially if the greens are firm and fast. However, you are sure to run into this type of shot from time to time, so it is necessary to have a plan in place for when chipping downhill is required. Use the instruction above to think logically about this shot, and invest enough practice time to get comfortable with the techniques required. Good luck!