A recent hotly debated topic has been, as golf instructors, should we encourage golfers to hit up or down on the ball with their driver? While there have been many points of views and arguments, I wanted to take a stab at trying to explain this conversation from a scientific perspective with a real-world application.

The difficult part about this conversation is the mutual exclusivity people try to apply to it. In short, hitting up or down is a preference, but each scenario has causality on ball flight.

Here are the biggest points of contention when this debate is discussed:

  • Hitting down with a driver is easier to control and therefore straighter.
  • What do the best players in the world do?
  • Hitting up is optimal.
  • The best drivers of the golf ball hit down.
  • Hitting down causes more spin and therefore more control.

With recent advancements in golf technology, we now have the ability to track this information. The common term used to refer to the vertical movement of the center of mass of the golf club at impact is called “attack angle.” Although we’ve only recently been able to easily and accurately measure attack angle, the concept has been around for a very long time. In fact, some of the greatest golfers in the history of the game had a conceptualization of attack angle before it was coined in that phrase.

In an excerpt from the Jack Nicklaus book, “Golf My Way,” he states, “I tee the ball fairly high for a normal drive, usually so that center of the ball is about opposite the top edge of the club face. This helps me to hit the ball high by catching it either exactly at the bottom of the swing arc or very slightly on the upswing. I believe teeing the ball low can easily rob you of distance by making you ‘hit down’ on the ball rather than sweeping through it.”

Ben Hogan, although famous for his comments about hitting down on the ball with irons, also gave some inclination of trying to hit drives with a level attack angle or slightly on the upswing with the driver from his ball/stance position outline as seen below.

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With the driver, you can see the right foot is placed further back to move the ball position forward and slightly close the stance. At the time, he could not measure club path, but with what we now know about D-Plane and the relationship between club path and attack angle, we safely assume that his normal ball flight of a fade required a slightly upward attack angle. I cannot by any means say this as a fact, but with what we know about his shot shape and set up, you can make a reasonable assumption.

Hitting Down Is Easier to Control and Therefore Straighter?

This is something we hear quite a bit from average amateurs, golf analysts, and even tour professionals. I can remember having this exact conversation with tour professionals on the range and it can lead down a deep, dark rabbit hole. The cause for confusion is that hitting down in and of itself does not allow more control. Hitting down by itself has no direct influence on spin, ball speed, or curvature. One can create the exact same conditions of spin, ball speed, and curvature hitting up or down. The reason for this belief is that when hitting optimal drives with a downward angle of attack, we also have to deliver a higher dynamic loft (loft at impact). The difference in attack angle and dynamic loft in a 3D relationship is compression (now known as spin loft). With greater spin loft (less compression), physics tells us the ball will curve less for a given face-to-path ratio, assuming all other factors are the same. That’s why it’s easier to curve a driver than a sand wedge.

The Hard Facts

Fredrik Tuxen, the inventor and CTO of TrackMan, once shared a scenario with me on this exact subject. Here are the numbers and results. Note that both are set to optimize distance based on club speed and attack angle.

Player A

  • Club Head Speed: 100 mph
  • Attack Angle: +5 degrees (up)
  • Face-to-Path: 3 degrees

Player B

  • Club Head Speed: 100 mph
  • Attack Angle: -5 degrees (down)
  • Face-to-Path: 3 degrees

Results: Player A hits a drive that carries about 25 yards farther and has 6 yards more curve.

So hitting down while optimized does give golfers less curve. The question then becomes, “Is hitting it straighter the only goal when trying to shoot lower scores?” Golf statistician Mark Broadie has delved deep into this topic with his book, “Every Shot Counts,” and he has also shared some Strokes Gained data on this scenario. Strokes Gained is a statistic that aims to define the ways in which golfers pick up and lose strokes against the field. Unlike traditional statistics such as fairways hit, driving distance, and greens in regulation, Strokes Gained takes into account where the shot began from and the outcome compared to the average PGA Tour Professional. He says 25 more yards of carry distance adds 1.4 Strokes Gained, and missing fairway costs 0.7 Strokes Gained for a net gain of 0.7 Strokes Gained. So the worst-case scenario here between the two players is that Player A (hitting 5-degrees up) gains 0.7 strokes per round.

The reason I say worst-case scenario? We can’t be sure that 26 yards more carry and 6 yards more curve directly relate to lack of accuracy.

What do the Best Players in the World Do?

The PGA Tour average attack angle with a driver is -1.3 degrees (down). Does this mean hitting down is better because the best players in the world are slightly negative? The problem with this assumption is that it is excluding club head speed from the conversation. The PGA Tour average club head speed with a driver is 113 mph. At that speed distance comes naturally, and as we learned above, hitting down optimally can be slightly more controllable. The other issue is that averages can be misleading; it would be very interesting to see median data on attack angles instead of averages to counteract the outliers.

