Short Game Drills to Keep Your Game Sharp

By Nick Heidelberger

Golfer hits a shot from the bunker

For recreational golfers, there’s no greater opportunity to lower scores than improving the short game. Even converting just one more up-and-down per side can be the difference between a decent round and a great one. Before you head back out to the course, try these short game drills and boost your chances of saving par.

Importance of the Short Game

The average handicap of male golfers, according to the USGA, is 14.2. Shot-by-shot data shows that when golfers with a handicap from 10-14 play to their handicap, they hit 6.9 greens in regulation per round, which means when the average male golfer plays to their handicap, they miss 11 or more greens per round, which is 11 opportunities to get up and down and save a stroke.

Some golf experts suggest that the long game has a bigger impact on score than the short game. This can be debated at the 19th hole for hours, but what you won’t find is anyone arguing that it’s easier to improve your long game than your short game. It takes months, or even years, to develop an effective full-swing that lowers scores by consistently producing longer and more accurate shots. While it is certainly important to bring a reliable and effective swing to the course, more strokes can be shaved in the short term by dedicating some practice time to the short game, where gains can be seen almost immediately.

Use these drills to work on your short game before you hit the course again, and watch the strokes melt from your score. And if you need help converting your nice chip or pitch into a stroke-saving up-and-down, try these putting drills.

Chipping Drills

Chip shots and pitch shots are two different beasts. Chip shots are shots around the green that roll farther than they carry, and are typically hit when there is no obstruction or forced carry, such as a bunker, between the ball and the hole. Practice hitting chip shots with anything from a 7- or 8-iron to a gap or sand wedge.

Baseball Drill for Chipping Distance

Distance control is essential in chipping if you want to set up a short putt. To develop instinctual distance control, try the Baseball Drill for Chipping Distance from Steven Bann.

This drill can be done in your backyard, or on the practice green at your nearby golf course. To set up, grab three clubs that you want to practice chipping with. Then create four “zones” on the green or target area by placing five clubs on the ground, perpendicular to your target line, a few yards apart from each other with the closest club a few yards from your lie. The distance between the first and second club is first base, the space between the second and third is second, and so on, creating first, second, third and home.

Pick your first chipping club and hit three in a row into the first base zone, focusing only on where the ball lands, not to where it rolls out. Once you’ve succeeded, move on to second base and chip three in a row that land in the second base zone. If you miss one, move back to first base, and if you land all three in the zone, move ahead to third base. Score a “run” by rounding all four bases and do it with each of your three clubs to complete the drill.

5 Ball Drill to Improve Your Chipping

Hitting a great chip is a nice feeling. Being able to do it consistently will dramatically reduce your scores. The 5 Ball Drill from Mike McGetrick will force you to consistently hit great chip shots under pressure.

To set up, pick a target on a practice green and a spot from a few yards off the green where you’ll chip from. Take five balls and whichever club you prefer to chip with from that location. The object of the drill is to chip three of your five balls to within a club-length of your target. If you succeed, move to Level 2, where the object is to get four out of five to within a club-length Once you pass Level 2, move to Level 3 where your goal is to chip all five balls within a club-length of your target.

As a bonus, if you make a chip at any level of the drill, it counts as two. Work on this drill from different locations around the green and to different targets on the green. If you succeed in practice, you’ll instantly notice a level-up in your performance on the course.

Pitching Drills

When you’re within 50 yards of the green but need to elevate your ball for any reason — maybe there’s a bunker, penalty area, cart path or just a lot of ground to cover between you and the green — you’ll need to execute a pitch shot. Pitch shots should be hit with a more lofted wedge — a gap wedge, sand wedge or lob wedge — elevate quickly, and fly farther than they roll. Practice these drills to dial in your pitch shots and save strokes in tough situations.

Hitting High Pitch Shots

Sandy LaBauve, recognized as one of the world’s top instructors for beginners, juniors and women, demonstrates how to hit a high pitch shot, which comes in handy when you don’t have much green to work with. Spend some time at your local practice facility working on this technique and you’ll hit these shots with confidence out on the course.

To set up for the high pitch shot, open the club face to one o’clock and play the ball forward in your stance, which will promote a high ball flight. It’s also important to play the high pitch shot with a neutral shaft, avoiding any forward shaft lean that will de-loft the club and result in a low-trajectory shot that could head straight into trouble. With your weight evenly distributed, make a longer, smooth swing on an arc.

Continue to engrain these fundamentals with as much repetition as possible until this shot is second-nature. You’ll be glad you did.

Pitch it in the Air Every Time

Many golfers struggle with pitch shots simply because they are unable to get the ball in the air routinely and predictably, which can quickly result in unnecessary strokes and a ballooning score. Hank Haney demonstrates two easy steps to getting your pitch shots in the air every time.

First, always make sure you’re using a lofted wedge. A 56-degree or 60-degree wedge is preferable for this type of shot, and the more loft you bring to the shot, the easier it is to get the ball in the air. If you’re using a lower-lofted gap wedge or pitching wedge, or even a short iron, you’re not setting yourself up for success.

The second step to hitting your pitch shots in the air is to use the bounce of the club properly, and to do this, you must execute the proper wrist action. Poor pitch shots are often the result of players using too much of the leading edge of the club through impact, as opposed to the bounce. Even when perfectly struck, this causes the ball to come out lower. Worse, when mis-hit, it can easily cause the dreaded skull that rifles through the green and leaves another pitch shot.

To overcome this, practice getting your dominant wrist (right wrist for right-handed players) in the right position throughout the shot. Your wrist should stay in an open position, as opposed to bent back, throughout the swing. This move will keep the club face open and help you deliver it in the perfect position for a nice high pitch shot at impact.

Bunker Practice

Have you ever noticed when you watch golf on TV that the world’s best players prefer green side bunker shots over chips and pitches out of the rough, but recreational golfers dread hitting from the sand? The reality is that if you’ve taken the time to practice them and understand how to hit them, routine bunker shots are easier and less complicated than many other green side shots.

Splashing Your Bunker Shots

The key to getting out of the bunker is splashing the sand. You see it done with ease on TV yet it looks and feels so difficult in person. The difference that the players on TV understand the idea of splashing the club through the sand while most recreational players attempt to dig the club into the sand, causing more problems than they solve. To learn how to splash out of the sand every time, follow Gary Wiren’s simple steps.

First, make sure you open the club face of your sand wedge as you brush it through the sand with some practice strokes. The sand wedge is built to skip through the sand, with the leading edge higher than the trailing edge. Wiren advises hitting the trailing edge through the sand to create the desired splash. Make several practice swings in a bunker with this feeling.

Once you can repeat the splash effect, add a rock or tee to the sand and work on splashing it out of the bunker with the same swing. Be sure to swing to a nice high finish.

After you’ve gotten that down, it’s time to start practicing with a ball. Remember to use the same splashing motion that you’ve been working on with the rock or tee, and simply splash that trailing edge through the sand underneath the ball, and watch it pop out and onto the green with ease. Soon enough you’ll prefer bunker shots over chip shots from the rough just like the pros.

Building a Strong Short Game

At every level of golf, the skill that separates the best players from their competition is a reliable short game. The ability to save par from off the green is paramount to lowering scores. Try these drills to work on a variety of short game shots and you just may find yourself in the winners circle sooner than expected.

Image: Tinpixels/E+ via Getty Images

About the Author

Nick Heidelberger is the Editor of GolfLink. He has a degree in journalism from the University of Idaho and has been an avid golfer for more than 10 years. In the years prior to joining GolfLink, he worked for the New England Section of the PGA of America.