Warren Montgomery's Golf Tips

These are my favorite tips for better scoring.  Most of these aren't things I've found in books or instructional videos, but from my experience in playing the game for 40+ years.  They are tips aimed at the mid-handicap (5-15) golfer, not the tour pro or the total hacker, though I think most are general enough to be of use to anyone.  They represent techniques and shots that aren't always obvious.  Keep in mind I'm not a pro nor am I a swing coach, just a life long golfer with about a 10 handicap who plays mostly on muni and public courses. Of course that may be a lot closer to the layout you face than the resorts that get featured in the golf tips presented by TV and magazines.

How to be a better chipper

Chipping is probably the least practiced and most important part of the game for the mid-handicapper.  The mid handicapper has the game to hit almost all greens inregulation, but because of less than perfect execution rarely does.  This means that the difference between a lot of pars and birdies and a lot of bogies and worse is how well you chip the ball (and how well you get yourself out of other problems around the green).  Chipping really has 3 aspects:
  1. Picking the right shot
  2. Picking the spot you want it to land
  3. Executing the shot to land it where you want.

Picking the shot.

Chip shots involve a little loft and a lot of roll on the green.  There are two basic philosophies in chiping.  One is to try to roll the ball as long as possible and as a result pick different clubs depending on where you want it to land, and the other is to make one shot with one club and vary the landing spot.  Many pros advocate maximizing roll, but I've found it a lot easier to chip consistently by making this the same shot with the same club whenever I can.  I've found the 9I to be the best club for me.  It has enough loft to be usable almost always (i.e. the ball doesn't roll too much), and  most 9 irons have large faces and curved bottoms which makes it easy to hit consistently, especially out of the rough.  The few situations I get where I can't chip with a 9 Iron I usually use a pitch shot of some kind or maybe a putt.

Picking the landing spot

The number one piece of advice is to pick the spot where you want the shot to land, and focus on hitting it.  DONT EVEN LOOK AT THE PIN once you pick your spot, it will just cause you to unconsciously try to hit at it and go way to far..  There are many basic guidelines on how far a ball will roll compared to how far it travels in the air that help, but I think knowing where to land the ball is one element you just have to practice and get a feel for.  Pick a spot, make a chip, and if you hit the spot and don't get the result you want ask why and adjust your thinking the next time.  Several things that the guides often don't consider include:

Executing the shot

Again there are different techniques.  All that is essential is that you hit the ball consistently.  For me that's easiest if I take an open stance with the ball off my rear (right for a rightie like me) heel and make a smooth short swing at it with just very little (but some) wrist action.  Just make sure the club is moving downwards with the hands a little ahead of the clubhead at impact.  Again, practice here makes all the difference.

So, the real secret is to spend a lot of time chipping.  Take advantage of the opportunity to chip a few at a green when you aren't holding up play and playing an informal round.  Practice greens are okay, but often don't have the variety of slopes or lies you will see on the course.

How to learn to love sand traps (really!)

I used to be an absolute klutz in bunkers (sand traps).  I called them 2-stroke penalty pits, because that's what it usually added to my score -- one to flub out into a bad lie and another to get it onto the green with some hope of 2 putting from there.  I tried just about everything, but still found myself inconsistent.  About a year ago though I found something quite by accident.  Maybe it's so obvious that nobody bothers telling you, but for me it makes all the difference.

My simple secret is in the grip -- when you grip the club, make sure that the callouses at the base of the fingers of your upper (left for a rightie) hand are on top of the club.  This puts the club entirely in your fingers, not in the palm.  With that simple adjustment, I can set up for a blast (open clubface, closed stance, ball off the left (forward) foot), take an outside-in swing with lots of wrist action, and the club actually works the way it's supposed to, splashing the ball out onto the green very reliably.  With a little practice I found myself varying the shot a bit and actually feeling I hit a lousy shot if I didn't get it close enough to sink the putt, instead of feeling grateful I got it out of the bunker.  

