Here’s the good news: You’ve just hit your drive to within 150 yards of the green. If you’re like most golfers, that means all you have left is a 7- or 8-iron (that is, if you have a perfect lie, of course).
But this is golf, and bad breaks happen. Just because you’re 150 yards out doesn’t mean that you have one of those easy, unobstructed shots you practice at the driving range. You might be in a divot, in the bunker or behind a tree. Don’t worry–over the next four pages, I’ve taken a look at a number of different shots and situations in which you may find yourself. Hopefully, after you read it, you’ll be able to find the green as a result!
1. FAIRWAY BUNKER
To escape fairway bunkers, you must make good ball-first contact. Rather than hitting the sand first, like a greenside bunker shot, you want to hit the ball first as if the ball was in the fairway. If you take some sand after the ball, like a normal divot, that’s fine. When you hit the sand first, the club slows down tremendously and will result in a shot that comes up well short of the green.
To make good ball-first club contact, you must adjust your setup accordingly. First, place the ball slightly back in your stance. When the ball is back, the club will hit the ball first before bottoming out and hitting the sand. The other setup key is to grip down slightly on the club about half an inch. Doing this makes the club slightly shorter and more difficult to hit the sand too soon during the swing. As a result, take one extra club (if you’d usually hit an 8-iron, try a 7) so you can make a controlled swing.
2. FAIRWAY DIVOT
Finding your perfect drive in a fairway divot is one of golf’s unluckiest breaks. When you find yourself in this situation, change your expectation. You may not be able to go for the pin, so accept a shot that hits somewhere on the green. If possible, play a low punch shot from this lie and let it run up to the green or land just on the front.
In golf, you never want to scoop the ball, but especially for this shot, you must hit down on it to escape the divot and get it airborne! To hit down on it, place the ball slightly back in your stance and your hands slightly ahead of the ball. You want your backswing to be a little more upright so you hit down on the ball. Make sure your wrists are relaxed so they hinge a little earlier in the backswing. Make a three-quarters swing and hit down on the shot. Expect a shorter follow-through, and as a result, a more descending blow.
3. TWO LIES
Now and then you get a lie in the rough that sits up. Initially, it seems like it’s a pretty good lie–even better than a perfect lie in the fairway. Then you hit it, and it flies 20 yards over the green. What happened? Well, some grass between the ball and club negated the spin and caused it to fly farther than usual.
The first thing you have to do is be able to identify this flier lie. Typically, the grass blades grow in the direction you’re hitting the shot. To combat hitting it 20 yards past your target, take one less club. If you typically use an 8-iron, hit a 9-iron and so on. Second, move the ball slightly back in your stance from its normal position. If you make good contact, you’ll get the spin you need for the ball to travel the close to normal distance.
When the ball sits down in the rough, you need to make good contact. If you hit the tall grass first, it slows down the club, and the ball comes up short of the green. Since the ball is sitting down, you must hit down to make good clubface contact. That fires the ball out of the rough.
To make sure you hit the ball first, place the ball back slightly in your stance at address so your hands are slightly ahead of the ball. You want a slightly steeper downswing than normal, so feel your wrists hinge so the club points at the sky early in the swing. This will help you hit down on the ball. Really try to feel as though your left hand leads through impact. If you can keep your left hand ahead at impact, you’ll make good contact. Since the ball is sitting down, the grass will grab the club and slow it down, so expect your followthrough to be a little shorter than normal. Don’t try to force a full finish!
OVER A TREE
If you find yourself with a tree between you and the green, don’t worry! The good news is that, since you’re 150 yards out, you have a relatively short club for this shot. So first figure out if your 150-yard club will get over the tree. If you think it can and it will land, at worst, near the front of the green, go for it. Short of the green is usually safe, so if it gets over the tree but comes up a little short, that’s fine.
To hit the ball high over the tree, play it slightly forward in your stance. Make a normal backswing and downswing, but make your finish reflect the shot–in this case, high so your hands are high and you don’t fully release. I want my forearms separated and not touching. This does two things: First, a high finish helps the ball fly higher, since swinging into a high finish demands a speedy swing; second, I limit the amount of release that typically leads to a fade (fades go higher than draws). Also, make sure to swing with good speed, as more speed equals spin and gets the ball higher in the air.
UNDER/AROUND A TREE
If the tree is too high (or too close), you have to hit it under the tree. For this shot, you have to choose the right club. In this case, I’ve selected a 5-iron. Its low loft keeps the ball low, but high enough to get airborne out of the rough. One of the hardest things to judge is how big your swing needs to be. After all, it’s a low shot, and the ball will run a good amount when you hit it. For example, a 150-yard shot needs to fly only about 130 yards (so it rolls another 20).
Also, a smaller swing generates less speed, and less speed equals less spin, and less spin keeps the ball low and under the trees. Play the ball slightly back in your stance and place your hands ahead of the ball. From there, make a three-quarter backswing and hold off the finish, only about halfway through. Remember, a short finish keeps the ball below the trees.
Nick Kumpis, PGA, teaches golf in Southern California.