Jim McLean Golf Teacher: Driving Golfers Through Corridors of Success

    The term “system teacher” comes with certain connotations, many of them negative. It implies a rigid, “one-swing-fits-all” approach no one wants to be tagged with; so-called system teachers seem to make easy targets for fellow golf instructors and other critics.

    Is Jim McLean a system teacher? Yes and no, according to the man himself. Label him what you like, but there’s no denying McLean’s runaway success.

    Anyone who has read Golf Digest or watched the Golf Channel in the past 20 years should be familiar with McLean. The man is everywhere. Based at Miami’s Doral Golf Resort and Spa, McLean also has schools in California, Texas, Utah, Mexico and Spain. He’s produced numerous bestselling books and DVDs, won a boatload of awards and taught more than 100 professional tour players.

    He also coined the term “X-Factor” (the golf version, anyway). In short, X-Factor measures the difference between a player’s shoulder turn and hip turn on the backswing, as illustrated by drawing lines from shoulders to hips in the form of an X.

    McLean’s basic premise: The bigger one’s X-Factor, the greater his power.

    Add book titles like The Building Block Approach and The Eight-Step Swing, and you can see how the “system teacher” designation would stick to McLean.

    For his part, McLean acknowledges on his website, “I do have a system and a strict method of how we teach.” He adds, however, that there’s room for each individual to find his own golf swing provided he nails the fundamentals of body motion and club action – the “corridors of success,” McLean calls them. 

    McLean certainly found his own path to prosperity.

    He grew up a golf prodigy in Seattle and played for the University of Houston’s powerhouse program, where he earned All-America honors alongside teammates like Fuzzy Zoeller and Bruce Lietzke. McLean is one of the few golfers in history to qualify for the U.S. Junior Amateur, U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open and U.S. Senior Open; he played in the 1972 Masters as an amateur, too, and made the cut.

    His playing career fizzled at the professional level, but McLean found his calling as a teacher. He’s currently ranked the No. 3 instructor in America by Golf Digest and commands $2,500 for a half-day private lesson.

    System teacher or not, McLean has carved out quite a niche.

    Famous students: Sergio Garcia, Gary Player, Keegan Bradley, Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange, Tom Kite, Hal Sutton, Bernhard Langer, Christie Kerr 

    Core philosophy: McLean was heavily influenced by his own teacher, 1964 U.S. Open champion Ken Venturi, with whom he worked in the 1970s. Venturi taught McLean the value of consistency, of establishing a set of fundamentals that, while they may be tweaked to account for individual traits, are relatively standard among all successful golfers.

    McLean took Venturi’s lessons a step further, breaking the game down into four segments: the long game, the short game, course management, and the mental/emotional element. McLean believes a teacher’s first task is to determine the area in which a player is weakest, then go from there.

    As for the X-Factor, the concept has occasionally come under fire. McLean defends his best-known principle, saying much of the criticism is leveled by teachers who don’t properly understand it.

    In a broad sense, the X-Factor has been interpreted as advocating an intentional restricting of hip rotation on the backswing, with maximum shoulder turn to create the widest possible gap between the two. McClean insists that’s not necessarily the case.

    His studies have shown that the average X-Factor among tour pros is 40-50°, which may be achieved with a huge (unrestricted) hip turn provided the shoulders make a big move, too. For example, a 100° shoulder turn paired with 60° of hip rotation – a very large amount -- equals an X-Factor of 40.

    Theory aside, McLean has worked with a wide enough range of golfers to prove that his is no cookie-cutter approach. 

    Classic McLean-style tip: Observing that most amateurs fail to release the arms and hands properly through impact, McClean uses the simple, club-free “slap drill” to ingrain an effective action.

    Here’s how it’s done:

    • Assume your normal address position with both arms stretched in front of you, touching the palms together.
    • Leave the left hand in place while pulling the right hand back, as though swinging a club.
    • Bring the right hand down, slapping the left hand and rolling it over – palm facing sky, knuckles to the ground.
    • Do it over and over, and repeat regularly to learn and instill a good release.