Pitch shots are often overlooked by amateur golfers.

Pitching Distance Lesson by PGA Teaching Pro Dean Butler

While they actually come up quite often during the course of a round of golf, pitch shots simply aren’t practiced frequently by most players. For the golfer who is serious about making some meaningful improvements in the months and years ahead, working on pitch shots is a great way to gain an edge on the competition.

In this article, we are going to discuss some of the keys to pitching the ball the right distance. Most of the time, it’s easy to send your ball in the right direction when hitting a pitch shot, since you are standing pretty close to the target when the shot is played. Also, since the shot is fairly short, you don’t have to worry about hitting a hook or slice. So, with the directional aspect of the shot mostly taken care of for you, the success or failure of the shot comes down to distance. If you can hit the ball the right distance, you should be happy with the outcome. Hit the ball the wrong distance, however, and you’ll be left with a long putt – or maybe even another pitch.

All of the content below is based on a right-handed golfer. If you happen to play golf left-handed, please take a moment to reverse the directions as necessary.

The Components of Pitching Distance

The Components of Pitching Distance

There are a few elements which need to come together successfully each time you pitch the golf ball in order to have the shot travel the right distance. Before we can talk about anything technical with the way you take your stance or swing the club, we first need to lay this groundwork, so you can understand how pitch shots work and what pieces of the puzzle you need to control.

Let’s take a quick look at everything you should be trying to manage within each pitch shot.

  • Carry distance. This is where it all starts. One of the first decisions you need to make with a pitch shot is how far you are going to try to carry the ball through the air on the way to the target. Each shot is going to fly through the air for some distance before it lands and bounces/rolls the rest of the way. It’s important to pick out a specific landing spot before you make a swing, so you will have a good target in mind. Too many golfers just walk up to the ball and pitch the ball up toward the hole without this kind of plan. Figure out where the ball needs to land in order to finish close to the hole and then focus your efforts on making that happen.
  • Spin on the ball. Another major factor in controlling the distance that your pitch shot travels is the spin placed on the ball at impact. All things being equal, a shot with a high rate of backspin is going to stop quicker than a shot with less spin. You don’t always need to play high-spin shots in order to have success – in fact, many players prefer to bounce the ball on the green with very little spin and let it roll out to the hole. You can hit great shots with either method, but you do need to be able to anticipate how much spin you’ll impart on the ball, because that variable goes a long way toward determining where you need to land the shot. We’ll talk more about spin on pitch shots later in the article.
  • Trajectory. You probably think about trajectory more in your long game than you do your short game, but it is just as important on pitch shots as it is with the full swing. Sometimes, you might decide to play a pitch shot low to the ground, encouraging the ball to bounce and roll out. Or, in other cases, you’ll want to play a high pitch, helping the ball to stop as soon as possible after it lands. Trajectory and spin are closely related, so you will need to think about both variables at the same time. When playing from a good lie, you should be able to pick from just about any trajectory you can think of and execute with your technique. From a poor lie, however, you might only have one viable option.
  • Course conditions. This is a big one. Too many amateur golfers overlook the impact that course conditions have on the way a pitch shot should be played. If you try to play your pitch shots the same way round after round, regardless of weather or turf conditions, you’ll never be happy with the results. A big part of your pre-round preparation should be getting yourself familiar with the turf conditions you are going to face that day. The speed of the greens, the firmness of the turf, and the thickness of the rough are the specific variables you’ll want to assess. If you can head to the first tee with a good understanding of how the course is conditioned, you will be better prepared to succeed on your pitch shots.

As you can see, there is a lot to think about when pitching the ball – and we haven’t even talked yet about the mechanics of the swing. Try not to let yourself get overwhelmed at this point, as the task of hitting a good pitch shot isn’t as complicated as it may seem at the moment. In the next section, we’ll discuss some of the physical keys required to hit the ball the right distance when pitching. Then, later, we’ll help you put everything together with a plan you can use to approach these tricky shots.

