It's the golf version of, “Where do babies come from?”
OK, so the topic isn't quite as delicate. Still, every golfer must know how to answer this fundamental question: “What makes the golf ball curve?”
The simplest response: Spin. More specifically, sidespin. So the question then becomes, “What creates sidespin?”
Now we're getting somewhere. Two factors influence sidespin: 1) The clubhead path, or the direction in which the club is traveling when it contacts the ball, relative to the target line; and 2) The angle of the clubface in relation to the clubhead path.
For example, let's say your clubhead is traveling directly down the target line at impact – this is a straight or square clubhead path. At the same time, your clubface is angled or pointed right of the clubhead path (for a right-handed golfer) – this is an open clubface position. The ball will launch in the direction the clubhead is moving (directly at the target), then curve slightly right due to the small amount of left-to-right sidespin caused by the open clubface.
Different combinations of these two elements may produce three types of shots: 1) No sidespin (straight, push or pull); 2) Left-to-right (fade or slice); or 3) Right-to-left (draw or hook). FYI: Fades and draws feature a small amount of curve; slices and hooks are extreme curves.
Is this starting to make sense? Good.
The next thing to know is that the bigger the difference between the club's path and the face angle, the more the ball will curve in flight. Therefore, if your clubhead path is far right of target paired with a severely closed clubface (angled left), the ball will start to the right before curving sharply left (hook).
Here's a handy breakdown of the different results produced by different clubhead path/clubface angle combos. For the purposes of this tutorial, clubface angle is in relation to the clubhead path, not the target line:
- Path to the left/closed clubface – Pull hook
- Path to the left/square clubface – Pull
- Path to the left/open clubface – Fade or pull slice
- Straight path/closed clubface – Draw or hook
- Straight path/square clubface – Straight shot
- Straight path/open clubface – Fade or slice
- Path to the right/closed clubface – Draw or push hook
- Path to the right/square clubface – Push
- Path to the right/open clubface – Push slice
Once you've got a handle on why the ball does what it does, you can begin to understand how to make it do what you want it to do – and how to make it stop doing the things you don't want it to do.
You got all that, right? Good!
What Makes the Golf Ball Curve?
If you are a golfer, you already know one thing to be true – the golf ball never flies straight. Okay, so 'never' might be a bit of an exaggeration, but that is pretty much the case. You should never plan on hitting a straight shot from any kind of significant distance, because it just isn't going to happen. Sure, you might be able to get the ball to hold a straight flight pattern for 20 or 30 yards, but getting much beyond that means the ball is going to turn right or left at least slightly. Golf really is a game of curves, so you need to embrace that fact and learn how to use the curve to benefit you rather than hurt you. Professional golfers have a tremendous amount of control over the flight of their ball in the air, a fact that is proven by the scores they can shoot. While you may not ever reach that level of control, leaning more about what makes the ball curve can only serve to help your performance.
There is a lot of physics involved in the game of golf. The dynamics of the way the club interacts with the ball, and how the ball flies through the air, are all dictated by the laws of physics. Even though it might seem as if your ball has a mind of its own sometimes, everything that happens on the course is actually easily explained through physics. Of course, that doesn't make the game any easier necessarily, but you shouldn't feel as though your ball flights are a mystery. Based on what you are doing with the club as it moves through the hitting area, there is always an explanation for the ball flight that resulted.
The best thing about understanding how and why the ball curves in the air is having an improved ability to make adjustments to your swing on the course. For example, if you get into the middle of a round and you suddenly are fighting a hook (a right to left shot for a right handed golfer), you need to know why that is happening in order to make the right fix to your technique. If you didn't understand what it was that was making the ball hook to the left, you might not be able to fix your swing in time to save your round.
Even if you think you already have a good understanding of why the ball curves in the air the way it does, it will still be worth your time to review the content below. Picking up even just one or two new pieces of information could go a long way toward improving your play in the future. It is incredibly valuable to have as much knowledge about the game as possible when you make your way around the course, as you never know when a seemingly small tidbit of information could come in handy.
All of the content below is based on a right handed golfer. If you happen to play left handed, please take a moment to reverse the information as necessary.
It's All About Spin
Spin is the invisible force in golf. While spin is not actually invisible, of course, it is nearly impossible to see it while your ball is travelling through the air. Every golf shot that flies through the air has some degree of spin, both backspin and sidespin. The backspin will have a lot to do with how high the ball rises in the air, while the sidespin will decide which direction the ball curves as it flies toward the target. For the purposes of understanding the curve of the ball, we are going to focus on sidespin in the content below.
