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Dear announcers: Stop saying “topspin”

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If there is one thing that grinds my gears, it’s when television announcers at the highest level in golf, with the largest audiences, get things so terribly wrong about the physics of the game. It may seem like a small issue, but the problem is these pieces of false information get into the minds of golfers, which then continues to perpetuate misinformation around the game, club fitting, and what actually happens when a golf ball is in motion.

The most recent account was during the first round of the U.S. Open when after a shot was hit from the rough and took off low with very little spin a not-to-be-named announcer said something along the lines of

“That really took off with some topspin, look at it roll out” 

This, from a physics perspective, is impossible. So I did what many commentators of the game do, I took to Twitter (@RDSBarath) to state my displeasure for the comment and share the truth about what really happens when a golf club strikes a ball.

The truth

Now that we have pointed out the falsehood, let’s help you better understand what’s really going on. In the golf vernacular, there are a number of ways spin is improperly described, with the two most common being; “sidespin” and “topspin.”

What is sidespin

Spin Axis – Trackman Golf

Sidespin is a commonly used incorrect way to describe the spin axis of a golf ball as it travels through the air. Rather than try and define it myself I will refer to the experts at Trackman to help me explain what’s really going on.

“Spin Axis is the tilt angle relative to the horizon of the golf ball’s resulting rotational axis immediately after separation from the club face (post impact).”

“The spin axis can be associated to the wings of an airplane. If the wings of an airplane are parallel to the ground, this would represent a zero spin axis and the plane would fly straight. If the wings were banked/tilted to the left (right wing higher than left wing), this would represent a negative spin axis and the plane would bank/curve to the left. And the opposite holds true if the wings are banked/tilted to the right.”

To better understand just how important spin axis is it to hitting shots that land close to your intended target check out the video below which demonstrates both spin axis and launch direction.

The falsehoods of “topspin”

As mentioned off the top, no pun intended, any shot struck under normal circumstances will not have topspin. The only scenario where is it possible is when a shot is topped into the ground with the leading edge or sole of the club above the equator of the ball.

The idea of topspin originates in paddle sports like tennis and ping pong where is it entirely possible to hit a low flying topspinning shot that hits their respective courts or tables and proceed to almost pick up speed.

The difference between a racket/paddle and a golf club, is a golf club delivers loft at impact, and the center of gravity is away from the contact point of the face. A golf ball even when hit in extremely low friction will still leave the clubface after impact with some amount of backspin, even on a putt.

The below video shows a putt starting to roll forward almost immediately, but what is really happening is the ball is struck under almost perfect putting launch conditions will very low backspin (but still measurable), friction from the ground resists the movement of the ball and the ball goes from skidding to forward roll very quickly.

In the case of the announcer who misspoke, it would have been much more beneficial to the viewer to have explained the shot like

“based on the lie and circumstances of the impact that shot came out a lot lower than it normally would with very little spin, and ran out more than usual” 

It’s a major change to the original statement and accurately describes what actually happened when the ball was hit from U.S. Open rough.

Remember, just because it was said on TV by a former professional golfer doesn’t make it true.

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Ryan Barath is part of the Digital Content Creation Team for GolfWRX. He hosts the "On Spec" Podcast on the GolfWRX Radio Network which focuses on discussing everything golf, including gear, technology, fitting, and course architecture. He is a club-fitter & master club builder with more than 17 years of experience working with golfers of all skill levels, including PGA Tour players. He is the former Build Shop Manager & Social Media Coordinator for Modern Golf. He now works independently from his home shop and is a member of advisory panels to a select number of golf equipment manufacturers. You can find Ryan on Twitter and Instagram where he's always willing to chat golf, and share his passion for club building, course architecture and wedge grinding.

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Howard Clark

    Sep 21, 2020 at 6:55 am

    Good ball striker means not very bright, sort of like “less people are in the stands”, when you meant fewer. And my favorite, Bryson was a physics major. He dropped out of college.

