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.
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.
- Club Head Speed: 100 mph
- Attack Angle: +5 degrees (up)
- Face-to-Path: 3 degrees
- 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
- Rory McIlroy, AoA: Up, World Ranking: No. 2
- Dustin Johnson, AoA: Up, World Ranking: No. 3
- Bubba Watson, AoA: Up, World Ranking: No. 10
- Sergio Garcia, AoA: Down, World Ranking: No. 13
- Justin Rose, AoA: Level, World Ranking: No. 15
- JB Holmes, AoA: Up, World Ranking: No. 29
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
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.