How to break 100

By RODNEY PAGE, Times Staff Writer
Published January 17, 2008

A playing partner and friend once sank a 45-foot putt on the 18th hole at Walden Lake Golf and Country Club in Plant City to shoot 99 for the first time. He celebrated by running around the perimeter of the green with his arms and putter over his head. And his shirt off.

This is not an endorsement for that kind of celebration, but for most golfers, breaking 100 on a regulation par-70 to par-72 course is a big deal. Depending on which study you read, 75-85 percent of golfers don't break 100 regularly. That percentage could go down if golfers made some basic changes to their swing as well their mental approach.

We solicited former touring professional and area teaching pro Bill Buttner to help golfers who struggle to consistently shoot double digits. Buttner, a 1978 University of North Carolina graduate, played on several minitours and spent six years on the PGA Tour in the 1980s and early '90s. He is now coach of the men's and women's team at Eckerd College and gives lessons at St. Petersburg's Twin Brooks Golf Course.

Buttner has helped all kinds of golfers, from the beginner to the college golfer who wants to turn pro. Here are some of his pointers for breaking 100. And a bit of advice: If you do break 100 for the first time, keep your shirt on.

The swing is the thing

Each hole starts with the ball sitting on a tee. It is just waiting to be hit long and straight down the fairway. But how does a beginner or below-average golfer make that happen?

"I tell them contact is the best thing," Buttner said. "The concept is to take the club and move the ball from point A to point B. A lot of people don't understand the concept. The club works in a certain way.

"I use the hammer as an example. If I want to hit the nail, I've got to take the hammer up and then take it down in a certain way. If I try to hit it sideways, that's not going to work. There is a way to make it work properly, and the golf swing is the same thing. The golf club works from a hinging position. It is just an extension of the arms. It has to go back and through in a certain way. As soon as people understand the concept of the golf swing, then you can move on to other things."

Buttner will have a beginner take a few swings with just the arms moving. He'll check to see if the swing is on the right plane, if the club stays in the same position on the downswing and if the face strikes the ball squarely.

There are a lot of swing thoughts while hitting a ball, and Buttner doesn't want a beginner thinking too much. Just take the club back and through on the same plane and the results will eventually come.

"For a lot of people, that is like a light bulb," he said. "They've never thought of the golf swing like that before. It opens a lot of doors."

Lose excess baggage

For some, golf isn't their first sport. Some come to the game with other backgrounds. Baseball players have certain swing habits, tennis players have other swings, hockey players have their style, etc. ... Getting players to break habits from other sports and think about the golf swing is one of the first things Buttner does.

"I had a guy who played tennis all his life," Buttner said. "He's 52 years old and he'd only played golf once or twice a year. He wanted to learn how to play golf, but he couldn't hit the ball. He was pulling through the ball like a tennis player and the ball would still be on the ground after he swung. He was very frustrated. So we worked on the basic concept of the swing. Now he can get it down there and golf is fun again. It's just all about how the golf club and body react."

Then there are golfers with physical limitations. It could be back problems, it could be knee problems. It could be something else. These problems have forced golfers to alter their swings, which usually results in higher scores.

That's when Buttner will try to get them to hammer the nail in a different way.

"Sometimes, just the simple motion of the golf swing can be hard on some golfers," he said. "That's why I try to find out if they can physically do it. That's a challenge. If I can't work a hammer the way it's supposed to work, then I've got to find out a different way to do it. Maybe out and up, maybe in and up. But ultimately they have to get the golf club moving in the right direction. That's something we have to figure out."

Hitting, minus the tee

Once the ball leaves the tee box, what kind of lie it will have is anybody's guess. One thing's for sure, it won't be sitting up like it was on the tee.

It can be intimidating for the beginner to figure out how to get the ball elevated from a fairway lie. Buttner makes sure golfers realize that the swing is the same. The club is designed to get the ball airborne with a correct swing.

"The concept of hitting the ball down to get it to go up is a big issue," Buttner said. "You want them to hit the back of the ball on the way down and through the ball, which forces it to go up. I think that's one of the hardest mental things to overcome."

Choosing the right club can be a problem. Most average golfers hit their fairway shots with too little club. Remember, the object is to get the ball close to the hole, so make sure you have enough to get it there.

Chipping and putting

This is where scores are really lowered. Getting a feel on or around the green can shave numerous shots over 18 holes. Buttner notes that a high percentage of putts are made by amateurs and pros from 6 feet or closer, but the percentage falls dramatically over 6 feet. The point? Get the ball close to the hole on the chip or putt to save strokes.

"I've seen people putting from 10 feet away and they lose ground," he said. "You have to have some kind of feel on or around the green. Hitting the ball long and hard is good for your ego, but it doesn't necessarily help your golf score.

"Putting is all about slowing the clubhead down. When you slow the clubhead down, then you're using only the upper body. You want your lower body to be quiet. The upper body moves the clubhead back and forth. Same thing with chipping."

While practicing the short game, it's best to start on the green and gradually move back to taking full pitch shots.

"You should start with putting, then move back to pitching, then to a half shot, then a quarter shot, then to a full shot," Buttner said. "With the pitching, you're using a little more rotation, then a little bit more on the half shot, then more on the full shot. You want to make sure everything is on the same page."

Final thought

If you've played for at least a year and are still unable to break 100, there has to be a reason. Something has to change, or the score will remain the same.

"I think it was Socrates who defined insanity as repeating the same motion and expecting different results," Buttner said.

Next Thursday: How to break 90.