Calibration can be more valuable than you know, and easier than you think!
The short game is where strokes are won or lost. And it should be one of the easiest parts of the game. Like putting, it doesn’t take tremendous strength or coordination. Yet amateurs lose a ton of strokes in this area, compared to pros. The fix is learning how to calibrate your clubs, starting with the mostly un-sung and vastly under-appreciated half-swing.
Short game shots are easy, compared to getting within striking distance of the green. Why, then are so many strokes lost around the green? The key is knowing the distances for each club in your bag — a process that can be pretty simple, with an easily-mastered half swing. And figuring out those distances will provide several additional benefits for your game.
Note: This article contains Amazon affiliate links.
Distance Control is KEY
In the short game especially, you need good control of your distances. Gaining that control will provide benefits in other areas, as well. (More on that as we go along.)
In contrast, the long game is all about direction control. It’s easy to produce side-spin with your long clubs, producing hooks and slices and all kinds of deep-in-the-woods trouble, or up-in-the-creek with no paddle in sight.
So in the long game, you need to keep the ball flying straight and true. If you get more or less than the expected distance, no matter. You just use more or less club on the next shot. But you need the shot to go in the intended direction, within a reasonable margin of error.
The short game, on the other hand, is all about distance control. With a wedge, unwanted spin tends to make the ball fly higher or lower. The direction tends to be what you wanted, because side-spin is at a minimum. But to get your scores down, you need your distances to be accurate — because, while 10 yards more or less doesn’t matter much in the long game, it makes a world of difference when you’re going for the pin.
If nothing else, getting the ball near the pin in the short game can take a lot of pressure off your putting!
The HALF Swing is the RIGHT Swing
To determine your club distances, and to lower your scores all around the course, you want to focus on your half swing technique. There are several reasons for that:
- Anyone can do it.
- It gives you reliable distances.
- It’s the foundation of the short game.
- It is perhaps the most important part of the full swing.
ANYONE Can Do It
Like putting, the half-swing is a technique that anyone can master. It doesn’t take the athletic prowess of Tarzan, or the fine motor skills of a violinist. In short, you can do it — and you can get repeatable distances.
It Gives you RELIABLE Distances
The problem with the full-swing is that everyone’s full swing is different! For a variety of reasons, the distance you get for a given club will vary from shot to shot, and be much more or much less than the person next to you.
Your half swing, on the other hand, tends to be much more reliable, mostly because it is so much easier to perform.
It’s the Foundation of the Short Game
In a future article, we’re going to discuss partial swings, how to make them, and how to get reliable distance-predictions for them. When we do, we’ll see that it is the half swing that makes the predictions possible — predictions that are much more problematic if we’re starting from your (unique, highly individual, and highly variable) full swing.
In the meantime, know that the half swing is going to save you a lot of strokes today, all by itself. And it will save even more down the road. So it’s worth learning and worth spending practice time on it.
It is Perhaps the Most Important Part of the Full Swing
The size of the backswing and the acceleration coming forward varies from individual to individual. But no matter how big a backswing you make, and how fast you come through to your finish, you are still moving through all of the half-swing positions. So given that the half-swing is relatively easy, it makes a lot of sense to master it.
In general, I’m a big fan of the idea that all partial swings should be a microcosm of the full swing — chips and pitches, in particular. That way, every shot you make helps to train your body to move through the ideal full-swing positions. And since the half-swing is easy to do, every one you make helps to cement the most critical part of the full swing into your muscle memory.
A pro may have the time to learn 5 different kinds of swings for different situations around the course, but which of us amateurs has the time to master one swing, much less four or five?
(I use that concept even in the putting stroke! I position myself in the ideal impact position, with weight on my left leg, hips turned, and my shoulders back, so every putt helps me dial-in the position I want my body to be in from tee to green.)
