February 2, 2021

Golf Ball Analytics 101: Understanding the Basics

For the average golfer, looking at a set of data after making a golf swing can be intimidating. Some elements of golf ball analytics are straightforward, but understanding how each piece works together is key to knowing what adjustments you may have to make in your game. 

You might not think that ball data that you see on the PGA Tour is relevant to you, but it is certainly an advantage to utilize technology in the modern era and break it down to simple, usable information. Accurate data for variables like overall spin, spin direction, launch angle and carry distance can allow a golfer to reverse engineer a golf swing to get the desired result. No, you don’t want to compare yourself to elite tour players, but having a range of quantifiable data to compare to gives you a solid idea about what to work on during practice sessions. 

Ball Speed and Carry Distance

The most basic component of golf ball analytics is ball speed. Ball speed is the measurement of the golf ball’s velocity just after impact and is the main component in generating distance. Carry distance, a direct relative to ball speed, is the total distance of flight produced by initial launch. 

For example, a player using a driver who has a ball speed of 150 mph will produce a carry of between 254-275 yards assuming there are no external factors like wind. A player using a 7-iron with a ball speed of 120 mph will generate a carry of roughly 162 yards. 

Higher ball speeds and longer carry yardages can definitely be advantages, but consistency is more important. During practice, you should aspire to have your range of ball speed to be within 1-3 mph with each swing. This will allow a player to have a better feel for exactly how far they can carry each club.  

Launch Angle and Spin Rate

While carry distance is a direct effect of ball speed, not every shot with the same ball speed carries the same distance. There are a couple of reasons for that. 

Let’s say one player uses a 5-iron with a ball speed of 118 mph and carries their shot 170 yards, while a stronger player uses an 8-iron and has the same ball speed of 118 mph. His ball, however, will only travel about 155 yards. 

This is because of launch angle and spin. In general, a club with more loft (in this case, it is the 8-iron) produces a higher launch angle and more spin. Launch angle is the initial vertical angle of ascent relative to the ground plane measured in degrees. Spin is the amount of rotation around the tilt axis that creates curvature and lift. 

Marrying the proper launch angle and spin rate has a significant effect on how far a ball travels. A player who carries his driver about 270 yards will want his launch angle to be around 11 degrees and his spin rate to be about 2700 rpms, or revolutions per minute. If the spin rate is too high, the ball will not travel as far and will be more susceptible to going off line. 

However, another player who has a lower swing speed and only produces a ball speed of about 140 mph with their driver would want a higher launch angle, somewhere in the area of 14 degrees, with a spin rate fairly similar to the stronger player. The less powerful golfer wants a higher launch than more powerful players because too low of an angle creates unpredictability — a 7-iron with a launch angle of 12 degrees will likely carry short of the desired distance and will be more reliant on roll. 

When it comes to irons and wedges, being able to carry the ball a certain yardage and stop it within a few yards of where it landed is paramount. Having a predictable ball speed, launch angle and spin rate will give you a solid foundation for knowing 

The proper launch angle goes up as you increase loft, with the exception of fairway woods. Faster swing speed players will want their fairway woods to be launching around 8 or 9 degrees while slower swing speed players who have ball speeds around 130-140 mph will want to launch their fairway woods at 10-12 degrees. Note that both launch angles are lower than the ideal launch for a driver. However, all launch angles continue to get higher as the club gets shorter from that point forward. A pitching wedge, for example, is likely to be launched in the area of 21-24 degrees. The slower your club head speed, the higher part of the range you will find yourself. 

While you could hit one hundred 5-irons and not see a drastic difference in launch angle, wedges and short irons are more susceptible to big jumps. Picture a wedge approach where you catch a shot high on the face, or vice versa. There can be a wide variability of launch, and a big part of learning about advanced analytics down the road will be knowing how to control a wedge shot that pierces the wind at 18 degrees launch versus a high-lofting shot that launches somewhere around 35-40 degrees. It is also great practice to know how high a player launches a wedge with half, three-quarter and full swings. You will find there that slower, more controlled shots have less spin. 

When you are talking about your average pitching wedge approach — that can be upwards of 10,000 rpms — knowing your spin variability has a massive impact in how far the ball travels. 

Other Golf Ball Analytics Terms to Know 

A golf ball can spin in multiple directions: the direction of flight (top spin), against the direction of flight (back spin) or to either side of the direction of flight (side spin).

Side spin, or the component of total spin that defines ball curvature or shot shape, is a key ingredient in understanding how reliable certain shots are. For instance, if you hit a fade that starts 15 yards left of your target and finishes 10 yards right of your target, seeing your side spin metrics decrease will provide evidence that you are molding a more repeatable shot shape. 

Offline, which is the end position distance left or right measured from the target line, will also tell you everything you need to know about your side spin. 