Sidespin is placed on the ball when the club makes contact at impact. In theory, a shot that is stuck with a club face that is perfectly square to the path of the club through the ball will have no sidespin, but that kind of precision is rarely seen. Instead, there is almost always some degree of variance between the direction of the club face and the path of the club coming down the line. It is the difference between your club face and your swing path that will determine what kind of spin is on the ball, and how much of that spin occurs (other factors, such as equipment, affect spin rate as well).
While this topic might seem a bit complicated, there are only two possibilities for sidespin on the ball when you strike a shot. Those two possibilities are as follows –
- Ball curves to the left. If the club face is pointed to the left of your swing path as you hit the ball, the ball is going to curve to the left. This is the basic point that you need to understand in reference to the curve of the golf ball – it is going to turn in the direction of the club face relative to the swing path that you use. If your club face is only slightly closed to the path at impact, the ball will only take a slight draw in the air. However, if it is dramatically closed at impact, you will produce a quick hook that will dive to the left.
- Ball curves to the right. As you might expect, the story is exactly the opposite when you are looking at shots that turn to the right instead of the left. When the club contacts the ball with the club face in an open position (pointing to the right of the swing path), a fade or a slice will result. Again in this case, the degree to which the club face is open will determine how much curve is passed on to the ball. A wide open club face leads to a nasty slice, but a face that is only slightly open to the path would produce a nice little fade.
There is no need to overcomplicate the concept of why the ball curves to the right or left. As long as you understand and remember the information from above – that the ball will curve in the direction of the club face relative to the swing path – you will be set to go. If you would like to see this concept in action, it is best to try hitting some soft shots that travel only 40 or 50 yards in the air. At the driving range, take your stance with a pitching wedge in your hands and make a swing that is less than half of your regular swing. Before starting that swing, shut the club face at address and keep it closed throughout the swing. Even on this small shot, you should see the ball turn a few feet to the left in the air as it flies. Next, try the same process except using an open club face at address. Once you have the feel for how the ball can curve due to the position of your club face, you should be able to gradually increase the size of your swing while maintaining a level of control over the curve.
The Importance of Address
Now that you have a good picture of why the ball can curve from side to side, you need to work on improving your ability to control that spin. After all, if you can't control the spin of the ball, you have very little chance of making your way around the course successfully. Fortunately, most of the work that needs to be done in order to control your side spin actually takes place before the swing starts. The average golfer thinks that their swing faults are what caused the ball to turn quickly to the side, but often it is actually a faulty setup that causes the trouble. If you can dial in your address position perfectly, you can maintain control over the ball on most of your shots.
The following three points should be considered the fundamentals of the address position, as it relates to controlling the curve of your ball.
- Position of the club face. This is the big one, and you already experimented with this point if you completed the drill outlined above. The direction that the club face is pointed at address is the position it is going to want to return to at impact, so set it as carefully as possible. It is important to note that you don't necessarily want to point the club face right at the hole or the center of the fairway each time. For instance, if you are going to play a draw into the target, you might need to aim the face a bit to the right of the hole, and then swing along a path that is even farther right. Or, you may decide that you are going to play away from the hole for safety, instead trying to hit your shot onto the wide part of the green. When you get over the ball, you should have a specific plan in place and then place your club accordingly so it is aligned perfectly with your selected target.
- Position of your feet. Once your club face is positioned, the next step in the process of creating a stance is to align your feet correctly. Many golfers think they have to line up their feet perpendicular with the club face, but that isn't always the case. As a general rule, you want to place your feet along the line that you wish to swing down at the bottom of the swing. So, if you are trying to swing down the same line that you picked for your target, go ahead and set up square to that line. However, if you would like to swing out to the right or in to the left slightly, adjust your stance to match that line. So, if you need to swing out to the right, move your left foot slightly closer to the ball and drop your right foot back. Or, to swing to the left, move your left foot away from the ball and bring your right foot in. The bigger adjustment that you make to the positioning of your feet, the bigger the change that you will be making to your swing path.
- Position of your shoulders. To finish everything off, you need to get your shoulders into position. Why is this important? Because the position of your shoulders will affect the direction that the club moves early in the backswing. Since the takeaway is controlled by the shoulders, their position will direct the path of the club face early on. Fortunately, this part of the setup is rather easy, as most shots will require you to just set the shoulders to match your feet. As long as the angle that your shoulders create matches up with the angle of your feet on the ground, your takeaway should be in good shape.
