In his 30-year professional career, the Big Easy has notched 71 wins, including 19 on the PGA Tour. His $49 million in earnings ranks 7th all-time on the PGA Tour money list. His last victory came at the 2013 BMW International Open, on the European Tour, three years after entering the World Golf Hall of Fame.
1. GEAR UP
I turned professional in 1989, with only a sand wedge for short-game shots. When I played in the 1992 British Open at Muirfield, I still hadn’t used a lob wedge, and I didn’t know anything about bounce. Now, I’ve got wedges that are 52, 55, and 59 degrees, and even my amateur partners in pro-ams know the loft and bounce of their clubs. The advancements just in the span of my career in wedge technology—and the importance of the wedge game at all levels of play—amazes me.
I count on the Cleveland RTX4 Mid-Grind wedges (below) with six degrees of bounce and a C-grind on the bottom of the club. What I love about the Mid-Grind is that I can open the face when I need to but still maintain stability through contact on full shots. In firmer conditions, and especially when I play links golf, I often switch to a 3-degree bounce. There isn’t a shot that I can’t hit with these wedges. They do everything.
2. WEAKEN YOUR LEFT HAND
Want to improve your wedge play? Watch the best. I’m a big believer in emulating the greats, learning from your peers, and practicing what you see. Growing up in South Africa, I watched Gary Player a lot. José María Olazábal was another guy whose short game I admired. Right now, I’m watching Justin Thomas. JT does a great job of keeping the club outside his body (no inside whip) and the loft of the club in front of him. It’s the only way to use the club in the way it was designed.
Another contemporary of mine that I learned from was Corey Pavin. He showed me the way to pitch with a weak left hand on the club. On full shots, I like to look down at my grip at address and see 2 ½ to 3 knuckles on my left hand. On delicate greenside shots, I’ll rotate my left hand slightly to the right so that I can only see 1 to 1 ½ knuckles, and set the handle more in my fingers. It allows me to feel like I can hit the ball a lot harder without it carrying too far, and it helps me generate more spin. With this grip and my RTX4 wedges, I can literally feel the ball spinning right off the face. It’s great to know that the ball will react exactly how I pictured the shot.
3. CHANNEL SEVE
I’m a good wedge player. Seve Ballesteros was a master. He could play a 5-iron out of a pot bunker. I learned three critical short-game moves from him that I still use today:
1. Hold the clubface open throughout.
2. Keep the clubface outside your hands on the backswing.
3. Let the club react to what your hands and forearms are doing.
I credit Seve for my fourth major win, at the 2012 British Open at Muirfield. On No. 10 in the final round, I hit driver to that iffy distance of about 50 yards from the green. I had to pinch it properly, and I knocked it to eight feet. On 16, I hit a bump-and-run with a sand wedge to about five feet. The lesson: build a Seve-like arsenal. Today’s wedges, even those with lots of bounce, tend to sit very tight to the ground. Ballesteros didn’t have it that easy. No excuses, folks.
4. LIGHT A MATCH
One of my bad habits is that I sometimes get lazy and chop at it, especially out of the rough. So I do a drill to help me keep the club through the ball and square to the target. You don’t want to use the leading edge and get the club stuck in the turf. I want you to concentrate on spanking the ground. Some pointers to keep in mind:
1. Keep your hands “low.” No need to get them high like you do when hitting driver.
2. Maintain the angle of the shaft (the one it sits on at address) while making a short backswing.
3. Keep your weight over your front foot and accelerate through impact.
I practice this for maybe 20 minutes to get the feel. Your visual should be lighting a match with the back of the club. That’s something I like a lot about the RTX4 wedge. It’s got that pure thump sound that we all look for; you can hear the difference at contact.
Here’s my dirty little secret: People love my smooth swing and power game, but if you ask me, my short game is what’s most responsible for the four majors I’ve won. I even impressed Tiger once with my short-game wizardry. We were playing together in the third round at Boston and I think I hit four greens all day and still managed to shoot 1 under. We went into the scoring hut and Tiger said to me, “How the heck did you break par?” He was smiling and we shared a laugh. I really was all over the place!