The first rule is this: anytime you have to hit off of—or out of—something as unnatural as leaves or pine needles, you are going to need a punch shot, a shot with a low trajectory where the accent is on straightness. Usually you will not be shooting onto a green but at a spot near the green, and if it is a course as wooded as Augusta National you will be hitting between trees. Therefore forget about the distance involved and concentrate on accuracy. Your first job is to get to the fairway so the next shot will be clear. If you can do that and, at the same time, roll close to the green, you have really done something.
The principle of hitting off of pine needles or leaves—or wherever there is nothing solid beneath the ball—is the same as that used in picking a shot clean. You have got to hit the ball—and nothing but the ball. But you also have to get the ball up, which can be difficult when there is little but air under it. I like to take one more club for the shot than I usually would—say a five-iron instead of a six—play the ball slightly forward and stop the swing at the three-quarter point. Ordinarily this would mean the ball would not get up in the air well, but because there is no turf under the ball the club face itself can get down to give the shot loft, and the three-quarter swing—the punch—makes it much easier to keep the ball straight.
The shot can be used for that still more difficult situation when the ball is sitting amid some debris, even with twigs directly behind it so that you have to hit twigs, ball and all. Again, use one more club than usual. And stay with the punch shot. One last reminder: the more twigs and debris that seem to be in the way, the more you will want to close the club face to help cut through the junk. You can get at least 100 yards on this shot and frequently much more, depending on the lie. But don't mistake a log for a twig. I don't have a log shot.
ROOM AT THE TOP
I am no trick-shot artist, so you probably would not believe me if I told you how to ricochet a ball off a rock, billiard style, or hit an upside-down wedge between your legs. There are certain occasions, however, and they come up frequently, where all of us have to use an unnatural swing to get out of an unfortunate place. These are the times when you have ended up so near an obstruction—a fence, a rock, a tree trunk, a low-hanging branch—that you must manipulate the shot without room for a back-swing or a follow-through.
In either case—the limited backswing or the limited follow-through—you should follow the same procedure. Let us say it is your backswing that is restricted. Begin to attack the problem by seeing how far you can lean forward, shifting your weight all the way onto your left foot while still maintaining enough balance to hit the shot. Next, address the ball off your right toe—way back there. With these moves you have immediately created some extra room. Now the hardest part. Select the most lofted club you can for the desired distance, because you need that extra shortness of shaft; and even then, you should choke down on the grip to gain still more room.
With the ball being addressed that far off the right foot, the natural tendency is to smother the shot with the club face, so open the face to compensate for this. The swing is going to be more of a chop stroke, taking the club abruptly up and hitting almost straight down. You can get surprising distance with this shot, depending, naturally, on how much of a backswing you can take and how much club you use.
If the problem is not having enough room to follow through, simply reverse the logic. Play the ball forward with the weight on your right heel, choke down on the club, square the face and hit the same punch shot that I have described at left.
Granted, these are awkward, uncomfortable shots at best—low, ugly, formless things. But they will roll a long, long way and can be big stroke-savers.