Launch angle, spin rate vital in maximizing driving distance

PALM HARBOR, FL - MARCH 09: Jordan Spieth plays his shot from the 14th tee during the second round of the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort Copperhead Course on March 9, 2018 in Palm Harbor, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images) Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Launch angle, spin rate vital in maximizing driving distance

By The Numbers

Launch angle, spin rate vital in maximizing driving distance

At several times during last year’s U.S. Open, Fox Sports flashed a small box on screen shortly after golfers such as Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson smashed their tee shots. It displayed data collected about the shot by TrackMan, the radar-based launch monitor system, including clubhead speed, ball speed and carry distance. Other networks have included TrackMan data at various times during golf broadcasts, and ESPN and CBS may provide it in a few weeks during the Masters, too.

As the numbers whirl on the TV and player after player seems to boom tee shots past the 300-yard mark, it might seem that every pro knows how to hit the perfect drive. In reality, there is no one perfect way. Based on how much ball speed you can generate and how you deliver the club to the ball, your perfect launch conditions might be vastly different than what you would expect.

The foundation of any good tee shot is ball speed. The more ball speed you can generate, the farther you potentially can hit a shot. However, to reach your distance potential, it is critical you get the ideal blend of spin rate and launch angle.

Excessive backspin will make your tee shot balloon too high, while a lack of spin can make the ball fall out of the air too soon.

“I think the perception that comes from TV is that everyone is trying to get low spin and high launch,” said Mark Timms, CEO of club fitter Cool Clubs. “The reality is that’s not for everybody. When you get down to 60 and 70 mph, you need spin.”

Golfers who do not generate a lot of ball speed will maximize their overall distance when they maximize carry distance and minimize roll.

The easiest way to get more carry distance is to use a driver that has more loft and generates more spin. Many drivers designed for slower-swinging players have high loft options such 12 or even 13 degrees, as the extra loft makes it easier to hit tee shots higher and keep them in the air longer.

Spin is necessary to keep the ball in the air, but golfers who generate a lot of ball speed must avoid excessive spin and often need drivers and shafts that reduce spin.

“Most of the guys on Tour don’t play drivers with low lofts like they used to, either because the balls don’t spin as much and (manufacturers) have dropped spin so much,” Timms said. “Raising the loft can help to increase the launch angle while keeping the spin down.”

Matt Kuchar, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson all generated about the same amount of backspin on measured drives last season on the PGA Tour. However, because Johnson’s ball speed is 180 mph, Spieth’s is almost 170 mph and Kuchar’s is about 162 mph, their average drives are very different.

Spieth’s drives had an average apex (maximum height) that was just 18 inches higher than Kuchar’s, but Spieth’s ball speed helped him average 14 more yards off the tee.

Kuchar’s average launch angle was about 1 degree higher than Johnson’s, but Johnson hit the ball 15 feet higher and carried the ball 30 yards farther because of his ball speed. If Johnson’s launch angle and spin rate matched Kuchar’s, his tee shots would fly higher but land shorter than his average last season.

The critical thing for amateur players to remember is that as ball speed changes, the ideal blend of backspin and launch angle also changes. While you are working with a PGA of America professional to make your driving more efficient, you should also consult a good club fitter to make sure your driver is ideally suited to your swing. Gwk

(Note: This story appears in the April 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

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