The difference between a digger and a picker lies in the angle of the player’s downswing when he hits an iron shot. A player with a steep downswing is called a digger because his divots, as former PGA Tour pro Johnny Miller, writing in "Golf Digest, put it, are “the size of dinner plates.” A picker’s swing angle is shallower, meaning he will take “thin, shallow divots or no divot at all,” Miller said. In other words, he picks the ball off the ground, rather than digging into the turf.
Miller wrote that golfers have “always fallen into two basic categories” – diggers and pickers – but he didn't label either style as clearly more effective. He noted that when he played on the PGA Tour, beginning in 1969, players had to deal with more bad lies than today’s players, because courses are now better conditioned. The relatively poorer conditions in his day, Miller added, forced players to swing more steeply, so diggers were “common” on the tour. With today’s better-conditioned courses, Miller concluded, there are now more pickers.
The size of a player’s divot isn’t solely a function of her swing angle, but of the player’s weight shift, according to PGA professional Rick Sargent, writing on his website. He notes that the ultimate picker will hit off the back foot, rather than shifting her weight forward; she will swing up at the ball and take no divot at all. This style, however, can result “in many ‘thin’ shots” Sargent adds. Sargent advocates taking a divot when swinging an iron, but still doesn’t favor diggers over those pickers who take shallow divots. Either style can be effective, he explains, “as long as ball contact comes first,” prior to taking a divot.
Miller says most diggers and pickers “never change” their technique. But he cites Jack Nicklaus as an exception to the rule. Because course conditions generally improved throughout Nicklaus’ career, Miller said it was part of Nicklaus’ “genius” that he “transformed himself from a digger to a picker as courses gradually improved.” PGA professional Zach Allen, a PGA-certified instructor, notes in one of his videos that Tiger Woods moved in the opposite direction under swing coach Sean Foley. Earlier in his career, Woods would pick the ball “cleanly off the turf,” Allen says. Later, Woods used “much more compression with really putting that club against the turf.” Allen advises casual golfers to “know what your tendency is, whether you’re a picker, or a digger,” then to practice using the opposite technique, “so you’re able to hit both shots.”
Wedge play can present different challenges to diggers and pickers, particularly when they’re hitting bunker shots. Because they use a steeper angle of attack, diggers should use wedges with “more bounce and a wide sole,” according to PGA professional Jason Coffin. Pickers, conversely, will benefit from wedges with “less bounce and a more narrow sole.”