When to USE Your Half Swing
You’ll use your half-swing in a variety of ways:
- Green-side pitches
- Partial swings
- Trouble shots
- Knockdown shots
- Safe shots in hazardous situations
The half-swing is the bread-and-butter of the short game, when you’re less than a full club from the green — because it’s more predictable, and because predictable distances are key to the short game.
(The rule of thumb for us amateurs is aim for the middle of the green, and take two putts to get down. If you’ve read Comprehensive Keys to the Green, you’ll be able to do that a lot more often. But it all starts with getting to the middle of the green consistently — or even closer to the hole, if possible.)
As mentioned earlier, your half-swing distances gives a basis that lets you predict distances for a variety of partial swings — swings that will get you near the hole a lot more often, saving you a ton of putting strokes.
How often have you found yourself just off the fairway, with a tree 20 or 30 yards ahead of you? You could use a wedge to go over the tree, but with only limited distance. You need a low shot that will go under the tree, with enough distance to scoot down the fairway, but not too much distance, so it doesn’t roll through the fairway and into rough on the other side.
For example, suppose you need 100 yards for a good layup. You pull out your 100-yard club. When you put the club on the ground with your foot on its face, the shaft shows you the ball’s launch angle. Dang. It’s headed straight for the tree. No joy. But maybe you have a 160-yard club in your bag. That trajectory will be lot lower (hopefully under the tree). A half-swing with that club can get you out of trouble, leaving you in pretty decent position for your approach to the green.
(You can also curve your way around the tree with a fade or draw, but those shots can just as easily turn into a slice or hook. Since they’re more difficult to control, you can curve the ball too much, or too little, and still be in trouble — if you can do them at all. Some times, it’s the only play you have. But if you’re in a situation where a half swing will work, it will be a lot less prone to error.)
Once you have a good half swing, you are only a couple of steps away from having a great “knockdown” shot for use in a strong wind. To get a knockdown shot, you place the ball slightly farther back in your stance to reduce loft, and you start your half-swing the same way, but you finish with your club parallel to the ground at the end of your swing instead of upright, which also reduces the effect of the club’s loft. Boom! One low rocket that stays below the wind — or trees, as in the picture below.
Safe Shots in Hazardous Situations
Your direction control will be better with a half swing, as well. With a long-distance club and a full swing, the upright face of the club makes it easy to produce side-spin, which creates slices and hooks. But the amount of spin you can get with a half-swing is greatly reduced, minimizing or even eliminating the possibility of side-spin! (For a lot of us, that feature alone makes it golden.)
For example: You have 300 yards to the green, down a narrow fairway. Ordinarily, you pull out your driver and launch the ball as far as you can. But now you’re on one of those “killer” courses, with trouble to the right of an excessively narrow fairway, and trouble to the left — or at the very least, trouble on the side you’re most likely to miss on. (If you’re on an assassin course, you also have a forced carry over trouble in front of you, and trouble if you go too far, as well. That kind of course is a string of “islands”, fit only for experts! It’s like a black diamond ski slope. Use at your own risk.)
Anyway, there you are with 300 yards to go, a 200-yard driver (on a good day), but with pretty slim chances of getting down a narrow fairway at that distance. The solution: A half-swing with the driver that will fly 80 or 90 yards down the middle of the fairway and then run for another 40, followed by a half swing with another club to get you to the green, or to a good lay-up location.
Wham! Instead of taking your driver 200 yards down the fairway and 30 yards into the woods, or weeds, you take two shots to get to a safe location near the green. (You’re welcome! When you win your Nassau, send me a couple of bucks.)
Preview of Things to Come:
As the astute reader I know you are, you are probably wondering why a “half swing” with your 200-yard driver travels 130–140 yards. That is a great question, and one that is well worth exploring. All will be revealed in the upcoming article on partial-swings and their distances. For now, just know that this is the reason for tracking your half-swings.
Okay. Enough about why you want a good half swing. It’s time to learn how to do it, how to determine your distances, and the many ways to use it.
