Do you tend to hit the golf ball very high, even when you’d rather not? Or do you struggle to get it up in the air, sometimes coming up short for lack of carry?
The variables that determine trajectory are easy to understand, yet controlling ball flight is one of the most difficult skills to master. Outside the professional ranks, few golfers are able to do it consistently.
Trajectory, of course, is a function of clubface loft. More specifically, though, it’s determined by the loft at impact. The position of the golfer’s hands and whether the clubface is open or closed in relation to its path can alter the actual loft significantly. For example, a standard pitching wedge has a loft of 48°. If your hands are ahead of the ball at impact and the shaft leaning toward the target, the loft is decreased – perhaps significantly. The result is a lower shot than the loft alone indicates.
Here’s a primer on the most common swing characteristics associated with a ball flight that’s either too low or too high:
- Hands ahead of ball: With the possible exception of the driver, the hands should be ahead of the ball at impact. If they’re too far ahead, however, the club is de-lofted and shots fly too low. This often occurs at address, with the club tilted too much to the left and/or the ball too far back (right) in the stance. Casting the hands downward from the top of the backswing, rather than leading with the lower body and shoulders, can cause extremely low shots as well.
- Thin contact: Striking the ball near the bottom of the clubface, rather than the center, victimizes many golfers. Thin shots may happen when the head and shoulders begin lifting before contact, pulling the club upward. Other causes include releasing the club too early and a failure to shift weight from the right side to the left on the downswing.
- Hands behind the ball: Setting up with the club shaft in a vertical position, or even leaning away from the target, adds undesirable loft. This sometimes happens on the downswing, too, if the golfer reverse-pivots or shifts his weight from left to right instead of right to left.
- Swing too steep: If the club approaches from a very high angle, the ball will sometimes pop into the air. This is most common with the driver, and happens when the ball is teed too low. These shots also spin excessively, causing the ball to fall short and making it more vulnerable to gusty winds.
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How to Understand – and Improve – Your Golf Ball Flight Trajectory
When it comes down to it, everything you do within your swing is all about ball flight. All of the technical adjustments you make, and all of the mechanics you try to pay attention to all boil down to the flight that you are able to achieve once the ball leaves the club face. Obviously, there is nothing you can do about the flight of the ball once it takes off – so all of your effort has to go into making your swing and reliable and repeatable as possible.
The best golfers are the ones who have a variety of different golf ball flight paths at their disposal. With practice, you can probably get pretty good at hitting the same one trajectory over and over again. While this is a good start to playing quality golf, it will take more than that to really lower your scores. After all, golf courses come in different shapes and sizes, so it requires different trajectories to be able to handle them successfully. There is no one single ideal golf ball trajectory – instead, the ideal golf ball trajectory is the one that works best for the shot that is in front of you.
Assuming you already play golf, you probably have one or two ball flights that you are pretty comfortable with. Maybe you have picked them intentionally, or maybe they are just what happens when you swing the club naturally. Either way, in order to step up your game you are going to want to go further and actually understand the physics of a golf ball flight. Once the physics of a golf ball flight are no longer a mystery, you can begin to dissect your swing and make the changes necessary to hit the kind of shots that you need out on the course.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that controlling your trajectory is only something that the pros can do. Any level of golfer can work on fixing ball flight problems in their game and learning new shots to be better prepared for their next round. Whether you are fighting a golf ball trajectory too high, or a golf ball trajectory too low, the answer is certainly found within your swing technique itself. You don’t have to be stuck with a ball flight that you don’t like – or be limited to just one ball flight – when minor adjustments are likely all that is needed to discover new trajectory options.
First we are going to cover some of the basics of golf ball flight and why the ball behaves the way it does in the air. Following that, we will analyze some of the common ball flights that most golfers wish to achieve, and the swing characteristics necessary to make them happen. All of the instruction included below is based on a right handed golfer, so please be sure to reverse it if you are a left handed golfer.
What Makes the Golf Ball Move?
All golfers are familiar with watching their shots go in all kinds of unexpected directions – it’s just part of the game. If the ball went exactly where you were aiming every time you made a swing, golf would actually be pretty boring. The unpredictability of the game, and the never ending pursuit of improvement, is what keeps us coming back.
However, the game isn’t really that much of a mystery when you start to understand just what makes the ball move in the air – spin. The spin that you impart on the ball has everything to do with how it is going to fly, and what direction it will end up traveling. While the position of the club face largely determines the initial direction of the shot, the spin quickly takes over and controls the flight the rest of the way.
