Breaking 100/90/80/plus 70: your monthly guide to the scoring basics

Jim McLean

Golf Digest Teaching Professional

Jim McLean, ranked No. 3 on Golf Digest’s list of 50 Greatest Teachers by his peers, is based at Doral Golf Resort and Spa in Miami.

To score your best, master the three scoring clubs

Golf is a game of many components and many skill sets. Even with 14 clubs to choose from, sometimes finding just one you can hit consistently can be a challenge. Often, players have trouble deciding which parts of the game deserve the most attention.

If you’re serious about taking your game to the next level, especially if you have limited time for practice, focus on the three clubs that have the greatest impact on your score: the driver, the wedge and the putter. On the pages that follow, I’ll draw on tips, images and drills from my new book, The Three Scoring Clubs, to help you drive the ball accurately and with power, hit on-target wedge shots and develop a dependable putting stroke.

Work on these three key areas and you’ll lower your scores dramatically, whatever your skill level. It’s that simple.

Rock your shoulders

I like beginners to feel the arms and shoulders forming a triangle. This should stay intact during the entire stroke, your arms and shoulders rocking like a pendulum to move the putter smoothly back and through on an even tempo (above). The stroke happens naturally and automatically. It’s like setting your car on cruise control. To hit your putts the proper distance, simply adjust the length of the stroke.

Set up to see the line

Set your head in a position that allows you to see your intended line. A good starting point is to have your eyes over the ball, or slightly inside it, along the line of the putt (below). A good golfer will adjust his head and eye-line to a position that lets him clearly see the target. Jack Nicklaus, for instance, sets his head behind the ball; he says it helps him look straight down the line at the hole.

The left hand helps square the face

On long putts, the putterface naturally rotates open and closed, always staying square to the arc of the stroke. Many pros, like John Daly, practice putts with the left hand only to groove a left-side lead action that squares the putter (above). Others prefer a stroke controlled by their dominant side, usually the right hand. Either way, practicing with one hand can help develop a fluid stroke and a feel for distance.

A pro grip

Copy the majority of top pros and use a reverse-overlap grip. Rest your left fore-finger across the first three fingers of your right hand. This grip will encourage a uniform connection with your hands.

Thumbs down

To ensure that your hands work together, make sure both thumbs point down the putter shaft, with the back of the left hand facing the target. This, along with the reverse-overlap of the fingers, gives the less-experienced player the best chance of putting consistently.

How to pitch it high

For normal pitch shots, play the ball near the midpoint of a narrow, open stance. Play the ball farther forward if you need to hit it higher (above). The backswing will have more turn in the shoulders, less in the hips; do not simply lift your arms. Hinge your wrists early so the hands and arms move upward into a position where you can bring the club down on a descending angle.

Hitting from rough

When your ball’s nestled in thick rough-like the Bermuda grass I’m playing from in the photo above-you need to alter your basic pitching technique. Play the ball back in your stance, and put most of your weight on your left foot. Swing back steeply, and pull the club down hard with your left arm, keeping the left wrist flat. Account for more roll after the ball lands on the green.

The best bunker drill ever

To gain speed and propel the ball the right distance out of the sand, make sure to let your right arm release freely and fully so the clubhead actually gets out in front of the hands. It’s a method Claude Harmon Sr. pioneered, and I’m convinced it’s the best.

Practice one-handed bunker shots, as Claude often taught. On the way back, cock the club earlier than you would on a fairway shot. Swing down with a free motion of the right hand. Be aggressive as you snap the club hard downward.

Try a different flat stick

The putter is as significant as the bullfighter’s sword because it is the club golfers depend on to finish the job. Sometimes a new model-there is a multitude of styles-can bring you renewed confidence or even help you improve your stroke. Peter Jacobsen, for instance, says a long putter helped him reclaim a stroke controlled by the arms and shoulders. Other pros practice with a belly putter, then go back to their regular model for tournament golf. Try that approach if you hinge your wrists, chop down at the ball or move your head excessively during the stroke.

