10 Rules For Becoming A Chipping Virtuoso

August 16, 2009

01 Find your own way. The best chippers are self-taught. There are so many lies, types of grasses and conditions, it's impossible to explain them all. After someone shows you the basics, you're best off being on your own. As a kid in Fayetteville, N.C., I played golf all day, every day, a lot of it by myself. I spent hundreds of hours around the greens at Cape Fear Valley, the course my dad owned, hitting every shot I could think of -- the one-hop-and-release, the chip that lands dead, the explosion from a bad lie. I would try hitting the same chip with every iron in my bag, just to see the possibilities. There are good chippers who were taught, but the great ones -- Seve, Watson, Mickelson, Tiger -- figured it out for themselves.

02 Get your stare on. If I was known for something, it was "the stare," a wide-eyed look I'd get when I was near or in the lead. It was the result of being in a zone-like mental state, and what a peculiar feeling it was. I'd feel very light on my feet, almost like I was floating. When I had an important chip, I could see the ball coming off the club and landing on the green perfectly. The different shot options whirred around in my mind like little movies. The stare was my way of letting my imagination take over my conscious thought. Try to approach your chipping in this manner -- you'll be amazed at how often the chip you see is the one you end up playing.

03 Underreach at address. Before my dad took over at Cape Fear Valley, he was the pro at Fort Bragg. The trick-shot artist Paul Hahn would come through there for exhibitions. Paul had a chest-high tee he'd stick in the ground, and he'd challenge people to try to hit a ball off the tee. It was hilarious; they'd whiff every time. I noticed that when people swung, the centrifugal force on the downswing pulled the clubhead away from them, so they'd overreach where the ball was. Then Paul would step in, fully extend his arms at address and smoke the ball. I transferred Paul's method to chipping, keeping my arms extended at address and hovering my clubhead just off the ground. I rarely hit a chip fat after that. Making solid contact on chips can be difficult, and underreaching a bit at address will help.

04 The butt of the club never moves back. Your hands have to lead the clubhead through impact. If you flip the club at the ball, you'll never be a good chipper -- period. One way to monitor this is to check your left wrist just after impact. If you've cupped your left wrist so the back of your hand is facing the sky, you've broken down, and hitting a good chip is pure luck. Another check is to watch the butt of the club out of the corner of your eye as you chip. At address the butt is the part of the grip closest to the target, and that should never change.

05 Experience a light-bulb moment. We're all told how important the short game is, and how we should practice it more. But I don't think the lecturing has ever sunk in with the average player. When I was about 18, the light bulb went on. I realized that good chipping and pitching was a make-or-break deal for me. From that moment on, I never neglected my short game. During my prime, I'd hit 14 greens in regulation on a good day. When I won a tournament on tour I'd typically miss at least 15 greens over 72 holes, and still be under par, often by double digits. So I was chipping or blasting the ball close the majority of the time. The average 15-handicapper hits maybe five greens and doesn't get up and down much. Imagine what he could do if he had that light-bulb moment?

06 Get the ball rolling quickly. Doug Ford was one of the first of the old pros I saw during my first full year on tour, in 1963. To this day he's the best chipper I've ever seen. One thing Doug did was get the ball onto the green and rolling right away, keeping it as low as possible. He never hit his chips higher than was absolutely necessary. The higher you hit the ball, the harder it lands, and the harder it lands, the more unpredictable the bounce. I realize that Phil Mickelson is a magician chipping with mainly one club -- his sand wedge -- and that Hubert Green in my day was a terrific chipper who never changed clubs. But I had a lot of success using all my irons down to a 5-iron, and I suggest you do the same. It's simpler and eliminates a lot of variables.

07 Know when to take the flag out. At Doral in 1980 I played very well and wound up in a playoff with Jack Nicklaus. On the second hole of sudden death, my approach went just over the green, 20 feet from the hole. Jack was on the green with a 12-footer, a putt I felt sure he'd make. My lie in the rough was excellent, the ball sitting up much better than it usually does in Bermuda grass. When I saw that a lot of the ball was exposed and the chip wasn't severely downhill, I asked my caddie to take the flagstick out. I holed the chip, Jack missed his putt, and I had my first of three career wins at Doral. Now, studies by Dave Pelz have shown that it's almost always better to leave the flagstick in, but I'm not so sure. On any straightforward chip where your lie is good enough that you feel you can control your speed, taking the flagstick out can boost your confidence. In the case of my win at Doral, having it out made my chip seem like a simple putt.

08 Become a great mudder. When your ball rolls into a water hazard, it often stays on the edge, and you can't decide whether to play it or take the penalty. Rae's Creek in front of the 13th at Augusta was a good example of that; I always used to get those iffy lies. How do you practice that stuff? One day I got the chance. When I lived at Indian Creek in Florida, we'd get crazy downpours that would create puddles all over the course. I went out to practice after one of those deluges, and I saw a huge mud puddle by one of the greens. Perfect! I spent an hour in the mud with my sand wedge, creating lies where the ball was submerged or half-submerged, plugged or sitting up on the mud. I came out of there looking like a mud wrestler, but I learned an awful lot. So practice when it's wet once in a while. You'll pick up things you'll never forget.

09 Learn the "rut-iron" chip. A hundred years ago, the "rut iron" was a popular club. The clubhead was round and very narrow, the width of a rut left by a wagon wheel. The rut iron is gone, but you can turn your sand wedge into one and use it when the ball is sitting down in a cuppy lie or in tall grass. Take your sand wedge and stand close at address, so the clubhead is sitting on its toe. Open the face just a shade, and hit the ball with a slightly descending stroke. Little miracles happen when you play this shot; you won't believe you can clip the ball so cleanly from tall grass or a little depression.

10 Save your back -- hit five at a time. You need to practice chipping a good 30 minutes before you really start learning. The trick is getting to that point without your back stiffening up or your interest starting to wane. Avoid hitting more than five balls from a single location. My shag bag holds 80 balls, and I like to start my practice sessions by sprinkling little piles all around the green. After five balls, I have to straighten up and walk to a new spot -- across the green rather than the one right next to me. That loosens my back, and the new pile presents a different challenge that keeps my mind fresh.