If you are a golfer who struggles with a slice, that frustrating ball flight is certainly the result of unintended spin. When you put left to right spin on the golf, that is the direction it is going to move in the air. While a little bit of left to right spin is fine, and can leave you with a nice little fade, too much spin quickly turns your ball flight into a slice and takes you to all sorts of places on the course where you don’t want to be. Controlling not only the kind of spin you put on the ball, but also how much, is the real secret of managing your ball flights.
It is important to understand that the spin imparted on the ball at impact is caused by the direction the club head is moving relative to the face of the club. So, for example, if your club is moving from right to left across the ball while the club face is pointed at the target, you are going to end up with that slice spin that we discussed above. Alternatively, if you move the club from left to right across the ball (as viewed from behind) you are going to impart hook spin and hit a shot that ends up missing to the left.
The side to side spin of the golf ball is only one element to consider – there is also backspin on every shot that you hit (with a full swing). The amount of backspin that you put on the ball will also have something to say about the final trajectory of the shot. When you put a lot of backspin on the ball, expect the shot to climb high into the air. Shots hit with less backspin are more likely to stay closer to the ground as they fly. So, if you are dealing with a golf ball trajectory too high or golf ball trajectory too low, it is really the backspin that you need to learn how to manage. Since trajectory has so much to do with the distance of the shots that you hit, controlling backspin is actually one of the most important skills that any golfer can have.
Finding Your Go-To Shot
Before you are going to be able to put together an arsenal of ball flights that you can use in various situations around the course, you first need to settle on what your go-to shot is going to be. This is the ball flight that you will be using the majority of the time, when there are no major doglegs or hazards to navigate. You want to build up as much confidence and consistency as you can with this shot, so you can call on it frequently and have it come through for you.
The two general options are a draw and a fade. Ideally, whichever one you choose will be mostly a straight shot with only a slight turn in one direction or the other. Hitting a big draw or fade as your go-to shot limits your options and means that you will have to pull some other shots out of the bag more often than you would like. When your main shot is a mostly straight shot, you will be able to hit it quite frequently on the course.
It doesn’t much matter if you use a draw or a fade as your go-to ball flight. This is mostly a matter of personal preference and what comes naturally to you. However, each ball flight has its own characteristics, so let’s review those now.
- Playing a fade. Hitting a fade is all about control. When done correctly, a solid fade will travel mostly straight toward the target and just fall a few feet to the right at the end of its flight. This is a great ball flight for iron shots because the ball will have plenty of backspin and should stop quickly, close to where it landed. You might have to give up a few yards off the tee thanks to that added backspin, but many golfers find that trade to be a worthwhile one.
The differences between a draw and a fade get bigger the more you curve the ball in either direction. A shot that draws only a few feet isn’t going to be much different in the end than a shot that fades a few feet – but shots that curve dramatically will have stronger characteristics. For your go-to ball flight, it is important that you play as straight of a ball as possible the majority of the time. Working from this ‘base’ ball flight, you can then develop your skills in terms of hitting other kinds of shots.
To figure out which ball flight you are going to make your number one option, head to the driving range with your set of clubs and an open mind. Get 20 or 30 practice balls and hit a number of shots with a variety of clubs throughout your set – including your driver, a couple of mid irons, and a short iron. Pick out a specific target for each shot. The goal when you are making your swings is to hit the ball as dead-straight as you possibly can. You aren’t trying to play a certain ball flight here – just attempt to hit the ball perfectly straight. After each shot, write down whether the ball ended up being a draw or a fade. There is basically no such thing as a straight shot, so every shot that you hit is likely to fall into one of these two categories.
When you get done, take a look over the list of shots you hit and try to find a pattern. Do you hit mostly draws, or mostly fades? Do you fade your driver but draw your irons? The information that this quick practice session can provide you with is invaluable when you are sorting out your ball flight decisions. Most likely, the ball flight that appeared naturally when you were trying to hit the ball straight is the one that will work best for you.
Going the Other Way
With you go-to ball flight established, it is time to work on learning the art of turning the ball the opposite direction. This is where many golfers try, get frustrated, and give up. Most players settle for just being able to hit one type of ball flight consistently, and their games never develop as a result. If you can stick with the process and learn how to manage a shot that moves opposite of your normal shot shape, you will quickly become a far better player – and a player who is able to deal with a wide variety of courses successfully.