Basic Pitching Mechanics

Basic Pitching Mechanics

It’s best to keep things simple in golf. That’s not always easy, of course, as this can be a complicated game, but you’ll usually put in your best performances when you avoid cluttering your mind with too many thoughts. It is with simplicity in mind that we are going to talk about how to pitch the golf ball. You aren’t going to be hitting the ball very far when playing a pitch, so complex mechanics aren’t required. In the end, you want to make a simple, repeatable motion that delivers the club cleanly into the back of the ball.

  • Find a comfortable stance. The stance is a point of personal preference when it comes to pitch shots. Some golfers like to use a stance which closely mimics the stance they use for full swings, while others like to stand open to the target – much as they would do for a chip shot. There isn’t really a right or wrong answer here, as long as you are able to swing freely from the position you select. The one thing you do want to avoid is playing from a closed stance, as doing so would make it difficult to get the ball up into the air properly. Whether you stand square or open, make sure you are feeling comfortable and relaxed, and maintain some degree of flex in your knees.
  • Keep your head steady. You aren’t going to make a big swing when hitting a pitch shot, which means you don’t need to make a big body rotation. As a result, you shouldn’t need to allow your head to move much in any direction during the swing. Try to keep your head still as a way to encourage clean contact. We can’t emphasize it enough – making clean contact is one of the most important things you can do on any pitch shot. Keeping your head still will be a big step toward clean contact, although this is a little easier said than done. You may be tempted to move your head early to look up and see where the ball is going to go, but that would be a costly mistake. During practice, train yourself to keep your head still throughout the swing, so hopefully that habit will then carry over onto the course.
  • A slight wrist hinge. During the backswing of a standard pitch shot, you will want to allow your wrists to hinge slightly in order to set the club and create some angle that you can use in the downswing. If you fail to hinge your wrists, the club will stay relatively low to the ground, and you won’t be able to hit down through impact effectively. The best plan is to blend a small shoulder turn with a slight wrist hinge to create the action you need to send the ball on its way. Again, just as was the case with keeping your head still, the key here is doing quality work in practice. Get comfortable with the right technique of using both your shoulders and your wrists to move the club back, and you should find that clipping the ball cleanly on the way through becomes an easy job.
  • Accelerate through to the finish. Without a doubt, the biggest problem faced by amateur golfers on pitch shots is a lack of commitment. Since the shot requires significantly less than a full swing, many players are tentative through impact and worried about hitting the ball over the green. As a result, the club slows down into the ball, and poor contact is the result. Don’t fall into this common trap. Once you have done your pre-shot prep work in terms of picking out a landing spot and selecting the club you will use, commit to your swing and try to think positively. Will every pitch shot come off just like you have planned? Of course not – but you’ll be successful far more frequently if you trust the shot and swing through impact with confidence.

In many ways, the swing you make to hit pitch shots is going to look and feel like a miniature version of your full swing. To dial in the technique that works best for you, the plan is simple – practice. Hitting pitch shots in practice will help you get comfortable with shots of this length and it will help you uncover the specific technique that will lead you to optimal results. Try to make pitch shots a regular part of your practice sessions and you should see your confidence begin to grow.

Pitching Distance and Spin

Pitching Distance and Spin

The farther you get in this game, the more you realize the majority of what you do on the course is about controlling the spin on the golf ball. Sure, spin doesn’t come into play when putting, but it has something to say about the outcome of virtually every other shot you hit. Whether we are talking about the backspin that can make the ball climb up into the air and then stop quickly when it lands, or the sidespin that causes your ball to turn right or left, this is a game that’s all about spin.

As it relates to pitch shots, we don’t have to worry much about sidespin. With a short swing, you probably aren’t going to put much sidespin on the ball, and even if you do, that spin isn’t going to have much of an effect on the shot. The issue here is backspin. Controlling the amount of backspin you place on the ball in order to have your shot behave as you would like is an advanced skill – but one that players of all abilities can work on. Until you learn how to manage spin, you’ll never be able to control the distance of your pitch shots accurately.

Some of what you need to learn about pitching spin is going to come through experience. As you hit more and more pitch shots, you’ll gradually learn how much spin to expect based on a variety of factors. For now, we can provide you with some key points that will hopefully speed up your education.