Why does this work?  I'm not sure, but I think that what it does is ensure that the club shaft will be at a shallower angle to the ground than your arms, allowing the open clubface to slide through the sand. If you let the grip slip down into your left palm, the tendancy is for the force of your swing to try to straighten out the angle the club makes with your arm, making the club come through lower with the clubface set up to dig in, not bounce, producing the horrible results I had before.  With the callouses of the left hand on top of the club, it stays shallow.  You can vary distance by the size of the swing and the degree to which you open the face and get as much control as a pitch shot  (After all, this is basically just a pitch shot that you deliberately hit fat).

One other thing to note about bunkers -- Most pros will freely admit that a "long" bunker shot is the hardest shot in golf.  Now look at where the greenside bunkers are in the next tournament you see and on those instructional videos and chances are you will see people playing out of bunkers with nothing between the bunker and the greeen.  This is the norm for them.  Now look at the bunkers on your own course.  If it's a public course, chances are there's 5-10 yards of no-man's land in between the bunker and the green.  If I had to guess here I'd say that's because it's a lot easier to mow if you have room to maneuver, but the result is that the bunker shots you have to make are longer than a lot of the ones you see on TV, so don't expect it to be just a little flip to get out.

Pitching and Flopping

The other shot you need around the green as a mid handicapper is a pitch shot -- This is a lofted shot anywhere from your full pitching wedge distance in.  The first rule of course is consider alternatives.  If there are no obstacles, a chip that lands short of the green and dribbles on may be easier and more reliable, or even  long putt from off the green may be easy.  If you are going to score though you have to be able to hit it high.  Again, there are different philosophies here, and again I'll take the simple route -- for me, the only club I use except under very unsual circumstances is a sand wedge.  The curved bottom and bounce, together with the little sand play secret above make this a very reliable shot for me out of just about everything.  Lay the face open a bit to a lot, play the ball off your rear(right) heel with an open stance, and make a wristy swing at it keeping the club face open (up) as you follow through and the ball will fly high.  By adjusting the amount of swing and the degree of openness I can get anywhere from a few feet to a hundred yards with this shot, and fly it over 100 foot trees, escaping from places where my playing partners have declared me dead.  Again, this shot takes practice, but again it's really worth it!

How many wedges do you need?  Well, Pelz and others would say 4 or more, but again I opt for simplicty.  I've owned several lob wedges, and went back to the simplicty of playing the sand wedge with a bit more openness on the face.  There are probably lies I could hit a lob wedge from that won't take a pitch from a sand wedge, but not very many, and my 7 Wood is a more useful club to carry.

Making more Putts

You can never spend enough time on putting.  The better you are, the more of your shots will be putts offering you lots of room for improvement.  As with chipping, putting is really about several things:
Picking the right line and speed are essential, and the thing that takes the most practice.  Reading greens is a bit of an art.  As a general rule, make sure you look at the putt from both sides.  I have never been a fan of plum bobbing, though some folks swear by it.  For me, it's enough just to look at the green and visualize where to go.  One thing I agree with the experts on is that most players don't read nearly enough break.  See the whole roll of the ball in your mind and aim in the direction the ball has to start out, not the highest point it reaches on the way to the cup.  Being able to see the line in your mind is just something you have to practice.

One other bit of pre-putt preparation worth thinking about is to take 2 seconds to mark, pickup, and replace the ball.  Again, I'm not fond of lining up the logo or other alignment drills, but doing that serves a very important purpose -- when a ball is rolling on the green, it is very likely to come to rest against a small object (a grain of gravel, a piece of twig, etc.) or in the depression of an old ball mark.  The greens on public courses are full of this stuff, and the tiny bit of extra resistance it puts up stops the ball.  You might not even see it looking at the ball on the green, but if you then go to putt the ball, the little bit of crud or the depression will kick your ball off line right from the start.

