The only 3 shots you really need : Why the drive, wedge shot and lag putt are keys to lower scores

Justin Leonard

Note: This story is part of our 2001 campaign to “Cut Your Handicap in Half.”

I am sure it comes as a surprise to absolutely no one that I don’t rely on my distance off the tee to overpower every golf course I see. When I was growing up and learning the game, I couldn’t reach most par 4s in regulation anyway. I had to figure out how to get the ball in the hole with my wedge and my putter. I learned out of necessity that relying on one part of your game isn’t enough to get you around the golf course.

The more shots you can hit, the better you’ll play. That’s obvious, right? Well, maybe, but if you’re looking for the quickest way to play your best, you need to master only a few key segments of the game. In a lot of ways, the only three shots you really need are the tee shot, the wedge shot and the lag putt. I don’t have all kinds of research to make my case, but I can tell you this: If you go an entire round without hitting a driver out-of-bounds, never taking more than three shots from 100 yards and never three-putting, you’ll shoot a number that you like, your partner loves and your opponents hate. What I’m saying is, if you can play all three of these shots with even a moderate level of efficiency, you’re going to get in a lot of people’s pockets.

More importantly–well, maybe not more importantly–trusting these three elements makes your game that much more self-sufficient. You don’t have to hide your driver; you rely on it. You don’t have to blister every second shot on every par 5; your wedge game is strong enough to make birdie. You don’t have to hit every iron shot stiff; your lag putting is so solid you’re never in danger of three-putting.

When your opponents realize that you can beat them three different ways on every hole, they’re done. Better yet, when you know you’ve got the only three shots you really need sitting comfortably in your bag, you’ll see every round as a chance to shoot your personal best. And that’s almost as much fun as winning all the bets.



Go low, slow, big and balanced

To make the driver a club you can trust, you’ve got to start with a solid technique. Focus on two keys. First, keep the takeaway low and slow. The clubhead should glide away from the ball with little forced effort from your hands and arms. If you lift the club up to start, you’ll rush the backswing and throw the entire downswing out of sync. That’s neither powerful nor accurate. A low and slow start to your swing leads to the second key: Make a bigger (but balanced) turn. Get your left shoulder behind the ball at the top of your swing without swaying. That’s a solid move that doesn’t give up accuracy and gets you in the game right from the start.

The game plan

[check] To hit a fade you can trust (a comfortable shot for most players), put the ball forward in your stance and make an aggressive move to the ball. But aim so a straight shot stays in play.

[check] Soft, wet conditions? Get the ball up in the air. Fast and firm? Keep it low.

[check] A big green gives you room to be risky off the tee; if the green is small, take the safe route.

[check] When picking a driver, opt for more loft, not less.


Play it back, limit the swing

I can’t leave myself the same distance every time, so I need my sand wedge to be just as effective at 110 yards as it is at 90 yards. To exceed your comfort-level distance with your wedge, try playing the ball slightly back and trapping it at impact. Fight the overswing. Make a good shoulder turn, but keep the club short of parallel, with your hands always well right of your head (above). For shorter shots, reduce your backswing but maintain your speed on the follow-through (right) so your right shoulder finishes closer to the target than your left.

The game plan

[check] Know your normal full-wedge distance precisely, to the yard if possible. That distance will be your baseline for every shot you hit from this area of the fairway.

[check] Three wedges are plenty, but two aren’t enough.

[check] A shorter swing will produce a lower flight that releases after landing (better when the pin is back).

[check] To hit high, soft wedge shots from less-than-full wedge distance, slow down your swing speed but make a full swing.


Work on feel, maintain the angles

Good lag putting is all about feel, and feel comes from practice. Avoid hitting the same practice putt twice (right). The variety gets you working on feel instead of just muscle memory. As for technique, I’m not sure there should be any hard and fast rules. If you can make putts by holding the putter with your elbows, that’s fine by me. Still, I focus on two keys (below). First, keep your head steady until you’ve completed your follow-through. Second, maintain the angles in your wrists and arms on the forward swing. Let the arms, hands and putter work as one. This is the best way to keep the putter on line.

The game plan

[check] Speed and line are equally important on lag putts. The right speed/wrong line leaves a tough second putt (B); so does right line/wrong speed (C). Get them both right (A) and you’ll never three-putt.

[check] On lag putts, play for the maximum break, so as your putt slows down it will be breaking toward the hole.

[check] Focus on the break in the last half of the putt. Because the ball’s going slower, it will break more than at the beginning.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Golf Digest Companies

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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