Causes and Cures: Topped Golf Shots and Ground Balls

For an activity that's supposed to be fun, golf causes an awful lot of dread. What golfer hasn't quaked in his cleats while others watch him hit the day's opening tee shot? And who hasn't topped the ball weakly down the fairway in that very situation?

While some topped shots result from jumpy nerves, others are rooted in poor swing mechanics. Following are common causes of this humiliating result, and cures that will help you banish the top from your repertoire:

  • Cause: Anxiety -- Any time we're nervous over a shot, the tendency is to swing more quickly and pull up early in anticipation of the result. Usually, we don't have to look very far.
  • Cure: Slow down and release tension – Any time you feel the pulse racing, make a conscious effort to move more deliberately. Long, deep breaths help too. Once you've set up to the ball, don't hold the club too tightly. A grip pressure of 5 (on a 1-10 scale) or less will keep your arms loose and foster a nice, full backswing. Finally, focus intently on the back of the ball until it has left the clubface – chances are, it'll be airborne.
  • Cause: Reverse pivot – Your weight should shift to the right foot on the backswing (for right-handed golfers), then left on the downswing and finish. Far too many players suffer from a “reverse pivot,” when the exact opposite shift occurs. This can cause the club to bottom out well behind the ball and barely graze it on the upswing.
  • Cure: Repair your weight shift – Here are two great drills to get you moving properly back and through:
  • The Best Slice Correction Tip in Golf
  • Stop Reverse Pivot with this Practice Drill
  • Cause: Poor ball position – Play the ball too far forward (left) in your stance and the club will reach the bottom of its arc too soon, nicking the top of the ball on the upswing. This may be exacerbated by the reverse pivot described above.

    Cure: Ball back in your stance – There's a certain amount of subjectivity involved in ball position, but in general, it should be opposite your left heel when hitting the driver. Move the ball slightly to your right as clubs get shorter. Experiment with your ball position at the driving range to determine what works best for you.

Causes and Cures – Topped Shots and Ground Balls

Causes and Cures – Topped Shots and Ground Balls

One goal that every golfer has when they take the club back away from the ball is simply to get the shot in the air. Even if the ball doesn't fly perfectly toward your target, just getting it off the ground is enough to avoid embarrassment in front of your friends and other golfers. Also, as far as your score is concerned, getting the ball off the ground can help to keep you away from trouble. There are plenty of occasions during a round of golf where you have to hit over some sort of obstacle, so the ability to consistently send your shots into the air is something that will greatly help your scores.
For the beginning golfer, hitting the ball into the air might be a little easier said than done. Sure, most golfers can get the ball airborne at least some of the time – but you want to be able to get air under the ball all of the time. Unless you can count on your ball to get off the ground each and every time to take the club back, you won't be able to properly plan your shots as you make your way around the course.

Getting the ball into the air requires a combination of good technique, ample preparation, and focused execution. Simply hitting a few shots on the driving range prior to starting your round might not be enough to get the job done. Instead, you might need to set aside time for some dedicated practice sessions where you can fine tune your mechanics and work on repeating your swing over and over. Fortunately, these practice sessions don't have to be lengthy to be effective – even spending a half an hour at the driving range once or twice a month can get you on the right track.

Once you have cleared the hurdle of hitting topped shots and ground balls, you can move on to refining other parts of your game. Golf becomes far more interesting when you can reliably get the ball in the air on each swing, because you will be able to start planning shot shapes, picking specific targets, and more. Put in the time now to learn how to get the ball in the air and your future on the golf course will be much more exciting.

All of the instruction below is based on a right handed golfer. If you happen to play left handed, please reverse the directions as necessary.

A Simple Problem

A Simple Problem

While it can be frustrating to hit topped shots and ground balls, the problem at the heart of the matter is quite simple. When you hit a topped shot, you can be sure that the club make contact too high on the ball. Instead of bringing the leading edge of your club down into the ground – so that the equator of the ball is hit with the sweet spot – you will have taken the leading edge and put it right into the middle of the ball. When that leading edge hits the ball instead of the sweet spot, none of the loft of the club will be able to help you. As a result, the ball shoots along the ground.

The difference between a good shot and a ground ball is literally a fraction of an inch. If your club comes into the ball even a half inch lower to the ground, the entire result of the shot can be different. The margin for error is small when you are swinging a golf club, so you don't have to be far off to wind up with a disappointing result. Lowing the path of your swing by less than an inch may be all you need to do in order to hit high, beautiful shots.

