Break 90 every time : The middle-handicapper’s complete guide to scoring – golf

Johnny Miller

I spent my career on the PGA Tour doing whatever I could to put myself in the best position to make the best score. For a brief period in the 1970s, I could do that better than anyone in the game. During my career as a broadcaster for NBC, I’ve studied the course-management skills of the greatest players on the PGA, Senior and LPGA tours. And since I play in more corporate outings and pro-ams these days, I have witnessed the mood swings and struggles the average player can experience in the course of a round. My advice will not only help you hit better shots, it will help put you in the best position on each hole. And when you find yourself in some of those not-so-great positions, it will help you get out with more confidence and less damage to your score.

If you can incorporate all of this information, inspiration and advice into your game, I believe you’ll improve your scores, but more importantly, you’ll get more enjoyment out of every round. As I tell my pro-am partners: Enjoy the day. The sun is shining, the grass is green and you’re out playing golf with friends.

Stance and posture

Watch a major-league shortstop as the pitcher goes into his windup. You won’t see him standing there frozen, bent at the waist. He’s in a slight crouch on the balls of his feet, ready to jump in any direction if the ball is hit. Your stance and posture should be closer to the shortstop’s than to that of a statue. So many players get into a dead position over the ball, with stiff legs and an uncomfortable bend at the waist. That kind of position almost ensures that you’ll make an armsy swing–one that doesn’t get any of those crucial big muscles in the legs, torso and back involved.

The next time you hit practice balls, try getting into a more athletic position, with the knees flexed and loose and your head centered above your legs. Keep your head up. You want to feel as if you’re looking down over your cheekbones. You can make a better turn this way, and you’ll be able to make a more balanced swing. That leads to more consistent contact and better ball-striking.

You must also remember that the ball’s position in relation to your stance changes for each shot. Let your arms hang naturally from your shoulders while you are in your stance for a given club; where the clubhead hits the ground is the distance the ball should be from your body.


Good players have a variety of swing tempos. On the PGA Tour, Ernie Els is called the “Big Easy” because his swing looks so effortless. Fred Couples’ swing is the same. But Jose Maria Olazabal and Nick Price have had success with very fast tempos. All of these swings have one thing in common: whatever the tempo, the speeds of the backswing and downswing are the same.

Keeping track of your tempo is easy. You can use a basic cadence drill–something like “John-ny Mil-ler” or “Ar-nold Pal-mer”–and make your backswing on the first word and your downswing on the second.


Space-age materials and cutting-edge technology make it easier than ever for the average player to hit drives straighter, long-iron shots stronger, and approach shots with more spin. With perimeter weighting in irons, ultra-light graphite shafts and redesigned clubheads in woods, golf is a much more forgiving game than it used to be.

All irons used to be forged by hand out of superheated metal. Forged irons have most of their weight centered behind the sweet spot on the clubface. If hit precisely, a forged iron offers feel and feedback you can’t get in a cast club. But if you aren’t a pro or a very talented amateur, you don’t hit that small sweet spot time after time after time. You can still buy forged irons, but most irons today are cast clubs with clubheads made by pouring molten metal into a die to create a club’s shape. When clubmakers developed the ability to cast clubs, they found that by moving the weight to the outer edges–or perimeter–of the iron, they could enlarge the sweet spot and make the club much more forgiving on off-center hits. That means you can hit the ball a little off the toe or heel and still get decent results.

Couple perimeter weighting with ultralight shafts made of graphite, which is lighter, stronger and gives me more shock-absorbing benefit than steel, and today’s player holds a 4-iron that is no more difficult to hit than a 7-iron in 1973. So, if you don’t already have them, invest in a set of perimeter-weighted irons.

I also believe that the average 90-shooter could cut five shots off his or her score by adding two clubs: a 15-degree 2-wood or strong 3-wood to replace the driver, and a 7-wood utility club to replace the 2- or 3-iron. The control and improved ball flight you get from a club with more loft will offset the lost distance off the tee. If you don’t believe me, try this experiment: The next time you play a casual round, whenever a tee shot you hit with a driver ends up in the rough, pick up the ball, back up 15 yards, and hit it from the middle of the fairway. From the short grass, you’ll have an easier shot to the green eight out of 10 times.

The hardest club for amateurs to hit consistently well is the longest iron, either the 2- or 3-iron. Because of the long iron’s comparative lack of loft, any sidespin created with your swing will be accentuated, because the ball doesn’t crawl up the face as much as it does on a club with a more lofted face. You can handle this problem two ways: spend a lot of time on the practice range working with the 3-iron until you become comfortable with it, or take it out of your bag and replace it with a 7-wood. A good 7-wood is not only easier to hit than a 3-iron, but it’s also a lot more versatile. You can play it from medium-height rough or from an iffy lie in the fairway. It’s also easier to get a 7-wood airborne, because most of the weight is located lower in the clubhead. That’s especially helpful for players who sometimes feel as if they need to hit up on long-iron shots, because they don’t trust the loft to do it for them. Hitting up on a shot–or adding loft to the club at impact–is a cardinal sin in golf. It’s one of the easiest ways to be bad.

If you hit your long irons and driver well, take a fairway wood out and add a third wedge. It can really help your game. You probably already carry a 52-degree pitching wedge and a 56-degree sand wedge. A 60-degree lob wedge is great for short shots around the green that require a lot of height. You could also carry a 58-degree wedge with little or no bounce and use it as a short-approach club from inside 100 yards. Whatever you choose, give yourself flexibility. Don’t carry a club you may use only once every two rounds.

On the course: Tee shots

The most important way to break 90 consistently is to make good decisions on the course. The average 90-shooter loses more strokes due to poor club and shot selection than to a bad swing or missed shot. I’m convinced of that. I could caddie for the average 25-handicapper and take 10 shots off his or her score instantly–not by overhauling the swing, but by helping with on-course decision-making.

The biggest challenge you face on the tee–even before you decide what kind of shot you want to hit–is changing your mind-set from “driving range” to “on the course.” Most people who hit balls with the driver at the range don’t really aim–they just hit it out there somewhere. Then, when they get on the first tee, the edges of the rough and the trees running down both sides make the fairway seem two feet wide. You can avoid this by being more precise in your practice. Always hit range balls at a target, whether you’re hitting a 9-iron or a driver. You might be standing there admiring the 245-yard screamer you just hit without noticing that you pulled it 30 yards left.

Once you get a little more comfortable on the tee, then you can start to think about strategies that will make the hole play more easily for you. The goal for each hole is to hit a tee shot that will give you the greatest margin for error and simultaneously put you in the best position for the next shot. On a straight hole, that means aiming for the landing point that accepts the shot you hit most frequently and penalizes you the least for your most common mistake. For a slicer, that means aiming for the left edge of the fairway. I’ve played with amateurs who insisted on aiming right down the middle of the fairway just because they nail one tee shot in 10 dead straight. So for the entire day, they’re playing most of their approach shots from the right rough. If that amateur would just aim for the left edge of the fairway, he could be playing from the short grass on nine out of 10 tee shots. You can get better without changing a thing about your game if you learn your tendencies and play them.

For most players–male players, that is–getting better also means checking your testosterone at the clubhouse. The game rewards people who control their egos, and the sooner you realize that, the sooner your scores will go down. At pro-ams, I often have to pry the driver out of my amateur partner’s hand on the tee of a 320-yard par 4 with water down the right side, even though every drive he’s hit has been a 20-yard slice. It’s tough to convince him that the best shot is a 200-yard 3-wood, which leaves a nice, full 120-yard 8-iron or 9-iron into the green. Even if he hits a career 270-yard drive, he has a 50-yard pitch left–a shot even tour pros don’t like to play.

I realize that there’s always the temptation to pull off the miracle shot. I call that temptation “The Blonde.” It’s like when a sexy blonde propositions a happily married man. The easiest thing in the world is to say yes. Golf can be the same. The narrow landing area off to the left, 235 yards away, is The Blonde. Forget The Blonde! Aim for the fat part of the fairway. Some people think it’s heroic to go for the gambling shot. Ac-tually, it’s stupid. It’s The Blonde. Boring is good. Think about the odds. If you make it one time out of 20, the 19 times you miss translate into double bogey or worse. Do the math.

On the course: Approach shots

When I’m standing over an average approach shot in a tournament, the number of calculations that go through my mind the instant before I pull a club from the bag would terrify the average player. The most obvious factors are the conditions: wind, humidity, elevation, lie. But beyond that, like a pool player, I’m thinking about my next shot as well. I know I don’t want to leave myself a downhill or sidehill putt. If the grain of the green is going away from me, I also know that my approach shot will bounce three or four extra yards. If the greens are hard, like the ones at Augusta, I know that any shot that lands within 30 feet of the hole is going to bounce over the green. But when the greens are softer, I can be more aggressive and go after the flag. If I’m leading and trying to be more conservative, I have to make sure that my miss is on the fat part of the green. I’m also thinking about my physical condition. Am I tired? Pumped? If the adrenaline is flowing, I’ll usually use less club and swing harder. A harder swing also promotes a fade, which flies higher and lands with more spin. A draw will fly lower and longer and roll more when it lands.

All of these things register in about half a second. Then I pull the club, brush the grass with my practice swing and then take my real swing. Follow my example when you’re on the course. Go through your own set of calculations to help pick the shot that will give you the most room for error–in other words, the shot that even in a worst-case scenario won’t be the end of the world.

On the course: Red–yellow–green

If you’ve put yourself in good position with your tee shot, it’s time to take advantage of it with a strong approach. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should be aiming for every flag.

Many amateurs stripe one down the middle of the fairway off the tee, and when they get to their ball, they automatically line up the next shot right at the flag and fire away without a second thought. If you want to break 90 consistently, break yourself of that habit. I divide pin locations into three colors: red, yellow and green, just like a traffic light. “Green” means that I’ve got a good lie and good yardage (I’m not between clubs), that the green is flat or angled toward me, and that the pin is in an accessible place (like the center of the green) and away from any bunkers or trouble. “Green” means go, and I play an aggressive shot and try to hit it close.

“Red” means that I have a suspect lie or bad distance, or that I’m playing from the wrong side of the fairway (instead of being able to play it up a chute between bunkers guarding the green, the shot has to be played over sand or other hazards), or that the flag is cut close to water or a bunker. For a “red” flag, I play very conservatively toward the fat part of the green and concentrate on making my two-putt par. Let me give you an example. If I hit my tee shot into the right rough and I’m stuck with a slight downhill lie, I know I’m not going to be able to hit a high shot. If the flag is at the front of the green, just a few paces behind a stream, I also know that I can’t run a low shot onto the green, which is what the lie dictates. I have two options. I can take a lot more club and blow one onto the back of the green and take my chances with my putter, or I can lay up short of the stream and rely on my short game. Either choice is better than trying to hit a high shot from a mediocre downhill lie.

“Yellow” flags fall somewhere in between. If I’m really swinging the club well or I need to make up some shots, I might consider going for it. If I’m tired or protecting a lead, I play a more conservative shot.

Tailor a system to your own game. I’m sure you have clubs and shots you love to play. When you get the chance to hit them from reasonably good lies and the pin is in a good location, go for it! But be smart enough to take the gamble out of it when the odds aren’t in your favor. It’s often better to miss the green completely to the safe side than to gamble and go for a pin that’s tucked next to a deep bunker or water hazard. You could be 15 feet from the flag but at the bottom of a deep bunker with little green to work with. On the other hand, you could have an easy 70-foot chip from the other side of the green.

When you do decide to go for a “green” flag, keep in mind one important piece of advice. Most 90-shooters step off the yardage and pull a club based on their optimum shot. For example, if you hit a perfectly-struck 5-iron 160 yards, your tendency is to use that club when you have 160 to the flag. You set yourself up to fail, because the only way you can hit it close is to hit a career shot. The best thing to do in that situation is to hit a 4-iron with a smooth swing. If you kill it, you might be 10 yards past the flag. If you hit it well, you’re somewhere around the hole. If you hit it not so well, you’re on the front part of the green or just off. Don’t try to be a hero. Putting a smoother swing on a longer club is always the better play.


Every good professional golfer, from an aggressive swinger like Sergio Garcia to a controlled technician like Annika Sorenstam, reduces the loft on his or her middle and short irons just before impact. That’s called “covering the ball.” If you took the club out of my hands at impact, you’d see that my right palm faces the target and is angled slightly toward the ground. I’m swinging down and through the ball. The shaft of the club is staying vertical long after the clubhead passes my left toe, and my right hand won’t turn over until it gets to my left pocket.

Every bad player does the opposite–usually because he or she isn’t convinced the loft on the club is enough to get the ball airborne. Once you try to scoop the shot into the air by rotating the right palm under and up toward the sky, at best you’re going to hit a high, weak shot. In fact, most of the worst swing problems beginners have, from reverse pivoting to coming over the top, create more loft. With that right palm upward, not only does the club have added loft, but the face is flared open, causing even more of a slice. It is impossible to hit consistently good shots if you add loft.

Fixing a slice

The first thing to remember about slicing is that it’s the easiest thing to do in golf. If you want to hit a slice, take the club back to the top, then swing down as hard as you can. Your arms beat your hands down to the ball, and your hands can’t quite catch up. You don’t have time to square the clubface. So the first thing you can do to beat a slice is work on tempo. And tempo isn’t just taking it back slower. Most people hear that tip and think slow–slow–slow, OK–kill it! The key to good tempo is to keep the club speed the same during the backswing and the downswing.

But tempo alone won’t fix a persis-tent slice. For the slicer, two things are happening in the impact zone. First, you’re gripping the club too tightly with the left hand. The tension in those fingers keeps you from releasing the clubhead through impact. Not one person in a thousand grips the club lightly enough. One way to free the muscles in the hands and wrists is to try taking your regular grip on a 6- or 7-iron, then letting go with the last three fingers of your left hand. Take a few practice swings, then hit some balls. The modified grip makes it much easier for the club to release.

Second, your right palm is facing upward at impact, which means the clubface is open. I’m sure you’re familiar with the results–high, weak shots to the right. You’re going to have to learn how to hit the left side of the range. The best way I know to beat that slice is to take some half-swings, consciously turning the right palm downward at impact each time. You should start slinging hooks out there in no time. Work your way up to three-quarter-speed shots, ones that still hook. Then, just get more and more aggressive with your swing. The harder you swing, the straighter the ball will fly. That’s because when your arms speed up, the clubface will open slightly. Those same hard swings that used to produce big slices will now straighten out the hook.

Practice this move to get into good impact position

I’ve developed a drill that will help get your arms, club and body correctly aligned at impact. Take your regular stance, then make a regular backswing. Instead of swinging through, bring your arms down to hip height, then stop. At that point, make sure that your right elbow is touching your right hip. Then point the butt end of the club directly at the ball. From that position, swing through, hitting the ball. Practice this drill. You’ll be in great position at impact and your ball striking will improve.

Use a neutral grip to get a good release

In the neutral grip (near left), which I recommend for most players, the V’s created by the crease of your thumb and the side of your palm point toward your right ear. In a weak grip (center), those V’s point toward the middle of the forehead. In a strong grip (right), the Vs point toward the right armpit. I like the neutral grip, because it helps both hands work together and release through the hitting area.

Play enough break and you’ll make more long putts

It might be a cliche, but the old adage about missing on the “amateur side”–the low side of the hole–holds true for most players trying to break 90. Most amateurs never read enough break in a putt of 10 feet or longer. As a result, they hit it, and the ball breaks across the hole and below it, and it never has a chance to go in. If you allow for a little extra break, the ball still has a chance to catch the top edge and fall in.

Use the scorecard as your course computer

In the extra boxes on your scorecard, make it a habit to keep track of some numbers that will help you determine which parts of your game need work. Create a mark (a check or an X will do) that shows when you hit the fairway from the tee on a par 4 or par 5. If you missed to the left, shade the lower-left corner of the square. If you missed on the right, shade the lower-right corner. In the center of the box, jot down the club you used for your second shot on the hole. You’ll get an idea of what clubs you’re hitting a lot and the end result. In the lower box, jot down the estimated distance of your first putt on the green. In the upper-right corner of the same box, record the number of putts it took you to finish out. When you finish your round, a two-minute glance at your scorecard will tell you everything you need to know about the day, and what to work on at the range.

Hit with the palm down for crisp shots

Good players reduce the effective loft of the club at impact by “covering the ball,” or angling their right palm toward the ground.

Excerpted from Breaking 90 with Johnny Miller (The Callaway Golfer). Copyright [C] 2000 by Callaway Editions, New York, N.Y.

COPYRIGHT 2000 New York Times Company Magazine Group, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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