Golf and the Physics of Flight

The Ball Flight Laws:

Several factors influence the flight of the golf ball:

  1. Club Head Loft (Static and Dynamic)
  2. Club Head Path (Vertical and Horizontal)
  3. Club Head Face Direction
  4. Club Head Speed
  5. Club Head Mass
  6. Club Head Contact Point
  7. Club Head Grooves
  8. Ball Design (Dimples, Compression, Cover)
Today's discussion is focusing on two factors:
  • Club face direction at moment of impact
  • Club head path through the ball relative to club face

The image below shows what the ball flight will be with the 9 possible face and path combinations.

While the laws of physics have been around forever, the golf world's understanding of these laws has been developing only recently. Books written by golfers that we have all watched on TV had some very egregious assumptions about the flight of ball. 

One PGA Pro wrote in his book that the reason the Driver produces such a long flight was because the ball was struck with the club face on the way up causing top-spin. Probably made sense to him at the time just as the belief that the sun traveled around the earth made sense to people at one time.

One of the most recognized golfers in the world maintained that he was able to curve the ball by keeping the ball on the face of the club as the club face was rotating to impart spin on the ball. It probably felt that way to him, but almost golf instructors know that "FEEL ISN'T REAL".

While not all golfers and not all golf instructors will agree; science and scientists however do agree that the initial direction of the golf ball's flight is caused by the direction the club face is pointing at impact. The curve of the ball's flight is created by the path of the club relative to the club face direction.

Why is this important for the golfer know? Golf is a game of  'Connect the Dots'. Get from Point A to Point B with the least number of shots and you win. Continually miss your intended target and you lose. If a golfer can patiently study their game and their ball flight tendencies they can apply the ball flight laws to improve. If we accept the fact that initial direction is always governed by the direction of the club's face at impact we begin our improvement process by getting a predictable initial direction

By focusing on just one thing "The clubs face at the moment of impact" we can begin to predict with certainty the initial ball flight direction. If we know what our natural swing path is and the curve that path imparts on the ball we can adjust out initial aim point accordingly.

Look at the chart above. Most everyone would assume the target is E. But if the majority of your swings produce a ball flight that curves to F you are missing your intended target. Simply change your initial direction to B and that same ball flight will land you at your target F. 

It is simple physically but it is not easy mentally to adjust your initial aim point. Most golfers will struggle with the idea of hitting the ball away from the intended target, resulting in a swing that points the club back to the final target (E) and creating that big slice.

Practice a lot, then practice more. Learn to return the face of the club square to the intended initial direction. Your natural swing path will take care of correcting the initial direction with a nice smooth curve to the target.

Image result for golfer hitting a slice


The human brain is quite remarkable, it has the capacity to hold trillions of bits of data  yet can only hold a single thought at a time. The brain has the capacity to envision unlimited possibilities yet cannot conceive of a negative. The brain has an amazing ability to act rapidly on even the most minute current stimulus but cannot create a future action. The mind can create a lazer like pinpoint focus and the mind can wander. The brain takes care of our body without our input but requires our input to execute a planned action.

Golf is perhaps a sport that requires the most and highest level of focus. Why? Because golf is a sport devoid of reaction. Golf is a sport of planning, decision making, and precise execution. Planning and decision making create confidence, focus creates precise execution. 

I am not talking about thinking or awareness; most sports require much more thinking and awareness than golf. Can you imagine the amount of data the NFL Quarterback or the Indy 500 Driver must process every moment? Most sports require the athlete to develop a tremendous capacity for awareness. No other sport is played in the same unaware vacuum as golf. Golf requires the athlete to block out everything, the pain in the back, the birds chirping and that nagging self-doubt that they can actually execute the required shot. When the golfer suddenly looses that focus they stop play and start over again. Can you imagine the quarterback just stopping, because he lost focus? I can't either.

Golfers who claim that outside noises and activity don't distract them are probably not very focused to begin with. I golf with a guy who claims noises don't distract but just whisper his name at the top of his back swing and he falls apart. If you are not focused you cannot loose focus, the more precisely you are focused the easier it may be to loose focus. 

Remember the brain can only hold one thought at a time. If you are truly focused on contacting the back of the ball you cannot be wondering what that sound is coming from your playing partner's pocket. If you are truly focused on the task at hand you cannot be thinking up a retort to your cart mate's stupid comment.

On what should the golfer focus? For sure the focus cannot include the word "not".
  • Don't over swing
  • Don't rush
  • Don't hit it in the water
  • Don't leave it short
  • Don't top it again
The brain cannot conceive of nothing or a negative so the word not or don't gets eliminated leaving as the focused thought the very thing you want to avoid. Make certain the swing focus is positive.