Alinging yourself to the line you read is the only place where a fancy putter with alignment aids might help you.  Basically though it's about developing your own judgement.  Pick a flat part of a green and putt at a target until you can start every one dead on line.  It's also worth doing a little experimenting with how you want to aline the ball on the face.  Don't just assume that right at the alignment mark is the best place for you.  Some folks, including me, find it easier to putt predictably if I hit it just a bit off the marked sweet spot.  

There is no single right putting stroke.  Any motion that brings the face through square with the line at a predictable speed is good.  For most folks this means swinging it with your upper arms and shoulders and keeping everything else quiet, but some swear by wristy putting strokes.

Some interesting specialty shots

The Driver Bunt.

Here's a shot I've never seen suggested by a pro, but it's become one of my favorites.  When faced with layup or long par 3 into or across the wind, the pros will pick a long iron, but if you play like me, hitting one of those butter knives into a stiff breeze is not a freindly thought.  Mine tend to go like F14 fighters launching off a carrier, curving up and sideways and carrying inconsistently, whenever the wind is up.  A much better shot for me is to tee up my 400CC driver and "bunt" it.  Tee the ball low and make a smooth partial backswing and follow through.  The result with a little practice is a low flying shot that you can hit anywhere from 100 yards to the full length of your drives.  The shot will run, so this isn't something to try when the ground you have to cover is unfreindly, but hitting this shot has saved me countless strokes on the long par 3 and the layup hole on my course that always seem to be into the wind (even though they are adjacent holes and run in opposite directions!

The punch hook

If you are a mid-high handicapper and play someplace that has trees, chances are you wind up under them at least once a around.  That makes it worth figuring out good escape shots.  For me, there is none better than the punch hook.  This shot stays low curves gently left, and can go as far as 170 yards depending on how hard I hit it.  Take a long iron (3, 4, or 5 depending on how low you want it), set up with the ball forward in your stance and take a partial, wristy swing,  I get a low hook every time I do it.  The curve ball flight can be very useful in giving you some room to miss the trees in front and bring the shot back into line.

The Mental game

One of the things I love about golf is that it's a game with lots of opportunities to use your brain as much as your muscles.  Lots of players lose more strokes due to "brain cramps" than to bad shots.   Unfortunately, the pundits often don't help you here.

Picking the right shot

In the US, golfers have become obsessed with distance.  carry yardage books and range finders, use GPS enabled carts, and pace distances to sprinkler heads to learn precisely how far it is to the pin or the center of the green, as if that is the magic formula for picking the right club and the right shot to hit.  Sure, it's useful to know how far you have to go, but I find a lot of my best shots had little to do with the nominal club distance and much more to do with visualizing how I was going to hit it and picking the club that would fit that shot.  Aside from accounting from all the factors other than distance (the wind, the lie, the elevation, the landing area, etc.)  Think about how you see the ball flying when you step up to it and use that.  As an example, while I normally hit a 7 iron only 150 yards, I recently hit one about 170 to a foot from the pin into the wind from the wrong fairway, and I knew exactly where and how it was going to go when I picked the club.  As I stepped up to the ball, something about the setup just said "hook" to me, and that with a hook, the 7 iron was plenty, so I pulled out the 7 and hit the hook, rather than trying to go straight at the flag with a 5.

Aside from seeing the shot, another thing to consider is where you are likely to miss.  Many pundits will tell you that most amateurs overestimate their iron distances and as a result come up short of the green and in more trouble, advising you to take more club.  I agree completely that people overestimate their club distances, but not that most people should take more club.  That depends on the layout of the green you are shooting at.  Sure, if you are firing at a green where being short means being in the water or sand but being long is okay, that's fine, but most of the courses I play have hazards behind the green and greens that slope forward, meaning that a shot that comes up short leaves you with an easy chip or bunker shot, while going long is likely to mean OB, bushes, or at best an impossible downhill chip.