LEARN the Half Swing
The next step is learning how to make a half swing. It’s really pretty simple. As you make your normal swing, make sure (if you’re a right-hander) that your left arm is extended (so it is reasonably straight, with a natural elbow bend), and that it stops when it is parallel to the ground, with the club pointing up, as shown in the picture above. Then you follow through until you get to the mirror-image position on the other side.
How to Build a Perfect Swing has a great sequence of pics for the full swing, as shown in the picture above.
The points I want to make in relation to that article are:
- Stop when you get to the section, “Half Way Up”.
Taking your backswing to there, and swinging through to the same position on the other side gives you your half swing.
- You can have a small bend in the elbow.
A book on Aikido taught me how strong the arm is with a slight bend. So in my opinion, the left arm doesn’t need to be as forcefully straightened as it is in the picture above — for either the half-swing or the full-swing. You can get the same result with a slight bend in the elbow , and it’s easier on the body. It’s still a great article, though, so use it to help master the technique.
- You are building to a full swing.
You can of course, have different swings for different situations, and even different grips (as, for example, all the weird putting grips even pros use these days, mostly to prevent the “yips”). But for us amateurs, mastering one swing is a lifetime process in itself. So if you are using a half-swing that is a microcosm of the full swing (as I recommend), then it makes sense to use the half-swing as often as it is practical, and to perform it to the best of your ability. You’ll not only save strokes, you’ll be improving your full-swing technique in the bargain. (When you have your half swing down, use the rest of that fine article to work on your full swing.)
PRACTICE Your Half Swing
Go to the driving range or short game practice area, and work on mastering the technique. It won’t take long, and it will pay many a dividend. Once your technique is solid, move to the next step to figure out your distances.
FIGURE Your Distances
When determining your distances, you want to use the balls you normally play with, rather than range balls, which tend to go a much shorter distance.
It won’t take long, either. To do it:
- Play a mid-week solo practice round on a flat course. Instead of keeping score, use the round to determine distances for your half swing with different clubs.
- Except for the driver, always play the ball from the ground, even when starting from the tee box.
- There are several ways to determine your distances:
a) You can use something like this Generic Range Finder.
(It’s the least expensive one I could find on Amazon, and handy to have for this purpose, among others. For $10 less, you can get the tournament-legal version that doesn’t have the option to compensate for elevation differences — but for learning, you want that option.), or
b) You can use a golfing app like SwingU.
(With the pro version you can determine distances for each club and save them. With the free version, you may be able to get the distance for the last club you used, but at the very least you can subtract the new distance to the pin from the old one to see how much distance you covered), or
c) As a last resort, you can always pace off the distances.
- Record your distances. Ideally, record them for each club in your bag. But to shorten the process, you can do it for two clubs from each set in your bag, where a set is a collection of clubs that have a uniform progression of lofts and shaft lengths, so the distance-differential tends to be the same between each pair of clubs in the set.
- When choosing a pair of clubs, choose two that are adjacent to each other, with respect to loft. For example: A 7-iron and 6-iron for mid-range clubs. (That choice makes calculations easier. The difference between those clubs should be the same for every club in a set that has a uniform progression of shaft-lengths and lofts.)
- Most golf club sets are designed to produce a 10-yard difference for a full swing. For a half-swing, that translates to a 5-yard differential. So you may find that you can predict distances for most clubs in your bag after calibrating only a couple of them.
(I generally play 4 wedges, irons 5 through 9, two hybrids, a three-wood, and a driver. My longest wedge (the pitching wedge) is part of the iron set, so I can predict distances for that whole set using just 2 clubs. In one round on a 9-hole executive course then, I can determine half-swing distances using 3 wedges, 2 irons, the hybrids, 3-wood, and driver (9 clubs in all), and figure everything else out at home.)
- Record distances for three or four shots with each club. If they’re close to each other, average them. If one is wildly different (long or short), throw it out and use the other two. If they all differ wildly, find a flatter course to use, or go back to the driving range and work on your technique. (Different lie angles produce different distances, so it will be hard to get consistent distances without consistent lies, even with good technique.)