The LPGA Tour average attack angle with a driver is 3 degrees (up). It is curious to see such a big difference between the two tours with the best players in the world. Why is that? This simple answer is the length of the golf course relative to the speed of the players. Here is a little further investigation of that point:

PGA Tour Average Golfer

  • Club Speed: 113 mph
  • Attack Angle: -1.3 degrees (down)
  • Total Distance: 290 yards
  • Total Efficiency: 2.56 (distance/club speed)

LPGA Tour Average Golfer

  • Club Speed: 94 mph
  • Attack Angle: 3 degrees (up)
  • Total Distance: 250 yards
  • Total Efficiency: 2.65 (distance/club speed)

The average course length PGA Tour is about 7200 yards

  • This means the average of each hole is 400 yards.
  • With the average drive traveling a total of 290 yards, PGA Tour players are left with about 110 yards into the green on average.

The average course length on LPGA Tour is about 6600 yards

  • This means the average of each hole is about 367 yards.
  • With the average drive totaling 250 yards, LPGA Tour players are left with about 117 yards into the green on average.

LPGA Tour players are playing much longer golf courses relative to their speed. They are already more efficient driving the golf ball, but are still playing longer golf courses. If the average LPGA player had an attack angle of 0 degrees, it would make golf courses even longer for her. In summary, LPGA players have naturally figured out that distance is a huge premium on tour and they have to hit up.

On the PGA Tour, distance is not as much of a premium, right? Let’s take a look at strokes gained driving stats from last year on the PGA Tour.

2016 Strokes Gained Driving Leaders

  1. Rory McIlroy, AoA: Up, World Ranking: No. 2
  2. Dustin Johnson, AoA: Up, World Ranking: No. 3
  3. Bubba Watson, AoA: Up, World Ranking: No. 10
  4. Sergio Garcia, AoA: Down, World Ranking: No. 13
  5. Justin Rose, AoA: Level, World Ranking: No. 15
  6. JB Holmes, AoA: Up, World Ranking: No. 29

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Five of out the top-six PGA Tour players in Strokes Gained driving last year hit up or level on the golf ball. Sergio Garcia is the only one consistently down with the driver, but he is also swinging his driver at 123 mph on average. The other consistent here is that all of these players have a driver club speed well over the average of 113 mph.

The Takeaway: The best drivers of the golf ball in the world swing fast and hit up on the ball. They also happen to be some of the best players in the world.

Hitting Up is Optimal

If you want to hit the ball further and you are already optimized, there are only two ways to do it (unless you want to pull out the old Callaway ERC!). You have to either swing faster or hit more up! Does this mean we should all try and hit up as much as possible? The highest theoretical attack angle you can have with a normal tee is around 13 degrees. Average World Long Drive Players are in the range of 6-8 degrees. Should this be the goal?

As we have shown above, hitting it longer off the tee should be an advantage, but is there a point of diminishing returns? Here are some live scenarios of me hitting up with a driver on the practice tee. In these examples, I was trying to keep club head speed the same as the example I used above.

Level to Slightly Up

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3 Down

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3 Up

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5+ Up

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Dispersion Comparison

Untitled8Summary of Data

Attack Angle: 3-Degrees Down

  • Carry: 199.4
  • Total: 247.6
  • Dispersion: 43’9

Attack Angle: Level to Slightly Up 

  • Carry: 237.8
  • Total: 271.4
  • Dispersion: 26’1

Attack Angle: 3-Degrees Up 

  • Carry: 234.5
  • Total: 271.5
  • Dispersion: 17’2

Attack Angle: 5-Plus Degrees Up 

  • Carry: 242.3
  • Total: 268.5
  • Dispersion: 55’11

As you can see in the screen shots, there is no doubt that hitting up allows for more distance. As I expected, however, there was a point of diminishing returns in a real-world scenario.

Once I got to hitting more than 5-degrees up, I was way more inconsistent with accuracy and distance. Accuracy, club delivery, and strike changed from swing to swing. With a level attack angle and an attack angle of 3-degree up, I averaged more than 20 feet of consistency in dispersion compared to swings with the attack angles of 5-degree up or 3-degrees down.

The most astonishing piece of information I noticed from the data was how consistent some of the numbers from scenario to scenario were and how different others were. As you will see, ball speed, smash factor, and spin rate were all pretty similar, however, carry distance was as much as 43 yards different. This proves my statement earlier that hitting up or down has no effect in of itself on spin rate, smash factor, or ball speed.

In summary, I have found that the acceptable range of attack angle for most players should be between -2-degrees down and 4-degrees up. With that being said, it should always be applied on a case-by-case basis.

Attack angle is a balance between age, swing speed, competition, and the tees a golfer plays. If you have a senior golfer swinging 70 mph and 2-degrees down getting frustrated with golf because he doesn’t hit it very far, then his attack angle should probably be positive. If it’s a younger golfer trying to play college golf who is 6-degrees up at 115 mph club speed and hitting it all over the golf course, then a change might be made.

