The ability to salvage par from a difficult situation around the green often is the difference between contending for a tournament title and missing the cut. Common scenarios require a high-lofted shot over an obstacle, such as a bunker, heavy rough or a greenside mound. There are four approaches for successfully executing a lofted wedge shot. I refer to them as the Butterfly Lob, the Explosion Pitch, the Bird’s Nest Lob and the Standard Pitch. Which of these shots to choose depends upon the lie of the ball and the relationship between the carry distance and the distance the ball needs to roll. As such, your first requirement is to judge the lie and determine the needed trajectory. Then, choose the correct wedge to produce the desired loft, as well as the proper flange design to get the ball to come out as planned. Once you’ve established this plan, setup adjustments are the next concern, followed by the motion you need to execute, which encompasses arm and body movements, finish position and rhythm.
The Bird’s Nest Lob
The Situation: The ball is resting deep in heavy grass, giving it the look of a bird’s egg tucked in a nest. The flagstick is located just on the green, with a small bunker located between the green and the ball. We need to get a lofted clubface under the ball, but prevent the club from getting stuck in the grass and dumping the ball into the sand.
Club Selection: Choose the most lofted club possible with as much bounce as possible to prevent the club from getting stuck in the grass. The sole of a club with a lot of bounce acts much like the hull of a boat. Clubs with a lot of bounce displace a lot of soil, as an ocean liner moving at full steam will displace water. Since we need to move a great deal of grass to get to the ball, choose the club with the most bounce: the sand wedge.
The Setup: Open the clubface to increase the loft, but do so without changing the club’s position in your hands; you’ll need the power of your wrists for the shot. To accommodate for the opening of the clubface, slightly adjust your stance to the left. Widen it significantly to lower your body, thus making it easier for the club to get under the ball.
The Motion: The visual to embrace here is to blast the entire bird’s nest onto the putting surface without breaking the egg. We need to make a big swing to move the nest, since it’s much heavier than the ball alone. Create more length, while still getting the club low enough, by cocking your wrists more than normal on the backswing. This should happen in addition to your arm swing, not instead of an arm swing.
On the downswing, strike down with a hammering motion behind the ball while your body turns to eventually face the target. It isn’t necessary to focus on the ball, just picture sliding the club under the entire bird’s nest. Finally, make sure to be aggressive through the ball to a good finish.
The Standard Pitch
The Situation: A clean lie from the fairway or light rough with the hole cut on the opposite side of the green. In between the ball and the hole is a large bunker that must be carried before the ball lands on the green. Crisp contact and good distance control are of paramount importance here.
Club Selection: Choose a pitching wedge because it has enough loft to get the ball in the air, but will still allow the ball to roll across the green to the hole. Also, the pitching wedge has little or no bounce, meaning the leading edge of the clubface is level to the trailing edge. This will help prevent the club from hitting the ground early and bouncing up into the middle of the ball.
The Setup: Assume a setup similar to your full swing stance. Your primary objective is to create a slightly descending blow through the back of the ball. Narrow your stance slightly in order to make your body taller and help prevent contacting the ground before the ball. Place the ball in the middle of your stance with your weight anchored more on your left side. This also helps to prevent striking the ground before the ball.
The Motion: The primary swing key for this shot (as well as for each of the other shots) is to create positive momentum through the ball that allows the clubface to loft the ball over any obstacle. Focus on keeping your arms accelerating through the ball. This acceleration will occur best with minimal hand/wrist motion. Concentrate on keeping your hands and wrists soft and supple, not tight and active.
A great thought to ensure proper acceleration is to think about finishing the swing fully, rather than concentrating on hitting the ball. Try to get to a balanced finish position with the shaft vertical, in front of your body, and all of your weight on your left foot. Whenever I make a good pitch shot, I can tap the toe of my right foot on the ground twice.
The Butterfly Lob
The Situation: The ball lies on tight grass in the fairway. The green is elevated and the flagstick is cut close to the edge of the green. We’re trying to hit the highest, softest shot possible without skulling the ball over the green. Ideally, we want this shot to land as softly as a butterfly on the green and roll a very minimal distance.
Club Selection: Choose a 60- to 64-degree lob wedge. A lob wedge has more loft and a smaller degree of bounce, while a sand wedge has less loft and a larger degree of bounce. Having less bounce will help prevent the club from bouncing into the middle of the ball and sending it violently past the green.
The Setup: Since we want a very high shot, we need to create more loft. Start with the club in front of your eyes and your normal left-hand grip. Turn your left hand under the shaft a quarter-turn and re-grip the club. This should place the club more in the palm of the hand. Now, turn your left hand back to its original position, thus opening the clubface. This weaker grip helps to add more loft to the clubface while preventing excessive hand/wrist motion during the swing. Adjust for the open clubface by aligning your body to the left of the target. Widen your stance a touch and position the ball forward of center.
The Motion: A good motion must be made for the club to work with these adjustments. The first goal is to let the club slide behind and under the ball. Visualize the ball sitting on the center of a dollar bill. You should swing so that the club enters the grass before the dollar and exits after the dollar, thus splashing Mr. Washington onto the putting surface with the ball. Remember to take a shallow divot, not a full stack of dollar bills. As long as you slide the clubhead under the ball and keep the clubhead accelerating, the design of the club and your setup changes will produce a high, soft shot.
The second goal is to swing with an even rhythm and even-length strokes. Imagine yourself standing like Mickey Mouse in a watch face. If you swing your arms back to 9:00, make sure that you allow them to swing through to at least 3:00, or 10:00 to 2:00, etc.
Trust your club to do the work, give it a good chance with the proper changes at address, and splash the dollar bill onto the green with a smooth, even rhythm. When you do, you’ll see those shots float up like a butterfly without stinging like a bee.
The Explosion Pitch
The Situation: The ball rests in medium to heavy rough, a bunker lies between the ball and the green, and the hole is cut on the opposite side of the putting surface. Our main concern is getting the club to move through the heavy grass. Since there’s plenty of green with which to work, extreme loft isn’t a concern. However, we must get the ball up in the air fast enough to avoid getting stuck in the rough.
Club Selection: The best club for this shot is a sand wedge. We need the lofted clubface to give the ball lift and we need the bounce to help the club move smoothly through the thick grass.
The Setup: Keep the clubface square and align your body parallel to the target line. To create a descending blow into the back of the ball, create a steeper swing plane. The easiest way to do this is to stand a bit closer to the ball, thus raising your hands slightly from normal. This creates a feeling that the toe of the club is lower than the heel of the club at address, which should lead to a more vertical swing path.
The last setup adjustment is to turn your grip a bit more on top of the club to allow for a better wrist cock. Also, firm up your grip pressure to prevent the club from twisting in the long grass. Be careful: When you tighten your grip, don’t allow tension to creep into your shoulders.
The Motion: Since the rough offers more resistance to the better lie of the Standard Pitch, you need to generate more clubhead speed to make the ball travel the same distance. The easiest way to increase speed without changing your entire motion is to adjust the length of the backswing while striving to keep the same tempo and a full finish. Out of the heavy rough, it’s acceptable to cock your wrists on the backswing to gain length in the swing and utilize another lever in your hands and arms.
Be aggressive through impact, as the grass will work to slow down the club. Swinging to the target and a full finish are your priorities.
PGA professional Steve Mitchell is the Director of Instruction at famed Kiawah Island Resort, located on Kiawah Island, S.C.