Consider ROUNDING Your Distances
When Jordan Spieth talked with his caddy during a televised tournament, I heard him say the wedge in his hand would go 62 yards. Heck, it might even have been 62 and a half. That’s the kind of precision pros need.
For you and me, though, 60 yards is good enough! For our game, the goal is to get somewhere in the vicinity of the pin, and get down in two putts — for a two-putt at worst (and a bogey, hopefully), and the occasional one-putt “up and down” to offset the 3-putt greens we’re bound to fall prey to, from time to time.
Of course, an extra 2 yards can make a big difference around the pin, so you have to decide if the extra precision is worth it. For me, 60 yards is easy to remember. So that’s what I use. But if you want to get closer to the pin more often, the extra accuracy can pay off — especially when you learn how to use partial swings to further adjust your distances.
Make Yourself a CHEAT SHEET
Having gone to all the trouble to determine your half-swing distances, you want to have them handy when you need them! If you play all the time, you’ll memorize them in no time. But having a cheat sheet will make it easier. And if you don’t play all the time, you’ll want a table of distances you can refer to on the course.
(Later we’ll be expanding that table to track a whole collection of partial swings. Or you can do some quick calculations to figure out distances for the partial swings. Or you can use some combination of the two approaches. Your choice!)
Compensate for your LIE
You could, of course, just plain lie — the easiest way to lower scores (just kidding). But assuming you have a minimal sense of integrity, the final step is knowing how your lie will affect your distance:
- If the ball is above your feet, you’ll be choking up on the grip. That shortens the length of the shaft. Every inch you choke up loses 5 yards in full-swing distance. That’s 2–1/2 yards for the half-swing, so every two-inches you shorten grip reduces the expected half-swing distance by 5 yards.
- An upslope adds loft to the club, which shortens the distance. Similarly, a downslope reduces loft, adding to the distance. How much, of course, depends on the amount of slope. If you can find a flat area nearby, and you want an accurate estimate, you can use the stand-on-the-clubface technique and compare shaft-angles to find out which club on a flat lie matches the club you plan on using for the sloped lie. The flat-lie club then tells you the distance to expect for the club you’re thinking of using on the slope.
Alternatively: Pick the club that gets the right distance from a flat lie, get a sense of the shaft angle when you stand on the clubface, and then pick a club that gives you a matching shaft-angle on the slope. (It takes 2 or 3 people to do it with any kind of precision — or a second person and a camera — but if you really need accuracy, it might be worth a try.)
- In light rough, expect to lose 15% of the expected distance. (I’ll have more to say on that topic in a future article. In the meantime, my thanks to Bryson De Chambeau for mentioning it during a televised tournament.)
You may also get a flyer, where the grass gets between the clubface and the ball. The ball then flies low, with no backspin, and doesn’t stop when it lands. But if grass doesn’t interfere, it will go as high and land as softly as it should — which can be a problem if were planning on a lot of run. So understand that your distance control is going to be lot more “iffy”. (Even the pros don’t always know. Expect variation!)
- In heavy rough, expect to be hosed. It’s going to take a lot of wrist strength to keep the weeds from laying the clubface open, which can easily cause a shank, as you strike the ball with a rounded hosel of the club (at the end, where the face isn’t). That kind of shot can cause the ball to squirt most anywhere. If you can get to a decent surface with a one-stroke unplayable lie, it may be worth taking the penalty!
There you have it. That information, along with the articles yet to come, will all go into the short-game book when (one fine day) I get around to writing it. In the meantime, I hope you can use the knowledge to shave strokes off your game!
As the author of Comprehensive Keys to the Green, Eric has deciphered the science of feel, as it relates to putting. Perhaps more importantly, Eric finds that spending time on the golf course gives him a chance to practice the kind of energy-flow meditation he teaches — a happy-making practice that can connect you to the greater energy of the universe, with a bit of golf thrown in!
Learn more: About Eric (golfer — & meditator)