It's been well documented that a solid short game is the key to consistently shooting lower scores. A vital part of the short-game mix is the finesse shot, typically from within 100 yards of the green. On a finesse shot, your mindset must be quite different from that applied to the full swing. For example, when hitting a shot with a full swing, your goal is to hit the ball as hard and far as possible. When playing a finesse shot, however, your goal is to hit the ball short and soft. You can see this difference in attitude and approach when a player like Tiger Woods blasts a tee shot over 300 yards, then proceeds to float a soft, delicate pitch to within inches of the cup. Here are the five basic fundamentals that make up the common thread behind a player's ability to consistently get the ball up and down.
A key to any well-executed golf shot is a golf club that smoothly accelerates through the impact area. Most recreational golfers, when trying to hit the ball a short distance, have the fear of hitting the ball too far. This results in the player quitting on the shot with an abbreviated followthrough. The key to acceleration, as well as maintaining a consistent rhythm, is matching the length of the swing on both sides of the ball. It's important when learning finesse shots to experience and understand that the length of the backswing dictates how far the ball will travel. A shorter backswing results in a short shot, whereas a longer swing results in a higher, longer shot. It's very difficult to hit short shots with long swings and long shots with short swings. Lastly, make sure the followthrough is at least of equal length, and you'll be in perfect balance.
Small muscles are considered those of the hands, wrists and arms. Far too often, players tense up these muscle groups in finesse situations. Tension causes the hands and arms to become overactive, creating a hitting sensation through contact. Hitting, rather than swinging, creates all kinds of problems in the form of poor contact and distance control. When playing finesse shots, make it a point to focus on keeping your small muscles relaxed and passive. This will allow the club to swing naturally in a smooth, rhythmic fashion. Imagine a scale running from zero to 10, where 10 is the tightest. Find a hand and arm pressure of 3 to build small-muscle relaxation.
Many people feel if they don't have to hit the ball a long way, then they shouldn't use their body. As a result, I see a lot of people hitting only with their hands and arms. Wrong. The body plays a vital role in finesse shots. Getting the body involved provides power for the swing, allowing the hands and arms to remain relaxed and passive. Allow your body to pivot in response to the swinging golf club. To feel some body motion, toss a ball to a target 30 feet away. Notice how the body pivots in response to the tossing motion. Apply that same feel to your chips and pitches to build necessary harmony between your club and body.
Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm, I can't say it enough–it's the glue that holds your mechanics together. Your rhythm should match your goals. If you're looking for soft, controllable contact, then you should swing in a soft, even rhythm. Picture the rhythm of a swinging pendulum on a grandfather clock. One, two, tick-tock, back, through! Count out your rhythm as you swing to build a smooth repeatable pace.
In the finesse game, creating different contacts and different trajectories requires different ball positions. When faced with a finesse situation, visualize the kind of flight you want to create, then select the appropriate shot, club and corresponding ball position. As a general rule, play the ball more toward your back foot on all short-range chips. This helps produce a lower trajectory and get the ball rolling on the green as soon as possible. For medium- and high-trajectory pitches, favor a centered ball position. And to facilitate sand-first contact when attempting a bunker blast, play the ball forward in your stance.
Regardless of the finess shot you're playing, keep in mind these four principles and you'll execute consistently to the best of your ability.
PGA professional Jeff Ritter is the director of instruction at the ASU Karsten Academy, and also teaches at Nike Junior Golf Camps nationwide.