Josh is a young player at my club. He’s a low handicap player and part of the golf team – so he has got a bit of game and plenty of promise.

We raced around for nine holes before dark the other night – nothing serious, just a hit and giggle and to stretch the legs. This by the way, is probably my favourite type of golf practice. You get the chance to try new shots (learn) and it’s far closer to representing “real” golf rather than sitting on the practice fairway hitting balls (boring). The exercise is much needed too.

When your handicap gets into single figures it gets harder to keep improving. But almost always, there are still really simple things you can do to keep getting better. Here are a few things I spotted in young Josh’s game that should help him.

[headline_tahoma_small_left color=”#000000″]Stop chipping with the lob wedge[/headline_tahoma_small_left]

The temptation is to play like the pros. To hit the fancy pants spinning chip shots that land on the green and then dance as the spin takes affect. When the shot comes off you look like a rock star and you save par or make birdie. But here’s the thing.

It’s not overly easy and if you’re just a little bit off, the shot rarely finishes close to the hole. Josh was persevering with the lob wedge but wasn’t doing too well. I know we were sorting of mucking about, but I got him to putt instead. His first try finished closer than a metre. He tried again with the lobby – this time he didn’t quite get the contact correct, the ball didn’t spin and it finished way past the hole.

Putting from the edge is the easiest option. Next is chipping with a longer iron, maybe the 6 or the 8. The lob wedge should be last resort, usually when you’re in some rough or need to go over a hazard. I’m convinced that all golfers will improve their score if they stop using their lob wedge for chipping. And I don’t care if you’re a high handicap player or a low marker – the lob wedge costs you more shots than you save.

[headline_tahoma_small_left color=”#000000″]A better idea for long bunker shots[/headline_tahoma_small_left]

I play at a course with lots of bunkers. Every green is surrounded by at least one bunker and some of them leave you tricky escapes. One of the hardest green-side trap shots is the longer version – say shots over 15 metres.

Josh happened to find bunkers on the last three holes we played. Each time his ball was in the front bunker and the pin was located towards the back of the green. This is never an easy shot but it is made harder if you don’t choose the right club. Josh was using his sand iron – this might seem like the right club but I think there’s an easier option. The sand iron is fine for shorter shots, but on the longer shots you bring in the chunk (when you take too much sand and leave the ball way short) or the blade (where you strike the ball first and it sails well over the green).

By replacing the sand iron with a PW or even the 9 iron the shot gets easier. You still play it the same way – open clubface and stance – but the reduced loft gives the ball some added impetus, helping you get the ball all the way to the back pin. On Josh’s first try with his pitching wedge, the ball came out lower and skipped up to the hole. Interestingly, his first two tries with his sand iron ended up way short and over the green respectively.

It’s still not an easy shot but the complexity is reduced by taking more club. Let me know how you go with it.

[headline_tahoma_small_left color=”#000000″]Better course strategy[/headline_tahoma_small_left]

All of us can improve our golf by thinking better around the course. We’re all guilty of taking the wrong club and playing “hero” shots when the conservative option is best. If you’re at least aware of these errors you can make adjustments and creep up on the improvement process over time.

I couldn’t help but to suggest to Josh that leaving himself those long bunker shots was poor strategy more than anything else. Phil Mickelson would have struggled from those same positions and with a better plan he would have left himself easier shots.

We’ll always hit poor shots, there’s no escaping that, but a little planning can save a lot of stress. In Josh’s case it was a matter of observing where the pin was located on the green. If he was aware of the back hole location he would have taken more club, reducing the chances of finding the front trap. He still may have missed the green but shorter trap shots are infinitely easier (unless you have zero green to play with) and chipping easier still (especially when you follow the lesson from above).

The other strategy is to play away from the trouble. On the 8th hole (a par 5) Josh went for the green in two – this required a long shot over the front bunker. A simpler idea may have been to lay up short (say with an 8 iron) and then wedged the ball close from a perfect fairway lie. This is playing to your strengths and avoiding your weaknesses. It’s not always the most fun but helps in shooting the best score. Good course design should challenge us to make decisions and for most of us, a more conservative approach will tend to work best. Sometimes the ego needs to be left in the car.

[headline_tahoma_small_left color=”#000000″]A bonus tip – better use of practice time[/headline_tahoma_small_left]

Josh told me he likes to spend up to two hours on the practice putting green. If this works for him then well and good but my thinking is that after 20 minutes there is diminishing returns on the time invested. Two hours seems too long to me – boredom would kick in and the quality of practice compromised.

If you’ve got two hours to practice then definitely do some putting, but don’t forget to do some chipping, pitching and bunker play. Your ability to get the most out of your rounds will ultimately come down to how close you can get the ball from around the green. So you should always be practicing the short game. If you still have time then go and play. I still think playing golf is the best practice of all and is hard to beat.

Feel free to leave your thoughts or ask any questions.