The next time you watch a tournament on TV, notice how the pros go about their business when faced with a delicate chip shot or short pitch. Many of them, including short-game wizards like Seve Ballesteros and Jim Furyk, will initially approach the ball without a club in their hands. After taking an approximate stance, they will make several little practice moves—half stroke, half throw, concentrating on the right hand—while carefully surveying how the green slopes toward the pin.
Almost everything you need to know about chipping is contained in this little mime show. And I do mean that literally— almost everything.
Most amateurs get way too hung up on technical stuff when it comes to the short game. For the pros, chipping and short pitching (where one stops and the other begins is only semantics; I'm talking here about shots from roughly thirty yards and in) is primarily a matter of visualizing the shot, bringing the feeling of that visualization into the body—especially into the right hand—and then, bang, making the stroke. One vision, one action. The pros have such confidence and experience executing shots like this that technique doesn't even enter their minds. The knowledge they rely on is in their bodies.
Fortunately, amateurs have far more of that knowledge in their own bodies than they probably realize. If you know how to toss a ball, you know how to chip. What I want to accomplish in this article is to help you tap into that knowledge and learn to trust it. The only technical stuff you need to know (not much) is in the sidebar on the opposite page.
For many amateurs, even those who do routinely visualize their shots, the chipping sequence all too often goes: See it. Feel it. Fear it. Before attempting a short chip over a bunker, say, the last-second thought many people have is, "Don't duff it into the sand." So, naturally, that's what they do. Part of the problem, of course, is that they've duffed it so many times before that their fear overwhelms their visualization. But the reason they screwed up before was probably that they were thinking too much about things like keeping their hands ahead of the clubface and taking the club back to precisely eight o'clock or nine o'clock or whatever. As a result, their swing became stiff and deliberate—exactly the opposite of the natural, unfettered movement you need when making golf's most delicate and instinctive shot.
Contrast that to what you might experience standing on the same spot and tossing the ball over the bunker onto the green. I guarantee you wouldn't be thinking, "I hope I don't bury it in the sand." You'd be thinking, "If I land it on that patch of light green grass there with a sort of high arc, the ball should trickle sweetly right down to the pin." And most likely you'd pull it off.
I'll grant you that throwing a ball is inherently easier than striking a ball with a flat piece of metal attached to the end of a stick. But honestly, chipping doesn't have to be that much more difficult or any less intuitive, provided you work at it with one and only one objective: to re-create with your club the picture of the shot that you put into your head.
The first step is to spend some time on a practice green actually tossing golf balls. This may sound unproductive, but there's no better way to link throwing to chipping (see throwing drill, page 92). As you toss the ball, notice how comfortable and relaxed you feel and how aware you are of your right hand. Notice the various ways your body reacts to the intentions you have for each type of throw. Your body does its computing automatically. You don't consciously think about technique; you just do what you see.
The next step is to work on the Line Drill (opposite page). The beauty of this drill is that you can dramatically improve your ball striking without concentrating on striking at all. Your focus is on the target ball and the fun game of knocking it off the tee. I've seen people go in ten minutes from hardly being able to chip at all to believing they can hit the target ball every time.
The better your tempo is when doing this drill, the more you will improve. From start to finish, each stroke should take the same amount of time, regardless of whether the ball travels two yards or twenty yards; don't think too hard about this, just go up and down the line chipping like a metronome. Consistent tempo makes your feedback keener, because the variations in your shot distances will then be caused by only one thing: different backswing lengths. A comfortable, grooved tempo also helps prevent the common mistake, under pressure, of getting too slow or too quick and jabbing at the ball to compensate, resulting in skulls, chili dips and all manner of other mischief.
The Line Drill is so simple, it's advanced. Practice it until you're blue in the face. If your experience is like mine, you will soon begin to feel an amazing spark in your right hand. Your hand, the clubface and the ball will become so closely coordinated that chipping will feel like throwing. If you can master this drill, not only will you become a genuine short-game wizard, but I guarantee that the instincts you develop will soak handsomely into the rest of your game.