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Opinion & Analysis

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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Opinion & Analysis

The future of club fitting is going virtual

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Thanks to technology, you can buy everything from custom-made suits to orthotics online without ever walking into a store or working in person with an expert.

Now, with the help of video and launch monitors, along with a deeper understanding of dynamics than ever before, club fitting is quickly going virtual too, and it’s helping golfers find better equipment faster!

What really took so long?

The real advancements started in the coaching world around a decade ago. What used to require heavy cameras and tripods now simply requires a phone and you have a high-definition slow-motion video that can be sent around the world in a matter of seconds.

Beyond video, modern launch monitors and their ability to capture data have quickly turned a guessing game of “maybe this will work” into a precision step-by-step process of elimination to optimize. When you combine video and launch monitor elements with an understanding of club fitting principles and basic biomechanics, you have the ability to quickly evaluate a golfer’s equipment and make recommendations to help them play better golf.

The benefits of virtual fitting

  • Any golfer with a phone and access to a launch monitor can get high-level recommendations from a qualified fitter.
  • Time and cost-saving to and from a fitter. (This seems obvious, but one of the reasons I personally receive so many questions about club fitting is because those reaching out don’t have access to fitting facilities within a reasonable drive)
  • It’s an opportunity to get a better understanding our your equipment from an expert.

How virtual fittings really work

The key element of a virtual fitting is the deep understanding of the available products to the consumer. On an OEM level, line segmentation makes this fairly straightforward, but it becomes slightly more difficult for brand-agnostic fitters that have so many brands to work with, but it also shows their depth of knowledge and experience.

It’s from this depth of knowledge and through an interview that a fitter can help analyze strengths and weaknesses in a player’s game and use their current clubs as a starting point for building a new set—then the video and launch monitor data comes in.

But it can quickly go very high level…

One of the fastest emerging advancements in this whole process is personalized round tracking data from companies like Arccos, which gives golfers the ability to look at their data without personal bias. This allows the golfer along with any member of their “team” to get an honest assessment of where improvements can be found. The reason this is so helpful is that golfers of all skill levels often have a difficult time being critical about their own games or don’t even really understand where they are losing shots.

It’s like having a club-fitter or coach follow you around for 10 rounds of golf or more—what was once only something available to the super-elite is now sitting in your pocket. All of this comes together and boom, you have recommendations for your new clubs.

Current limitations

We can’t talk about all the benefits without pointing out some of the potential limitations of virtual club fittings, the biggest being the human element that is almost impossible to replicate by phone or through video chat.

The other key factor is how a player interprets feel, and when speaking with an experienced fitter recently while conducting a “trial fitting” the biggest discussion point was how to communicate with golfers about what they feel in their current clubs. Video and data can help draw some quick conclusions but what a player perceives is still important and this is where the conversation and interview process is vital.

Who is offering virtual club fittings?

There are a lot of companies offering virtual fittings or fitting consultations over the phone. One of the biggest programs is from Ping and their Tele-Fitting process, but other companies like TaylorMade and PXG also have this service available to golfers looking for new equipment.

Smaller direct-to-consumer brands like New level, Sub 70, and Haywood Golf have offered these services since their inception as a way to work with consumers who had limited experience with their products but wanted to opportunity to get the most out of their gear and their growth has proven this model to work.

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: Why wedge mastery is so elusive

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I have conducted numerous surveys of golfers over my 40-year golf industry career, because I have always believed that if you want to know what people are thinking, you simply have to ask them.

As a gearhead for wedges and a wedge designer over the past 30 years, most of my research and analysis is focused on these short-range scoring clubs and how golfers use them. What this research continually tells me is that most golfers—regardless of handicap–consider the wedges the hardest clubs in the bag to master. That’s because they are. I would even go so far as to say that the difficulty of attaining mastery even extends to the best players in the world.

Watching the Genesis Open this past weekend, for example, it seemed like these guys were hitting wedge approaches on nearly every hole. And while there were certainly many shots that covered the flag—like Max Homa’s approach on 18–there were also a great number that came up woefully short. Not what you would expect when a top-tier tour professional has a sand or gap wedge in their hands.

The simple fact is that wedges are the most difficult clubs in our bags with which to attain consistent shotmaking mastery, and that is because of the sheer design of the clubhead itself. For clarity of this article, I’m talking about those full- or near full-swing wedge shots, not the vast variety of short greenside shots we all face every round. To get mastery of those shots (like the tour pros exhibit every week), you simply have to spend lots of time hitting lots of shots, experimenting and exploring different techniques. There are no shortcuts to a deadly short game.

But today I’m talking about those prime opportunities to score, when you have a full- or near-full swing wedge into a par-five or short par four. We should live for those moments, but all too often we find ourselves disappointed in the outcome.

The good news is that’s not always all your fault.

First of all, you must understand that every wedge shot is, in effect, a glancing blow to the ball because of the loft involved. With 50 to 60 degrees of loft—or even 45 to 48 degrees with a pitching wedge—the loft of the club is such that the ball is given somewhat of a glancing blow. That demands a golf swing with a much higher degree of precision in the strike than say, an 8-iron shot.

I have always believed that most golfers can improve their wedge play by making a slower-paced swing than you might with a longer iron. This allows you to be more precise in making sure that your hands lead the clubhead through impact, which is a must when you have a wedge in your hands. Without getting into too much detail, the heavier, stiffer shaft in most wedges does not allow this club to load and unload in the downswing, so the most common error is for the clubhead to get ahead of the hands before impact, thereby adding loft and aggravating this glancing blow. I hope that makes sense.
The other aspect of wedge design that makes consistent wedge distance so elusive is the distribution of the mass around the clubhead. This illustration of a typical tour design wedge allows me to show you something I have seen time and again in robotic testing of various wedges.

Because all the mass is along the bottom of the clubhead, the ideal impact point is low in the face (A), so that most of the mass is behind the ball. Tour players are good at this, but most recreational golfers whose wedges I’ve examined have a wear pattern at least 2-4 grooves higher on the club than I see on tour players’ wedges.

So, why is this so important?

Understand that every golf club has a single “sweet spot”–that pinpoint place where the smash factor is optimized—where clubhead speed translates to ball speed at the highest efficiency. On almost all wedges, that spot is very low on the clubhead, as indicated by the “A” arrow here, and robotic testing reveals that smash factor to be in the range of 1.16-1.18, meaning the ball speed is 16-18% higher than the clubhead speed.

To put that in perspective, smash factor on drivers can be as high as 1.55 or even a bit more, and it’s barely below that in your modern game improvement 7-iron. The fact is—wedges are just not as efficient in this measure, primarily because of the glancing blow I mentioned earlier.

But–and here’s the kicker–if you move impact up the face of a wedge just half to five-eights of an inch from the typical recreational golfer’s impact point, as indicated by the “B” arrow, smash factor on ‘tour design’ wedges can be reduced to as low as 0.92 to 0.95. That costs you 40 to 60 feet on a 90-yard wedge shot . . . because you missed “perfect” by a half-inch or less!

So, that shot you know all too well—the ball sitting up and caught a bit high in the face—is going fall in the front bunker or worse. That result is not all your fault. The reduced distance is a function of the diminished smash factor of the wedge head itself.

That same half-inch miss with your driver or even your game-improvement 7-iron is hardly noticeable.

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Golf's Perfect Imperfections

Golf’s Perfect Imperfections: Breakthrough mental tools to play the golf of your dreams

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Incredibly important talk! A must listen to the words of Dr. Karl Morris, ham-and-egging with the golf imperfections trio. Like listening to top athletes around a campfire. This talk will helps all ages and skills in any sport.

 

 

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