Perhaps one of the most overlooked and difficult parts of the game of golf is the pitch shot. It’s that in-between shot that requires a player to adapt and guess more than any other. If you’ve got a full shot, you can swing as hard as you want. In a pitch, though, that’s not the case. There’s this sense of guessing what the shot requires.
How far back do you swing? How fast do you swing? Which club do you use? Do you use wrist hinge?
All these questions flood our minds and the lack of clear answers brings doubt and diminishes confidence in our ability to pull the shot off successfully. It’s the unknown that makes the shot so difficult.
Not only that, but this lack of clarity makes it difficult to practice as well. You can stand on the range or chipping green and hit pitch shot after pitch shot, but that doesn’t mean you’ll encounter that exact shot on the golf course any time soon.
We all want to focus our practice and spend the most time on shots that we’ll actually be using. What’s the point of hitting a bunch of 40 yard pitch shots when you might never face that distance once in your next round. Even if you end up with a shot that’s close to the same distance, let’s say 50 yards, those same questions from above come into mind.
There’s just so much unknown that most people opt for not practicing the pitch shot at all and just trying to guess correctly when on the golf course. I fully understand that approach, but there’s an easier way.
The pitch shot is one that, if done correctly, can completely transform your short game. Think about it. How often do you miss the green in a normal round of golf? The average 15 handicap golfer will hit the green in regulation only a quarter of the time. That means they’re only hitting 4-5 greens in regulation per round, which leaves 13-14 times they probably need to pitch their golf ball.
For most golfers, missing the green means no real opportunity for saving par. That doesn’t have to be the case for you, though. If you could still have confidence in your ability to pitch the ball close enough to where you have a chance at one putting for par, those little shots can really add up and lower your scores quickly.
- A pitch shot should be used when you need to get the ball over some obstruction or you need to cover a longer distance than a chip shot.
- Hitting Pitch Shots is all about Accelerating through the ball. If you don’t you’ll hit it fat or thin.
- Use your backswing length for distance control when pitching.
So, let’s dig in a bit more into what pitching is and how you learn how to pitch in golf.
What is the basic pitch shot?
First of all, let’s clarify what pitching actually is. Pitching is a less than full-swing shot where the ball spends most of its time in the air. It’s often confused with a chip shot which is a less than full-swing shot where the ball spends most of the time on the ground. The basic intent of chip shots is to create a low shot that gets the ball rolling. Pitch shots fly farther than chip shots. We’ve got a full article on how to hit a chip shot here.
In another article, we discuss all about how a chip shot differs from a pitch shot. Or, to learn more about chip shots specifically, check out our full article on how to hit a chip shots.
Basically, pitching typically happens when you’ve missed a green, like we mentioned above, and you still need to hit the ball on to the green from a yardage less than your club’s full amount. For example, I consider pitching, for me personally, anything under 90 yards because I hit my lob wedge full that distance. So, if I come across an 80 yard shot, I’ll need to take a club that must be hit less than full.
The pitch shot is often used when there is an obstacle, like a bunker, pond, or tree, in the way that a player needs to get the ball over. It also might be used when the ground conditions are unpredictable, so chipping the ball along the ground is not a reliable method of getting the ball close.
I would even consider and decent amount of fairway to be an unpredictable ground condition because it may have bumps and hills and other things that I can’t fully predict. Really, the only ground condition I feel comfortable being able to predict how the ball will react is the green and a little bit of fringe. Other than that, I’m pitching it through the air where there are fewer elements.
Why is pitching important?
Now, like we said above, most amateur golfers don’t spend much time practicing pitching or any short game shots.
One reason is that it’s more fun to practice a full swing at longer distances. But I also think another part is that the average golfer doesn’t see the importance of pitching. It’s a short game shot that doesn’t require much strength, so we think it’s easy and not as necessary.
It feels to me like putting, over the years, has been branded fairly well. What I mean by that is that people see the importance of that short, gentle shot, but for some reason pitching has gotten a bad rap. Maybe it’s not that people thing less of it, it’s just that people think of it less.
