On this tee, we will endeavor to understand why the ball behaves the way it does in the air, often causing us great exasperation and change in temperament from one shot to the next. All the kings’ men, guru teachers, and modern technology offer no clear explanation as to what a golf ball does in flight. Understanding cause and effect, the chain of events as we move from one shot to the next during our round, will help us improve our shot making skills, keep the ball in play, and I dare say hit more fairways and greens.
How Many Things Do You See A Golf Ball Do As It Flies Through The Air?
If you answered 4, you are absolutely correct! The golf ball in flight is actually doing 4 separate things simultaneously. If we were to stand over the ball and separately consider how to impart these four flights simulations on the next shot, we would become paralyzed and not be able to draw the club back.
So What Do We Do?
We must see the ball, fix the target, envision the shot, and picture the ball in flight or the roll of the ball on the green and swing according to how we feel using instinct, reflex, and muscle memory to produce the shot.
We hear such comments from the pros as they are being interviewed following a strong performance. We hear phrases like, “ I envisioned the ball curving around the hazard”, and “I felt the trajectory needed to carry the bunker”. The pros are so fine-tuned that their objective is to fully engage their instincts to visualize and feel the shot prior to making the swing. We often hear a winner say. “ I was in the zone”, or “I was able to get out of my own way today”.
The Four Characteristics Of The Golf Ball In Flight
1. Distance – The golf ball travels a certain distance due to the accelerated force imparted by the forearms and the club handle through the ball. It’s the same effect as when tossing a rolled up piece of paper into the trashcan. You look at the can and toss the object into it without thinking. In golf, you see the target, gauge the distance and impart the force to launch and carry the ball the required distance.
2. Path – The starting direction the ball assumes upon contact. The ball will always begin its flight along the path caused by the extension of the club shaft. For the right handed player, the right arm extends the shaft of the club down the line in the direction you want the ball to follow. How long the ball remains on this path is determined by other factors such as a clubface angle and rotation. Extending the right arm down the path you want the ball to travel is foolproof where the alignment of the body and club are not.
3. Curve – The third characteristic is the curve of the ball flight, right or left. The curvature of the shot is due to rotation of the handle causing the club face to either open or close during the stroke. For the right handed player, when the clubface opens it causes a fade or curve of the ball to the right and when closed it produces a draw to the left. Using the forearms to control the handle will deliver a fade or draw, but if the hands get involved, the clubface may rotate dramatically and deliver a dreaded slice or hook.
4. Trajectory – The fourth in flight dimension is the trajectory or launch angle of the ball. Trajectory is a result of the club loft combined with the downward stroke through the ball. The downward stroke and accelerated force imparts the backspin and the loft of the clubface causes the ball to leave the face at a certain angle.
Now That We Understand The Four Ball Flight Characteristics, What Do We Do With Them?
1. Swing the club in a relaxed manner, not gripping the handle too tight, but in a relaxed, yet athletic manner. You will recall in that we identified the muscles must be relaxed so they can work with the joints that are free and unlocked for the swing to maximize it’s force and power.
2. See the path you want the ball to travel down and make every effort to extend the shaft (during the forward swing) precisely down the chosen target line.
One effective way to see the target line is to line up the shot from behind the ball and pick a spot 10 inches or so in front of your ball that is in line with your target. Then make sure you line up your club face on that spot during address and drive the shaft of the club over it through impact.
3. In most cases we want to minimize the curve of the ball during flight, but most golfers, including PGA Tour Pros, have a preferred shot shape, left to right, right to left.
Two incredibly successful professionals with opposite shapes are, Bruce Lietzke (profound left to right shape), and Billy Casper, winner of 51 PGA Tour events and 3-time Major Champion, hit everything with an almost hook ball flight. Pick the shot shape that is most comfortable for you and play with it.
4. Flight trajectory has dramatic impact on distance and most of us under-club, leaving us woefully short of the desired distance. We all think we carry the ball further with each iron than we actually do on average. Think about it, how many times have you actually missed the green because you went long. I would wager that when we miss a green, more than 90% of the time it is because we are short due to under-clubbing ourselves. Try an experiment during your next round, select the club you normally would, and then hit one club longer into all 18 greens. Track the results and you will be astounded by the improvement in greens hit in regulation….and your scores.
With this cause and effect relationship clearly understood, the feedback we receive by watching the ball in flight will tell us precisely what we have done during the swing. The ball does not lie, it is the one thing we can rely on 100% of the time. Its travels are a direct result of our swings, good or bad, but we can learn a great deal by watching the flight of the ball.
Interestingly the same swing thought influences all four shot characteristics of the ball in flight. That thought being the handle.
Until the next tee, Keep Swinging the Handle!