High or low: How much driver backspin is best?

High or low: How much driver backspin is best?

Equipment

High or low: How much driver backspin is best?

Many manufacturers have in recent years touted extremely low-spin drivers as if they were some kind of just-made-legal, performance-enhancing drug that can unlock more distance and lower scores.

Better materials and manufacturing techniques make them possible, but a simple question begs to be answered: How much backspin does any player really need with a driver?

Matt Rollins, a PGA Tour rep for Parsons Xtreme Golf, laughed in a way that immediately indicated the opening of Pandora’s Box when asked that question a few weeks ago at TPC Boston.

“There’s a bunch of things that factor into that,” Rollins said. “If you have a low-launch guy, say 8-, 9- or 10-degrees, you’re going to want to stay in the 2,400 to 2,600 spin rate. But if you have someone like Zach Johnson, who launches everything around 13- or 13.5-degrees, we’re trying to hit 2,000 or 2,100 to maximize his carry distance.”

From a physics perspective, any player’s ideal driver spin rate is determined largely by launch angle and clubhead speed.

Compared to his peers, Zach Johnson does not swing his driver exceptionally fast. To maximize how far his tee shots fly, he needs to send the ball high into the air. Johnson’s high launch comes from the 9.3 degrees of loft on his driver and a slightly upward swing path into the ball – known as a positive attack angle. His ball will balloon if he creates too much spin in combination with his positive attack angle, robbing him of both carry distance and roll.

Rollins said Charles Howell III is on the other side of the spectrum. Howell swings much faster than Johnson and typically launches his drives at 8 or 9 degrees while swinging slightly down into the ball. With his negative attack angle, he needs more spin to avoid hitting low, bullet-like drives that land quickly and rely too much on roll.

“Those are probably the two most extreme guys out here,” Rollins said of the two PXG staffers. “Charles Howell generates ball speeds up around 175 to 180 mph, and Zach is around 160. They’ve designed golf swings to fit their speed. Zach flies it 270, 275 and Charles can fly it 300, but they are entirely different ball flights.”

When Johnny Thompson, Callaway’s senior PGA Tour rep, tries to get a player’s spin rate just right, he prefers to start by watching how the player performs on the course.

“If you are high-launch, you need low spin, and if you are low launch you need more spin, but I think you have to cater to the golfer and what’s right for him to play his best,” Thompson said. “Everybody does not need to hit a high bomb to be their best. I think that some guys who do that might be setting themselves back.”

For example, Thompson said if a player is struggling with consistency in his iron game, the last thing he needs is a new driver that gives him more yards but puts him in the rough more often.

“If players are driving it straight, you can start to hedge towards higher launch and lower spin . . . as long as they can maintain accuracy,” he said.

There are plenty of ways to reduce spin on a driver, such as trying a shaft that is stiffer in the tip section, a heavier shaft or opting for a club with less loft. A good clubfitter also can help increase spin, if that is required.

The bottom line is that proper spin is dependent on the player. A convincing argument could be made that if improving accuracy is more important than adding distance, opting for a higher-spinning driver could be a smart choice. The best way to determine whether a low-spin driver is best is to work with a custom-fitter and try a lot of clubs and shafts.

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