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Tip #38: The Chip Shot
When tossing a ball, it is necessary to face my palm directly at my target. I also have to swing my arm straight back and through, and the only wrist action is a natural flex on longer tosses. Those two elements -- a square right palm and a smooth arm swing -- become the cornerstones of my short game.
But those are just two of the basics. In playing virtually any shot around the green, you need to make a few important adjustments in your setup.
First, narrow your stance and open it up, so that your feet, knees, hips and shoulders are aligned about 20 degrees left of square, and your heels are close together. On a chip shot, your heels should be no more than six or eight inches apart. The narrowness will help minimize weight shift and body movement that can sabotage your touch and control. The open stance will enable you to get a good look at the target.
Shortening the distance between your hands and the ball enhances feel, so choke down on the club for virtually every shot inside 50 yards.
Second, grip down at least an inch on the club, and much more if you like. Sometimes I'll grip down right to the metal if it feels right. Shortening the distance between your hands and the clubhead puts you in closer touch with the ball-almost as if you're tossing it -- and that enhances your feel.
Gripping down also enables you to take a good crisp swing without worrying about hitting the ball too far. For a standard chip shot, your ball position should be about the same as for a long shot, off the left heel or perhaps a hair in back of that.
With the open stance, however, it will seem as if the ball is farther back, and that's fine, because you want to have a bit more weight on your left side and you want to keep your hands ahead of the ball, both at address and throughout the swing.
As I said, the chip is basically a mini-swing. I don't try to do anything fancy or make any special moves. It's just a short backswing controlled by the arms. The longer the chip, the farther I bring the club back, but it's rare that my hands swing as far as waist-height.
Ken Venturi, one of the game's finest teachers, advocates a completely wristless style of chipping, while Phil Rodgers, a short-game wizard, teaches an extremely wristy method. I don't agree with either method because neither is natural. Each is trying too hard to use a particular style.
In my mind, the chip shot is as natural a movement as tossing a ball. If your wrists break, they break, but don't try to keep them stiff and don't try to flick them. Let the wrist cock occur naturally. On the shortest of chips you'll have no wrist action at all but on the longer ones you'll have quite a bit as the weight of the clubhead tugs on your hands at the end of the backswing. But, don't think about it, just let it happen.
You can learn a lot about the overall look of the chip shot by watching Tom Watson. No one is better around the green, and a big reason, I believe, is that Watson hits his short shots hard. Tom is, by nature, just as aggressive a player as I am, and that attitude is reflected in his short game. Notice how he brings the club back briskly and returns it crisply to the ball. Using this compact up-and- down stroke, he's able to put plenty of backspin on the ball for good control. He's also able to pop the ball out of the trickiest lies, and get it consistently up to the hole.
So, be crisp and aggressive, even on your shortest shots. Lead through impact with your hands, applying a slightly descending blow to the ball. One test to be sure you're hitting the shot this way is to imagine a race between your hands and the clubhead, with your left knee as the finish line. If your hands don't win that race every time, you need to work on your chipping.
The proper move through impact is to brush the tops of the grass. In fact, it's always wise to take a couple of practice swings before you play a chip to get the brush-brush feel of taking the club back through the fringe and bringing it through the ball. When I have a tough chip, I'll search out an area that is similar to my lie and then go through this little dress rehearsal. Invariably, I'll learn something about the texture and resistance of the grass that will help me to adjust the force of my actual swing.
The final point in chipping is a strategic one. Concentrate on knocking the ball in the hole, but gear your shot planning to a specific spot on the green. As you assess the situation, visualize the ideal shot in your mind. This will show you the point at which the perfect shot will hit the green and begin its roll to the pin. Focus on that spot, and gear every bit of your technique to making the ball hit it.
In general, you want to get the ball rolling as soon as possible, and this is where club selection comes into play. Many golfers play up to 90 percent of their greenside shots with the same club. In Jack Nicklaus' case that club is the sand wedge. Other players prefer the pitching wedge.
In my mind, that's making things too difficult. It forces you to stretch the capabilities of the club -- and your abilities -- too far. The way I see it, there are seven or eight golf clubs in my bag that are useful around the green, so why not take advantage of them?
I play my chip shots with anything from a sand wedge to a 3-iron, depending on the demands of the situation. The more green I have to work with, the lower-lofted club I'll use. For instance, when I'm on the fringe facing a chip of 70 or 80 feet, I'll take out the 3-iron and hit what amounts to a long putt. Using my normal chipping stroke, I'll pop the ball just onto the putting surface and let it roll all the way to the hole. I'll also use the long and middle irons on uphill chips, especially when the ball has to climb to the top of a two-tiered green.
For a 40-footer, I might go down to a 5- or 6-iron, for a 30-footer, an 8- or 9-iron, and for the shortest chips I'll use one of my wedges. This way I don't have to try anything fancy or make any outlandish adjustments so that my club will fit the shot. I just use that same basic chipping swing, keeping the technique simple, consistent, and confident.