Peak height, or the apex of the trajectory measured from the ground plane, is a direct relative of ball speed, launch angle and spin. The higher all three of these are, the higher the peak height. The average 6-iron will reach a height of about 76 feet. If you are consistently well above or below an ideal peak height, going back to see whether your launch angle and spin rates are within the proper range will be crucial. 

Examples of Using the Golf Ball Analytics You Have

Let’s say you want more distance and have tried several things to make your swing faster but have not seen any meaningful results. Seeing a spin rate well north of 3,000 rpms would allude to the fact you are creating too much back spin and side spin. The harder you try to swing, the more you are compounding the issue of adding too much spin, which shortens the length of shot and gives the ball more of an opportunity to go offline.

In this case, you may need to look at your equipment — especially your shaft — to see if this is a swing problem or an equipment issue. Consulting with a PGA professional is always advised in these situations. Or perhaps your angle of attack, the descending or ascending path of the club head measure in degrees, is too steep. This means your swing needs to be shallower coming into the ball to reduce spin.

On the other side, if you are struggling to get height on your irons, seeing a lower ball speed and lower spin rate will be proof as to why the ball does not carry as intended. Many times more solid contact with the ball will alleviate both of these concerns. Too many golfers spend time trying to find height by manipulating their hands or trying to lift the ball up. This is the exact opposite of what you should be attempting to do. Changing technique, such as moving more of your weight onto your leading side, putting the ball position further back in your stance and working on drills that prioritize hitting the ball first and turf second will yield more spin and a higher launch. 

The reality is that having golf ball analytics allows players to investigate exactly what type of changes are necessary. Every player — from a novice to a professional — can get significant use out of knowing what type of contact they are making with the ball. The evidence you receive will send you on your way to becoming a more consistent player who understands their game at a higher level. 

For more information, you can listen to The Club podcast with Alex Fortey to gain more information on how golf ball analytics can impact your game.

January 27, 2021

The Bryson DeChambeau Odyssey

There's no doubt that Bryson DeChambeau is one of the most compelling figures in golf, but how long he will be able to maintain his pace of pushing the boundaries of what we know to be possible in golf remains a question mark. In this episode, host Sean Fairholm and fellow writer Jeremy Schilling break down Bryson from every angle and offer their opinions on what his journey means for the future of the sport.

1:50 — Sean answers a Q&A about bunker play and gives a neat trick on how to know whether you are using the bounce of your wedge correctly.

3:06 — Sean and Jeremy begin their discussion about why Bryson chose to transform his body and where he currently stands as a golfer.

6:25 — Is Bryson good or bad for the game of golf? Sean and Jeremy both agree on this one, but it may not be the answer or explanation you think.

8:53 — Will there be more Bryson DeChambeau imitators coming down the pipe line? There are two schools of thought on this, Sean argues.

10:42 — One overlooked piece of Bryson's game has been his short game. Sean and Jeremy take a moment to appreciate the fact that he has needed to putt well in order to win golf tournaments.

13:18 — What challenges lie ahead of him? First things first, will he be able to consume this many calories on a daily basis? Will he get worn down emotionally from continuing to bush the boundaries of what we know to be possible in golf?

15:30 — Bryson has admitted to having "frontal lobe issues"... is this a blip on the radar or are we concerned he could be his own villain? What about his longevity in the game?

24:24 — DeChambeau's use of analytics may uncover some data that all golfers are going to end up using in the near future.

January 8, 2021

Golf, Both Big And Small, Carries a New Era Into a New Year

As much as a golf nerd like myself hates to admit it, there have been some dark moments for the game in the 21stcentury. There have been times where the energy around the sport felt stagnant, like the humid and still summer air before an impending storm. 

I think back to the late-2000’s into the start of the 2010’s when the professional game, although sometimes buoyed by its two aging megastars in Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, was completely bereft of young, marketable and exciting talent. At the same time golf on TV felt stale, legions of courses were shutting their doors after far too many — and far too difficult courses — were built in previous eras. About 1.1 million golfers left the game in 2013. People were leaving in droves and there were days when few seemed to care. 

I think back to countless headlines of how the game was officially dead. If you were to quickly search “millennials killing golf”, you will find a never-ending slog of articles from several years ago that claim there is no way out for such a traditional and stuffy game.  

For most of my life as a 28-year-old PGA Professional who has played competitively, written about the game, taught people how to play or been glued to the TV for every second of my favorite tournaments, there have also been consistent warning sirens of how drastic measures need to be taken to make sure golf survives. 

In short, golf has made a living playing defense. 

Now, for maybe the only time I can remember, golf is playing offense. 

