What's more exciting in golf than stopping a crisp wedge shot right next to the pin?Not much that I can think of. But amateurs miss out on this thrill too often. On the range, too many players deem hitting wedges a mere warm-up before practicing with their "real" clubs. Out on the course, it amazes me how careless some amateurs get with setup and alignment, given how important accurate wedge play is to scoring.
With short (and partial) wedges, distance control is the skill amateurs need to work on the most. The clock-face method I present on the next page is great for this, but be forewarned: It takes focused practice to calibrate your distances correctly, and you'll have better luck if you first work on improving your ball-striking consistency. The effort is definitely worth it, though. A lot of wedge work will make you much more sensitive to the nuances of swinging well with any club.
Setup and alignment for short wedge shots is basically the same as for other clubs—knees slightly bent, arms relaxed, clubface square to the target—but with two special emphases. First, you want to put slightly more weight on your left side to encourage an aggressive, accelerating swing through the ball. Second, you need to experiment with divots to find the ball position that most comfortably helps you make consistent, ball-first contact.
A major misconception about wedge play is that you must take an open stance—that is, with your shoulders and hips turned slightly toward the target. For chipping and advanced wedge play, yes, an open stance can help simplify the short backswing and preset the impact position. But for everyday players, an open setup often creates more problems than it solves. It can make alignment confusing and encourages sliding the hips forward too much, resulting in thinned shots. Players with good flexibility may actually benefit from shutting the stance slightly, by moving the left foot an inch or two toward the target line. This creates resistance to lateral hip movement, and so promotes a fuller rotation of the chest toward the target.
The secret that all great wedge players have learned is to power even the shortest shots with the big muscles of the torso. High handicappers typically try to control pitches by picking up the club on the backswing and finessing impact with their arms and hands, but they will never achieve true consistency that way. The Towel Drill (next page) will help you create a feeling for the connection you need.
It is also a terrific way to work on timing. The best tempo is not slow-back, slow-through. That is difficult to re-create under pressure. Neither is it slow-back, fast-through. That requires you to consciously change gears and produces a jerky motion and fat shots. Rather, strive for what I call a one-two tempo, where the forward swing until just after impact is approximately twice as fast as the backswing, with a transition that feels leisurely and natural. Acceleration through the ball should feel aggressive but not "hard."
Developing a relaxed, goto tempo for pitch shots is, in fact, the cornerstone of controlling your distances. How far a wedge shot carries depends on two things: tempo and the length of the swing. If you can count on the same tempo with every shot, you will reduce the complexity of the puzzle by half. Then all that matters is the length of the swing, and my Clock-Face System (next page) will take care of that.
For many of the people I've worked with on this system—and for me, too—the nine o'clock swing is the easiest to get a dead-on instinctive feel for, both in terms of tempo and swing length. Therefore, I tend to think of that as my basic partial-wedge swing, and of longer or shorter swings as variations. I should also point out that the difference between the eleven o'clock swing and the full swing is more one of feel (the full swing being "all out" with a full finish) than of club position at the top, since eleven o'clock is close to as far back you are likely to go.
On its surface the clock-face method may seem like an overly technical, self-conscious approach to what are essentially "feel" shots. But in fact, the precise feedback you get from calibrating wedge distances with this system is what develops your feel. Now, faced with a seventy-five-yard shot out on the course, you will have a reference for exactly what a seventy-five-yard shot feels like. Stand behind the ball, look at the target and rehearse that swing. When you bring the feeling of the seventy-five-yard swing into your body, you can then step up to the ball with confidence, unself-consciously, and hit the shot. All you'll have left is a short birdie putt, guaranteed.