Want to learn from pros? Take a long look at their short game

I’ve played 54 holes of golf this week. I’ve watched about 15 hours of the PGA Championship on television. That means I’ve seen hundreds of tap-in putts.

When we’re out there, we often casually knock it in after someone says “That’s good” or “Take it away.” I’ve become so accustomed to making those putts backhanded with the thin bottom edge of my old Ping Anser, I’ve mused that maybe I should putt that way all the time.

I shouldn’t, of course, because there’s an important element missing – pressure. And that’s what gets me about watching the pros convert what we consider a gimme: They spend some time over it. They usually give it as much attention as other putts.

There’s a good reason for that: Look at what happened Friday when Rickie Fowler took an absent-minded stab at a 6-incher and moved the ball 1 inch. It’s sickening to think that he missed the cut by one stroke – that was the difference.

I’ve often said that watching the pros is like going to school. I study their demeanor on the golf course, how they think through a shot, how they set up, where they aim and what their ball flight is.

But in particular, I watch how they chip and putt.

Most of us are never going to hit the ball like a pro, and our short game won’t be as precise. But the green is the one area where we have the best chance to be like them because it doesn’t involve club speed and distance. Anyone of any age can be a good chipper and putter, and it will take more strokes off your score than any other facet of our great game.

I got another lesson in that simple truth recently when I got up-and-down 11 times in one round. That has to be a personal best. I’d estimate that I’m lucky to accomplish that three or four times in a normal 18 holes.

Naturally, I shot a really good score even though I didn’t hit the ball particularly well. I just kept getting it somewhere near the green in regulation, made a good chip or sand shot, and ran to the next tee.

It became funny after awhile. “Another routine par,” I kept saying over and over.

But there is nothing routine about a good short game. It is rare. Those are the people you don’t want to play for money. The rest of us just complain about how bad our putting is, and there is nothing worse than the “chip yips,” which I’ve had all year.

That simple truth begs a simple question:

What are you going to do about it?

I, for one, am determined to improve. I want to get fitted for a putter that suits me better – it’s time for the Ping to be retired. And I especially want to stop wasting chip shots.

The chip yips are terrifying. Rather than thinking about where you want to land the ball, you try to steer your brain away from negative memories. Don’t chunk it. Don’t skull it. And especially don’t shank it.

The screaming inside your head gets even louder when you’re chipping off a tight lie. I don’t know how the pros do it. I’d rather putt it every time, even when I really should chip it.

But I’ve done two things to fight back.

First, I changed my stance to make a chip feel more like a putt. I had been angling my feet toward the left but changed to a straight-up stance with my feet slightly apart. It seems to have helped.

Second, I’m chipping when that’s the more high percentage shot. Putts from way off the green are far more difficult and bring in too many variables, such as how much the ball will bounce in the taller grass.

That, in a nutshell, is the No. 1 thing we can learn from the pros. They usually hit the right shot. If it needs to be a chip, they hit a chip. If the long putt calls for a good lag that stays below the hole, that’s what they try to do.

And when their ball winds up 6 inches from the hole, they still take extra care, line it up and knock it in the middle — most of the time. Rickie Fowler didn’t do that, so learn from his miscue.

If you’re playing in a club championship or some other tournament in the next couple of months and need to hole out everything, treat the short putt the same way you would a 15-footer.

That one stroke could be the difference between victory and defeat – and whether you sleep that night.

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