Three-Week Comas and 200-Yard Wedges

“No, I like the wedge. Seriously.” I was looping for my first Medinah member to make the trip to Chicago Highlands, and trying to talk him into hitting a wedge from 192 yards. He was a short hitter, and had probably never hit a wedge more than 140 yards in his life, so he was having trouble buying it.

Looping the Highlands has been fascinating from day-to-day, not only because of how much the wind can affect shots, but also, and perhaps predominantly, because of the hard bounces that come from the turf. I’m told that the hardness will soften with time, but as of now playing there is like playing on the Streif at Kitzbuhel—the hardest downhill skiing racecourse in the world. But it’s hard to get that idea across to men used to playing the typically soft courses of the American Midwest, where overwatering is a way of life.

There’s something to be learned from the Streif however. It begins with the infamous Mausefalle (“Mousetrap”) and proceeds through the Karusell to end after the Zielschuss, and speeds can break 90 mph. It’s been the site of several of the most serious crashes in ski racing history, most recently Daniel Albrecht’s crash in 2009 that resulted in a three-week coma. But it isn’t the speed that makes the Streif so dangerous. The Mausefalle, for instance, can be deadly not because of the speed, at least not entirely. It’s called the Mousetrap because it’s a high-speed jump followed by an extreme left turn—and not everyone can make the transition. It isn’t the jump, in other words, but where you land that can mean life and death in the Alps.

Chicago Highlands certainly does not risk life and limb in quite that way, but the course forces you to pay attention to the ground. This is something that I think most (American) golfers don’t really understand, although at the highest levels it’s been known for some time. A recent article in the Financial Times makes the point for me: “the short-game expert Dave Pelz once conducted some research for the PGA Tour, and found that it was not the pros with the best driving or iron play or even putting statistics who were winning the most money, but those had the best chipping and pitching.” And when it comes to chipping and pitching, “the first thing to decide before you play a chip shot is not what club you’re going to use—it’s where to land the ball.” This is something extremely useful for every player, I’ve found: my usual first question around the green has for years been “where do you want to land it?”

From that question flows all else. It determines what sort of shot the golfer is going to play: high or low, spinning or rolling. And that then determines what club to hit. Thinking about chipping in this way, I think, not only will help your game but also make it a lot more fun than mindlessly grabbing for your sand wedge every time you are within 20 yards of the green—you’ll start to imagine the sorts of shots that are possible, and with time begin to hit them too. And really that’s the fun of the game: figuring out an answer to the problem the course throws at you. Otherwise you might as well be at the range.

In the case of my Medinah member, we were—although he might not have realized it at the time—essentially playing a shot from 192 as if it were a chip from just off the green, because the course is so fast that it can effectively expand the area around each green. Although almost 200 yards, in other words, the way I thought about it was the same way I’d think about a chip from 2 yards off the green: where to land it? In this case, downwind and downhill, the place to land it was well in front of the green, where it would get a pretty good kick to the left which would then be exaggerated by the green itself. That is what happened, and he ended up with about a ten-footer for birdie.

Which, of course, he missed—since he wouldn’t shut up about hitting a “200-yard wedge.”