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GOLF GEEKS: The Ball Flight Laws of Golf

Post image for GOLF GEEKS: The Ball Flight Laws of Golf

Controlling your direction is obviously a hugely important part of golf. However, when questioned, most golfers don’t seem to understand what actually causes a ball to go straight/offline. I know this because I teach golf for a living, and it's a question I ask each of my students.

While there are many swing-style elements which could contribute to an offline shot, I like to boil it down to what definitively causes a ball to go in the desired direction (or not).

The Facts

The golf ball responds to what we call the “impact interval” - the time in which the ball is in contact with the face of the club; to the golf ball, nothing else matters. So whether you are:

  • 6'4" or 4'6"
  • 230lb of muscle or 110lb soaking wet
  • Tiger Woods in his prime, or a complete beginner
  • Have a weak grip or strong grip
  • Long or short swing
  • Lifting your left heel in the backswing or keeping it planted

etc., it makes no difference to the result.

While this sounds controversial, it is a fact. The best players are simply great at creating a functional and consistent impact. It is important to state that the difference between you and a top tour pro resides in this 0.75" or so of space where the club is in contact with the ball.

This is why we can see so many different swing styles on tour being effective – they are simply an individual’s unique vehicle to a functional impact interval.

swing styles

So many different styles.

This is not to say that swing style is irrelevant – many technical moves can add consistency/improvements to the impact interval. However, if a swing change doesn’t positively effect this small space at impact, it wont affect your golf ball.

Path and Face

The logical progression from that information would be to look at what causes direction. Given a centered strike (sweet spot – more on this in later articles), there are two main elements which determine a shot’s direction – path and face.

Path

Path refers to the direction the club is moving during the impact interval. Most players will have heard of the terms “in-to-out” (referring to a club moving to the right of the target line) or “out-to-in” (referring to a club moving left of the target line).


Images taken from The Practice Manual – The Ultimate Guide for Golfers

The swing path is only really responsible for around 25% of the starting direction of the golf ball. Also, while it is necessary to have a relatively square swing path through impact to achieve the elusive perfectly straight shot onto our target, it is not necessary to have a square swing path to play great golf.

In fact, many top players are able to play great golf with clubs which swing to the right of/left of the target line through impact – essentially hitting a draw or fade shot. Some, such as Bubba Watson, may dramatically change their swing paths from shot to shot to achieve a desired shot shape.

Face

Clubface direction is simply the direction the clubface is pointing during this impact interval (it also includes dynamic lie angle).

club faces

This has the biggest influence on starting direction of the ball (often around 70-80%). In fact, a clubface direction which is offline can easily override the swing path of the player. For example, a player may swing the club 3 degrees in-to-out (to the right) and have a clubface which points 3 degrees left – meaning the ball starts to left and moves further to the left.

The player will then often report that they felt they have “come over the top” of it, whereas this was not the case (I can then use Trackman numbers to prove this to them).

adam-young

A match made in heaven

Effectively, it is the relationship between these two factors which create the direction of the ball. For example, a square swing path and square clubface at impact (sweet-spot strike, barring minutiae) will produce a straight shot with no curvature.

square path and face
Image taken from The Practice Manual – The Ultimate Guide for Golfers

If the clubface is closed to the swing path, the ball will curve to the left, and vice versa. The amount of difference between the path and the face will determine the amount of curvature, with a bigger difference creating a bigger curvature – all other things relative.

A general rule I like to give beginner players is to learn to control/manage the clubface better. We do this through a mixture of drills and techniques, as well as improvements in awareness.

We then progress to a better understanding, with the general rule of;

“The ball starts on the line of the clubface and curves away from the swing path”.

Note - While this is not 100% accurate (the ball actually starts around 70-80% between the path and face, favoring the face), it is easier to remember, and functional enough to make appropriate changes.

square path face right
Image taken from The Practice Manual – The Ultimate Guide for Golfers

For example, if your ball starts on the target line but curves right, your clubface was square the the target at impact, but your swing path would have been more to the left (the more curvature the ball has to the right, the more left the swing path was).

Work On It

There are many dogmatic statements in golf instruction explaining how you ‘must’ swing this way/that way. However, most of this is unfounded – as evidenced by the innumerable functional swings on tour.

