It's fitting that a tiny little chip stands as the signature shot of Tom Watson's amazing career. In his prime, Watson was nothing less than a wizard around the greens.
That shot, of course, was Watson's chip-in on the 71st hole of the 1982 U.S. Open, which propelled him to a two-stroke victory over Jack Nicklaus. Thirty years later, Watson's miracle still ranks among the game's greatest, most memorable moments.
To recount briefly, Watson stood on the tee of Pebble's wicked par-3 17th hole tied with Nicklaus, who had already finished his final round. Watson's 2-iron settled into thick rough just left of the green, leaving him little room to land the ball on a slick surface which sloped away from him. The degree of difficulty, adding U.S. Open pressure: off the charts.
Just before playing the shot, Watson told his caddy Bruce Edwards, “I'm going to make it.” Watson made good on that prediction, turning a potential bogey into a birdie for a one-stroke lead. For good measure, he birdied 18 to win by two, claiming his lone U.S. Open title while denying Nicklaus a record fifth.
Luck always plays a part when such a shot finds the cup. But make no mistake, Watson was uniquely prepared for what he faced. His boyhood teacher at Kansas City Country Club, Stan Thirsk, had taught him the cut shot needed to handle just such a situation. Watson loved practicing the little cut, perfecting his own deadly version.
With the right technique and a bit of practice, you can learn it too.
What it looked like: Taking a very short backswing, Watson slid the club under the ball and flipped it up about waist-high; it landed on the green's edge and rolled into the hole.
How Watson did it: Blessed with an exceptional pair of hands, Watson has always shown an uncanny knack for hitting a variety of delicate greenside shots. His record in the (British) Open Championship, which he won five times, is evidence of extraordinary imagination and creativity, too.
Always a very quick player, Watson wasted little time before hitting his famous chip. He assessed the lie and the green's break, took a couple of practice swings in rough similar to where his ball sat, and executed. This decisiveness ensured Watson of making an aggressive swing, without distracting doubts over whether he was playing the shot correctly.
How you can do it: Because of the short distance covered, Watson's cut is fairly simple to execute.
If the rough is thick and the ball sitting down, the sand wedge is your best option. Its heavy bottom and bounce will power through the grass better than a slender-bladed gap wedge or lob wedge. If your lie is good and the rough thin, the lob wedge will provide the needed height and stopping power.
- Survey the green and choose the precise spot where you want to land the ball; make a couple of practice swings while looking at the spot.
- Stand with your left (lead) foot open to the target line by several degrees. The more open your stance, the higher the ball will fly.
- Your hips and shoulders should be aligned with your feet.
- Position the ball slightly forward of the center of your stance, with your hands just ahead of the ball.
- Aim the clubface directly at your chosen landing spot.
- In tall rough, pick the club up abruptly by cocking your wrists; less wrist cock is needed from shorter grass.
- Slip the clubhead underneath the ball, making sure you accelerate and keep the hands ahead of the ball at impact.
- Keep the back of your left hand pointing at the target, the clubface pointing to the sky.
- Abbreviate the follow-through to pop the ball into the air; it will land like a feather.
The short follow-through is important for another reason: It will eliminate the danger of double-hitting the ball. Three years after Watson's legendary chip-in, T.C. Chen suffered just such a double-hit in the final round of the 1985 U.S. Open, costing him a penalty stroke that proved his undoing.
Tom Watson Delicate Chip from the Rough
Throughout the history of professional golf, there have been millions of shots hit by thousands and thousands of great players. However, there are just a few of those shots that stand out above the rest. One such such is the chip in by Tom Watson on the 71st hole of the 1982 U.S. Open. Tied with Jack Nicklaus, who had already completed his round, Watson chipped in from behind the 17th green at Pebble Beach to secure a birdie – and ultimately, the title. By some accounts, it is the single greatest shot in the history of golf. Even if you don't care to award it that title, there is little doubt that it is among the very best strokes ever played.
There are two things that can make a golf shot difficult – the shot itself, and the situation at hand. For instance, you can encounter a difficult shot during a Tuesday morning round with your friends simply because the path between your ball and the hole is a challenging one to navigate. Or, you can face a shot that would otherwise be simple, but is complicated because of what is at stake. Every golfer knows just how difficult it is to perform under pressure, as nerves have the capability of making even a mundane shot seem like an insurmountable challenge.
The greatness of the shot that Watson produced back in 1982 at Pebble Beach is owed to the combination of factors that he was facing. Obviously, the pressure was tremendous. Tied for the lead in one of the biggest tournaments in the world, with perhaps the greatest player of all time in Jack Nicklaus, is enough to make anyone extremely nervous. However, that pressure was only added on top of the fact that the shot itself was difficult on its own. Chipping from that spot – facing a downhill slope on a fast green and coming out of the rough – makes for a difficult up and down even with nothing on the line. To not only hit a good chip, but to actually hole it out, is nothing short of incredible.
