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A desert golf cheat sheet: The 6 escape shots you need to work on

October 13, 2021

Andrew Redington

Many golfers make the trek to the desert—whether it’s Scottsdale, Palm Springs, Las Vegas or somewhere in between—to escape the cold during winter months. There are a variety of shots that will play differently in the desert—and being prepared for how to handle them will ensure your game will carry with you.

We asked Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher and tour short-game coach Stan Utley, who is based in parched Scottsdale, for tips on the different shots you need to hit that are native to the drier, firmer conditions.

The dirt lie trouble shot: Bottom out after impact

"Matthew Wolff really shows what the luck of the draw is when you hit it in the desert," says Utley.

"You can get a bare lie like this, or you could be three feet away in a bush and have no shot. When the ball is sitting clean, solid contact is critical. The bottom of your swing has to happen after the ball, not before it. Make your normal swing, but resist the temptation to scoop it or sweep it. That's when you bottom out early and blade it."

Watch Wolff execute the shot below:

The dry lie uphill pitch: How to read the grain

"You can see the shine on the grass Rory Sabbatini is dealing with—and look at the size of that divot when he hits it," says Utley.

"That's a clear indicator he's hitting into the grain. If you use too much leading edge and not enough bounce—or hit behind the ball—you're going to catch the club in the grain and leave the ball at your feet. He used a lofted wedge because he didn't have much green and the lie was uphill, but you can hit this shot with a pitching wedge and let the ball run—as long as you hit the ball first."

Watch Sabbatini judge the grain perfectly on this pitch shot:

The sidehill pitch: Recover your angles

"Camilo Villegas is doing exactly what you need to do on a tilted lie—he's changing his setup to get the club back to the lie angle it would sit at on a normal shot," says Utley.

"He chokes down on the club, which has the effect of getting him closer to the ball and making the shaft steeper. And because the ball is above his feet—which has the tendency to make the shot go left—he changes the face to account for that. He kept the face pointing to the sky on the follow-through to make sure he was using the loft."

Here's Villegas hitting the sidehill pitch:

The off-speed wedge from a bare lie: Know carry and roll

"You can see just how precisely Sungjae Im is landing this little pitch shot. Because of how much he spins it, his carry yardage is pretty much his full yardage, and he puts it right where he wants it," says Utley.

"But when I play with amateurs, I usually see players who don't know how far their wedges carry and roll out from various lies. They just know one basic 'it goes this far' yardage. But on this 85-yard shot, you need to know how far you need to go to clear the pond, and how far the ball will tend to roll out when it lands before you pick the club to use."

Watch Sungjae execute this approach in his win at the Shriners:

The low-trajectory recovery pitch: Play it back in your stance with high loft

"Different clubs obviously produce different trajectories, but it's not always as simple as using, say, an 8-iron instead of a wedge to go under a tree like Sungjae Im is here," says Utley.

"He's taking a lofted wedge and playing the ball back in his stance to keep the trajectory down while still being able to use wedge grooves to get more spin on the ball to keep it from rolling out as much. His hands stay forward and the finish is low and short. Another thing tour players do with these is to actually go out and practice them. It forces you to adapt and be creative—which is what short game is."

Watch Sungjae play this shot below:

The high shot from Bermuda rough: Accelerate earlier

"I love the shot Adam Schenk is hitting here. He needs to hit it high, which requires some speed, but his follow through is almost nothing," says Utley.

"That shows you he accelerated the club early in the downswing instead of gunning it right down by the ball. Most amateurs do the opposite. They add a lot of speed late, and end up with this giant follow-through but compromise the quality of contact."

Watch Schenk hit the high shot through Bermuda rough: