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GOLF TIPS: Ball Flight Law

Paths a ball may take
Paths a ball may take
Courtesy Photo

All my students will find it helpful to know why the golf ball flies as it does. Whether the shot slices, hooks, doesn’t get off the ground, pops up or has no distance. These ball flights are laws and are based on the principles of physics.

Club head speedLet me simplify what the club causes at impact to produce these effects. There are five causes that effect the pattern to your golf balls flight.

Club head path

Face angle

Angle of approach

Centerness of hit

Club head speed:

Or the speed to which the club head is traveling during impact. A no brainer, the faster the club head goes through impact the more velocity or speed the golf ball will have, providing you make contact (sorry, I couldn’t help it). If I throw a baseball with fast moving hands the baseball will have more velocity or speed. We call that a "fastball." If I toss the baseball underhand with slow moving hands, well, we usually reference that to “slow pitch softball”. So, more club head speed (cause) the more golf ball velocity (effect) which produces a shot that goes farther.

Our first goal: To end up with a long ball flight by generating more club head speed. However, long can be wrong, let’s move on to the next law of ball flight.

Club head path:

This is the path of the club’s head traveling through the impact zone. Now, let’s make an imaginary ball to target line by getting back behind the ball, straddle that imaginary ball to target line with our feet and look straight down that line towards our target with the right foot on the outside or to the right and the left foot on the inside or to the left of that imaginary ball/target line. So, if the shot starts to the left (a pull effect) the clubs head was traveling along a path from the outside to the inside (cause) in respect to our imaginary line during impact. The opposite holds true for a shot that starts right (a push) of the imaginary ball to target line. The clubs head traveled from inside to outside with respect to the target line. That doesn’t mean that if the ball started right or left that it will stay right or left, that is determined by the spin of the golf ball.

Our second goal: To end up with a long ball flight by generating more club head speed with a shot that started straight by producing a club head path that was down the line at impact. Now you cringe and utter, “Geeeezz, well it started straight, why the heck did it turn to the right!” Well, let’s move on to the curve of the ball.

Face angle:

There are three face angles. Open, square and closed. Two of them (open and closed) to various degrees. Really open, really closed, just a little open or just a little closed. Square is square. But it’s the position of the clubs face angle in respect to the club heads path that is going to determine the spin or shall I say “the curve of the golf balls flight”. For a right handed golfer, an open clubface (cause) produces a curve to the right (slice effect) and a closed clubface (cause) produces a shot that curves to the left (hook effect). Just a little open or closed with respect to the club heads path would impart less spin to the right (fade) or left (draw).

Our third goal: To end up with a long straight ball flight by generating more club head speed, producing a club head path that was down the line and achieving a square face at impact. “Yeah baby, that’s 300 yards straight down the middle!” “No that was only 200 yards down the middle.” “You may have gotten 300 yards had you got the ball up in the air.” Lets move on to getting it airborne.

Angle of approach:

Another term for this law is “angle of attack”. There are three angles the clubs head will approach impact. Descending down into the ball, ascending up into the ball or level through the ball. One way to think about this is to draw a circle. The circle represents your club head arc. If you were to draw a line straight down from the center of that circle you would intersect the lowest point of the circle. That represents the lowest point of your swing arc. If the ball is just behind or left of that lowest point the club would descend. If the ball was directly at the bottom of the arc, your clubs head would approach the ball on a level arc. And if the ball was just in front of that lowest point or to the right the clubs head would approach the ball ascending up into the ball. You want your clubs head approaching down or descending into the ball with wedges and irons to create backspin so the ball stops on the green. You want your putter ascending up into the ball to create top or forward spin so it will roll to the hole. When you swing the driver, which has less loft than wedges and irons, your ball rests on a tee 1-3 inches off the ground which is placed just in front of your bottom most portion of your swing arc. That way the driver swings through impact at a level approach to slightly ascending so you create less backspin than an iron or a wedge. So with the driver, when the ball lands it can reverse its spin and tumble over to create roll.

Our fourth goal: To end up with a high long straight ball flight by generating more club head speed, producing a club head path that was down the line and achieving a square face at impact. Remember create backspin by hitting down on the ball rather than scooping or trying to get the club under the ball to try and lift it up in the air. This is probably the most important issue regarding ball flight law for the beginner. “You mean I’ve gotta hit down on the ball to get it up in the air?”, my students ask. “Yep, golf’s a game of opposites, lowest score wins”. Lets move on to efficiency.

Centerness of hit:

You can contact the ball on the toe of the clubface (the farthest part of the clubs face from the golfer) inducing a hook shot. Or, contact can be on the heel (the closest part of the clubs face to the golfer) inducing a slice. God forbid you hit it on the housel (where the shaft is inserted into the head of the club) inducing a …, well I won’t even completely spell it much less say it. It’s golf’s dirtiest word, starts with sh___, but has three letters, not two. You could whiff it. Which still counts as a stroke, but one stroke better than long and wrong into OB (out of bounds) territory. I think most readers of this article understand it’s better making contact in the middle of the clubs face (sweet spot) than anywhere else on the club. The golfer will get a more dynamic efficient strike on the ball by making contact on the sweet spot of the clubface. This does take practice. Lots of good practice.

Our fifth goal: Causing a flight of the ball that was long (club head speed) in respect to which club is being used, started straight (club head path), then stayed straight with no hooking or slicing from side spine (face angle), getting it airborne (angle of approach) with an efficient strike (center-ness of hit). “IT’S IN THE HOLE!”

In summary, it’s very helpful to first know what your club is telling the ball what to do. If you don’t know what the clubs doing to the ball, how do you know what to do to the club? These five laws of flight are set in stone. They’re based on physics, or the natural order of things. Call it what you will, but you can’t descend down into the back of the golf ball and give it topspin, it’s law. It won’t happen. You can’t throw a baseball forward and have it travel backwards.

You can, however, tee it up with your driver. Swing out of your shoes. Make contact directly under the ball with the top of the driver because it was teed up too high. By doing so, you’ll impart backspin on the ball sending it straight up in the air. When it lands around the same spot it started from, your net result will be a drive that went a negative yard. I’ve seen it. Number 2 tee box, Torrey North. He was a friend of mine more than a student. We were laughing so hard after he created that shot, I said “I’ll give you $100 if you can do that again”. Well he tried, but we would have been there all day.