  2. Evan

    Sep 21, 2020 at 4:50 am

    What grinds my gears Ryan? People who get upset about the use of the term side spin to describe a ball curving in flight.

  3. chip75

    Sep 20, 2020 at 11:54 am

    “Less spin and more roll…” would be more apt.

  4. Stephan Lechner

    Sep 20, 2020 at 10:56 am

    The comment the announcers make that I find most annoying is such an such player is a really good ball striker. They will go out of their way to say it multiple times about multiple players throughout the coverage. Isn’t it obvious they are all good ball strikers? They wouldn’t be on the PGA Tour if they weren’t good ball strikers. They will say he is one of the best ball strikers in the game. No kidding!

    • Wyatt Scott

      Sep 21, 2020 at 12:29 am

      they have to justify their existence , unfortunately with loads of horseshoe

  5. Steve Diver

    Sep 19, 2020 at 2:57 pm

    Wait, you freely admit that you can hit a putt with topspin. Regardless of how it achieved the topspin, fact is its there.

    What about a teed ball with very low launch angle, inside up strike such as a draw drive. Does the ball ever achieve top spin, either in the air or upon contact with the ground?

  6. iceman

    Sep 18, 2020 at 8:27 pm

    You could simplify your correct statment to “look how little the ball spun leaving the rough” as that will be easier for the audience to take. Too much information will cause you to lose the audience. Physic explanations were on point.

  7. Shallowface

    Sep 18, 2020 at 8:12 pm

    Golf balls don’t roll up clubfaces when struck either, but we hear that all the time despite high speed visual evidence to the contrary.

    • Bob Jones

      Sep 22, 2020 at 12:37 pm

      There’s a Lee Trevino video on YouTube where he says just is what happens. Ignorance is bliss, I guess.

      You don’t even need video evidence. Just explain how if the ball is running up the face what force stops it before it flies off the clubface away from the target, what force turns it around, what force starts moving it in the proper direction, and what force imparts the speed needed to send the ball from there to who knows how far down the fairway. Go ahead. Explain that one.

  8. Rwj

    Sep 18, 2020 at 7:42 pm

    Plenty of things the announcers are doing is annoying:

    Feherty dry mouth
    Roberts essays
    Montages
    Constant replays of earlier action
    The complete lack of showing golf shots…
    But not topspin

  9. Doug

    Sep 18, 2020 at 3:58 pm

    Just because Barath correctly points out what’s really happening doesn’t make it petty.

    And a golf ball can’t have both backspin and sidespin; that is, it can have only one spin axis, which may or may not be tilted.

    Some of us don’t like to have everything “dumbed down” to appease those who need “simple easy-to-understand language”.

  10. Nack Jicklaus

    Sep 18, 2020 at 2:24 pm

    Topspin is for ping pong.

  11. Mark

    Sep 18, 2020 at 12:37 pm

    I think this opinion piece is annoyingly petty. It really doesn’t matter if they say side spin or top spin and whether or not that’s exactly what is happening. We all know exactly what they mean when they say these things. It is simple easy-to-understand language, unlike the pedantic alternative you suggested.

    I especially take issue with the “side spin” police.

    “There’s no such thing as side spin, the spin axis is tilted!!!” they cry. But how is it tilted? To the side. And what happens when the spin axis is tilted to one side? The ball spins more to the side in proportion to the degree to which the spin axis is tilted to that side.

    Side spin seems to be a pretty good, simple description of what is actually taking place. I’ll give you topspin, it is an exceedingly rare golf shot at least as measured off the face. The term could be easily switched to low spin or minimal spin.

    But even so, at some point in a low, running shot, even when hit with significant backspin, the ball, like your putt example, quits resisting physics and starts rolling forward, correct?

    • Wyatt Scott

      Sep 21, 2020 at 12:33 am

      okay Simple Simon, likely a Boomer to boot

  12. Inya Mouf

    Sep 18, 2020 at 11:18 am

    Dear GolfWRX hackers, stop saying flop shot. Every shot around the green with an open face is not a flop shot.

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