One of the questions I'm asked most often is, "What is the biggest difference between amateur golfers and professional Tour players?" Well I think I saw it up close this past week at the Athens Stadion Classic where I was fortunate enough to compete and we all saw it this weekend during the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow. And the answer may not be what you think it is.
Of course the Tour players can bomb it off the tee, that's the most obvious. Most amateurs will never hit one 320 yards down the fairway (or in the case of Rory McIlroy, 325 with a 3 wood!). But the real difference is the ability to control their distances with their scoring clubs - in particular, their wedges.
You saw Rickie Fowler take a gap wedge in the first playoff hole and dial it in, leaving him a four foot birdie for his first win on the PGA Tour. I encountered a number of times where I, and all the players playing this week, were faced with incredibly precise distance needs - where a little short could mean being in a bunker or the water and being a little long would mean an extremely difficult putt or chip back towards the trouble.
So from a distance that almost all players can hit, and often with the same clubs, what separates the professionals? How can you improve your wedge distance control?
The key is, like many things in golf, practice. I've seen Luke Donald - often cited as one of the best wedge players in the world - devout great time and patience into hitting wedge shots at the practice range to designated distances, getting a feel for the mechanics and the sensations needed to know how to hit to those targets. Very deliberately and carefully, he'd find a target at 100 yards, hit a number of shots to that distance, then 90 yards, then 80 yards, and so on. I would say that most Tour players devout well over half of their practice time on the range to these precision shots rather than hitting drivers - a ratio that would probably reverse for most amateur players.
There are three ways to control your distance better on your wedge shots.
1.) Choke down on the club. This will allow you to take your normal full swing and the shorter swing radius will fly the ball a little less distance.
2.) Shorten the backswing: Many teachers recommend a "clock" system, bringing your hands back to nine, ten or eleven o'clock to determine the distance your wedge shot will fly.
3.) Slow your tempo down: Obviously, a slower swing will not send the ball as far.
It will be up to you to find which of these methods is most effective for you. I am more of a "feel" player than a "mechanics" player and thus, use a combination of all three at times.
But the most important lesson for all of us from this past week is: Controlling the distance on your wedges will give your more makeable putts (birdie or par) and help you avoid three putts and tough chips. It is something almost any player can improve on and will make a bigger difference to your score than adding a few yards to your drive off the tee.