The commonality between all tour players is that they all manage their clubface/path relationship really well. And if you want to hit the ball more accurately, this is something you should be working on too. We all work and tinker with our swings endlessly, but have you worked directly on clubface or swing path yet? The answers to better golf lie there.

I use a mixture of drills, techniques and conceptual understanding to make dramatic improvements with my students in this area.

 

 

About Adam Young

Adam is the best-selling author of The Practice Manual – The Ultimate Guide for Golfers and is the Director of Instruction at the Leadbetter Golf Academy in La Manga Resport, Spain. He has taught all levels of players from around the world, from complete beginners to professional players. His philosophy is to understand the deeper mechanics of the swing, but relay them in an easy to understand way while utilizing motor learning theory to create changes.

You can also visit www.AdamYoungGolf.com to learn more.

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Comments

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Pete the Pro June 3, 2016 at 9:08 am

Here’s a discussion that’s a little uncomfortable, but worth a read. The average golfer is not improving whilst elite amateurs, club pro’s and Tour Pro’s are getting better. We have access to the latest technology, Flightscope, Trackman, rangefinders, video analysis, but no improvement (on average). Not since 30 years ago. Yes, I have used a Flightscope for 9 years, so I know a little about this. Are launch monitors encouraging excessively complex instruction and turning people away from the joy of playing golf for the primary reason, for fun? When I was a kid I wanted to hit the ball and make a great score, not know that my 6 iron had a descent angle of 4 degrees, 72mph head speed and 1.42 smash factor. The intersection between the swing direction (plane moving to the right of target) plus the co-efficient of the face disecting the blah, blah, blah… That’s nothing to do with having fun at the golf course. Anyway, I became a Golf Professional because nobody screwed me up with such nonsense. Discuss.

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adam young June 3, 2016 at 9:40 am

I agree with the basic premise, but I don’t think any teacher worth his salt is going to be saying that a 4 degree AOA is better than a 3 degree AOA. However, they may use launch monitors to
1. improve performance, and show this improvement clearly to the pupil
2. see the interconnections between all the pieces (before relaying a simple thought to the pupil),
3. encourage experimentation
4. help bridge the gap between feel and real, reducing discomfort with new moves
5. help gain a better understanding of shot patterns etc.

I personally think that launch monitors have got us out of the stone ages of instruction (pure movement focus) and allowed much more freedom for the pupil to self-organize based on their own personal mix of what they are bringing to the table.

Also, I have benefited personally from understanding things such as above. My own long game is now much higher quality and easier to maintain as a result.

Average golfers don’t get better because many don’t take lessons, or listen to the advice of their 20 handicap playing partner/husband.

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Pete the Pro June 4, 2016 at 1:39 am

Adam. You make fair points and, yes, the primary factors behind lack of improvement are rooted in failure to take lessons and advice from willing friends/husbands, etc. I’m with you most of the way here. However, I have also watched the results of the incorrect use of a launch monitor to give lessons. If the player is understanding more, having more fun in the learning environment and improving, I think its great. If the player is further confused by analysis, data, complex explanation and information overload, they pack the game in. The joy of playing the game is often extinguished. I am not anti-launch monitor (I used one for 9 years), but I used it the right way. To measure. Not to teach golf.

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adam young June 4, 2016 at 7:22 am

Pete – bad lessons can be given with our without tech, and great lessons can be given with or without tech. As with anything, it is about the person using it.

As a teacher, we have to weigh up what the pupil wants and needs, and relay the info to them. This could be as simple as “brush the grass in this direction”, or could be a deeper understanding of D-plane, or how low point affects path.

I am 100% with you and constantly tout the need for simplicity. But everyone needs to be and likes to be taught differently. I have personally benefitted (and know hundreds of others who have) from more detailed numbers.

With all that said, this article doesn’t really have anything to do with launch monitors. In fact, I give simple rules in the article which require no need for specific numbers – just seeing ball flight.

