Harvey Penick was a huge proponent of feel in a golfer’s short game. If given the choice between having better feel or technique, he always sided with a golfer who had better feel.
I couldn’t agree more, not that one of the greatest teachers of all time needed my endorsement!
There is no doubt that having the right technique with your pitching, chipping, and putting will help you become a better golfer. It’s a huge piece of the complex puzzle that is golf. However, without feel, you are completely lost on those shots.
What is feel?
What do I mean by feel? It’s somewhat of an intangible concept that you just can’t put your finger on.
Feel is throwing a football the right trajectory to hit your receiver in stride.
Feel is hitting the perfect drop shot in tennis that your opponent can’t run down.
Feel is playing a game of corn hole in your backyard and being able to toss the bag the right distance.
Nobody can teach feel
No instructor in the world can properly teach feel to a player in my opinion, but you can point them in the right direction on how to develop it.
It has to be achieved through repetition and experimentation. I find that developing feel in golf is harder than other sports. This is mainly because you don’t have the ball in your hands, and the familiar throwing motion is not being used. Any athlete can translate the feel from their throwing motion to different sports because they have used it all of their lives.
In golf we are using the club to advance the ball, and it’s much harder to develop this necessary skill. The golf swing is nothing like throwing a ball, which is why I think so many golfers have a hard time developing feel, and even understanding it.
All great golfers have it
Feel on the golf course is being able to clear the bunker with your wedge from 10 feet away, and keep it on the green. It’s being able to walk up to a 50 foot putt and lag it within 3 feet. It’s punching your ball from deep in the trees and running it onto the fairway without advancing it too far.
Feel is a golfer’s best friend, and can get him or her out of almost any situation.
I developed my feel by tearing up my parents' lawn when I was a kid. It drove my father crazy, but it sure helped my game. I used to throw 5 or 6 balls on the grass, and randomly pitched them to various spots. Each time I would be aiming for a different target to see how close I could get the ball. I made it a game.
Through all of this repetition my mind and body started to understand what each distance felt like. I could walk up to a target and know the exact length of swing it would require to hit the ball. When I read Dave Pelz’s Short Game Bible when I was older, it reinforced this belief, and I adopted his clock system for wedge distances.
Over the years I have lost my feel, regained it, and lost it again. This ebb and flow was directly proportional to my practice time. The years where I would play and practice more, it would come back. The point is that feel is not a given in any golfer's game, it has to be earned.
Before you do anything, you need to understand one REALLY important concept. You will never establish great feel if you are tense with your body, and gripping the club too tightly. If your body is loose, it will be easier to pull off the shots that will require a precise feel.
When a golfer grips the club with intense pressure, they are activating way too many muscles that should not be involved. You will never be able to execute these kind of shots with those bigger muscles activated. The first thing you should work on in your short game is relaxing your body, and keeping those hands as lightly on the club as possible.
There is no quick solution
I don’t have any magic solution to help you get your feel. I do know two things though:
1) You need it
2) Working hard through experimentation will help you get it
My biggest piece of advice for gaining feel is that you need to be practicing a wide range of distances in succession. For example, when you are practicing your pitch shots (hopefully you are doing this!) I would focus first on working on your different lengths: 30, 40, 50 yards etc. Get enough repetition at each distance so that you can start to dial in your technique.
Once you have gained some proficiency, then you should be changing your distances with each swing. You never get the same shot twice in a row on the course, so I think your practice sessions should mirror that.
This goes for chipping and putting as well. Set up in one spot, and try to chip or putt to various targets without repeating them. My thought is that if you keep practicing the same distance over and over again, you are not truly simulating a real round of golf.
Overall, I think a mixture of the two will help you out.
First you should focus on the repetition for each distance so that you develop the muscle memory. Then test yourself by trying to hit each of those different distances in succession.
To me it’s like taking a practice test before the big exam. If you just study the same thing over and over again, you are not going to truly understand the material well enough to ace the test. Taking that practice test will help you get in the right mindset.
Feel it first, then hit the shot!