How to lock in distance control

November 30, 2019

If there's one stat I’m really proud of, it’s my greens in regulation. I’m hitting three out of every four greens, and that means I have a lot of looks at birdie. Even better, having that many opportunities takes a lot of pressure off my putter because I know that if I two-putt for par, the chance for another birdie is coming soon. I’ve leaned on hitting a lot of greens in my best performances, including my fifth LPGA Tour victory, which came in April at the Hugel-Air Premia LA Open. I missed only five greens over the weekend at Wilshire Country Club. If you’re not shooting in the 70s or better, I’m guessing you don’t pay that much attention to the greens-in-regulation stat. But you should. If your goal is to consistently shoot lower scores, your iron accuracy has to improve—and I can help with that. I’ll share my proven strategy to hit better approach shots and swing tips that give you more control of the ball. And because you won’t hit every green, I’ll throw in two short-game shots I use to avoid big numbers.



My strategy for approach shots starts before I swing. Instead of focusing on the flagstick, which I think too many golfers mistakenly do, I figure out the yardage that should get the ball to stop pin-high. That means if the hole is 155 yards away, I’m trying to hit a 155-yard shot. A lot of things can factor into determining the yardage—wind, elevation, the firmness of the green—but if you focus on distance more than direction, even your off-line shots are probably going to be on the green or close to it. It also takes a little pressure off you. Firing straight at the pin is hard even for tour pros. Instead, get a good yardage and play for the middle of the green.

I check my distances regularly on TrackMan to know exactly how far each club goes. You also can check them with a laser range finder or a yardage chart on the practice tee. And remember, you’re not going to have perfect yardages into greens every time. When I have in-between distances, I usually take a club that would hit it farther than pin-high and shorten the length of my backswing to take some yardage off the shot. Although not my preference, you also can grip down on the handle or hold off the follow-through to get the right distance.



With the exception of the photo of me at impact (above), you might say I look fairly relaxed hitting this iron shot. That’s because I am. My philosophy is to feel comfortable over the ball at address. You’re not trying to get yourself pumped up to hit it as far as you can. If you followed my advice on the previous page, you should have a set distance in your head. With the right club in your hand, there’s no need to feel uneasy before you start to swing.

Hitting more greens in regulation also is about giving the right amount of effort every time you swing. If your typical 8-iron goes 135 yards and you’re trying to hit it 145, you’re probably going to make a more aggressive swing, but your timing will be off. Consistently good ball-striking is about having great timing. Sometimes mine is off because my hips unwind toward the target too quickly in the downswing—unwanted extra effort. When that happens, I’m either too early or too late squaring the club. My best swings come when I think about my arms and hips starting the downswing at the same time. My hips are naturally going to lead, but this thought syncs me up for better accuracy.



The high-and-soft chip is the tougher of the two short shots I like to use when I miss the green. But don’t be intimidated by it. Just make a swing with good balance and a little wrist play. Because it’s a shorter shot, you don’t need to address the ball with your feet that far apart, but you do need a little space between them for stability. Also, set up with some flex in your knees and feel like your lower body is grounded. I see a lot of amateurs sway when they try to chip or pitch, but when that happens, you run the risk of topping the ball or catching it fat. You just wasted that pin-high iron shot.

I also see a lot of amateurs use their wrists to try to pop the ball up. They’ve got the right idea, but that works only if you keep your lower body still. I set my wrists early in the backswing, and they stay cocked into the downswing until I release them right before the club hits the ball. If you keep the clubface skyward as it passes through the deeper grass (above), you’ll loft the ball out of trouble and get it to land softly on the green.



A low, running chip is one of the easiest shots in golf. With a little practice, it will be one of your favorites. To use it, you need a good lie in the fringe or fairway grass, and you can’t have anything in your way like a sprinkler head. This low runner works with every club from sand wedge to 7-iron. You can even use a hybrid. I’m using an 8-iron here, because I find it doesn’t get hung up in the turf.

Throughout this shot, feel like you’re hitting a putt. Keep your grip soft and the clubhead low to the ground in the takeaway and follow-through (above). The goal is to clip the ball as you make a putting stroke. Keep in mind that the ball won’t stay in the air for very long and will run out, so it takes some touch to control the distance. The longer the club, the hotter it will come off the face. Still, it gives you a great chance to salvage the hole when you miss the green—especially if you’re pin-high. —WITH KEELY LEVINS