Of course, as you already know, it can be difficult to lower that swing path properly. If you have been dealing with this problem for some time, you already have built bad habits into your swing that need to be corrected. It may take some time to work out those old habits and build in new ones, but your effort will be rewarded. Once your swing path is lowered to the point that the leading edge can make its way under the ball, you will once again see shots that soar up into the sky.

So why is your swing path too high in the first place? There are many potential causes, but following are three of the most common –

  • Poor balance. Many amateur golfers struggle with poor balance, and one of the side effects of that problem can be topped shots. You need to have your center of gravity in the correct place if you are going to strike the ball cleanly time after time. Specifically, players who hit ground balls are leaving too much weight on their right foot as they come down into the ball. When your weight gets stuck on your foot in the downswing, the club will bottom out before the ball – meaning it will be on the way back up when it actually arrives at impact. As it heads back up away from the ground, the club is very likely to contact the ball with the leading edge instead of the sweet spot. Staying on balance will allow you to control the positioning of the bottom of your swing, which will allow you to avoid the dreaded ground ball.
  • Arm-only swing. The whole body needs to be involved in a good golf swing – and when it isn't, bad things can happen. One way to hit topped golf shots is to use only your arms as you swing the club back and through. If your legs aren't involved in the swing, you will have trouble transferring your weight onto your left foot, and you will be prone to hitting ground balls as a result. Without the rotational power of your lower body carrying the club through the hitting area, your hands may flip the club at the bottom of the swing. Too much hand action will raise the level of the club head at impact, and you may not be able to get under the ball properly. Engage your entire body during the golf swing to prevent this issue from affecting your game.
  • Lack of confidence. Some players lack the confidence necessary to hit down through the ball aggressively. If you don't hit down through the shot with the belief that the loft of the club will help it into the air, you will always be prone to hitting ground balls. Good golfers trust their swings – and their equipment – to get the ball airborne successfully. Before you start any swing, make sure your mind is committed to hitting down through the ball.

If you have even just one of the three problems above present in your game, you may find that you are hitting topped shots on a regular basis. Obviously, getting rid of those ground balls should be your main golf objective in the short term. Before you can make any more advanced improvements to your swing (or your game as a whole), you will need to eliminate the topped shots once and for all.

Fixing Your Balance

Fixing Your Balance

Balance problems are common in golf, and even the best players in the world have to work on their balance from time to time to make sure everything is working as it should. If your poor balance is leading to topped shots, it is important that you address that issue right away. Not only can you avoid topped shots by working on your balance, but you can also improve your game as a whole. Great balance is among the top keys to playing the game, so spending your practice time focused on balance is a wise investment.

Most likely, if you are topping the golf ball, your balance problem is leaving too much weight on your right foot during the downswing. However, it isn't the downswing that you need to fix – it is the backswing. In a good backswing, your weight will never get over onto your right foot in the first place, making it impossible to get stuck there on the way down. As long as you stay balanced during the backswing, it should be rather easy to remain on balance during the downswing.

To practice keeping your balance during the backswing, try the following drill –

  • Head out to the driving range with a bucket of practice balls and your set of clubs.
  • To start, pull your pitching wedge out of the bag and set a few golf balls down on the ground. You might not hit these shots solidly at first, so make sure you are in an area of the driving range where you won't cause a problem if you miss-hit a few shots.
  • Pick out a target and set up to hit your first shot. You should go through your pre-shot routine like usual, and make sure you are in your normal posture prior to moving on to the next step.
  • With your stance in place and the club head set down behind the ball, pick up your right foot and put it back down only on the toe of your shoe. Instead of standing with your right foot flat on the ground like usual, the toe of your shoe should now be the only thing touching the ground (your left foot should remain in normal position).
  • Now that you have modified your stance, go ahead and make a swing. Of course, since your right foot is in an awkward position, you aren't going to be able to make a full swing with your wedge. Only try to hit shots during this drill at about 50% power.

In order to hit decent shots while doing this drill, you are going to have to keep your weight in the middle of your stance. If your weight starts to slide right in the backswing, you will instantly feel it since your right foot will be in a weaker position. It may take a few tries before you understand how to manage your weight correctly within this drill.

The swings that you make while doing this drill are going to be exaggerated for affect, but the purpose of the drill is simply to help you feel what it is like to keep weight off of your right foot. After a few shots with your right toes on the ground, go back to your normal stance and hit a few regular shots. While hitting these shots, remember the sensation that you had during the drill and focus on keeping your balance. If you have been successful, you won't top any of these shots. Feel free to return to this drill from time to time in order to regain control over your balance in the backswing.