When we look at our game and prioritize the things we need to improve, rarely does a pitch shot make the list. Now, maybe that’s different with you because you’re reading this article. So, you’ve already taken a great first step to improving your game.
I just wish more people would see the incredible value of the basic pitch shot. A solid pitching game can turn a missed green, and almost assured bogey, and keep par in the conversation. Like I said above, think about how many greens you miss in a round. Even the best players, those with a scratch handicap, miss an average of 7 greens per round. That means, in order for them to shoot even par, they need to get up-and-down 7 times.
Those are the players who see the value in pitching well. They know that they won’t always hit the green in regulation and give themselves two putts to make par. But they also know that it’s possible to be good enough at pitching that they can consistently give themselves looks at one-putt pars.
Pitching is a skill that can make up for deficiencies in other areas of your game. We all have flaws in our game. Even Tiger Woods at his peak had areas he wanted to improve. Pitching is that skill that typically comes into play when you’ve made a mistake. It can erase a bad shot and save you from disaster. That’s why I love pitching so much. It has a super power and that super power is the ability to make a previous bad shot disappear. The pitch shot is truly a fundamental short game shot you must have in your toolbox.
How to Hit a Pitch Shot
Now let’s get into the good stuff; how to hit pitch shots. It’s one thing to explain the pitch shot and tell a player to just not hit their club full, but it’s another thing completely to execute and know the proper way to do it.
If you’re like most golfers, when you have to hit a pitch shot, you probably guess at how hard you need to hit it every time. You use “feel” to make your choice. A lot of times people take several practice swings and envision how far the ball would go with each length of swing.
The problem with that approach is that humans have really bad depth perception. We think we can judge distances by feel, but we can’t. It’s just not a reliable way of guessing how hard to hit a shot. So, instead of “feel,” let’s use reason.
The Correct Setup for Pitch Shots
- The first thing you want to do is set-up so that your front foot and back foot are shoulder width apart.
- The ball position should be in the middle of your stance or slightly back, so that the club is able to make contact with the ball first and then the ground second.
- Optional: If you need to hit a shorter pitch shot stand closer to the ball and grip down on the club a slight amount.
Swing with Acceleration
As you swing, I want you to keep your hands and arms fairly loose and allow wrist hinge to happen naturally. The most important part of this swing is that the club accelerates through the ball. If your club decelerates, that’s when players chunk or thin a pitch shot. Often times we don’t mean to slow down through impact, but it can happen when we aren’t confident about a shot or if we’ve swung too far in our backswing and, subconsciously, want to slow it down.
An easy way to make sure you accelerate through impact is by letting gravity take your club in the downswing. Not only will this guarantee that the club will accelerate, but it’ll also make your downswing speed more consistent with more control. You want a consistent downswing speed to be able to predict distances to a landing spot on the putting surface. Since you’re not trying to hit the ball far, you don’t have to worry about swinging fast, just consistently and under control.
Using the Clock Theory for Pitching Distance Control
Next, I want you to imagine the image of clock superimposed over your golf swing. The 12 is above your head and the 6 is down by the ball. If you’re right-handed, the 9 will be on your right side. Then, in your mind, fill in the other numbers between 6 and 12. These will act as markers for your back swing.
For each of the clubs you use to hit a pitch shot, you should have an 8:00, 9:00, 10:00, and 11:00 backswing length. As long as you are accelerating through impact by letting gravity take your club, then the only thing you have to worry about controlling a shot’s distance is your backswing length and club you select.
Now, for example, if you have four clubs you hit a pitch shot with and four swings (based on those times), then you should have 16 different pitch shots. I create a chart in Microsoft Excel and fill in all my distances for each club. That way, you’ve got only four swings, but 16 distances that you can consistently hit when on the course. It makes practicing and executing shots much easier and you don’t have to rely on “feel.”
