The best short game wizards do three things very well. They analyze lies around the green very accurately, they control where the club bottoms out in the swing very consistently, and they control the loft they want to use through impact.
Gary Woodland did all of those things on the 17th green at Pebble Beach Sunday—and did it under the greatest pressure you can imagine—when he hit a perfect, checking low pitch from the green surface across a lobe of fringe to tap-in range. He was able to make a low-stress par because he understands how the bottom of the wedge interacts with firm turf, and he made very precise contact with the ground just after clipping the ball.
“It’s easy to see how any player would get nervous when they have to nip the ball off a tight lie,” says Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Mike Adams. “You’ve seen the result when the club hits the ground even a little too early. It bangs off the turf and the shot is hit thin and goes too far. But if you control loft and make sure your swing bottom is in the right place, you have more room for error than you think.”
Short game guru Brandon Stooksbury agrees, and says Woodland perfectly controlled both the bottom of his swing and the relative steepness of his swing arc to hit the exact shot he needed. “Too steep and the club catches in the ground and the ball goes ten feet and you’re taking a divot out of the green on national television,” says Stooksbury. “Too shallow and the club bottoms out behind the ball and bounces into it—and you’re toast.”
Woodland set his shoulders slightly open and his head over where he wanted the club to bottom out—and then left it there through the whole swing. Then, he used the bounce on the sole of the club as you would in the bunker, letting it skid just as he made contact with the. The result? A divot-free driving pitch that took a hop and checked right by the hole. “It’s vital that you drop your trail foot slightly to reduce the angle of attack, stand closer to the ball and open the clubface to use the bounce well,” says Adams. “When you swing down your shoulder line, the shot comes out high with a lot of grab,” says Adams.
You can hit those shots yourself, but do the superintendent a favor and practice them with a clever station Stooksbury sets up in the bunker for his students at the Idle Hour Golf & Country Club in Macon, Ga. “Bury a two-by-four in the bunker so that the flat top of it is level with the top of the sand. Put a thin layer of sand on top of the board, and practice hitting this shot,” says Stooksbury. “You’ll get the feel of nipping the ball first and using the bounce on the bottom of the club, but you won’t bang up your club or make big holes in the grass in the practice area.”
The way your wedge is built also plays a big role in the shot, says Stooksbury. “A wedge with a fuller sole grind and bigger bounce angle will need to come back to the ball with the shaft leaning slightly forward, which will produce a slightly lower shot. A club with less bounce can come back with the shaft more neutral or straight up and down and hit a higher shot. They both work fine…you just need to know your wedge and choose accordingly.”