Short game is about tempo, confidence

Western NY PGA Tips

First off, John LaCrosse wants you to know the difference between a chip shot and a pitch shot.

“A chip shot is closer to the green and you don’t break your wrists as much,” LaCrosse says. “On a pitch shot, I’m going to want to break my wrists to put a little spin on the ball.”

Some players might refer to a chip shot as a bump and run where the ball stays mostly on the ground. The pitch shot is the more traditional up high and land soft part of the short game.

The big question is how the weekend hacker can avoid making a mess of the latter. That’s where the assistant pro at Penfield Country Club can step back in.

When LaCrosse hits the short shots, he opens his stance a bit to get a better look at his target. He also pushes his hands slightly in front of the clubhead and keeps his stance close together–his feet are maybe 12-16 inches apart.

“It just keeps my body on top of the ball, almost like a putt,” LaCrosse says.

The backswing is going to be very abbreviated or compact compared to a normal full swing. LaCrosse can’t emphasize enough to make sure that your head follows the shot through the whole impact. Keep it on the ball until contact is made. Don’t look up too early. Even a slight early lift by the head can cause an impact on the “forehead” of the ball, as LaCrosse calls it. We all know where those shots end up.

You might be surprised what LaCrosse sees as a consistent problem in the short game.

“Most people swing at a pitch shot, they swing too hard. It’s more of a tempo’d swing,” he says. “Same tempo up. Same tempo down.”

That doesn’t mean swing slow. It means swing at a consistent speed. Controlled, but comfortable would probably be the best description. In fact, LaCrosse will pound into his students that the biggest thing about making proper contract on any swing is control over speed or power.

Too many players will get to this point in a short game tip and think, “that’s all well and good, but I’ll still find a way to chunk it”. LaCrosse can solve that problem, too.

“Try to imagine as your swinging that I want to throw the head of my club towards that target,” LaCrosse says. “You don’t need to take a divot. I’m thinking maybe taking a quarter of an inch off the grass. Just enough for my grooves to catch the skin of the ball and put some backspin on it, but they’ve got to finish.”

A player will control their distance by the length of their backswing and can control the spin with the length of their follow through. More equals more in both cases.

Many amateurs think this shot has to be played with some crazy lofted club and often use a 60-degree wedge for it. LaCrosse disagrees. He actually prefers the 56-degree club for most of his short game.

“I think the 56 is a little bit more versatile. It gives you a little bit more distance, but it still gives you that nice loft and nice spin,” he says. “You can get the 56 to do a lot of the things a 60 can with a little bit more wrist action. Opening up the club face a bit. The 60 is just a tough club to hit for most people, but a beautiful club once you learn how to hit it.”

LaCrosse warns that if you open the clubface more to create more loft you should open the stance further with it. The ball will tend to go a bit more right the more you open the clubface. Opening the stance will compensate by aiming your shot further left.

Half the problem with many players is confidence and the lack thereof often gets an amateur to choke their grips to death standing over a little 40 yard shot.

LaCrosse says his grip tension is usually a four out of ten. Maybe even less.

“I watch people when I give lessons and they get so tensed up. I know they’re just behind the 8-ball right there,” he says. “Let your shoulders loosen up. Let your wrists loosen up. This is something where you’re letting the club do the work. You’re just trying to put it in the right spot.”

He also believes this is a shot that needs to be practiced often and practiced correctly. His mantra is “practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

The ‘perfect’ way to practice is first to choose your primary short game club. LaCrosse would set one distance from the hole and aim to land his chip shot within ten feet of the hole. It didn’t matter where the ball rolled out. If he got 40 of 50 in that target, that would be success. Gradually shrink the circle to keep the challenge.

Amateurs also need to accept mistakes more often, especially with this shot. As LaCrosse reminds, “if you did it right every time, you’d be out on Tour”. Emphasize the positives of your attempts.

“Don’t be negative about it. I watch too many people be negative about every swing and I’m like, ‘you’re a 23 handicap. You shouldn’t be negative about anything’.”

Consistency is a key here, but LaCrosse warns the goal is good consistency not bad consistency. If you practice incorrectly, the incorrect muscle memory can become ingrained.

“The more you can feel nice and comfortable and just swing comfortably, I think you’ll find that the shots will be incredibly better,” LaCrosse says.

Whether it’s a chip or a pitch shot, that sure would be nice.

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