In the article below, we are going to take a look at what you can learn from this brilliant shot produced by Tom Watson more than 30 years ago. You aren't likely to face the kind of pressure that confronted Watson in that moment anytime soon, but you very well may have to chip out of the rough onto a downhill slope in an upcoming round. Of course, your best bet is to avoid this kind of situation in the first place, as this will always be a difficult shot even for a talented player. However, you can't always put your ball in the right positions on the course, so knowing how to approach this delicate chip should help you to save a shot or two in the near future.
All of the instruction below is written from the perspective of a right handed golfer. If you happen to play left handed, please take a moment to reverse the directions as necessary.
Only One Option
Most golf shots come along with a variety of options for you to pick from in terms of how you will play the shot. In fact, this is one of the things that makes golf so difficult – you are always having to figure out which is the right option to pick for any given shot. The game would likely be much easier, although not as interesting, if there was only one way to play every shot that you faced throughout a round.
In the case of the downhill chip shot out of the rough, you don't have to worry about making difficult decisions because the choice has already been made for you. If you are going to get the ball close to the hole from this position, you are going to have to loft the ball softly into the air so that it can land gently on the green and roll out as little as possible. This is exactly how Tom Watson played the shot back in 1982, and it is how you will need to play it today. No thinking or game planning is necessary – the decision has been taken out of your hands by the design of the course, the location of the hole, and the location of your ball.
The fact that you only have one option for how you are going to play this shot is both good and bad news. On the positive side, you don't have to stress about how to approach the chip – you can simply pull your wedge from the bag and get down to work. On the other hand, the negative side is the fact that you can't play to your strengths. For instance, if you prefer to play bump-and-run style chip shots, you won't have that option available to you. Or, if you are good at hitting spinning wedge shots that employ backspin to come to a quick stop, you won't have that choice either. The soft lob is the only way you can go, for better or worse.
As you may already understand, the option to spin the ball is taken away from you by the presence of the rough around the golf ball. If you had a clean lie, you would be able to attempt to use spin to stop the shot, even if you were playing down hill. However, the rough is going to make it impossible to spin the ball at a high enough rate to give the shot stopping power. Grass will be trapped between the club face and the ball at impact, meaning very little spin will be achieved, and the ball will bounce and roll when it lands.
It is important to understand that you aren't necessarily going to be playing a flop shot in this situation. Yes, a flop shot could be called for if you have a good enough lie and an extremely steep slope to deal with, but most of the time you won't need to go that far. Tom Watson didn't play a flop shot to hole his famous chip on the 17th at Pebble Beach, and most of the shots you face aren't going to require one, either. Remember, a flop shot is a high-risk play that brings all sorts of trouble into the equation, so there is no reason to go down that road unless it is truly your only option.
Just as is the case with any golf shot that you hit around the course, the pre-shot prep that you do before making the swing will have a lot to do with your success or failure. There are a number of pieces that need to come together properly in order to reach a successful outcome, including club selection, stance, ball position, target identification, and more. While that might seem like a long list, an experienced golfer will be able to go through all of those points in just a few moments. Only when you make the right decisions before your swing begins will you be able to consistently lob the ball onto the green in a controlled manner.
To better understand everything that needs to be done prior to hitting this kind of delicate, downhill chip shot from the rough, please review the list of points below.
- Select your most-lofted club. This is the easiest part of the process, because it will only take a second to pick out your most-lofted club from the bag. Since you want this shot to land softly on the green, it is crucial that you use the club which will move the ball highest up into the air. For most golfers, this will be a wedge somewhere in the range of 58* - 60*. If you don't have a wedge with this much loft, consider adding one to your set sometime soon in order to make this type of shot easier to handle.
- Play the ball in the middle of your stance. The middle of the stance is the best place for the ball on this shot because it gives you the best of both worlds. If you were to play the ball much behind center in your stance, you would inevitably hit down too aggressively – causing the ball to come out low, and the shot to run past the cup. On the other hand, moving the ball up in your stance will create problems with the rough. The club head will likely get caught up in some of the rough as you swing, and you may not be able to make clean contact. By keeping the ball nicely in the middle of your stance, you can avoid all of these problems and give yourself the best possible chance to carve the ball cleanly out of the grass.
- Open your stance. This is a point that many players miss, but it is important if you hope to get the ball quickly up and out of the rough. When you play from an open stance, you are going to be encouraging the club to swing on an outside-in path. While that would be a bad thing in your full swing, it is exactly what you want to do when chipping the ball. The outside-in swing will help the club to cut under the ball at impact, and you will usually find that the ball gets quickly up into the air with this technique. To execute this style of chip shot, simply open your stance to the target line and then swing the club down along the line that has been created by your feet. When done correctly, you might be surprised to find how easy it is to lob the ball out of the rough.
- Open the face of the club. In addition to using your most lofted club, you also want to open the face of that club at address in order to add even more loft. If you watch the video of Tom Watson holing out his famous chip shot, you can see that he set the face of his wedge open at address in order to achieve the loft needed to allow the ball to land softly. The amount that you are going to open the face depends on your own personal preference as well as the shot at hand, so this is a variable that you will need to practice in order to get comfortable and confident. In addition to offering extra loft, opening the face of your wedge will expose the leading edge to the grass on the way through the shot. That edge will act like a knife as it cuts through the grass on the downswing, making it easier for you to hit the shot solidly.