Another one of those standard pieces of advice is to lay up more often.  Again, that one depends on what hazard you are avoiding with a layup, and how good you are hitting the shot that the layup leaves you.  If you aren't especially good at hitting full wedge shots, laying up may just mean you are in the bunker in 3 instead of in 2.  Not what you were looking for.

Picking the right shot is all about knowing your game and how it relates to the course.

Don't be fooled by the course

Golf course architects are tricksters.  They try to set up holes so that shots that look easy are hard and vice versa.  Sometimes the trickery is entirely accidental, like the direction of the mower tracks or the crooked tee markers set by some assistant wasn't paying attention.  The number one rule here is pick your shot and aim according to where you want it to wind up and ignore any extraneous aiming clues.  That's easier said than done.

Committing to the Shot

A real problem a lot of people have is in not playing  the shot they planned because they don't really believe in it.  This is a common problem beginners have with chips and sand shots -- you don't believe that the ball will get in the air if you hit down and through it so you try to scoop it up with the club.  Even single digit handicappers though are plagued by places where they hit a bad shot because the just didn't believe the shot they planned was really right.  This is especially true of holes where you want to aim away from a hazard, but that line puts you well off the fairway, so you set up for the shot in the right direction, but halfway through the backswing your muscle memory panics at the thought of launching the ball so far off line and tries to jerk your body back into line with the fairway, usually resulting in a monster hook or slice straight into the hazard you were trying to avoid.  Ever have the experience of hitting one of those hooks or slices OB, then lining up even further away from the hazard and hitting an even worse hook or slice?  Not committing to the new line is a very likely cause.  Line up at your target and visualize the ball going there.  Convince yourself that this is really where you want to hit it.


You will note that this is the last section in my golf tips.  That's because for most people that's where equipment ranks relative to technique and the mental game.  Of course that's not the impression the magazines, TV shows, merchants, and even the local pro will give you, but most of them are to some extent on the payroll of the equipment makers, so what would you expect?  I've seen some excellent golf played by people with real wood in their woods, rusty steel in their shafts, and irons that look like World War II scrap.  Nevertheless, there are some things to be aware of.

Get it to fit your game

Getting clubs that fit you and your swing is far mor important than the specifics of what you get.  Go to someone or someplace that can really measure your swing speed and lie requirements and take careful note of them.  Most people overestimate their swing speed and club distances and as a result play with clubs that are too stiff, too long, and too heavy for them.  Clubmakers and pros have at least finally realized that loft is the freind of the average golfer, and stopped trying to put everyone into 7 degree drivers and 7 irons with the loft of a 5.

"Forgiving" is only good if you commit the right sin!

Many clubs are advertised as being "forgiving", as if they were a trip to the confessional, capable of righting anything that's wrong with your game.  In fact, club designers make clubs to "forgive" specific swing faults, and what helps cure a slice usually exaggerates pull hooks.   Find out what the club is really designed for and make sure it fits your swing faults and your course.  As an example, consider the trend for some years to make fairway woods low and thin, in the interest of getting the ball airborne off of "tight lies".  I have no doubt that those skinny little woods work great off of manicured fairways and hardpan, but if I take a swing with a skinny little wood on the shaggy fairways or fluffy ruff on my course the clubhead submarines under the ball resulting in what to me is just about the worst shot in golf -- the knuckle ball popup hit with the top of the clubhead that goes just about anywhere.

Woods or Irons?

The pros love their long irons, but let's face it, most of us hate them and are really lousy hitting them.I think this is largely just a matter of which club type fits your swing -- some people have swings that hit fairway woods well and stink with long irons, and some hit the long irons well and aren't especially good with woods.  (If you hit both well, good luck on tour). Decide what works for you and use it.  Don't let some macho bias about real players hitting 2 irons saddle you with clubs you can't hit.  Many players would do well with lofted woods (5W, 7W, even 9W) replacing the longer irons.