The PGA Tour teed off this week in Hawaii with a majority of its stars, and while there will be few fans watching the action in person for at least the first handful of months to the year, the energy heading into 2021 is palpable. For one, the top spot in the world is up for grabs to a handful of players who are in the prime of their careers and have each won a lion’s share of significant events — Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele and Brooks Koepka are all deserving of being the best player in the world. 

Johnson, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, has just won his second major and threatens to be an even more dominant force. Rahm is desperately searching for his first major and continues to fight the drama around whether he can manage his emotions in big moments. Thomas has flashed brilliance each year of his career and is on the precipice of a 5 or 6-win season where the golf world revolves around his swag. McIlroy is the one hoping to regain the glory of when he won four majors from 2011-2014.

DeChambeau is the shiny new toy who may do the unthinkable in becoming the first PGA Tour player to average over 330 yards per drive in a season, a goal he would easily crush if the year came to a close today. Schauffele is the wild card, a player with no weakness and the propensity for showing up time and time again when the spotlight is brightest. And then there is Koepka, a villain to some and  the “cool guy in a leather jacket with a cigarette” to others; is his run of brute force in the majors a thing of the past or have injuries simply caused a detour that is bound to subside now that his hip and knee are healed? 

While all of these are exciting, I am particularly inspired by the next generation after them. Collin Morikawa has already won a PGA Championship, Matthew Wolff is coming off of a top-5 in the PGA Championship and U.S. Open, Viktor Hovland is a two-time PGA Tour winner and Sunjae Im seems to play (and contend) every week. 

Golf is always better when its victors are young and energetic like these four players who are barely drinking age. And those standouts have plenty of company. Consider the stat below: 

Percentage of PGA Tour Winners age 25 and Younger

2005 to 2008: 7.9%

2009 to 2012: 8.8%

2013 to 2016: 17.4%

2017 to 2020: 24.7%

The youth movement is real, and it has a new generation of fans excited about the game. Golf on TV, while still a niche sport in comparison to giants like the NFL or NBA, has been a major success story throughout the pandemic. For example, the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, an event with a great field but certainly not at the level of the Masters or a U.S. Open, beat every NBA game it went up against in ratings at that time. And when ESPN took over the PGA Championship last year, the first round saw its best ratings in five years while the second round saw its best ratings in 10 years. 

Of course the TV market will always revolve around Woods, and he will likely play about 10 events this year if he stays healthy. Anything golf receives from Tiger (and Mickelson, for that matter) at this point in his career should be considered gravy. 

But the real reason for optimism as golf launches into 2021 goes far deeper than the thriving professional game. As we all know, the pandemic has brought the silver lining of additional family time, increased savings due to lack of travel and a desire for fresh air. While the entertainment and restaurant industries, to name just two, have been in freefall, golf has been an unlikely hero to many during this time, and the numbers are eye-popping.

I recently opened up this email from the National Golf Foundation, an organization that works tirelessly to track how the golf industry is performing: 

“Rounds played in October came in 32% higher than last year, according to Golf Datatech’s latest report, raising the national year-to-date filgure to +10.8%. Several multi-course operators we checked in with recently told us that the surge in play continued in November, putting us on track for an annual increase of somewhere around 50 million rounds over 2019. Pretty amazing. Record setting? Not quite.

Can you guess the last (and only) time we had an increase bigger than that? It was Tiger’s breakout year – 1997 – when the number of rounds jumped up 63 million over the year before. Rarely has coming in second place felt so good.” 

Not only were far more people heading out to play golf, but golf retail sales surged to levels we have never seen. As an example, overall sales this August were at $331 million — up 32 percent over the same month in 2019 and far greater than the previous record of $287 million back in 2006. 

The pandemic is eventually going to come to a close and, as the saying goes, water will find its level. However, there have been millions of people introduced or re-introduced to the game since last March and I believe they will stick with the game even when masks have returned to closet drawers and social distancing is a remnant of the past. 

That is where Graff comes in. We are a part of a revolution within the game — and I don’t use that word lightly — where golf is transitioning from the days when a scorecard and pencil were the only tools considered to enjoy the game. 

Now we are in a time when practicing or playing a round no longer has to be a frustrating and vague endeavor with little understanding of why you performed the way you did. You can gain immediate feedback, served directly to your phone, whenever you want it. And when patterns emerge within your game, we are going to help you discover the most streamlined and effective ways to come out on the other side so you can enjoy this incredible game. Here at The Club, we are building a podcast, as well as Q&As and other columns, that delve into how to improve in the age of analytics by talking with the brightest minds in the game. Here you will find answers, interesting discussions on the latest trends and a new appreciation for how to golf smart. 

As more people discover golf and the professional competition side of the equation hits a golden age, it doesn’t matter how good you are or how long you have played. The door is open and the possibilities are limitless. 

To all of the above, I say this with unbridled enthusiasm: there has never been a better time to love this game. 

Newsletter

Stay up to date on all things Graff.