The short story: New approach to approach shots hits home

Our golfing journey is never like driving down a straight, boring road with no trees, no views, no personality. It is like a winding drive in the mountains with S curves, highs and lows, and challenges.

I was reminded of that analogy again yesterday when, for the very first time in my fascinating, 56-year experience with our great game, I tried using a longer club and taking a half-swing or three-quarter swing virtually every time I was attempting to hit the ball on the green … and was amazed by the results.

For years, I was one of those swing-out-of-your-shoes guys who take ridiculous pride in being able to move the ball great distances, even with short irons. It became a game within the game to be able to show my playing partners that I was using an 8-iron on a par-3 when they had a long iron or even a wood in their hands.

And even as I got older and wasn’t physically able to swing so hard – and didn’t want to, thanks to the wisdom that comes with age – I still didn’t trust the idea of backing off a shot and just trying to smooth it.

I’d say things like, “I hit it better when I go after it a little,” even though I knew that more things can go wrong when I take a full swing. And then things would go wrong and I’d wonder why I couldn’t hit a green from 150 yards out.

But I’m also one of those watch-what-the-pros-do guys, and I couldn’t help but notice what they do on virtually every short-iron shot.

Everything about their approach is slow, slow, slow. They take their time. They set up carefully. They often choke down on the club. They don’t take a full swing. They swing in slow motion – noticeably slower than on longer shots.

They adjust out of the rough, of course, if they need more acceleration to power the ball out of that stuff, but the mindset is still there. Control is everything.

So I went to the range and tried it for a full session with the intent of taking it to the golf course. This would be such a radical departure, like switching from the conventional putting grip to the cross-hand, that I would need to make sure my commitment was absolute – no turning back.

I got good results on the range, and yesterday was the big test. Wow, was it game-changing. I hit eight greens in regulation, which isn’t great but is much better than recent efforts.

But there were four others that were well-struck shots and would have been GIRs if the green had held. I didn’t score thanks to some wayward drives – I still have work to do in that area – but my 150-yards-on-in game was the best it has been in years.

I particularly noticed it on that ticklish little shot from about 80 to 100 yards. I always have used a sand wedge from that distance and just gauged my swing on how far away I was. Yesterday, I took a gap wedge every time and went with my new, shorter swing. What a difference.

But it was equally noticeable with longer clubs. The capper came on No. 18, where I faced a 170-yard shot to the green with water all the way down the right.

Even as recently as my previous round, I would have hit a 6-iron or 7-iron there and tried to draw the ball in off the water with my natural hook. This time, I took a 5-iron, choked down and just tried to smooth it with a three-quarter swing. I put it 15 feet from the cup and nearly made birdie.

There wasn’t a single short shot that I chunked or faded or (God forbid) shanked. Virtually every one was on target with good ball flight and good results – it felt right and it looked right.

When a playing partner suggested that my driving problem was the result of collapsing my left arm on my downswing, I realized why I wasn’t doing that on shorter shots – when your swing is shorter, you tend to keep your left arm straighter. It was an unintended benefit to an approach filled with intended ones.

Maybe you have something about your game you’ve been eager to try, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it. Don’t delay any longer. Get out to the range first, work on it and then commit to it for at least a few rounds.

Choose the scenic drive through the mountains. You’ll enjoy it a lot more … especially when you get to your destination faster.

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