The brain cannot create the future so why focus on the future? Focusing on the outcome forces away any thoughts about what you must actually do at this moment to get that outcome.

I think the focus trigger must be simple yet meaningful. The word 'home' can create emotion, memory and much more. It might take you an hour to accurately describe your home, if I ask you to imagine your home it's all there; color, floor plan, furniture, people, memories and more. It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. I think one word can create a meaningful picture.

For me I believe focus is in two parts, Physical and mental. Physical focus takes place once the golfer is confidently set over the ball and the eyes are focused precisely on the exact tiny spot on the ball that will be struck by the club's face. (this is called "quiet eye"... more about that in a later blog entry.)

Mental focus is when the mind is 100% in the current moment; calm cool and collected. At this point I am ready to swing and I use a two word key. "ONE TWO".  I even say it out loud. Each word has a meaning and is spoken in a meaningful way. They are spoken smoothly and slowly to match my desired tempo
  • ONE creates in my mind a clear image of my back swing, an image created after hours, weeks, months and years of trying to understand my swing. I have watched hours of video of my swing and the swings of golfers I want to emulate. In my mind the word "ONE" has a clear and definite end point; the top of my back swing.
  • PAUSE is the nothing between the words that is my transition, that moment when my upper body gives over control of the swing to my legs and torso. The pause between the words is never rushed.
  • TWO is my down and through swing. When I say the word it is actually longer that the word one. It seems to me that twoooo gets drawn out a bit. I try to say the words with the same tone and inflection because I want my swing to feel balanced and symmetrical.
I challenge you to create your swing thought mantra. The one that perfectly matches you.

The Golf Ball

The golf ball is the most important piece of equipment in all of golf. Even the golf course is less important than the golf ball, a golfer can hit golf balls anywhere, but can't even get off the first tee without a golf ball.  The golf industry spends millions of dollars in research and marketing to convince the average golfer that their ball is the best one for them.

Most of my students play the brand of golf ball known as "whatever is in my bag". Cheaper is better and the found ball is best of all. I used to play in a skins game with a golfer that was renowned for identifying his lost ball as whatever ball someone found. These same players will work so hard and spend so much money to find the right driver, the perfect pair of golf shoes, that perfect set of irons, sunglasses, shirts, golf bag, posture, swing thoughts, grip size, or whatever, but continue to play the ball that happens to be in the bag.

Not all golf balls are the same! In some cases not all golf balls in the same box are the same, but that is improving. While all golf balls must conform to the same set of USGA rules, not all balls have the same personality. The built in personality of the ball is where the smart golfer looks to choose the correct ball for their style and ability. Pick a ball that has a personality that fits you. If every man or every woman looked identical you could still tell them apart by personality, and personality is what ultimately creates attraction. 

I am not going to talk here about what technology in the design of the golf ball creates personality, their are plenty of places for you to research that. I am going to talk about what personalities are important, and how you can find the ones that are most to your liking.

For me the personality traits I look for are:
  1. Consistency
  2. Feel
  3. Ball Flight
  4. Putting
  5. Short Game Action.
CONSISTENCY: When I began golfing there was no one ball rule, play one ball tee to green then switch to a different ball for putting. Maybe play one ball off the tee of a par five but a different ball on a par three. I remember my grandfather and I sitting at the dining table sorting through a box or 2 of balls to cull out the imperfect ones. some balls were out of round and some were out of balance. Role a ball the length of the dining room table and you could actually see that is was not round. Float a ball in a tub of water with Epsom salt and you could see it had a definite heavy side. Sometimes half the balls in the box would be deemed unplayable! Today, if you play a major brand ball that lack of consistency is probably not an issue. Knowing your ball will react the same way every time is important.

FEEL: The moment of contact, the moment of truth is when the ball meets the club's face. Is it a sound you like, a through the hands up the arms to the brain comfortable natural feel? Is it a satisfying, confidence boosting and visceral sensation. Most important is it truthful and accurate? Is that feeling there with every shot and every club from driver to putter? You wouldn't wear shoes that don't feel right, why play a ball that doesn't.