The answer to any question about what is a good number should always be, “It depends.” Trackman numbers are not good or bad; there is only a cause-and-effect relationship between how the golf club communicates a message to the golf ball based on the desired outcome.

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44 COMMENTS

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  1. I for one have found it more beneficial to tee a little under 1/2 inch less than normal. Just a fraction under half a ball showing. It actually gets me more consistent length, and no more hooks.
    The slightly off the toe shot certainly works for me. If I neck it, it certainly loses more distance.
    I really liked the article, I love the technical stuff…

  2. I attempt to swing upwards (driver, fairways) or level (irons) on a teed up ball…. and downwards off the deck where a skulled shot is evidence of an upward AofA.
    Interestingly, the ball will be off the driver face before the leading edge of the driver strikes the tee!
    If you hit up a wooden tee will suffice, but if you hit down into the tee you should use a Brush Tee …. only makes sense…!

  3. Funny how few people have knowledge about golf AND statistics. The writer of this article has taken the driving information of 6 (!) of a total of 242 PGA tour players. Then he has add a few drives from himself with different Angle of Attacks that he is not used to hit to complete the “proof”. I appreciate the effort, but if this article was sent to a scientific paper publisher it would disappear in the bin straight away.

    • Thanks for the feedback and your thoughts. The real world application was never meant to be scientific. I just wanted to show a simple example of actual real world numbers and what might happen. The science in the article was in the scenario that I shared from Fredrik Tuxen, the CTO of TrackMan. He has gathered this information from the millions of shots captured by TrackMan. I am just a golf pro so I leave the science up to much smarter people than me.

      • Could you do this experiment with the “Iron Byron” to take the human element out of the equation? That could give definitive optimal strike criteria for maxing out our drivers!

  4. Can’t wait for the next year or two when golf club makers come up with the newest technology and market the heck out their new drivers: “Feeling down on your driver? Let the New Callaway Carrier Carry you to New Heights! Our New Face Angle Pendulum Technology detects your angle of attack and adjusts accordingly to give you the right angle at impact specifically designed for your swing!”
    And the year after they’ll include the Slice/Draw adjuster.

  5. If you hit up or level you will tee the ball higher…. and if you hit down you will tee it lower …. and that will regulate your golf swing through the ball.
    —————
    Looking deeper ….. the impact event is rather complex.
    The clubhead goes toe down just before impact due to a ‘centrifugal’ torque that causes the shaft tip to flex and ‘droop’ downwards.
    The shaft tip is torqued by the driver head CofG attempting to align with the shaft thus closing the face.
    Then the impact itself event causes a ‘kickback’ and then a ‘kickforward’ action on a microsecond basis which is not well understood.
    Add to this the path of the driver CofG path and you have a complex situation that is not easily resolved.
    Another obscure factor is the ball being compressed, literally squashed on to the trampolining club face, and then rebounding off the face in what is called “Hertzian” impact… or wtf is happening now?!!
    ——————-
    What this tells us is that not only is the swing shape important, but the action and reaction of the golf club is a significant factor when hitting down, level or up.
    Perhaps the solution is provided by beloved Moe “Pipeline” Norman who claimed his swing path was level 18 inches behind the ball and that resulted in an arrow straight ball path …. making draws and fades unnecessary …. and Moe “knows” …..!!!

      • What about length? You can have a driver at any length, right? Easier to hit down with shorter clubs (obviously). So there is also the acceptable length of shaft to-distance formula that has to be considered here, not just flex and torque. And how much weight do you have on the end of the stick? How heavy is that driver head you’re using? Do you think swing weight matters that much when you take into consideration that toe-down can be changed accordingly with different head weights, CofG, the flex and torque, and length of club? But is everybody concerned about distance only, with optimal launch and spin? What if the club is so heavy, even though it’s a long club like 47 inches, the dude swinging it can’t generate enough speed with it because he has no control over it anyway to hit it down the middle? Observant, you have no idea what you are talking about.

    • Great feedback. I completely agree, there are numerous factors affecting how the clubface interacts with the ball, not least the path the hands take on the downswing and forward swing and the speed and efficiency of the release. It is not merely about swing geometry and club metrics, in my view it is just as much about the dynamism of the strike and its effect on spin and ball speed. This is self-evident with the way top players have always struck the ball. I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of the power fade in terms of club metrics.

  6. In the scenario stated, Tuxen said in 2013 that the upward strike would travel 28 yards offline compared to the downward strike of traveling 22 yards offline. If we are using a PGA Tour data where the fairways on average are 28 yards wide and a golfer is aiming at the middle of the fairway…the upward strike would travel 42 feet from the edge of the fairway. The downward strike would travel 24 feet offline.

