How To Stop Topping The Golf Ball – Causes and Drills

Written by John VanDerLaan 

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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 as 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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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
  • Gripping the club too tightly - a proper golf grip will reduce the chances of topping the ball

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.

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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

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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.

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This is your typical driver swing. Note the first illustration above. 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 next 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 is causing this problem, let’s look at some drills that can help us stop topping the golf ball.

Drills to stop topping the golf ball

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Tailbone drill

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

Ball Back In Your Stance

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

Maintaining Spine Angle In the Golf Swing

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 thought. 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

Identifying a Reverse Pivot

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.

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

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Keep a level head

Hovering A Golf Club Over Your Head To Help Stop Topping The Ball

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 his/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.

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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 off your friends ankle. 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.

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Final Thoughts On How To Stop Topping The Golf Ball

By using the drills above at the driving range, you will learn how to stop topping the golf ball. Once you have figured that out, it is time for some more lofty goals, like learning how to break 90.

Follow along with our best golf tips and you will see your golf game continuously improve.

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

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John VanDerLaan

John is the Lead Editor and founder at Golf Gear Advisor. He is a golf coach and mentor to his 2 sons that are current playing professionals. His son John is currently playing on the Korn Ferry Tour and his son Michael is currently playing on mini tours and preparing for Q School. John Sr. has been their coach and mentor since they were 2 years old. He helped them to succeed in golf with the right equipment, instruction and mindset. John knows a thing or two about playing good golf and he has a passion for sharing his knowledge with others.

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