What Clubs to Use for a Pitch Shot
When faced with an opportunity to hit a pitch shot, the first thing you need to do is select a golf club. Most of the time, I’m hitting pitch shots with one of my wedges. Personally, I carry four wedges; a lob wedge, sand wedge, gap wedge, and pitching wedge. Just because one of them is called a pitching wedge, doesn’t mean that’s the club you always pitch with. You can use any of your wedges and, to be honest, you can even use short irons too if you want.
There isn’t one correct answer for what club you should use. Each time you have to hit a pitch shot, you have to decide which one is the right one for you. Obviously, a big part of picking the right club is how high you want the ball to go. Let’s say you need to hit the ball higher to get over a tree, you’re probably not going to select a 9-iron because a sand wedge or lob wedge has a better chance of getting over it cleanly. It’s not always that obvious, though.
Another thing you’ve got to take into consideration is how much green you have to work with. That means how much green, or reliable grass, there is between you and the hole. If the hole is cut in the front of a green, you may need to stop the ball quicker. A club with more loft will make stopping the ball easier in that situation. On the other hand, if the pin is back, there’s probably more green to work with, so hitting a pitching wedge or 9 may be just fine because you can land it shorter and let the ball roll a bit more towards the hole. So, those are two factors you want to take into consideration when selecting a club, but the biggest one, in my opinion, is the distance of the shot.
Now that you know how to hit a pitch shot and what clubs to you, let’s talk about some drills you can practice to improve your pitching skills.
1. Ladder Drill
- The first drill is to get some sort of marker, it could be a bucket or a flag or anything really, and place them at different distances away from you. I put towels at 40, 50, 60, and 70 yards because those are the numbers I tend to se e a lot.
- Then, I take a lofted club and practice hitting pitch shots up and down those, one at a time.
Since you’ll rarely, if ever, face multiple pitch shots of the same distance back-to-back, it’s important to be able to accurately move between distances. This helps you improve distance control and judge distances each and every time you swing because you’re not sitting there hitting the same pitch shot over and over again with no adjustments.
2. Acceleration Drill
This next drill is more of a mindset on the range or chipping area.
- Instead of picking a yardage or target you want to hit towards, pick a time you want to swing towards in your backswing.
- Eliminating the target makes it easier to accelerate through the ball. Without the subconscious mind telling you, “you’ve swing too far” you’re less likely to decelerate. Instead, become curious about how far the ball went after each swing.
- Hit your 9:00 shot, for example, then measure how far it went. Do this over and over again until you trust and have confidence in how far the 9:00 shot will go almost every time.
- Then, like I mentioned above, create a chart for every one of your clubs and backswing times.
Learn to trust those by measuring distance after you’ve hit, not before. Again, distance control and judging distance will improve after doing this drill.
3. Impact drill for Pitch Shots
Finally, in order to hit great pitch shots, you have to make solid impact with the golf ball. Accelerating through impact will help that, but also making sure you hit the ball first with the leading edge of your golf club and the ground second. Hitting the ground first or only hitting the ball will only lead to chunks and thin shots.
- So, for this drill all you need is a couple tees. The first tee you want to put about ½ inch in front of the ball. Push the tee all the way into the ground, so all you can see is the round top part as you look down at it.
- Then, put another tee in the ground just outside the golf ball. As you hit some pitch shots, you want to try and break the tee that’s in front of the ball. If you’re able to do that, you’re guaranteeing that you are hitting down into the ground.
- Then, after the shot, you want to check that your divot doesn’t start before the second tee that was placed just outside of the ball.
If you can do that, you’ll have a perfect impact position for pitch shots.
There you have it! Take and apply these golf pitching tips to improve your pitching game and ultimately a better short game.
Again, if you’re able to take what has been said in this article and implement it into your short game, I think you’ll find that pitching can lower your scores more than almost any other skill in golf. Sure, driving is fun and putting gets the ball in the hole, but pitching can save you from disaster.