Play the power fade

The controlled power fade is the perfect play not only for dogleg-rights and taking trouble out of play, but for conquering crosswinds. Here’s how to set up for this shot: Aim your body lines left of the target, and open the clubface slightly. Tee the ball higher and more forward than normal to ensure a clean upswing hit. Some players like to tee it lower for the fade, but too often that results in a high-spinning upshooter and a loss of distance. Swing the club back and through along your body lines.


Coming down, shift your hips toward the target before clearing them to the left. The lateral shift is the downswing trigger. It was for my college room-mate, Bruce Lietzke, who used the power fade to become one of the PGA Tour’s most accurate drivers in the 1980s and ’90s.


Shifting the hips laterally triggers the transfer of weight from your right side to your left side. More important, it drops your hands, arms and the club down into the perfect slot, what I call the “attack track.”


The key here is releasing the left hand through impact. This “under-release,” plus the weaker grip (described above), will promote a solid strike of club to ball, rather than a hang-on, block-cut shot with no power.

Breaking 100

Putting How golfers set up for putts varies, and for good reason. Personal preference aside, I believe a square address and a pendulum-style stroke usually will help high-handicappers putt more consistently. All great putters align the putterface square, or perpendicular, to the hole on straight putts or directly at the apex of the break on curving putts.

Applause, please, on putts

Want to feel the rotary motion of the putting stroke? Clap your hands together. Your palms arc as they meet in front of you. They don’t move in a straight line.

Don’t decelerate

A lot of golfers are taught to develop a putting stroke with a short backstroke and a long follow-through. But to finish long you have to go through the impact area slowly. This often leads to deceleration, a killer in putting. That’s why I say a longer backstroke and shorter finish will make you more likely to accelerate during the stroke.

Little putt, little arc

On short putts your hands barely move as the putter swings with little or no arc. As the distance increases, the inside-to-square-to-inside motion of the putter increases. The curved side of a level is a good guide for the path you want.

Breaking 90

Wedges Being a good wedge player is like having a life preserver when you’re stranded at sea. A well-struck wedge can help you save par or bogey when your approach shot misses the green. The more proficient you become with your wedges, the more they become scoring tools that allow you to knock it stiff from 100 yards and in.

Tie one on

How important is a body pivot, even on short shots? I’ll go so far as to tie a belt around a golfer’s arms so they hug the body; the only way you can hit the shot is with body rotation. Work on this feel as you practice pitch shots, and you’ll see.

Stay under the wind

When hitting downwind approach shots, many teachers will tell you to take less club and let the ball ride the breeze. I don’t agree. The best wind players take the same club, play the ball back in the stance and make a three-quarter backswing to produce a controlled punch shot. The ball stays under the wind, resulting in better distance control.

OK to look up

I’ve seen video of Ernie Els, Tiger Woods and other short-game artists playing small shots around the green. They all “look off ” the ball through impact. Why? It keeps the hands, arms and shoulders moving together through the shot. Don’t freeze over the ball through impact.

Breaking 80

Driver When the game was first played some 600 years ago in Scotland, the driver was called the Play-Club. It’s still a fitting name, because scoring your best starts with getting the ball in play. A good drive raises your confidence and allows you to play the game offensively rather than defensively. Here’s a go-to shot I recommend for the 70s-shooter.

Stay positive on the tee

At address, clean your mental slate of any previous bad drives. In fact, wait until any negative images completely clear from your mind. If they should pop into your head, step away and start your pre-shot routine again.

Widen your stance

When hitting driver, spread your feet wider than your shoulders. A wide stance promotes a shallow swing and an elongated flat spot through the hitting area. At address, the club handle should point between your navel and the crease of your left pant leg. Some big hitters lean the handle slightly away from the target, for contact on the upswing.

When to weaken

When setting up to play a power fade, turn your top hand slightly toward the target, so the “V” formed by your thumb and forefinger points between your right ear and chin.

Breaking 70

The learning process for golfers never stops. Whether it’s advice from magazines or from books like the one this article is adapted from or a shotmaking tip from a friend, keep experimenting. Today, established stars such as Vijay Singh aren’t afraid to try new putters, even new putting styles. Anything to stay fresh or gain an edge.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Golf Digest Companies

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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