Wedging Your Way onto a Leaderboard

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NEW ORLEANS ' Here in the Big Easy, not everything is. Golf is golf everywhere, and you have to get up to get down.
 
And sometimes, you have to do it in one putt. Players at this weeks Zurich Classic of New Orleans are finding out that wedge play ' full-swing and otherwise ' is one of the keys to staying into contention. And it will be in two weeks in Augusta as well.
 
That shouldnt be a surprise. The TPC Louisiana is a Pete Dye design (with Steve Elkington and Louisiana native Kelly Gibson as player consultants), so short-siding yourself is out of the question. Avoiding getting yourself into a bad spot takes as much brain as body.
 
Jay Williamson, who shot 69 Friday to get to within a stroke of overnight leader Briny Baird, cruised on solid wedge play. In Fridays round, Williamson whirled it to three feet on No. 1 from about 114 yards and made birdie. He got to two feet on the par 5 seventh from a similar distance; birdie again. A great sand save on No. 4 helped preserve his round.
 
I actually changed my wedges after [last weeks tournament in] Puerto Rico, Williamson said after Fridays round. I even put a 61-degree in there. I needed a different gap. Id carry four if I could.
 
When Saturdays round started, the only player in the top 10 on the leaderboard who definitely had a ticket to Augusta was Zurich defending champion Nick Watney. Everyone else, Williamson included, is trying to take advantage of the win-and-youre-in rule, an exemption category the Masters reactivated for this year.
 
Even those players who are already in the Masters field are thinking about what theyll need from their short games in two weeks. Woody Austin got in when he won the Stanford St. Jude in Memphis last summer.
 
Im experimenting with new wedges this week, Woody said before Saturdays round. Definitely thinking of what Ill need off tight lies. Woody is a staff player for Cleveland Golf, a company that made its reputation on solid short game tools.
 
The firm greens this week are also good preparation for Augusta, said Austin and many of his colleagues. Smallish putting surfaces all over TPC Louisiana, full of undulation and interest, challenge players to find the proper landing sector of each green ' much as they will have to do in the Masters.
 
The interesting thing is that whether discussing this tournament or the Masters, no one is talking much about driving the ball. You dont want to miss many fairways here ' Peter Lonard has fairway bunkers to blame for bogeys on both 15 and 18 on Friday ' but the players understand that the biggest challenges will be within 100 yards, and usually within 40. Thats a springtime ritual.
 
Its a lesson we could all benefit from, and certainly not news in the world of golf instruction. But hitting the ball long is so much fun that recreational players, even the disciplined ones, resist breaking off some time for short game practice. Even tuning up ones wedges, or getting them fitted, doesnt get the attention it deserves.
 
Except from chronic winners.
 
Something to think about this spring.