BALL FLIGHT: For years club makers have been attempting to design and build clubs to match the swing traits of golfers. Slow swings, fast swings, smooth swings, choppy swings, solid strikers and golfers that it it all over the face of the club. For the most part the industry has been very successful and being fitted to the proper club for your swing can make a huge difference. Its only been in this century that a major manufacturer has been marketing balls with a variety of personalities to fit a variety of golfer traits, Bridgestone. However to this day Titleist claims that every golfer can successfully play their flagship ball the PRO V and the PRO V1. With a little research and some field work the average golfer can find the ball or balls that have the best chance of delivering the kind of ball flight they desire. Characteristics are engineered and built into the golf ball. 

Examples of some characteristics and some of their effects are:
  • Trajectory 
    • High flight for more carry
    • Low flight for more roll
  • Spin
    • Low spin for straighter and lower
    • Higher spin for more for more carry and curve
  • Cover hardness
    • Soft for more wedge bite
    • Harder for more feedback
Notice I did not include distance as a built in personality! I do not believe any manufacturer sets out to build a shorter golf ball. There are trade-offs caused by the laws of physics; if you want a higher flight you are going to get less roll. Does that mean you will go farther or shorter with the high flyer? It all depends on the personalty of the golf course. You choice of ball must include an understanding of the golf course. 

PUTTING: Balls do behave differently off the putter face. Harder balls give more feedback and softer balls seem to roll better (at least for me). Since half of the shots allocated to par are putting, it is worthwhile to find which ball, from the ones you selected from for three previous trials, work the best for you on the putting surface.

SHORT GAME ACTION: Oh my! This is all about personality and personal style. I frequently play with 2 very different golfers.
  • Donny Bump and Run: Fly it low, land it short and let it run up. A 6 iron from 25 yards and in is not uncommon.
  • Gary Grip It and Spin It: Get it in the air land it close and make it stop. A 6 iron, never from inside 155 yards.
Is one way better than the other? Yes Donny's way is better for him and Gary's way is the only way for him. Ball choice? Well for this shot at least the ball choice doesn't seem to have much impact on Donny, however Gary better have a soft covered high spin ball.

So how do you choose the right ball for you? Trial and error, repetition, asking friends, research and constant evaluation. For me I have narrowed it down to three balls:
  1. Titleist Pro V
  2. Bridgestone E6
  3. Wilson Duo or Zip, they seem the same to me.
When I am playing well and the weather conditions are good I will play the Pro V. The Titleist gives good control off the tee and awesome action around the green.

If its windy or its a tight course I play the E6. This Bridgestone gives me a confidence boosting straight ball flight. Playing the E6 I have to remind my self not to try to get cute, just hit it straight to the traget. The ball is good around the green and has a very nice feel when putting.

When I am not playing well I go back to the Wilson balls. Why? Well these are the softest balls I have ever hit and for me that just whispers softly, "Slow down, stupid." and wondrously my tempo relaxes and my rhythm returns. Also it is the best putting ball I have ever found.

Let me know what you play and why you chose it.

Image result for golf ball


Compared to racing a Vette down the Mulsanne straight, facing a 100 MPH fastball, downhill skiing or most other sports, golf seems like a rather pedestrian sport. I remember watching several athletes from various sports discussing pressure on a late night talk show. The famous pro golfer said nothing can have more pressure than facing a short putt to win a major championship, the race car driver calmly said "no one ever died missing a putt.

Apparently pressure is a relative experience.

Each athlete must learn to deal with whatever pressures exert themselves. Pressure is really just an emotional reaction to a situation. With calm confidence the pressure disappears. Situational pressure is not a real happening, it is one we create facing a situation we fear, have uncertainty or doubt about.

The FUD factor has created stage fright, the CHOKE, the yips, procrastination, paralysis by analysis and even quitting. Remember watching Sergio Garcia gripping and re-gripping the club for what felt like an eternity?

So how do we handle self created pressure, simply by creating pressure! Yes to handle pressure you have to experience pressure. Most golfers have little if any pressure when they practice, unless they find a way to create it. Tiger Woods staying on the practice green until he made 100 six foot putts, IN A ROW!

Imagine you have a tee shot with a forced carry over water of 135YDS, don't leave the tee until you have struck 20 consecutive balls online over 135 yards. Twenty 10 yard chips with 1 putt or less, in a row.

I remember playing with my grandfather when I was maybe 12. I was facing a 90YD shot over water to a tight pin and so I set up for a pitch out to the right of the water, that would have left a longer shot but at least not over the water. My grandfather asked, "Why?" I said I didn't have confidence in the shot. He asked me if I had a club I could hit 100 yards. "Of course", I said. "Well, hit that club with that swing and with confidence. Act like you are confident!" Graps said. I did and it worked, from then on I committed to act confidently whatever I was doing.

Confidence trump pressure and confidence can be faked!