The New Thing On Tour
What you're about to read might seem like classified material. Until now, it has been discussed only sparingly and has gone virtually unnoticed by many of professional golf's most fervent followers. Although most talk about technique on the pro tours focuses on whether Tiger Woods' new swing is better than his old swing or how anchoring a putter to the body can give a player an unfair advantage, there's a short-game shot that has become so prevalent it can no longer be ignored.
Adam Scott says he used it to help win the Masters in April. At the PGA Championship in August, Jason Dufner used it when he shot 63—tying the lowest round ever in a major—and went on to win. Across the pond, Peter Uihlein used it all season on the European Tour, including during his round of 60 at the Alfred Dunhill tournament in September. Brandt Snedeker, Zach Johnson, Martin Laird, Mark Wilson and Steve Stricker all use it, too.
It's that last name that might give you a clue about the shot, and perhaps its rise in popularity. It's called the "straight-arm pitch," and Stricker has had so much success with it, winning eight times on tour in the past five years, other players often call the technique "Stricker style." Instead of using the conventional pitching method of hinging the wrists going back, then unhinging them coming down and rehinging after impact, Stricker swings his wedges back and through with very little wrist action. His hands and arms feel extended and passive throughout the shot—hence the name "straight-arm pitch." He simply turns his chest away from the target to swing the club back, then rotates his whole body forward to swing it through. The body motion propels the arms and the club, with no conscious hand action. (See demonstration above.)
If this method sounds simple, that's because it is, Stricker says. But don't underestimate its effectiveness. When the tour season ended in September, guess who was No. 1 in proximity to the hole on greenside shots from 30-plus yards? Yep, Stricker. His average leave distance was seven feet, nine inches. And guess who was tied for second? Zach Johnson, another straight-arm pitcher. "Many pros will hinge their wrists and vary the length of their swings to alter distance, spin and height on pitch shots, but I prefer my method for consistency," Stricker says. "If you need to change the height or distance, change clubs or play the ball up or back in your stance. You don't need to tweak your swing."
That's the real appeal of straight-arm pitching, Scott says. He made the switch to take the guesswork out of how wrist action might affect his shots. Sometimes he wouldn't unhinge his wrists early enough, and the ball would come off low and hot and go past his target. Other times, he'd release his wrist angle too abruptly, and the ball would fly too high and come up short. With the straight-arm pitch, the trajectory and spin are much more predictable, he says, so he pitches with more confidence.
"It all culminated at Augusta," Scott says. "I used to be quite handsy with my pitching action, but I've been able to take the hands out of it and use more of a body rotation. My hands, arms and wrists are staying very straight. When I rotate back, not much moves. And then I rotate very hard toward the target. I feel my chest moving across the impact area, and the hands and arms just come along for the ride."
Better consistency has helped the method rise in popularity, but teaching professional Rick Smith says course conditions have also played a role. As fairways have become firmer and more tightly cropped on tour, players have adopted the shot to help ensure better contact around the greens. The straight-arm pitch creates a shallower angle of approach into the ball than can easily be achieved with the classic wristy method, Smith says. The traditional style is useful in the rough or when the ball needs to stop quickly on a green, because it can impart more height and spin on a shot. But from tightly mowed grass, the straight-arm technique helps prevent hitting a pitch fat or thin, Smith says. The club skims along the turf instead of digging into it.
"Another thing to consider is that with advances in wedge technology, players no longer have to rely only on wrist action to create spin or height," Smith says. "A 60-degree wedge does a lot of the work."
Dufner says the straight-arm method is so effective he now uses it for most shots inside 120 yards. Not only did it help him win this year's PGA Championship, he led the tour in 2012 in proximity to the hole on all greenside shots, with an average leave distance of six feet, four inches.
"The shot really keeps the face angle consistent at impact, and that's real important if you want to know what the ball's going to do," Dufner says. "The upper torso turning in the backswing and downswing is the motor for the motion."
Dufner isn't the only one who has used less wrist action on longer shots. Phil Mickelson did from as far out as 150 yards on the hardpan fairways of Muirfield during his victory at the British Open, says his coach Butch Harmon.
"It's a three-quarter knockdown," Harmon says. "He'd make a wider takeaway and control the shot more with the body. This gave him a shallower approach into the ball, so it was easier to catch it flush and take it out of the air."
Although many pros have seen good results with the straight-arm pitch, where it could make the biggest difference is in the average amateur's game, says Sean Foley, whose students range from Tiger Woods to weekend golfers. Foley says all of the tour players he coaches have used the shot from time to time, "but the guy who works 40 hours a week, goes to his kids' tee-ball games, coaches soccer, etc., he needs to use this shot all the time. He needs the most forgiving technique he can find."
Stan Utley, one of golf's most acclaimed short-game coaches, agrees that straight-arm pitching could be good if you don't have time to develop a wristier method. But instead of focusing on keeping the wrists quiet, the real key to this technique is to keep the club directly in front of your body as you pivot back and through, he says. If you look at the photos of Adam Scott (above), you'll notice that his elbows stay in close and in front of his stomach throughout the shot—a sign that he's controlling the action with his body pivot. The hands and wrists aren't completely frozen, Utley says, they're just quiet.
"Pivot with the club in front of you and finish on your front leg," Utley says. "That's what you need to get out of this trend."
That, and getting used to sticking your pitch shots close.