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Dave R June 3, 2016 at 8:31 am

The Practice Manual is truly a must read for any serious golfer! The information and explanations are eye openers for anyone interested in understanding the how and why aspects of the swing, impact, and resulting tendencies. When I first read the Ball Flight Laws, I realized it was something rarely, if ever discussed, and things like “over the top”, “in to out” etc…and their subsequent “corrections” are not always synonymous with desired outcome…

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Pete the Pro June 3, 2016 at 9:15 am

The ball flight laws are in Practical Golf, John Jacobs, 1972 and the USPGA Teaching Manual, my copy is from 1983. Good Teaching Professionals have been using them for years.

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adam young June 4, 2016 at 7:44 am

Pete, could you do a screenshot of what John Jacobs said about the ball flight laws from his book? If that’s ok? Or from your teaching manual?

Thanks

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Pete the Pro June 3, 2016 at 8:28 am

I find these discussions fascinating. Okay everybody, listen up. Launch monitors, Trackman, Flightscope, etc. are great at measuring. To suggest that they are revolutionising the instruction of golf is pure fantasy. In the early 1970’s, John Jacobs was on TV in the UK and is was blindingly obvious that the clubface determined the starting direction of the ball far more than the path. I was 11 years old and I figured that one out and I’m not blessed with excessive intelligence. As a Teaching Professional, I have NEVER said the initial direction of the ball is determined by the path. 1st lesson given in 1977. None of my 7 colleagues said so either. Nobody even back then said the ‘path sends it and the face bends it”.Never heard it from a good pro. We knew it because as kids we would practice a massive slicing action “outside-to-inside” when putting from 1 foot. The ball went where the face was! Don’t forget the significant effect clubhead speed and loft has on this face/path combination. Good Teaching Pro’s got the answer about 50 years ahead of Trackman.

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adam young June 3, 2016 at 9:26 am

Pete – the ball flight laws are rooted in physics, so they go back way before even Jacobs.

I’m very happy that you have been teaching the correct versions since you started – that is great. However,

1. there is a lot of misinformation out there, even to this day on the subject. I see an article almost every week coming out with incorrect info on ball flight.
2. the most-correct ball flight laws are going to be far more complicated than we already know about. When we take into account different lofts, frictions, speed, gear effect, club COM, acceleration, rates of closure (this is just the tip of the iceberg), we will find that there is a lot we don’t know about yet
3. many players don’t know or dont even think about what is happening at impact to cause a shot. this article was mainly to increase awareness. It’s like anything, if you already know the answer, of course it is not going to be revolutionary (by the way, no one was insinuating that they were). However, if you don’t know it, you don’t know – and this will help in those cases

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Pete the Pro June 4, 2016 at 1:27 am

Adam. Jacobs didn’t invent anything, he was one of the earlier ones to gather together cause and effect and present it to the golfing public, all for the price of a book. What irritates me is that devotees to Trackman and Flightscope seem to be telling me that THEY have invented / discovered something new. A launch monitor is a measuring devise. It invites even more technical analysis, data, more confusion. I was at a (national golf show) listening to a pro., an expert, all mike’d up. “The clubface sends it and the path bends it”. Oh dear, oh dear… oh dear.

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adam young June 4, 2016 at 7:25 am

Who is saying that?

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adam young June 4, 2016 at 7:37 am

Pete, I understand what you are saying. If we were to give every number that Trackman spits out to a pupil, they would have their mind boggled and this would not be good for them. However, I don’t think that the best teachers are using tech this way.

As an example, I had a lesson with a guy earlier who had a leftward path, steep AOA, low dynamic loft, low point too far in front of the ball, heel hits etc. I knew they were all connected.

He was thinking of about 10 things in his swing, to no effect. So I just put the ‘Swing direction” number up and got him to isolate that, using the radar as info/feedback. He was quickly able to get the desired number, with one simple thought, and the other numbers all fell in place as a result (as did the ball flight).

This is an example of using radar to make things less complicated and create less confusion for the player.

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Robert June 2, 2016 at 10:30 pm

I was one of the idiots who thought you had to have your face pointing right of the target if you wanted to fade it and left of the target if you wanted to draw it. When I finally learned these laws it changed my game completely. I used to just try and hit one shot all the time, but then I knew how to properly hit every shot. So now I work my way methodically through a course hitting specific shots with not just fades and draws but determining how little or how big of the fades and draws they need to be. It’s fun to play golf this way.