Controlling the spin of your golf ball becomes much easier when you pay attention to the details in your address position. Most amateur golfers overlook the importance of this part of the game, and they pay the price when they can't control the ball well enough to post good scores. Take some time on the driving range to work on your address position and you will quickly find that there are less surprises in your ball flight.
The Role of Your Equipment
The concepts that have been explained above are going to apply to your golf shots no matter what equipment you use. However, the equipment that you have in your bag does affect the spin on your ball to a certain degree. Specifically, the clubs and ball you use will affect the rate of spin that is passed from the club to the ball. You should decide whether you want to play a high spin or low spin game, and then pick out the gear that is going to get you to that point.
First, let's talk about the ball, since it plays the biggest role in this matter. A golf ball with a soft cover, generally speaking, is going to spin more than a ball with a hard cover. When you watch golf on TV, you can be sure that all of those players are using balls with a relatively soft cover. Of course, those players also have the talent to control high spin rates as they move around the course. If you don't have that same level of skill, you may not be able to use a high spin ball effectively.
In most cases, beginning golfers are going to want to use a hard cover ball, while experienced and accomplished players will be able to move into a softer cover. If you are just getting started, you don't want to make the game any harder than it has to be – and that is exactly what you would be doing if you played a high spin ball. By using a low spin ball, you will be limiting the amount of curve that you are going to get on your shots, meaning it will be easier to keep the ball in play. There will be plenty of time later to move into higher spin balls as your skills improve. There are certainly some shots that you need to have a high spin ball in order to hit, but you can't worry about those at first. Use the ball that is going to give you the best chance of playing well, and progress gradually from there over time.
There is a great side benefit to playing a hard cover ball when getting started – they are generally the least expensive balls on the market. The soft cover balls are the ones used by the players on Tour, and they frequently have a retail price of $40 or more per dozen. Since you are likely to lose plenty of golf balls early in your golf experience, it is a welcome sight to see a price tag on a box of balls that comes in under $20. You can still purchase balls that are made by top brand names, but you won't have to break the bank just to stock up your bag.
The other half of the equipment equation is the clubs that you are using. Mostly, you want to pay attention to the grooves on the face of the club. You need good grooves to add spin to the ball, so playing with clubs that have grooves which are either full of grass or have worn off completely is a bad idea. It is up to you to keep your clubs in good condition, which includes cleaning out the grooves periodically so they don't get clogged up. This is important with all of your irons, but it is especially key on wedge shots. Care for the grooves on your irons and you will be rewarded with better control over the ball.
Playing from the Rough
Hitting your ball into the rough is a bad thing – but you already knew that. When playing from the rough, it is hard to get the ball all the way to the green, and it is hard to control the flight of the ball in the air. But have you ever thought about why that is? Why do you lose distance from the rough, and why do you lose control over your shots? Again, it all comes down to spin.
When you contact the ball with an iron in the rough, there will typically be grass caught between the face of the club and the back of the ball (depending on the length of the grass). When that grass gets caught in between the ball and the club, it serves to take spin off of the shot. Since the grooves really can't get to the ball, very little spin is passed over to the ball and it will 'knuckle' through the air. It won't have enough backspin to hold it up in the air for a normal distance shot, and there will be a lack of sidespin as well. Overall, anytime you are striking a shot from the rough, you should expect the ball to come out low and straight. If the course is dry and firm, the ball should bounce and roll after it lands.
Obviously, the best thing to do is just to keep your ball out of the rough altogether. However, you are bound to get in there from time to time, so you need to have a plan when it does happen. Should your ball drift into the rough, the best thing to do is plan on a straight shot that you won't be able to force very high into the air. That means you should pick a conservative target, and you shouldn't try to curve the ball around any obstacles on the way to the hole. While having curve on your golf shots is almost inevitable from the tee or from the fairway, the story is different out of the rough. Most of the curve on the golf ball is going to go away, so remember that when planning a shot that is coming from the long grass.
You won't be able to reach your potential on the golf course without understanding why the ball curves in the air. Hopefully, after reading the content above, you have a clear picture of what you should be trying to do with the club in order to make the ball turn right or left. Most likely, you will want to have one kind of curve that you rely on for most of your shots, with another curve that you can turn to in special situations. Whether your preferred shot shape is a draw or a fade, the important thing is that you know which way the ball is going to go each time you strike it. Spend some practice time working on your ability to steer the ball from side to side, and you will start to see improved performance on the course.