How to Stop Topping the Ball and Break 90

Jack Nicklaus has been a guest writer for Golf Digest for many years. Even now, he contributes to Golf Digest from time to time. Years ago, he had this to say about the problem of topping the ball.

The most common mistake that a skilled player makes is ‘cold topping’ the ball. There are few things more embarrassing than watching your tee shot skitter weakly off the tee box after you have topped it. You avoid cursing (if possible), and then look for something…anything to blame your poor shot on. ‘It was a gust of wind’…’I got something in my eye’…’You were talking in my backswing’…or my favorite…’There must be something wrong with that ball’. The truth simply is, ‘I made a poor swing’ “.

If this problem is the most common, as Jack says, amongst good players, it makes sense that all of us may suffer from the same mistake now and then. To start, let’s talk about how to stop topping the ball.

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How To Stop Topping The Ball

(Photo: Taken by Austin Lomeli. License: Creative Common)

Causes of topping the golf ball

  • Drop kick-swing too steep along with an inside out swing path
  • Near whiff-raising your spine angle up on your downswing
  • Thin skim-swing too steep with an outside in swing path
  • Overswing-swing too fast, delaying release of the golf club
  • Chicken Wing too steep on the downswing
  • Reverse Pivot-leaning away from the target at impact

These are some of the common causes of topping. Believe me, I have seen some cold tops on the golf course that are literally impossible to explain the origin of without multi-camera angles and an Oscar-winning cinematographer.

Chain Reaction-Physics 101

Have you ever topped the ball and heard the dreaded piece of advice from your playing partner that goes something like this? “You need to keep your head down”. Although that may seem like good advice, he/she has missed the mark.

Topping the ball comes from a chain reaction. First, the knees must remain flexed; then the torso must retain the spine angle; THEN the head must stay down. If you concentrate only on keeping your head down, you probably are still doomed to making a poor golf swing, due to other circumstances.

Circle the Wagons

Your golf swing is essentially a circle. It is a circle that moves on two separate planes, one that tilts as your spine angle increases or decreases. The other plane is controlled mainly by your shoulder turn. In addition to these planes, the circle (your golf swing) travels back and forth as you shift your weight. As we are talking about topping the ball, let’s assume that you have the two planes under control. We will simply look at how the circle (your swing) needs to be in the right place in order to avoid topping the ball.

This is your typical driver swing. Note the illustration on the left. The circle (your swing) has intersected the ball slightly on the upswing, as your driver swing should, striking the ball just below the equator and sending it on a majestic ball flight. In the illustration on the right, the circle has shifted no more than two inches to the left, almost missing the ball entirely.

Now that we have a good idea of what’s causing this problem, let’s look at some drills that can help us stop topping the golf ball.

Drills to stop topping the ball

Tailbone drill

In this drill, I want you to find a spot where you can swing while keeping your tailbone against the wall. It is more than likely that you are going to have to do this drill without a club, at least at first. However, if you can find a half wall somewhere, you would benefit from the feedback you will get by performing this drill with a club in your hand.

If you can’t find a half wall, but you still want this feedback, just be very careful and take it slow. You don’t want to break anything. Either way, the goal is to try and keep your tailbone against the wall. The one thing we are working on here is to maintain your posture throughout the golf swing. This drill is excellent for curing many other mistakes as well.

Ball back

A very simple thing to do to help stop topping the ball is not really a drill at all. Simply move the ball back in your stance. It doesn’t matter if it is your driver, fairway wood or even your irons, this should help get the circle (your swing) in a better position to eliminate cold topping.

Posturing for the crowd

As discussed, losing correct posture can result in losing your spine angle and literally “standing up” in the middle of your downswing, thus raising the circle (your swing) and topping the ball. Try this swing though. As your shoulders start your downswing, try to keep the left one down throughout impact. Let your right shoulder almost pivot under your chin on the follow through. Make sure the right shoulder stays below the level of the left all the way through impact and then stretch to follow through.

Reverse engineer the problem

A “reverse pivot” typically is a cause for slicing the ball, but it can also lead to topping the ball. Try this drill. Place a golf club on the ground two inches behind the ball along the target line. As you take your backswing, a proper weight transfer would have you gently push the butt end of the club on the ground away from the target.

If, on your backswing, your weight is coming forward instead of back, and you miss the butt end of the club completely, you’ve been trapped in the deadly “reverse pivot”. This is not a full swing drill. It’s meant solely to identify whether you suffer from a “reverse pivot”.