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Aaron Khoo June 2, 2016 at 9:57 pm

Well written and explain, easy to understang how swing mechanism works.Its not about knowing but how to transform the written mechanism to the students.

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Andrew June 2, 2016 at 9:38 pm

This is a great article, and I hope to see more of this author’s writing. Perhaps with more visual aids and/or drills…

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Dr Z June 2, 2016 at 3:28 pm

Swing speed will influence the relative influence of face angle and swing plane. For example, a putter ball direction will be almost 100% the result of face angle.

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noel June 2, 2016 at 3:21 pm

Nice explanation but missing a core component which is Angle of Attack which of course changes the resultant path of the club.

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adam young June 2, 2016 at 4:18 pm

Hi Noel,

Path is a combination of angle of attack and swing direction. This article specifically talks about path, which already takes into account the AOA.

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Steve S June 2, 2016 at 2:02 pm

Not sure what is so revolutionary about this article. Out to in swing path results in a fade when the clubface is square; a pull when closed; a slice when open. That’s what I was taught 40 years ago. Why is this considered “new” info.

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Craig June 2, 2016 at 2:37 pm

Because 40 years ago Path was given as ball starting direction, when with Doppler radar devices it proved the opposite it’s the face…..

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Adam Young June 2, 2016 at 3:30 pm

Not revolutionary Steve, but for many it will be new info. About 95% of pupils I teach either don’t know the basic ball flight laws, or have the incorrect versions instilled.

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Steve S June 2, 2016 at 7:14 pm

Good point Adam. One of the downsides of aging is sometimes forgetting not everyone has your experience. Or an education in physics…..

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Mike D. June 2, 2016 at 1:57 pm

Sorry –
Nothing new here – swing path and face angle have been known as the cause of ball flight for a long time.

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Alex June 2, 2016 at 7:04 pm

Nothing new to you, but you might be surprised how many golfers don’t know this. It’s something I go through with students of mine otherwise they have a tough time trying to practice unsupervised.
There is also a difference between knowing they affect it and knowing how they affect it.

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Dufferling June 2, 2016 at 1:12 pm

Good explanation, that we kinda already knew. What I have trouble grasping is the effect of swing path plus face angle plus position of contact ON THE CURVING FACE OF A WOOD.

The above is pretty intuitive. Gear effect is not. Changes in heel to toe weighting of a driver head is not. Can you help us?

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adam young June 2, 2016 at 3:34 pm

Gear effect is incredibly complex, and changes with the varying bulge/rolls of the faces, as well as how far the strike was away from the sweet spot (which also changes and is not always centre of the face).

Also, friction between ball and face, clubhead speed and COG location of the club relative to the strike point on the face make a difference,

This means that we can give some general rules about it (toe shots will tend to hook more and vice versa with woods), but that’s about it. Perhaps I could write a gear effect article at some point.

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John Maskal June 2, 2016 at 6:40 pm

Gear effect was more pronounced n the day when we hit “wood” woods. The advent of metal woods has made this effect almost negligible, except for extreme mid heel or high toe hits. I used to use a set of bulge and roll gauges to shape the wood faces, prior to refinishing them.

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adam young June 3, 2016 at 9:34 am

Not sure if that is fully accurate John.

Gear effect has a large correlation with the moment arm between the strike location on the face and the club COM. With modern day drivers being much larger, the moment arm is also much larger, and gearing is increased.

I think this has been offset by the improvements in ball tech, which produces a lower spinning ball.

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Chuck Dietz June 2, 2016 at 1:10 pm

A very well done article…..and right-on with what actually happens. Would love to see a few of the practice drills Adam mentions in the article.

A Must-Read if you are a golfer.

Chuck D.

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Chris Pepito Devl June 2, 2016 at 2:19 pm

Even if the perfect way to hit a ball is to be totally square, it is very hard because the natural swing move goes from right to left (for a RH person). The only thing you have to keep in mind is that the face angle must be the value in degree of the club path divided by 2. This way your ball will ALWAYS go where you are aligned. No matter if it’s with a draw or fade effect.

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adam young June 2, 2016 at 3:35 pm

That’s a nice general rule for sure, although tough to quantify without radar.

However, this value may change based on distances hit and spin loft.

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