  • Spin starts with the lie. The first thing to consider when trying to decide how much your pitch shot is going to spin is the lie of the golf ball. When you have a clean lie on fairway-length grass, you will have the opportunity to produce some backspin. On the other hand, playing a pitch shot from the rough is going to make it quite difficult to create any backspin at all. You might be able to put a little spin on the ball if the rough is light, but thick rough is going to cause the shot to come out with virtually no spin. Learning how to read your lies correctly is an acquired skill, so be sure to take a close look before playing each pitch shot so you can gradually improve your ability in this area.
  • The ball matters. Using the right equipment is an important part of playing good golf. You can’t necessarily buy your way to a better game by purchasing the best gear, but you can optimize your performance and get the most out of your skills. Simply put, if you want to be able to spin the ball sufficiently on your pitch shots, you need to use a good golf ball. If you use a cheap ball from the discount bin, it’s almost certain that ball will not be able to spin enough to stop quickly after it lands. Serious golfers should be shopping in the mid-range to high-end of the golf ball market. Try a few different brands and models until you find one that works best for your game as a whole.
  • Hit down to produce spin. This point is just the same as it is throughout the rest of the course. If you do want to add significant spin to a pitch shot, you’ll need to hit down through impact. A downward strike allows the ball to ‘roll’ up the face just slightly at impact, creating backspin as the shot leaves the club and heads toward the target. Of course, this can work the opposite way if you want to limit the backspin and let the shot roll out. In that case, you’ll need to swing through on a flatter plane, picking the ball cleanly off the turf. There will still be some backspin – assuming you have a good lie – but there should be less than if you had hit down.
  • Keep it clean. When backspin is needed, you simply have to hit the ball cleanly. Should you happen to hit the shot a little bit fat or a little bit thin, you won’t impart the spin necessary to stop the shot quickly. Not only that, but your carry distance probably won’t come off as expected if the contact is poor. One of the most important things in practicing pitch shots is to focus on clean contact. With the ability to strike the ball cleanly on these short shots, you’ll find that leaving the ball close to the hole suddenly gets a lot easier.

Golf is a game of spin, and pitch shots are not exempt from that description. As you work to pitch the ball more and more accurately, the points above should help.

Building a Plan

Building a Plan

To wrap things up, we’d like to lay out a plan that you can use to manage your pitch shots. It’s important to understand that this plan is just a guideline, and you can certainly feel free to customize it to suit your needs and preferences.

When you approach your golf ball and realize the next shot is one which falls into the ‘pitching’ category, your first step should be to analyze the lie. Before you think about anything else, you’ll want to take a close look at how the ball is sitting in the grass to decide what kinds of shots are even possible. Basically, you are going to be ruling options out based on how the ball is sitting. For instance, if it is down in some long rough, you can rule out playing a shot with a high rate of spin that is meant to stop quickly. Or, if the ball is on a steep downslope toward the target, you can rule out hitting a high shot, as getting the ball elevated from such a lie will be nearly impossible.

Once you’ve reviewed the lie, the next step is to pick a landing spot for the shot. Where do you want the ball to land before it bounces and rolls up toward the hole? This decision is going to be based on factors like the speed of the green, the firmness of the turf, the lie of the ball, and more. For any given shot, there are at least a couple of different landing spots that could work nicely, if not more. Pick the one that you are most comfortable with and be confident in your selection.

Finally, you are going to pick a club. We suggest keeping this decision for the end, so you can select the club that will allow you to hit the landing spot you’ve picked out with the right trajectory and spin to eventually have the ball settle near the hole. Most likely, you will play the majority of your pitch shots with one club, perhaps a gap wedge or a lob wedge. However, you should be flexible enough to mix it up when certain situations arise. Using the simple three-step process explained above – reading the lie, picking a landing spot, and picking a club – should allow you to be clear about your plan and move into the actual swing with plenty of confidence and purpose.

If you manage to improve your ability to control the distance of pitch shots, you might be surprised to find just how much your game improves as a result. You may only pitch the ball a few times during a round – or even less – but these tend to be important shots that will go a long way toward determining your score at the end of the day. We hope the advice we have provided will help you make quick progress in this part of the game. Good luck!