Why Do I Hit It Off the Toe with My Irons?

Time and again amateur golfers walk off the 18th hole or driving range looking at the ball striking of their irons and see it is out on the toe. While they may think, “this is much better than off the heel” because they don’t want to shank it, they often wonder just how much further they would hit it if they struck the sweet spot instead of out near the toe. So, why do you always hit it off the toe?

There are a number of reasons amateurs hit the toe of the club and end up flipping at impact. The number one reason is they are coming across the ball or over the top at the last minute. The good news is, if you are doing this, your over the top is much later than some of your buddies or playing competitors. If you strike the ball well, but it is out on the toe, you are likely coming across later in your downswing. This means you aren’t immediately coming across with your shoulders at the top of the downswing. So, how can you fix it and hit the sweet spot?

While your swing is likely from the inside there is still plenty of work to do to get the ball closer to the middle of the club face. It is not as easy as simply setting up with the ball closer to the heel. In fact, do not do this. This is going to cause huge problems. The way to get closer to the middle of the clubface is to maintain posture all the way through impact and getting your right side through the ball. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this is extremely difficult. You must have core strength and amazing flexibility to get through the ball without pulling across at impact.

The best drill to get your right side through the ball is to act like you are chipping the ball, make sure your left leg is braced and try to soften your right leg as much as possible. Use your right lower obliques, the back side of them, to get the core turning. You should feel as if your navel is turning towards the target and to the left of the target after impact. Try to do this without using your hands or arms. It can take thousands and thousands of reps of this to program your brain not to use your hands and arms to get the ball to impact.

The reason you are hitting it off the toe is your hands and arms take control right before impact and pull across. You may also want to practice softening your left elbow and allowing your right elbow to lead through impact. Once again, this is extremely difficult, but it will help you get your right side through the ball without trying to use your hips or left side. What most amateurs do not understand is the left side is not used on the downswing. The left side is used to brace on the downswing. Do not think you need to “explode the left hip” to get your right side through the ball. That is pulling with the left side and will lead to many more problems and inconsistencies down the road.

If you hit the ball well, but it is on the toe or outside of the club, you are not that far off. You just need to work on getting through the ball with your right side. Absolutely DO NOT set up with the heel of the club closer to the ball. Also, DO NOT change your setup and stand closer to the ball. This is not going to fix the problem of hitting it off the toe. It will cause many more problems.

UPDATE: January 13th, 2024 – Over the last week I have stayed committed to stretching and working on the outside of my hamstrings. I originally thought I might have an IT Band issue on my left leg. It is not the IT Band, it is the fact that my hamstrings roll inside because I was quad dominant in the past. The way that I am trying to open my hamstrings and glutes is to use a yoga strap, lie flat and pull my “straight” leg towards my armpit. By doing this over the last week, I have started to notice I can use my glute to open up my legs. In the past, my glute was not accessible. Now, when I open up my legs starting with my glute I can feel the hips rotating out.

I went to the range to feel my glutes rotating out and my shoulders rotating out and I had the best range session of my life. It is very hard to keep the shoulders back and glutes open during a golf swing, but if you can do it, you won’t miss a shot. My major issue now is getting a little more flexibility in my shins and lower legs. I consistently want to fall back, which is comfortable. Instead, I need to work on the strength and flexibility in the ball of my foot. I will head back to the range in a few days after many hours of yoga and stretching.

January 7th, 2024 – Over the course of the last several months I have come to realize that my legs are the main reason I hit the ball off the toe, or poorly. I ran collegiate track and spent thousands of hours doing squats, lunges and any exercise possible to make my legs stronger. I used to mountain bike up the side of a mountain for an hour and do sprints up a 70 degree mountain. To think of all the things I did to strengthen my legs without any knowledge of alignment or flexibility is crazy. Now, after 200 yoga classes and understand my alignment, it is all too clear why my golf swing breaks down at impact.

If you are a former athlete with strong legs, it may very likely be the case that your leg muscles are “rolled in” meaning you didn’t do a lot of exercise to stretch the outsides of your shins or the outer quads and hamstrings. Now that I am hard at work on alignment and improving both my golf game and my yoga poses, I understand just how difficult it is to gain flexibility in the outer legs and hips.

One of the main issues I have is the “rolled in” muscles took over and never allowed my glutes and upper hamstrings to actually do any work. This is why it took me a very long time to be able to hinge at the hips in my setup. Some things that I feel in my current flexibility work is discomfort in the muscles and tendons on the outsides of the back of my legs. An exercise I do on a consistent basis to improve this is to sit with my legs flat on the ground and long out in front of me. I then feel the outsides of my feet pulling back towards my body, almost duck like. I then make certain the outsides of the back of my knees are glued to the floor. While I could not lean forward very far when I first started, I can grab my feet now; after about two weeks of this exercise.

