How do you practice your short game? Most people move from one perfect lie to another and start to find their rhythm after half a dozen or so tries. That's nice, but how much of your real golf comes in perfect conditions? Even if you're teeing it up at Augusta National, you'll run across a variety of less-than-ideal greenside lies. Unless you know how to diagnose the situation and use the club the right way for each shot, you're going to be hitting and hoping. To make a point here, I tried out four extreme playing surfaces: pavement, my back-yard pool, the artificial turf at Arizona State's football practice facility and the desert. Each of these represents a common bad lie you face when you play: hardpan, sloppy ground conditions, super-tight grass and an unmaintained waste area. The techniques I'm using here are the same ones you should use on the course. You'll see they're mostly changes in the setup and how you use the bounce on the bottom of the club. If you know how to get the club to interact correctly with the ground, then it's a matter of picking how far behind the ball to hit. You'll be able to approach even the toughest short-game shots without fear. —With Matthew Rudy
HARDPAN: STAY TALL AND SKID THROUGH IMPACT
One basic for any short-game shot is keeping your spine straight up and down (viewed face-on) throughout the swing. This helps control where the club hits the ground. That's important from a firm lie like hardpan—or pavement. On grass, you can fall back on the downswing and sometimes scoop the ball up. But if you fall back on a firm lie, the club will ricochet off the ground, and you'll skull the shot.
Start with the ball in the center of your stance and your weight favoring your front leg. Keep your head in place during the backswing and turn through the shot without dipping. Use your wrists to throw the clubhead through so you get the bounce skidding just behind the ball. Let the club's loft do the work of getting the ball up (above).
SOFT LIES: GIVE IT PLENTY OF SPEED AT THE BOTTOM
Sloppy, wet lies can be intimidating because you don't know what to expect. Will the club get stuck in the muck or come through clean? Out of fear, a lot of players swing too easy, which usually causes you to duff it. From these lies, you should be thinking about playing a standard bunker shot.
Set up with the ball two to three inches in front of center, and unhinge your wrists aggressively on the downswing while keeping your right palm pointed upward—that keeps the bounce on the bottom of the club pointed down. If you let your wrists roll over and turn the clubface down, you'll dig the leading edge into the ground and lose all your speed. Just unhinge your wrists and give it some speed, as if you were trying to skip a rock all the way across a pond.
TIGHT LIES: KEEP YOUR LEAD ARM RELAXED
Closely mowed grass makes players nervous because they think they need perfect execution. So they force it. If you're falling back or pulling the club through instead of swinging it, you'll tend to hit thin shots. Your reaction will be to move the ball back in your stance, which forces you to hit down steeply, leaving a tiny window for a good shot to happen.
Don't make it so difficult. The sole of a good wedge—I use a 58-degree with about 8 degrees of bounce for most shots—will interact with tight turf just fine. Set up with your feet narrow, shoulders level and left arm soft. If you hyperextend your left arm, that tips your shoulders back and moves the bottom of your swing way behind the ball. Play the ball in the center of your stance, and let the club's sole skim the grass.
WASTE AREAS: LEARN TO READ THE GROUND
Waste areas can be a challenge because they range in consistency from firm, gravelly dirt to powdery, bunker-like sand. To get a good result, you need to judge how far to hit behind the ball. In general, the firmer the surface, the closer to the ball you should hit. If the waste area isn't designated a hazard, you're free to take a practice swing. Make a couple rehearsals and feel how the surface responds.
You can also get information from your feet. Do they settle into the surface, or are you standing more on top? On any shot, make sure to let the clubhead swing instead of just moving the grip faster. See here how my left elbow has responded to the swing and moved back along my left side (below)? That means the clubhead released. I've let the club swing and finished tall with my body. You can do the same on tricky lies like these.
Stan Utley, ranked 14th on Golf Digest's 50 Best Teachers in America, is based at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale.