It recently dawned on me that I've become very lazy with my short game. I've fallen into the habit of automatically pulling a 56° sand wedge around the green, and trying to loft shots that I think will get me close to the cup. More times than not, this sad attempt to rely on feel is leaving me well outside gimme range. And what's funny is that this is the polar opposite of an interesting approach I used when playing my best.
I first heard the name Paul Runyan when I was living in California back in the late 1990's. I was taking lessons from Craig Chapman, a great instructor who taught in Palm Desert. Craig didn't spend much time on the short game, but one day around the practice green the subject of chipping came up.
Craig snatched the wedge out of my hands that I had been chipping with (he had these quick outbursts of heightened speech and forceful gestures whenever he was about to share something important) and he said,
"Have you ever tried this before...Junior?"
And Craig proceeded to show me this awkward looking grip, where the palms of both of his hands were placed on the back surface of the handle. His forearms were kind of opposing each other, both at 45° angles to the shaft. Craig started to rock his arms back and forth, making little piston-like putting strokes as he began to speak.
"Paul Runyon beat Sam Snead in the 1938 PGA Championship putting and chipping like this," Craig told me. "He couldn't hit it out of his shadow. Snead outdrove him by almost 100 yards every hole, but Runyon thumped him, something like 8-up in the final. He got it up and down from everywhere. Drove Snead out of his mind!"
Craig laughed and handed my club back. He then grabbed my 7-iron and demonstrated the chipping technique that earned Runyon 29 PGA Tour titles, including two PGA Championships. Craig addressed a ball and took aim at a cup some 25 feet away, odd grip and all. The ball position was back towards his right foot and he leaned toward the hole, shifting a good deal of his weight onto his left foot.
He then made a brisk little putting stroke, trapping the ball crisply. The ball popped out, landed just over the collar and rolled like a putt right next to the cup.
"Air is your enemy in the short game," Craig said as he scraped another ball into position. "Putt whenever you can putt. When you can't putt, chip. Pitch only when you can't chip."
The concept that Craig shared is simple. You always try to land the ball just onto the first foot or two of the putting green and let it roll out the remaining distance to the hole. The motion is always the same, your standard, natural putting stroke. The only thing that varies is club selection.
For example, let's say your ball is four feet from the putting surface. If you chip with a pitching wedge, the ball will fly four feet onto the green and roll out another eight feet. Perfect if the cup is 12 feet away.
If the cup is twenty feet away, make the same exact stroke with an 8-iron. The ball will fly the same initial four feet (though it will come out lower and faster) and it will roll out about 16 feet vs. eight.
This method definitely takes some practice. However, once you start getting the hang of club selection and you get comfortable with the idea of rolling the ball whenever possible, you won't believe the consistency you can achieve.
Your landing spot is always the same. You're not relying on spin to check the ball. Mishits still produce very acceptable results. And the short little motion is much more reliable under pressure than trying to hit that one bounce, skid and check Tour shot that everyone covets.
I'm going to rededicate myself to this approach and I hope you'll give it a try. Please let me know if the idea of chipping like you putt helps your game.
One note - use your own putting grip as you experiment. Paul Runyon's putting grip was beautiful in its efficiency, as it completely removed any wrist action from the stroke, but it was also uniquely his own. His grip might feel restrictive and it's far more important in chipping to simulate how you feel when you putt.
Good luck and please share any short game wisdom you've acquired!