    So using the strokes gained methodology is misleading because as we know…the further the ball is from the edge of the fairway the more likely the golfer will have a have a worse lie. Either a worse lie from the rough (taller rough), fairway bunkers, hazards, etc. There is a strong statistical correlation to Distance to Edge of Fairway and hit fairway bunker % and missed fairway – other %.

    For instance, last season a player that was 24′ from the edge of the fairway (downward strike) on average would rank 40th in Avg. Distance from the Edge of the Fairway. The 42′ from the edge of the fairway (upward strike) would rank dead last in Avg. Distance to the Edge of the Fairway. I don’t think there’s really much of a way somebody could accurately determine how much being more offline would matter given how holes are differently designed with different penalties and features.

  7. Thank you Hunter. Finally, someone willing to come out and say that it’s a balance of different variables. I find it constantly funny how opinion articles on here so often state things like “this is the best way according to Trackman.” No. Never is. It’s the best way to achieve a maximum of a certain variable. Hitting up gets you more distance until hitting up gets you less accuracy than you want for that distance. Hitting up, lowering the spin… all nice things on optimal days. Until we’re all playing indoor golf on machines, we don’t need to be such absolutists. Thanks for this!

  8. As an older and smaller player on a long course I used to practice hitting with the old persimmon driver (trying to hit a top spin type shot) so the driver would go a reasonable distance. We didnt have any high tech gear and even a video camera was rare, which meant that you just had to go on the course and see if you were hitting it better than you normally did. I must confess that 20+ years in the army meant that I was fairly fit which helped. We never had the option to buy a low spin club back then. We used to install fibre inlays, try different shafts, maybe add or remove some weight, install your favorite grip and that was all you could do. While my AoA was a distinct advantage this is not such of an advantage nowadays as I’ve tried the latest low spin drivers and they are spinning too low. While I used to be really long for my size most of my mates can either keep up or get it past me now.

  9. One of the best articles on this topic I have ever read…..thank you.

    Is not perhaps one of the areas of confusion on this related to the concept “Hitting Up” or “Hitting Down” ? If you have a negative angle of attack at impact, are you not striking the ball before Low Point? And if you have a positive angle of attack at impact, are you not striking the ball ahead of swing Low Point? I would love to hear your feedback on this question….again thanks for the article.

  10. I try to have just a little forward shaft lean at impact so I know I didn’t release too soon and it feels like a more solid and controlled hit. That is offset by tilting back with my upper body to have a slight upward attack angle.

  11. Man, your roll out is incredible! I would I love to get nearly 40 yds of roll with my 100 mph driver swing. I’m +3 on AoA with driver, but I don’t play on rock hard fairways.

    • Roll out on TrackMan is a calculated number. That doesn’t by any means that is is not accurate however. Roll out is based on landing angle, ball speed(which is pretty much the same on all normal golf shots), and spin rate. The assumed variable here is average PGA Tour Fairway firmness. So probably slightly more firm than most

  12. Really good summary of what can be a confusing topic. Any advice for how to hit more down with driver? I struggle getting my attack angle to numbers that are sometimes 7 or 8 degrees up.

      • Thanks Hunter, From video it definitely seems like I push off the ground and have that jumping look so might have to look at that along with what you mentioned. Appreciate the ideas, seems like lots out there on how to increase attack angle but not as much on the reverse. Thanks again!

  13. Horrible assumption of Hogan’s set up and equipment. Was anybody able to actually and accurately measure the face angle of his driver? Everybody says it was open, and, at E8 swing weight to boot. Try swinging any of the modern drivers with a E8 swing weight, you’d be hard-pressed to turn it over, it will want to stay open and leak out, just as Hogan wanted for his preferred cut away from the left side of the fairway. And if you try hard to turn it, it will dump on you so fast it will die left and not go anywhere.
    What loft and face angle did you use for this test and do you know the weight-bias inside the head?

          • Debunked maybe …. but still followed by devotees who believe in the Natural swing and the Single Axis swing…. you know, the portly big belly men who rotate their bellies and shoulders in unison.
            Now we have Trackman jockeys who have a new toy to interpret Jorgensen’s D-plane ball flight and impact vectors.
            Golf is getting too complicated for the golffing masses who still believe power is built into the club head and the newer the better mentality… even though it starts in the feet, legs and hips …. not just the arms flapping around the shoulders and the clubhead whizzing ….!
            Golf…. from prehistoric beliefs to scientific sh!t …. and now answers for the unwashed golffing masses left to their own devices and feeel !!!

    • I know he is basically the father of the modern swing I guess, but why do people care about his details? He played with very different equipment and balls, not to mention courses. What’s important is his swing fundamentals. And he clearly sets up open to the ball for a fade according to the illustration. Stays that way until he gets to driver which is a draw setup. Interesting…

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