Engaging Your Whole Body

Engaging Your Whole Body

One of the big differences between amateur golfers and their professional counterparts is the way that the pros use their entire body in the golf swing. When you watch a professional swing the club, it is obvious that they are using their lower body and upper body together in harmony to hit powerful and accurate shots. The story is often the opposite with an amateur. Many amateur golfers don't use their lower body at all – and if they do, they use it incorrectly. To bring your ball striking up to a higher level, and to eliminate topped shots from your game, integrating the lower body into your swing is a necessary step.

There are two steps involved in learning how to use your lower body correctly in the golf swing. The first step is learning the right move to make, while the second step is learning when that move needs to occur. One is useless without the other – you need to move in the right direction at the right time in order for your lower body to truly help you make a powerful and accurate swing.

  • How to move your lower body. When the backswing is executed correctly, the lower body is left mostly out of the action. Ideally, you will turn your upper body into position while your lower body does a good job of staying in place and maintaining balance. At some point, however, the lower body has to jump into action to help move your body – and the club – toward the target. When that time arrives, think about moving your left over the heel of your left foot. If you only think of that goal, you can keep the lower body motion simple in your mind. Drive your left hip back and to the left, so that it stacks up over top of your left heel and your left leg straightens out as a result. When that part is done correctly, the rest of your lower body will have no choice but to come along for the ride. You can even practice this move without a golf club in your hands. Take your stance as you usually would prior to any shot, make a pretend backswing, and then quickly rotate your left hip into position on the downswing. Doing this over and over again – even at home without a club – is a great way to learn the golf swing.
  • When to move your lower body. Now that you understand the type of motion that you are trying to make, it is important that you understand exactly when to make it. As the club is arriving at the top of the backswing, you can start to engage your lower body to begin the transition forward. Note that this does not have to be a step-by-step process – instead, one motion should overlap the other. Your lower body should begin to move left even before the club is completely finished with the backswing. By overlapping the two motions, you can build rhythm into your swing, which will help with consistency. Practice on the driving range with good tempo as you attempt to overlap your backswing and downswing just slightly. In time, you will get more and more comfortable with the timing of this move, and your overall swing technique will be vastly improved as a result.

Getting rid of topped shots by working on your lower body action may take time, but stick with it and watch for small signs of progress along the way. It isn't easy to change the way your body works in the swing, so you are likely to have setbacks along the way as you work on improving your lower body technique. Remember to overlap the backswing and downswing slightly, and don't hold back with your rotation once you start turning to the left.

Building Confidence

Building Confidence

Confidence is important on the golf course, just as it is in life. Without confidence in yourself to get the job done, you will fail far more often than you succeed. Even if you aren't the best golfer in the world, you need to find a self-belief from within that will allow you to give your best effort on each and every shot. Golf is a hard game, and everyone hits bad shots, so don't let your past failures prevent you from believing in yourself going forward.

How does confidence affect topping golf shots? When you are hitting an iron shot, you need to hit down through the ball aggressively in order to find the sweet spot on the face of the club. If you don't hit down, you will always run the risk of having the leading edge contact the ball first – leading to a topped shots. The problem is that hitting down through an iron shot requires plenty of confidence when you are actually out on the course. The natural tendency for most golfers is to 'lift' the club through impact in order to help the ball get into the air. If you try to lift the club through the shot, you will only increase the chances of hitting a ground ball. Having a high level of confidence is the only way to ignore that impulse to lift the club. By trusting your swing technique, you can hit down nicely through the ball and find the sweet spot over and over again.

Confidence is found on the driving range. Most golfers would prefer to play a round of golf rather than practice for a couple of hours, but the reality is that many players would benefit from trading some course time for some range time. You can hit far more shots on the range than you will ever hit in a single round of golf, meaning you can build confidence by seeing shot after shot fly high up into the air. Since there is no pressure on the range, you can make your best swings without any concern for the results. Hit a ground ball on the range? No big deal – simply hit a few more shots after it to erase that feeling from your mind. If you hit a ground ball on the course, however, that feeling may haunt you for the rest of the day.

Take a look at your schedule and try to find time to hit balls on the driving range on a regular basis. The reps that you get on the range will go a long way toward building up your confidence on the course. Simply by seeing the ball get into the air on a consistent basis, you can take the fear of the ground ball out of your mind prior to your next round.

Hitting topped shots on the golf course is never a fun experience. You may have to listen to a few jokes from your playing partners, and your score will suffer as well. Fortunately, you should be able to get rid of the ground balls by working on a few different fundamentals in your swing. With the proper amount of practice time, and a healthy dose of confidence, you may be able to say goodbye to topped shots permanently.