Another good exercise to open up the outsides of the hamstrings is to grab a strap and wrap it around the ball of your foot. Lay back flat on the ground with the leg without the strap on it flat on the ground. Once again, glue the outside of the back of the knee of the flat leg to the ground. With the strap, gently pull the leg towards the armpit. The straighter you can keep this leg, the better. That said, we are not in a perfect world and many, many people do not have the accessibility to keep their leg straight in this stretch. You can soften the knee a little bit but make certain to keep the foot flexed so you don’t allow your knee to fall out. Any time the knee falls out, the shins and quads are going to take over and roll to the inside. This will make it impossible to stretch the outsides of the hamstrings.

In a perfect world, your legs would be completely straight without locking out your knees. Once again, we aren’t in a perfect world, so the goal would be to keep the legs as straight as possible in the setup and maintain this “straightness” throughout the entire backswing and downswing. It will likely take several months and possibly years to get the flexibility in your hamstrings and glutes to be a true scratch golfer. Once the outsides of the hamstrings start to loosen up you will be able to feel your glutes take over. Remember Tiger Woods always talking about “firing the glutes”. Well, no amateur understands what this means because they have never actually felt their glutes doing work.

As you start to get more advanced with the aforementioned stretches, you will be able to use your glute muscles to open your legs straight out to the side. This is when you know you are in a place to maintain posture throughout the swing without your body “giving up” due to pain or inflexibility.

Note that if you have tight hamstrings and tight hips it is very, very likely you have a tight lower back which makes it difficult to use the muscles of the lower back to hinge at the hips. If these lower back muscles are never used and not flexible, there is no reason to think they are going to help maintain posture throughout the golf swing; especially in the downswing. Take the time to really focus on stretching out the hamstrings and glutes to improve your entire golf game. You will likely feel a lot of soreness in the lower back when doing any straight legged or forward fold stretches.

A quick check on if you still toe the ball is to hit off a mat during the winter months; especially after it rains. You will quickly see where your iron is digging into the ground. If you see the outside of the iron has water or mud on it, you will need more flexibility in the outsides of your hamstrings which, in turn, will give you glute flexibility. A great way to really take your flexibility and golf game to the next level is to get very good at the lizard lunge yoga pose.

Pro Swing Tip – If you are a truly elite golfer and you want to take your game to the next level, we have to get your arms to stay on the target line all the way through impact while your core and body are turning around your braced lower body. The best golfers in the world have very soft arms and especially soft elbows at the top of the backswing. When they get to the top of the backswing, it is mostly with the core and lats; not with the arms at all.

This gives them the opportunity to have very soft arms at the top. They then use the same body they turned back with to start the downswing. The momentum of the body all allows the arms to fall behind and the right shoulder slowly falls behind the right hip. With the arms super soft, pro golfers can then throw their torso at the ball which causes the arms to stay on the target line all the way through impact. Some of the best ball strikers in the world will explain that if feels like their forearms are touching and their body throws their arms to the right of the target and away from the body after impact.

While the arms are being thrown away from the body, the lats keep turning around the lower body which is why professional golfers hold that amazing pose with the club above their head, the right shoulder down the target line and the left leg braced. Being able to do this will take many, many years of training the body. Do not think you can go to the range tomorrow and soften the arms at the top of the backswing and throw them to the right of the target with the torso on the downswing.

When the sequence is perfect, it feels like the right elbow is leading the club into impact and there is a huge recoil right after impact which causes the club to end up above your head. Just after impact, the knuckles should be facing directly at the target. This is when the right side needs to keep traveling and the right lat needs to drive under and around.

Amateurs Coming Over the Top

Some swing coaches like to say that all golfers come over the top at one point or another. The amateurs that are double digit handicappers that hit that 215 yard lazy fade that turns into a slide likely start coming over the top as soon as they start the backswing. If you are an amateur that starts your backswing with your hands or arms you are likely coming over the top very early. The body cannot catch up once the hands or arms take over. This means that as soon as you take the club away with your hands you are already setting up to come over the top by ripping with your shoulders. This is exactly why the harder you swing, the more the ball slices.

A quick fix for those that start with their hands is to set up to the ball and start the backswing with the left side of the body. It can take many reps to get the left side to activate, but once it does, you will realize just how much your hands and arms dictated your swing in the past. If you can keep the club outside the hands going back, you are likely using your body. There are dozens of swing aids to help with the feel of keeping the hands in front of the chest. The most popular is the ball that hangs down from ones neck.

No matter what aid you use, you have to keep your hands and arms directly in front of your chest throughout the entire backswing. Think about keeping the elbows inside the nipples throughout the entire backswing. If you can do this, you will end up hitting the ball much better. You will go through some growing pains but you will be using your core and chest much more which is how speed is generated in the golf swing. Many people are likely thinking, “Why would I want to keep the club in front of my chest?” The more the club gets behind you, the more likely you are going to pull it back towards the ball with your hands, arms or shoulders. We want to get the club back to the ball with our body, not our hands.