One of golf's most loquacious stars, Lee Trevino also ranks among the all-time great ballstrikers. His unorthodox, "figure-8" swing was as instantly recognizable as the non-stop chatter that earned Trevino his famous nickname: "The Merry Mex."
Trevino's bread-and-butter was a low fade, but peers marveled at his ability to play any shot required. That versatility (and a well disguised killer instinct) was a big factor in his six major victories – two U.S. Opens, two Open Championships (the British kind) and two PGA Championships.
A self-taught golfer, Trevino honed his chops on the hardscrabble turf of municipal courses like Tenison Park in Dallas. He once joked that the fairways were so firm, “everything was a cart path,” and his swing was built to suit the conditions. “Once it gets hard and baked out,” Trevino said, “you've got to punch everything.”
That explains how Trevino became a wizard with the short irons. He wowed fans with the “burning wedge,” also called the “check wedge” – a low, spinning shot with a hop-and-stop action that became the envy of every amateur.
The ball came sizzling off Trevino's club, hit the green and bounced once or twice, then spun back sharply or stopped in place, sometimes spinning like a top.
How Trevino did it: His key was keeping the left hand firm through impact, with the back of the hand facing the target. This also kept the clubface open, producing his trademark fade, and helped Trevino “trap” the ball against the ground to keep it low and impart loads of spin.
How you can do it: If you want to hit irons that check up rather than rolling, the first order of business is to play the right ball. You'll need to spring for so-called “tour-level” or “high-performance” models favored by professionals.
Now you're ready to hit the burning wedge, which works best with a gap or sand wedge:
- Take your normal setup, with the left (lead) foot slightly open to the target line.
- Grip down on the club and position the ball in the middle of your stance.
- Stand slightly closer to the ball than usual. This will make your swing steeper and generate a descending blow.
- On the downswing, keep the back of your left hand pointing toward the target through impact, and rotate your right side into the finish.
You should produce a nice, big divot, with the ball starting left, fading to the target and stopping on a dime. With practice, you may even make it back up.
Lee Trevino – The Burning Wedge/Check Wedge
Wedge play is perhaps the single most important phase of the game of golf. While you probably believe that putting is the most important area of the game – and it is certainly important – there is a good case to be made that the shots you hit with your wedges are even more crucial to your score at the end of the day. Putting the ball close to the hole on a regular basis with your wedge shots means you will have ample opportunity to make birdies and save pars. On the other hand, if you struggle with your wedges, you won't have very many chances at all to make birdies, and your mistakes will turn into bogey or worse. Hitting consistently good wedge shots is one of the biggest things that separates the professionals from the average amateur golfer.
In a way, you could say that wedge play is underrated in that it doesn't get the attention it deserves from golfers. In much the same way, you could also say that Hall of Fame golfer Lee Trevino is underrated. Despite being truly one of the greatest players of all time – and one of golf's great personalities – Trevino was largely overshadowed by Nicklaus and others. If Trevino had played in a generation without Jack, it is certain that he would be more-commonly remembered as one of the all time greats.
Perhaps it isn't a coincidence then that one of the game's underrated players was so good with one of the underrated shots. Trevino was magical with a wedge, and his ability to score once he got a wedge in his hands was one of the traits that made him so dangerous in each tournament that he entered. By consistently stopping the ball within short range of the hole, Trevino set up as many birdie opportunities as just about anyone on the Tour.
One type of wedge shot in particular helped Trevino to have such tremendous success on the course. It was often called the 'burning wedge' or 'check wedge', and it was highly effective on all kinds of courses. When Trevino had a good lie in the fairway and was within wedge distance of the green, he would often use this shot to bring the ball in low and stop it quickly. It was a unique wedge shot in that it didn't float up through the air and land softly on the green – rather, it came in hard, took a couple of quick bounces, and then screeched to a stop as the spin took hold. When he caught this shot just right, or when the conditions were soft, the ball would even spin back toward the hole. Not only was it great fun to watch Trevino put this shot to use, but it was also highly effective and led him to make countless birdies throughout his career.
All of the instruction contained below is based on a right handed golfer. If you happen to play left handed, please be sure to reverse the directions as necessary.
The Advantages of the Burning Wedge
Before attempting to add a new shot to your golf arsenal, you always need to understand what it is that the shot can do for you on the course. If the shot doesn't add anything new or helpful to your game, it will serve no purpose and it won't help you lower your scores. For instance, you might be able to stand on the range and hit a giant hook on purpose, but how is that going to help you play better golf? It won't. Pick specific shots to add to your game that can come in handy in a variety of situations.
