Our philosophy in golf schools is that we don’t teach a strict method. However, I do have a strict system of how we teach. My system is unique in that I have a lot of room for individual differences and allow all my teachers to use all their creativity. We don’t believe, as some other schools and instructors do, that everybody is going to fit into the same golf swing.
Everybody is built differently, so there are a lot of different ways to make a golf swing and play golf and do it well. But we keep in mind basic fundamentals: body motion and club action. In our teaching method, you can do it your own way as long as you stay within the parameters or limits where we find good players who have been able to do it very well. I call those parameters the “corridors of success.” This is a huge part of our teaching success. Once outside those corridors, virtually nobody in the history of the game has succeeded. I recommend an immediate change for super-poor body positioning or an off-plane downswing.
In that sense, then, we do have a system of teaching, and you could fairly classify me as a system teacher. I worked a lot with Ken Venturi over the years, and probably the most important thing I learned from him was consistency. In other words, if you go to one of our teachers, you’re going to get the same fundamentals, the same concepts, year in and year out. I believe our system offers the most solid foundation there is. It is based on fundamentals, yet we allow those individuals corridors to success. The way we break down and analyze the swing is different from the way most instructors do it. We look for specific things. We look at fundamental positioning of the body and fundamental positioning of the club. We also look for the “death moves,” actions or positions that are so far outside the corridors that they will cause you to hit poor shots forever. These are the faults we change right away in our students.
I believe that all top coaches in all other sports have a system. In golf, most of the well-known golf coaches say they don’t. They’re afraid to be called method teachers. Often these same instructors teach specific locations in the golf swing and you have to swing in an exact model action. To me, that is very restrictive teaching. However, having a method or a certain way of teaching does lend clarity to your message. It provides consistency to what you are telling students. Even if it doesn’t fit everybody, the students who come back are going to receive the same message. To me, that’s a whole lot better than having teachers who are in the search mode themselves. One month it’s one concept and the next month another. That’s very confusing and leads to a total loss of confidence in your students. I’ve seen many method teachers become very, very successful and really help people. Restrictive method teachers can’t help the vast majority of golfers, but some golfers can get valuable information.
Jimmy Ballard is definitely a method teacher, and he was extremely popular through the '70s and early '80s. He had many top Tour players going to see him, and his schools drew extremely well. He’s still very popular today, and that’s a long span of time. By the way, I learned a lot of great things from Jimmy myself. He had a certain message that many golfers liked. I see that same thing in Ken Venturi, who has a certain idea of how the golf swing should be made, or Jackie Burke, Bob Toski, or the late Gardner Dickinson and Claude Harmon. I’ve seen a lot of teachers who changed their messages every few years or maybe more. I’m always worried about going to a teacher who tells you one thing one year, and when you go back the next year he says, “Oh, you know what, we’re not doing that anymore. Now we’re doing something else.” That’s terrible instruction.
I’ve come up with a system that leaves room for individuality, and I’m very comfortable with it. I’ve taught it since 1985. We don’t change. Our schools operate in a consistent pattern, but within the parameters I’ve outlined we judge each individual separately and give him or her the help that best fits and is most likely to lead to improvement. That’s the way I’d encourage you to study this book. I’ve tried to make it easy for you to search out the information that will best help you with your individual problems.
That said, there are a number of things we recommend and teach that will help everybody at any level, from the beginner to the Tour player. The first is a series of stretching drills that are specific to golf and will prepare your body for practice or play. Another is something that we pioneered in the '80s, when I first started doing schools. We began having our students do body drills without a club, folding their arms across their chests and coiling and uncoiling to increase their awareness of what the body should be doing in the swing. To my knowledge, that wasn’t being done anywhere else at the time.
Setup, which is the way you stand to the ball, and alignment, which is how you aim the club and your body before the shot, are pretty much standard for every good player. There may be some variations to accommodate differences in body structure and shot tendencies-whether you want to fade the ball from left to right or draw it from right to left-but every good shot stems from a setup and an alignment that are basically the same, no matter what your particular swing might be. I call this the “universal fundamental”-setup, because even most teachers could agree on a proper setup.
The correct grip pressure is critical to a smooth and effective swing. I’ll discuss this in detail later in the book. So is a relative absence of tension in the body at address and throughout the swing. Usually these two factors are interrelated, and they apply to all players, no matter their individual swing tendencies.
3 Steps to Improvement
The Jim McLean system we use in our schools really boils down to a pretty simple three-step plan I’ve developed for getting better. Every instructor goes through this simple process with every student as we make necessary changes. Those steps are (1) what am I doing now? Today, on this date, what exactly am I doing? Not what I hope I’m doing, not what I think I’m doing, not what was I doing last year, but what I’m actually doing at the moment. (2) What should I do instead? If a Supreme Being appeared and granted me any golf swing I wanted, could I demonstrate it or even explain it? Probably not. Even if I knew my flaws, what should I do to correct the flaws I have and improve to the point where I have a swing that works effectively? (3) Finally, how do I make the change? Here is where our instructors and this book come in. In it are the concepts that will help you make the necessary changes.