- Set your weight into your left side. The last thing you need to do before hitting this shot is to set your weight into your left side in order to promote a slightly downward hit. Even though you want the ball to get airborne as quickly as possible, you still want to hit down on this shot at impact. Remember, it is the loft of the club that is going to cause the ball to get up in the air, and that loft doesn't need any help from you in the form of hitting up on the shot. Lean slightly to the left as you address the ball, and keep your weight there throughout the swing.
As you can see, there are plenty of points included in the pre-shot preparations for this shot. That is for good reason, as preparing to hit this shot properly is a huge part of the equation. If you can get everything set up just right before you begin, the shot itself will become dramatically easier to execute.
Making the Swing
With the pre-shot process out of the way, you should now be ready to swing the club and send the ball toward the hole. Hopefully your pre-shot prep will have you feeling confident over the ball, as it can be difficult to feel good about your chances when facing this kind of difficult chip. Although setting up to this shot correctly will give you a great chance to pull it off successfully, you are far from finished at this point. You still need to make a good swing through the ball if you hope to leave yourself a tap-in putt when all is said and done. Who knows, if you make a good swing, your shot might fall in just like Watson's!
The keys to making a great chipping motion on this difficult shot are listed below.
- Tempo is critical. You are likely to be a bit nervous when making the swing for this shot, but you can't allow that to influence your tempo. You need to keep everything as smooth and steady as possible throughout the swing, or you will risk miss-hitting the ball. Give yourself plenty of time to make the backswing, change directions without being in a rush, and allow the club to sweep under the ball with a nice pace. There is a fine line between swinging too quickly and too slowly with this shot, and it is your job to walk that line successfully.
- Set the club early. Since you are chipping from the rough, you have to make sure to set the club as you go back. Setting the club means that you are going to use your wrists to create some angle and elevate the club head over the top of the grass. You can see that Watson does this beautifully on his famous chip, and you should follow his lead. The set that you use in the backswing will work together with your stance to allow you to hit down slightly on the ball. You can get away with chipping the ball without setting your wrists when playing from short grass, but that isn't going to work out of the rough.
- Soft hands at impact. Even with great technique, it is easy to hit this shot too hard. In fact, it might be easier to hit it too hard when do use great technique, because you will be more likely to catch the ball on the sweet spot. If you hit this shot perfectly, the ball will jump out of the rough and it may travel too far in the air. One way to fight against this problem is to keep your hands as soft as possible during the swing. You shouldn't feel like your hands are squeezing the grip or doing anything 'extra' at impact – they should just be along for the ride as your shoulders and arms move the club through the hitting zone.
Steady head. As always, you want to do your best to keep your head steady as you swing through the shot. If your head is moving all around, you may wind up missing the shot out off the toe or in off the heel – and the shot could come up short as a result. You don't have to keep your head perfectly still, but it shouldn't be moving significantly in any direction until the ball is gone and you look up to see how you have done.
If you can hit on all of the points listed above, there is a good chance you will be able to chip the ball up out of the rough and onto the green nicely. Of course, you are never going to pull this shot off perfectly every time, because it is a difficult shot to hit even for a highly skilled player. With that said, using good technique – and practicing that technique – will make it far more likely that you will pull off the tricky downhill chip when you are forced to put it to use.
A Word on Picking a Target
Many golfers don't bother to pick out a target for this kind of shot, because they feel like the target is right there in front of them. After all, you are probably only a few yards from the hole, so why would you need to pick out any target other than the hole itself? Well, you don't actually want to aim for the hole, since the ball is going to bounce and roll at least a short distance after it lands. So, instead of aiming at the hole, you need to pick a target point that is somewhere between your ball and the cup.
To do so, you should picture the flight of the shot that you intend on hitting. How much is the shot going to bounce, and how much is it going to roll? Is the ball going to break to the right or left after it lands? Be as detailed as possible as you go through this process to give yourself the best possible chance for success when you do hit the shot.
As you pick a target, be careful to think about the worse case scenario as well as the best. The best case scenario, obviously, is the same outcome that Watson enjoyed at Pebble Beach – the ball falls into the hole. However, not all chip shots work out so beautifully, so you need to plan for all potential outcomes. Specifically, you have to think about the possibility of coming up short of the green and leaving the ball in the rough. This is the worst outcome because you will have wasted a shot and you will still be in the same difficult spot. If nothing else, even if you don't get the ball close the hole, you need to at least put it on the green. So, when picking your target, aim for a spot far enough onto the green to give you some margin for error if something goes wrong.
When Tom Watson lobbed the ball onto the 17th green at Pebble Beach in the 1982 U.S. Open, he was only concerned about finding a way to win the tournament. While he did that, he also recorded one of the best shots in golf history in the process. Your name may never go down in the history books for hitting a brilliant chip, but you should be able to get up and down more frequently if you use the lessons included above. Good luck!