Trouble Shots in Golf and a Betting Game That Helps You Practice Them

Michael Campbell of New Zealand hits out of trouble on the 9th hole backhanded during the Second Round of the 2007 BMW PGA Championship
With a tree preventing his normal stance, a golfer tries a one-handed, backward chip shot to get out of trouble. Ian Walton/Getty Images

Trouble shots - some golfers call them recovery shots, specialty shots or rescue shots - often don't end well for amateur and recreational golfers who try them. Why? Because a) they are difficult shots; and b) we rarely - more likely never - practice them.
But if you want or need, because of where your golf ball is sitting, to turn around play a shot left-handed (when you are a righty); or to play a buried lie, or hit a backward chip shot, or lob it sky-high over a tree - or any number of other trouble shots you see the pros executing on TV - your odds of succeeding go up exponentially if you've actually tried that shot before. Practice, in other words.
As golf instructor Perry Andrisen says, "It is a good idea to be knowledgeable of the trouble shots you encounter the most, and to practice them."
But there are problems in practicing trouble shots, Andrisen points out:

"There are several reasons why we don't practice trouble shots. First of all, we never expect to have to play a trouble shot. And there are not many practice areas set up to work on these types of shots. Besides, trouble shots are not the most glamorous shots to practice. Imagine yourself hitting a large basket of practice balls from high rough or under a tree."

Practicing trouble shots might be easier for many golfers to do on the golf course itself as opposed to a driving range.
"The way to practice trouble shots is with one golf ball and the competition of others," Andrisen says. "You need to set up your practice to be entertaining."

Chi Chi's 'Rescue Ops' for Practicing Trouble Shots

You know who knows a thing or two about keeping golf entertaining? Chi Chi Rodriguez. He also knows quite a bit about trouble shots, as a very creative golfer throughout his career.
Chi Chi has two rules for pulling off rescue shots:
"The first rule to remember when getting in trouble," Rodriguez says in his book, Golf Games You Gotta Play (buy it on Amazon), "is to remain calm. If you panic, then you will not play a good shot. If you are calm, then you start from a good foundation to start the recovery."
And don't try to be a hero. Remember, if your ball is in a bad enough position that you are trying a trouble shot, focus simply on improving your situation.
"The second rule is just try to play a shot good enough to get out of the trouble," Rodriguez says. "Do not be a hero unless you're absolutely sure you can pull off the shot. And chances are you cannot or you would not be in the trouble you are in in the first place."
Playing 'Rescue Ops'
In his book, cowritten by John Anderson, Rodriguez recommends dozens of games golfers can play either to practice playing under pressure or to work on specific parts of the game.
Rodriguez recommends a game he calls "Rescue Ops" (which is short for "Rescue Operations") for practicing trouble shots.
"I've never tried to play an impossible shot that I haven't tried in practice," Rodriguez says.
And Rescue Ops is simple: When you and a buddy are out for a round of golf, and you come across an area where you can attempt a recovery shot (say, thick, deep rough), each of you drop a ball and try the shot.
Rodriguez advises, "Drop a ball behind a tree or bury it down in the rough, then practice the play. Purposely give yourself a buried lie or a left-handed shot, and hit it while you're waiting for the line at the snack shack to dwindle. Idle time on the tee? Hit some shots off hardpan or pine straw while you wait. The best way to prepare for the worst is to deal with it before it happens."
Each time you and your buddy attempt a trouble shot, decide who pulled it off the best and award a point. Give each point a value, or assign a value to the overall bet.
If you want to be prepared to play trouble shots, you have to practice them, and Rescue Ops is a fun, competitive way to do so.
Just be sure you are never holding up golfers behind you in order to do this. (Rescue Ops is therefore best suited to days at the golf course without much traffic, but you can try shots even on busy days so long as you pay strict attention to maintaining your pace of play.)

Pointers for 3 Trouble Shots

"Every course has a little different layout and terrain, so practice the trouble shots you run into at your course," instructor Andrisen advises.
At Andrisen's home course, there are three trouble shots golfers run into more than others. Here are some quick bites from Andrisen on dealing with these scenarios.

Plugged Bunker Shot
This is a fairly easy shot to get out of the bunker, but difficult to get close to the hole.

  • Understand: Because the ball is in a hole, it will come out fairly low and with very little spin. Little spin will cause the ball to roll when it lands on the green.
  • Keys: Close the face of your sand or lob wedge. Next, close it even more. Did I mention, close the face? Finally, strike the sand fairly close to the ball.

Make sure you hit the sand hard enough to splash sand out of the bunker, and the ball should make it out, too.
Related tip:

Backhanded Shot
This is the shot the golfer in the photo above is trying to pull off.

In this situation, you cannot take your stance because a tree, bush, or severe slope is in your way. This shot is necessary when your only option is to stand on the opposite side of the ball. So you turn your back to the line of play and grasp the club with one hand (the bottom hand of your normal grip).

  • Understand: This is a difficult shot to hit more than 30 yards. So we are just going to take our medicine on this one.
  • Keys: Flip your seven iron around and stand very close to the ball with your back to your target.

You are going to use your dominant hand to hit the shot. Take lots of practice swings, and avoid your ankle! Trust me, this is much easier than trying to hit it left-handed.

Downhill Chip Shot
Several of the greens at Andrisen's home course are set into the hillside, which tests a golfer's ability to chip down to the putting surface.

  • Understand: Don't try to hit this shot high. The slope of the ground has already determined that this shot must be hit low.
  • Keys: The most important key is to make solid contact. You're going to use a basic chipping technique with one adjustment: angle your shoulders to match the incline of the slope.

Angling your shoulders in that way helps you swing with the slope. On a downhill chip, you will make a higher backswing and a lower follow-through.

Related tip:

More Recovery Shots to Try