Of course, that requires a very clear understanding of your golf swing and your areas of strength and weakness. Most amateurs don’t have that understanding, simply because they’ve never taken time to analyze carefully what they do right or wrong, or because they don’t know what in the swing causes good or bad results. Ideally, use your iPhone or iPad so you can tape your swing, and use the information in this book to critique it. Remember, there are three other areas of the game for your self-critique as well. In our schools, we use sophisticated video and a proprietary computer system to determine your swing faults. You can’t take advantage of that, but you can take your own video and compare it to the positions you see in the photographs in this book. And you definitely should sit down for an hour or so and honestly assess how you play golf. Ask yourself some hard questions, and be brutally honest with the answers. Here’s a sample list from our school questionnaire:
What is your best score in the last year?
What is your best score ever?
What is your current handicap?
What is the lowest your handicap has ever been?
How often do you play?
Do you warm up and hit practice balls before you play?
The 25% Theory
The cornerstone and centerpiece of our schools, and a unique part of the Jim McLean system, is the 25 percent theory. As I worked during the winter of the 1976-77 with Ken Venturi and went through the Tour Qualifying School (missing in the finals at Pinehurst), I began to look at golf in a different way, mainly in trying to identify how I missed qualifying. It seemed to me that the game could be divided into four key and equal parts, which are:
The long game
The short game
The course management game
The mental/emotional game
To my way of thinking, the management game and the mental game were just as important as the long game and the short game, once a player was reasonably proficient in those physical areas.
At that time I had been teaching for six months at Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York, a suburb of New York City. In the off-season I was playing the Florida winter tour and Mini-tour events. Being a part-time teacher and part-time player gave me an excellent opportunity to test the theory I was developing.
I knew that for an advanced tournament player, the mental game was by far the most important element of the four. I knew from teaching that hitting the golf ball was the most important aspect of golf for the beginner. We all know that the short game lowers our scores more than anything else. And I had seen during my lifetime in golf that some players managed the golf course and their personal strengths and weaknesses much better than others. Often a less gifted player can shoot low scores by being mentally tough, mentally alert, and making no management mistakes.
Further exploration – talking with other professionals and examining how I really helped my students improve – validated the theory, and this concept became the centerpiece of my teaching system.
I’m sure I was the first teacher to talk about this and document it in books. In the early '80s I began speaking on teaching in the metropolitan PGA section and later began to do so nationally. I usually led off my remarks with the 25 percent theory, and I received a very positive response.
To a professional audience, I explained the theory this way. Take any two areas at which you want to be great. Which would you choose? Would that make you a tour player? Then I would argue that two was not enough. If you were not very good at any two of these areas, you couldn’t play tournament golf.
For example, let’s say you were a terrific ball-striker on the range and a great putter on the practice green. But if you had a bad mental game – you got very nervous and couldn’t focus on the course – and a poor management game – you played low-percentage shots, didn’t have a pre-shot routine, and didn’t visualize or plan your shots – you had no chance to make it on the Tour. You just couldn’t shoot low enough scores.
To be a Tour-caliber player, you need to be very good in at least three out of four of these areas. The great players are great in all four.
The long game, of course, encompasses your ball-striking, the full swing. This is the area in which most golfers spend most of their time and where they want to take instruction. They believe that if they can build a perfect swing, they can play perfect golf. This is folly. Nobody has ever done that, and even if you could, you still have the three other areas of golf to master. The long game is critically important, of course, and also the most fun to work at, but I encourage you to look carefully at the other three parts of the game.
We define the short game area as from 75 yards in for mid- and high handicappers, and from 100 yards in for better players. This includes putting, chipping, pitching, bunker play, and getting it up and down from trouble within that range. Since the best players in the game don’t even hit 70 percent of the greens in regulation, you can see how important the short game is. If it’s possible for you, the golf course is a great place to practice your short game.
The management game is simply having the knowledge and the discipline to manage yourself. That means preparing yourself in every way possible in order to reach your goals. This might include a fitness program, better diet, and perhaps just slowing down getting to the golf course. It also means managing your game around the course, to avoid trouble and take the safe route, to avoid unwise gambles unless the circumstances of your match or the tournament absolutely force you to take them, to focus on hitting the green rather than firing at dangerous hole locations, to use a pre-shot routine effectively. In other words, to play golf intelligently rather than foolishly.
The mental/emotional game and how you handle it determines your ability to take your range game to the golf course. Developing firm control of your mind and your emotions helps you play within yourself, frees your mind of extraneous thoughts and doubts, lets you concentrate on playing the game, and helps you perform more consistently to the level of your talent, especially in pressure situations.
Improvement in these last two areas, by the way, might reduce your scores more than any improvement you can make in the physical areas.
All four areas are covered thoroughly in our schools and in this book. This book gives you help in strengthening the areas in which you are weak. It will help you improve your swing and your ball-striking, and it will help you take that range swing onto the golf course and make it work there as well.
In every single lesson we give, our instructors must first listen and watch as you swing and describe your game. We must take in a lot of information quickly and size you up carefully. What part of your game is lacking? Of the four main areas of golf, where should we start? Many times it is not the long game, as most people would expect. Yet in a golf school, we get to cover important aspects of all four parts. I call that total game teaching.