PUTT, CHIP OR PITCH
Learning to score in golf is often about playing the percentages. When it comes to learning to do that, there's an old adage that I've been using to start just about every beginning short game clinic I've given over the past quarter century:
“Putt when you can, chip if you can't putt, and pitch only if you have to.”
In truth, I've been using it so long I've forgotten where I first heard it and who it's originally attributed to, but the reason I've stuck with it all these years is that it's every bit as valid today as it was back then.
Putting is the easiest of the three, with the least downside for poor execution. When you're on the fringe, or the closely-mown approach just short of the green, putting is usually your best option for a handful of reasons. First, hitting from those areas with your putter means you won't be lofting the ball in the air and the lower the intended trajectory of the shot, the smaller the swing you need to make. This also means there will be virtually no spin on the ball once you hit it, making the roll-out predictable. And finally, using a putting stroke all but assures you are going to hit the ball first with little to no turf interfering with the solidness of contact either.
Chipping is next in line when it comes to ease of execution and low downside. If you're anywhere around the green, and have more green between your ball and the hole than rough, you definitely want to chip it. Now before I explain why, it's important to know the difference between a chip and a pitch. A chip is a shot that spends more time on the ground and a pitch spends the majority of its short life in the air. Chips, for reasons similar to putts, are easier shots to execute than pitches because the requisite swing isn't terribly big and has little wrist or hand action, while the motion combined with the typically lower lofted clubs used when chipping impart less spin on the ball, making roll-out easier to predict.
Pitching is the hardest of the three shots to consistently execute, with the biggest downside for failure. But despite my misgivings, there are unfortunately just some occasions where we can't get around having to pitch the ball. And really, who wouldn't want to be able to pitch it up in the air high and soft and land it near the pin like the proverbial butterfly with sore feet, check it a bit, or even (gasp!) spin it back like the pros? There's just a tiny little problem with that sexy looking lob, though. The high reward comes with high risk, and the consequences for poor execution are shots as colorfully named as The Chunk, The Duff, The Skull, and The Chili-Dip. And unless our foursome is conditioned to hear the even more colorful language that often accompanies those vain attempts to execute one of golf's most difficult shots, we should keep those pitch shots in the closet as much as possible, trotting them out in only the most extreme situations.
In the end, it's important to be at least somewhat proficient at all the short game shots, but learning to score is learning to play the percentages, and when it comes to getting the ball close consistently the odds are stacked in favor of putting first, chipping second, and pitching third. We can learn to hit good pitches with the right club and technique, but it's not the good shots we're worried about, it's your misses, and I promise that your misses when you putt first, chip if you can't putt, and pitch only if you have to, will be more of what I like to call livable misses. And when we learn to choose shots whose worst results can still be worked with, we'll start to score better even if we're not hitting the ball any better.