Updated: Jul 10
Alex Nicolson, founder of Premium Golf and pro at Worplesdon GC, looks at how finding a way to rely on your instincts, rather than complex swing thoughts, could hold the key to a much more consistent short game. (First published in Golf Monthly 2014)
A new pupil came to me recently with some chipping problems. In all other aspects of the game he was a handy 8-handicapper and, if he hit the green with his approach, enjoyed his golf thoroughly. His undoing was thinning and fatting little chips around the green. Getting up and down had become something other golfers did.
The Source of the Problem
What confused our golfer most was that he felt he understood the source of the problem. He knew he ‘scooped’ the ball (where the clubhead reaches the ball before the hands). He also found that his body weight moved on to his back foot through impact, making things worse. To counter these flaws in his technique, he rotated in his mind a series of tips with which you may be familiar: weight on the front foot; hands forward; hinge your wrists; remember to follow through. None of these swing thoughts helped for very long.
If you’ve experienced something similar from time to time, consider the possibility that our technical faults are not the source of the problem – as with any bad habit, they exist because they serve us in some way.
How Bad Technique Serves You
I asked my pupil to picture the shot he dreaded most – a short chip over a bunker from a tight lie. Then I asked him: “Is the purpose of your swing for this shot to create force slightly downwards, horizontally or slightly upwards?” Picturing the trajectory needed to rise above the bunker and land softly, he answered tentatively: “Slightly upwards?”
I asked him if he could see how his two faults, falling backwards and scooping the ball up were actually quite faithfully serving his interpretation of the task – both are effective ways of creating force upwards. As it happens, neither are necessary, since the club has loft. It’s easy to forget that the tool we use creates the loft – all we need to do is deliver force horizontally, forwards at ground level.
Unlike a tennis racket or a hammer, golf clubs are not the most intuitive-looking tools. Not only are there weird angles, but each club in a set looks slightly different, and the head is over three feet away from your hands. This can be confusing to the eye and distort the brain’s interpretation of the task – sometimes this is the source of a technical fault.
The next step was to discover whether, armed with this new information about the task, our golfer already had a natural strategy for executing it, or needed to learn a brand new technique. I asked him to hit a few shots with a golf hammer (a golf club where the head has been replaced with a flat-faced rubber mallet – you can achieve a similar effect using a driver held down the shaft). The task was to hit the ball along the ground to the pin. Before and after videos showed that the technical faults we had identified disappeared almost instantly. The swing our golfer used in the hammer task looked exactly like the technique he was struggling to achieve in his chipping.
What’s so encouraging about this approach is that within a few minutes a golfer can see that his or her body already knows how to perform the correct technique. The question shifts from, “How do I learn a new swing?” to “How do I transfer the technique I know I’m already capable of?”
Once it was clear that the task of chipping was simply to create force forwards at ground level, the next obstacle was mental interference. I suspected that the swing thoughts our golfer was using were actually stifling his natural ability. This was proved correct when I had him hit a moving ball. You can try this yourself by tossing the ball on to a smooth slope, where it will roll gently back to you. You may need to move to do it, but your task is to chip/punch the ball forward as it reaches you.
Our golfer noticed three things from this exercise. Firstly, he was surprised (given the difficulty of the task) how many good strikes he was able to make. Secondly, he wasn’t thinking about ‘how’ he swung the club and, lastly, he didn’t experience the ‘mental freeze’ over the ball that he frequently felt on normal chips.
The reason this exercise works is that the moving ball forces our attention exclusively on to the ball, with none spare to worry about technique. In a similar way to our spear-throwing caveman ancestor, we simply react, and in doing so release instinctive, efficient technique.
Transferring to the Real Thing
You can reduce the chances of mental interference in your chipping by playing more reactively. When you’re settled over the ball, and taking that final look at the target, start swinging as soon as your eyes return to the ball. It’s simple, but very effective. If, as a result, you become more aware of the target and of what the club is doing, you’ll have a good foundation from which to improve.
Be clear on the task – what the clubhead needs to do, and see if good technique comes more easily by removing interference, rather than adding swing thoughts.