As you might have guessed, the burning wedge is one of those shots that you would benefit from adding to your collection. Of course, you don't have to hit a low, checking wedge shot every time you are within close range of the green, but it is a nice option to have from time to time. Golf is all about options – if you are standing in the fairway and you can picture two or three different shots that might work for the situation in front of you, you have a huge advantage over your competition. Options are important because every golf course presents you with different challenges and obstacles, and it is your job to pick the shots that minimize your chance hitting the ball into a bad spot. If you only know how to hit one or two shots, you won't have much choice when faced with a difficult shot and you might have to put your ball at risk. Minimizing risk is a great way to work around the course, but you can only do that if you know how to hit a variety of shots.
Following is a list of advantages that you could enjoy when you add the burning wedge to your collection of useful golf shots –
- Distance control. It is difficult to control the distance of your wedge shots when you throw them way up into the air from 150 yards and it. While it might look pretty to launch the ball up into the sky, there are too many variables involved in that kind of a shot. Getting the ball to fly the right distance and stop next to the hole is hard when you take the high route. On the other hand, if you can bring it in low with plenty of spin, you quickly find that it is pretty easy to get the distance right. With some practice, you should be able to use the burning wedge accurately from a number of different wedge distances.
- Access the back hole locations. Another challenge when taking the ball in high is being aggressive with a back hole location. If you face a wedge shot from 100 yards, for example, and the pin is located near the back of the green, you might be punished harshly for a shot that flies 105 or 110 yards. If there is a bunker or water hazard waiting behind the green, the cost of missing long may be significant. By using a check wedge shot, you can bounce the ball back to the hole and have it stop cold before going over the ball. Since you would play this kind of a shot to bounce in the middle of the green and hop back to the hole, there is less risk involved than throwing the ball up into the sky. It is very unlikely that you will go long (when you make a good swing), so you can forget about the hazards behind the green and focus only on setting up a birdie putt.
- Defeat the wind. Accurate wedge play becomes extremely challenging when the wind picks up. As the breeze starts to affect your ball, you will have more and more trouble dialing in your distance. Even if the wind isn't strong enough to push the ball off line, it will still cause your shots to either sail long or come down short. The only way to avoid the influence of the wind on short shots is to hit the ball as low as you can. Lee Trevino played golf all over the world in a variety of conditions, and the burning wedge helped him to mitigate the problems that could be created by wind. Driving the ball into the green with a low trajectory means the wind will have very little to say about the flight of the shot, and you should be able to make birdies even on blustery days.
- Confidence builder. Most amateur golfers simply take a wedge out of the bag and hope for the best when they find their ball inside of 150 yards or so. To have consistent success, you need a better plan than that. Using a check wedge is a great way to give yourself a game plan on short approach shots. When you use this shot on a regular basis, you will become more and more confident in how to use it. Instead of just grabbing your sand wedge and throwing the ball up into the sky, you can take that same wedge and drive the ball in low toward the target. The confidence gained through seeing success with a specific method like this will lead you to hit more and more of these shots in the future.
These are only some of the advantages that you are likely to enjoy once you add the burning wedge to your game. Some golfers may find even other advantages, while others will perhaps miss out on one or two of the points above. In any case, the burning wedge is a shot that can help nearly every golfer score better by adding another option in the crucial scoring range on approach shots into the green.
Some Equipment Tips
Equipment plays an important role in the golf shots that you are able to hit as you work your way around the course. While most people think about equipment in terms of the driver or even their set of irons, it actually plays a key role in the wedge game as well. Both the wedges that you are using and the ball that you are playing will have a lot to say about whether or not you can regularly hit shots close to the hole. Also, without the right gear, you simply won't be able to hit the burning wedge shot on a regular basis.
The burning wedge is a shot that requires a high rate of backspin in order to work effectively. If you lack backspin, you won't be able to get the ball to stop quickly near the hole - instead, it will just bounce and roll, likely off the back of the green. In order to create the low flight, high spin combination that you are looking for, it is essential that you have the perfect wedges and golf ball for the job.
To make it possible to hit this valuable wedge shot, make sure you consider the following equipment tips -
- Wedge with fresh grooves. You can use just about any kind of wedges you want to hit the burning wedge shot, but the wedges that you carry in your bag need to have fresh grooves. The grooves on the face of the club will grab onto the cover of the ball and help you to generate spin. If the grooves are worn out, the ball will simply slide up the face and you won't achieve a good enough spin rate to stop the ball quickly on the green. Before you run out to buy new wedges, however, clean your current clubs to get the grass and dirt out of the grooves – they might have more life left than you think.