Keep a level head

To do this drill and get immediate feedback, you will need to enlist the help of someone. This drill is meant to help work on keeping your torso and head from lifting up as you swing. As you get into your setup, have a friend hold her driver by the head. They then stand directly opposite you, reaching out and hovering the club just above your head, holding it there from backswing all the way through impact.

They will have to be the one giving you feedback. If you can videotape this drill, it will provide great feedback as well. What you are looking for is whether or not your head is moving, either during your backswing or on your downswing.

At first, do this drill without hitting the ball. You don’t want to dead shank one of your friend’s ankles. The goal is not necessarily to keep moving your head totally but to limit the movement. Eventually, as you become used to swinging with someone standing right there, you can hit balls while doing this drill.

Continue on your quest for the perfect golf swing, knowing that you will never get there. It’s not the destination that brings the most satisfaction, it’s the journey.

Breaking 90 – What’s the Big Deal?

It’s Saturday afternoon and you’re coming home from a rather successful day on the golf course. You’ve fleeced your buddies to the tune of $20.00, shot under your 20 handicap by posting a 91, and even made two birdies on the day. Everything is fine until your wife asks you what you shot. When you proudly answer 91, she says, “Oh, too bad, you were so close to breaking 90”. Everybody knows that breaking 90 is a goal for so many golfers. Statistics indicate the following:

  • 5% of adult golfers shoot below 80
  • 21% shoot between 81 and 90
  • 29% shoot between 90 and 99
  • 24% shoot between 100 and 110
  • 21% shoot over 110

Do the math…only 26% of all adult golfers in the world break 90 on a regular basis. If and when you achieve this, it puts you in a relatively exclusive class.

The way I look at things, breaking 90 is more of a mindset than it is a swing issue. In addition, you must be able to control your adrenaline as you near your goal. Playing those last 2 or 3 holes trying to avoid a big number can be very stressful.

Tips to help you break 90

Improve your short game

Whether it be by getting up and down from around the green more often or taking fewer putts, shaving strokes off your handicap is easier to achieve if you can consistently be a better player around the greens. My wife was able to improve her game by an average of 10 shots by spending some time actually practicing her putting. She used to hate putting. Now, she actually looks forward to it.

Avoid an outside in swing path

All golfers should aspire to have an inside out swing path to some degree. If you fall into the trap of swinging too hard, which is common of golfers in this handicap category, your swing may deteriorate into an outside in/over the top mistake. To keep from doing this, try driving your legs. Start by bumping your hips toward the target. This should help in keeping your head and weight back and encourage an inside out swing path.

Stay away from a high number

If there is a particular hole, or holes, on the course that just eats you up, develop a “personal par” attitude. I remember having to do this. I was a golfer who hated to give in to the course. If it said on the scorecard that it was a par four, then I would do my damnedest to make a four. Sometimes that meant I would be overly aggressive when hitting my tee shot.

At times I would talk myself into an approach that was very difficult. I just had to make par when perhaps I should have settled for my “personal par”. What I mean by personal par is this. Even though the scorecard reads par is four, maybe a five is what you should be striving for. Do this one or two times per round and you might eliminate that high number that keeps you from breaking 90.

Control your driver

Sounds easy, right? It can be. If, at the start of your game, your driver is a bit off, put it in the bag for the day. Hit a 3 wood or even a hybrid off the tee. You can’t make a par with your first shot, but you can certainly guarantee at least a double bogey with it.

Don’t play the scorecard

I know it’s difficult, and you probably know if you are close to that magic number of +18 or not, but try not to look at your scorecard after every hole. All this will do is make that chip on your shoulder seem like a cinder block. Try playing the golf course three holes at a time. Only mark your score down on the 3rd, 6th, 9th, 12th, 15th and 18th holes. This might help you concentrate on your game, not on the final result.

The final tip I have is for all golfers, not just the ones trying to achieve a milestone such as breaking 90:

Never hit two bad shots in a row.



Remember the words of one of the games leading sports psychologists, Bob Rotella:

Golf is not a game of perfect.

What we should aim for in golf is not perfection, but rather improvement. If you do that you will hit tops less and less often, you will develop your game and become a better player, and at the right time, you will break 90.

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About the author

John Scott

John Scott is a 3 hcp elite golfer and certified club fitter, with over 40 years of golf experience. He is a former Club Champion at Priddis Greens, 2 times Champion of Chinook Valley Mens Open, former Alberta Interclub Champion, and a professional golf writer.