There is plenty of content out there explaining ball flight laws and why golf balls do as they do when struck. The problem is, many golfers still don’t understand them, so they spend valuable practice time less than effectively.
As a coach, I know the best thing is to book a program (not just swing lessons!) with your professional and make big changes where you are involved in the learning process. That way, you can start to discover and understand your own game. However, for the other 90 percent of the time, when you are golfing solo, you need to be able to understand the how and why of your ball flight. As Tiger’s instructor Sean Foley said recently, his goal is to allow the player to move away from being reliant on him as a coach. That’s going to be difficult to do without an understanding of the flight of your golf ball.
In this article, I will give some facts of impact and ball flight and explain how to analyze what you do. You may need to read this a few times over, so I suggest you don’t try to memorize it right away. This is not a test! Instead, use this as a benchmark to change your awareness. For ease of understanding, everything written is for a right-handed golfer. Don’t feel bad, lefties — you’ve got a lot going for you. Fewer people try to offer you swing advice on the range, and all you have to do is just flip my info around for it to make perfect sense.
First, you need to know that the flight of the golf ball is determined by four factors, which I’ll go into more detail about below:
- Club face orientation
- Club head direction
- Point of contact
Club face orientation
Depending on the club used and club head speed, the club face direction at impact (left/right/straight) has been shown to give between 60 to 95 percent of the ball’s starting direction. This also is the case with the club face’s dynamic loft (loft on the face at impact). Here, the ball launch angle is again, mostly influenced by the club face, rather than the angle of attack.
Easy tip: Although it’s not 100 percent accurate, in simple terms, club face = launch! When practicing, push an alignment stick into the ground 10 yards away from the ball, hit a shot and you can easily see the starting direction and therefore deduce the club face aim at impact.
Club head direction
Impact is very fast; as quick as 0.0004 seconds! Definitely not long enough to sense the club face position and try to correct it whilst the ball is on the face. The curve on a ball is predominantly due to the difference between the club face at impact and the direction of the swing path.
Easy tip: Imagine hitting a tennis shot or kicking a football…if the path is to the right of the face, the ball curves left. If the path is to the left of the face, the ball curves right.
Increased speed leads to higher spin rates, exaggeration of any tilting of the spin axis, more curvature, longer distances and higher shots. I am sure you all see young juniors at your course who never miss a fairway because they swing so slow. It does get a bit harder to hit it so straight with some extra speed for sure, but it is definitely possible with some extra understanding.
Easy tip: A good way to build some control with your swing and have some fun: Make some full swings but hit shots with 20 percent effort (great for working on swing changes) and then do the same at 95 percent and see how you get on before finding your best compromise between of distance and control. For you juniors out there…hit it hard and work on control afterward. Believe me, you will thank me later on when you have the control and the distance.
You know what I said about face and path? Well, just to confuse you, there is one more, very important factor: contact/impact point of club and ball in comparison to the center of gravity of the club. Many golfers strike the ball from the sweet spot much less often than they think and this influences ball flight hugely. A shot contacted off center on the face (due to something called horizontal gear effect) imparts spin on the ball which can exaggerate or reduce curvature. A toe shot increases curve to the left (or reduces curve to the right) and a heel shot increases curve to the right (or reduces curve to the left). Due to vertical gear effect, shots hit lower on the face tend to launch lower and have increased spin; contact high on the face leads to higher launch and reduced spin.
Easy tip: Check your contact point habits often, by simply using a whiteboard marker on the face.
My challenge to you: Next time you are on the range try to hit lots of different shots with differing heights, curves and launches. Use some of these tips to alter your face and path to affect ball flight and be more in control of your game. Focus on the result of the shots, not the technique that goes into it. Get some help from a coach who can help you with your exploration. Have fun and let me know how it goes!