- Quality golf ball. You aren't going to hit any checking wedges with a cheap golf ball. The higher priced golf balls you see on the market also happen to be the ones that will offer you the best spin rate, so it is important to choose a quality golf ball if you want to add this shot to your game. The cheap golf balls that you find for $15 - $20 per dozen have a cover that is too hard to accept much spin from the face of your wedge. Also, you need to be using a golf ball that is in good condition. A ball you pull from the bottom of a pond or out of the woods likely won't be in the kind of shape necessary to really dance when it lands on the green.
- Selection of wedge lofts. Some amateur golfers make the mistake of carrying too many long clubs, so they are only left with space for one or two wedges. Almost all professional golfers carry at least three wedges – and some carry four during certain rounds on specific courses. You want to have three wedges in the bag so you can cover a variety of yardages comfortably with the burning wedge. A commonly used setup is a pitching wedge, gap wedge, and lob wedge. Experiment with various lofts until you find a combination that works for you.
The right equipment isn't going to make the game easy, but it will make it easier. Put some good wedges into your bag along with a quality golf ball and you will be a big step closer to being able to hit the burning wedge shot made famous by Lee Trevino.
Executing the Shot
With the right gear in hand and a clear picture of what you are trying to do with the ball, it is time to get out to the range and give this shot a try for yourself. While you don't have to drastically change your technique in order to hit this shot, you do need to alter your setup and your swing slightly in order to generate a low flight with lots of spin. Use the steps below to get started with the burning wedge during your next practice session.
- Take one of your wedges from your bag, and set aside a few golf balls to hit down the range. It doesn't matter which wedge you use to hit these first shots, so just pick the one that you are most comfortable hitting.
- As you take your stance, move the ball back two to three inches in your stance from its normal position from a wedge. Ideally, this will leave the ball just slightly behind the middle of your stance. It is important to have the ball back of center, but don't let it get too far back or you will have trouble making solid contact with the shot.
- Next, choke down on the shaft of the club at least an inch or two. You want to shorten your swing when you hit a checking wedge, and choking down on the grip is a great way to do just that.
- Also, move your feet a couple of inches closer to the ball at address. This is an adjustment that is make together with choking up on the club. With an effectively shorter club, you now stand closer to the ball and you create a swing that is compact and upright – perfect for hitting down through the ball at impact.
- As a last adjustment, open your stance slightly to the target. This will also promote an outside-in path in the downswing, another element in coming down steeply and creating backspin.
- With the pre-shot adjustments taken care of, go ahead and hit your first shot. The key element of the swing to focus on is keeping your left wrist flat (or even slightly bowed) through impact. You simply can't hit this shot successfully if you allow your left wrist to get into a cupped position by the time you reach the ball at the bottom of the swing. Lead with the back of your left wrist and hit through the shot aggressively.
The first few shots you attempt with this technique likely won't be too successful. Most people try to hit this shot with their arms when really it needs to be hit with great body rotation. Since you are keeping your wrists steady through the hit, it is crucial that your lower body keeps turning toward the target in the downswing. Hit as many shots as you would like on the range until you can produce a low flight with a high rate of backspin. Only after you have practiced this shot consistently should you give it a try out on the course.
When to Leave It In the Bag
As mentioned earlier, the burning wedge is not going to be the right shot for every occasion. In fact, more often than not, you will want to simply hit your traditional wedge shot where you toss the ball up into the air and allow it to land softly on the green. Only in situations where the burning wedge is exactly the right choice should you put it to work. Following are a few examples of situations where you would be better off not attempting a check wedge –
- Soft conditions. If the course you are playing is particularly soft, you would be better off not using this play. Under soft conditions, the ball is likely to stick where it lands on the green, rather than taking a couple of bounces prior to stopping. Also, it is easy to hit this shot fat when you are playing from a soft fairway lie.
- Front hole location. This should be obviously, but it needs to be pointed out anyway. When the hole is located in the front of the green, you really don't have the room needed to bounce the ball up prior to stopping it quick. The ball would have to land off of the green, and that strategy simply brings too much uncertainty into play. For front hole locations, use your higher wedge shot and stop the ball by bringing it straight down out of the air.
- Over a hazard. It would be an unnecessarily risky play to use this wedge shot when you are playing over water or even a deep sand trap. If the shot were to come up even slightly short, you would have big trouble on your hands. Only use the burning wedge over a hazard when you are absolutely sure of your ability to carry the ball the necessary distance.
Lee Trevino is among the greatest golfers of all time, and his burning wedge shot deserves a special place in the memories of golf fans around the world. Not only can you marvel at the skill that Trevino used to execute this shot, you can give it a try in your own game. Use the tips and advice contained above and spend some time on the driving range learning how to drive the ball in low with plenty of spin. Even if it only is used once or twice per round, the burning wedge could save you strokes at the end of the day.