The key to being able to play shots that turn in the opposite direction from your normal ball flight is to keep your swing as much the same as possible. If you can create a new ball flight by only making one change to the mechanics of your swing – hopefully during the setup – you will have more confidence and consistency when playing your shots. Golfers who try to change their entire swing just to hit a fade instead of a draw, for example, will quickly get frustrated and give it up. Don’t let that be you. Keep your swing changes simple and you should be able to find ways to hit many different shots when you are out on the course.
While everyone’s swing is a little bit different, and the mechanical adjustment that you need to make will depend on many factors, following are some basic guidelines for hitting the opposite ball flight.
- Turning a draw into a fade. If you are using a draw for your go-to ball flight, hitting a fade with that same swing could be as easy as changing your address position. Take your stance as you normally would prior to the shot. However, before starting your swing, move a couple inches closer to the ball at address. This will encourage a more upright backswing and also give you less room to attack the ball from the inside on the downswing. Both of those changes should serve to turn your small draw into a small fade. Experiment with the exact ball position that you need to use in order to achieve the ball flight that you need for a given shot.
- Turning a fade into a draw. You might think that you could just do the opposite in this case, and stand farther away from the ball to hit a draw. That might work, but it could also cause other mechanical problems in your swing if you get too far away. Instead, try this – when you take your stance, drop your right foot back away from the ball a couple of inches. This will leave you with a ‘closed’ stance at address. That position will encourage an inside takeaway, and a better body rotation in your backswing. Those two swing features both help produce draw spin on the golf ball. Just as above, practice this technique until you find a comfortable stance that reliably produces a draw ball flight.
It doesn’t need to be scary to try and hit the opposite ball flight that you are used to. More often than not, a single change in your address position can achieve everything you need to get the result that you are looking for. As with any shot you try to hit on the course, these techniques need to be given plenty of practice time on the driving range before you can be confident in using them when it counts.
Don’t Forget about Height
When it comes to ball flights, most of the attention gets paid to curving the ball right or left. However, controlling the vertical trajectory of your shots is just as important. For a variety of reasons, you need to be able to manage your ball flights up and down on command. One obvious reason is to deal with windy conditions that you may face on the course. When the wind comes up, you want to have the ability to flight the ball down lower in order to minimize the effect of the wind on your shot. Downwind, you might want to get your tee shot high into the air to take advantage of the breeze and add distance to your drive.
High and low trajectories are useful in calm conditions as well. One of the best ways to take advantage of this ability is to get your ball closer to the hole based on the location of the flag on the green. For a back flag, you can hit a lower shot into the green, and give the ball room to bounce and roll back to the target. When the hole is cut near the front, use your high shot to stop the ball quickly near where it lands. This kind of strategy is something that pro golfers do all the time, and you can integrate it into your own game as you get better and controlling trajectories.
Following are some basic guidelines for generating ball flights that are both higher and lower than your normal shot.
- Hitting it high. Many golfers make the mistake of thinking that they need to swing harder in order to hit the ball higher. While that can help a little, it is more about your technique and the positioning of the ball and your body. First, move the ball slightly up in your stance at address. This will help you keep your center of gravity behind the ball at impact – crucial to hitting high shots. Also, during the swing, make a conscious effort to release the club a little bit earlier than your normal swing. This technique will take some practice to get comfortable with, but an early release can enable you to hit much higher shots than you would otherwise hit.
- Hitting it low. You will find that you use your low trajectory on the course far more often than you use the high one – therefore, you should spend more time practicing it as well. To start, move the ball back in your stance just a couple inches. Next, choke down on the grip of your club so your hands are at least two or three inches from the top of the grip. During the swing, remember to use soft hands and not swing too hard. Extra speed will add spin to the ball, and spin makes the ball go up. Use plenty of club for the distance you are trying to hit, and swing softly. An effective low trajectory can help you get out of trouble spots on the course, make it easier to deal with the wind, and even run the ball onto the green on courses with firm turf conditions.
Every golfer should take some time during their practice sessions to work on hitting a variety of ball flights. Even if you never get very consistent with anything but your main go-to shot, the practice of trying other shots will help you learn about your swing. Hopefully, you will be able to get comfortable with at least one or two other shots that you can pull out at just the right time during a round. Golf has a way of presenting you with a wide variety of challenges during a round, and having as many golf ball flight paths available to you as possible increases you chances of successfully navigating the course.