What Affects Golf Ball Distance? Beware ALL the Uncontrollables!

The elements of weather which affect air density and therefore golf ball distance

Over the last few months I have hit a 4-iron to a 123-yard par-3 hole in Scotland and launched a driver just over 330 yards at a golf course in South America.

Both shots took me by surprise as clearly the conditions I was playing in had a huge effect on the distance of the golf ball on each occasion.

I don’t consider myself either an especially long or short hitter but given the enormous difference between the distances of both these shots it got me thinking about what elements affect the distance a golf ball travels and how much conditions can help a ball to fly further or reduce distance.

Altitude, or elevation, and wind affect the distance a golf ball travels the most with headwinds impacting distance more than tailwinds. Weather combinations of hot temperatures, high humidity and low air pressure that decrease air density also help balls travel further but to a lesser extent compared to wind and altitude.

Golf is a hard enough game as it is without adding the variables outside your control into things but they are obviously a fact of playing the game and given the importance of distance and its proven direct link to scoring it is clearly vital that players understand how much external factors affect golf ball distance.

So in the remainder of this post we look at each of the key factors of weather and course geography to understand what affects the distance a golf ball travels and by how much.

How Does Wind Affect Golf Ball Distance? Heads More Than Tails

I have been very lucky in my golfing life to play a lot of great golf courses and one of these this year was the Open Championship course at Royal Troon where the famous postage stamp par-3 8th hole measures only 123 yards long.

But due to the 30mph wind blowing on the day I ended up having to hit a 4-iron to reach the green which given I can normally hit that club between around 165 yards came as a bit of a shock.

Needless to say I didn’t hit the green but it got me thinking about the precise impact of wind on golf ball distance and how much wind affects it.

As a general rule headwinds affect golf ball distance more than tailwinds. Hitting into a 30mph headwind reduces the carry distance of the average PGA Tour drive by 75 yards and a total distance of 91 yards. By comparison a 30mph tailwind increases the carry distance of the same drive by 44 yards and a total of 84 yards.

Given these numbers wind clearly has a major effect on how far a golf ball travels and this is due in short to ‘lift’ (i.e. what makes the golf ball rise) and ‘drag’ (i.e. what slows the golf ball down).

In simple terms when there is a tailwind the wind reduces the airflow pushing against golf ball while when you are faced with a headwind the wind adds to the speed of the air pushing the ball back towards you.

And the stronger the wind the greater the amount of lift and drag.

Lift and drag incidentally are also the reason why golf balls have dimples.

Not only do dimples create turbulence in the air around the golf ball to make the low-pressure zone, which causes drag to literally suck the ball like a vacuum back towards you, much smaller but they also increase lift by increasing the pressure on the ball due to a scientific phenomenon called Bernoulli’s principle.

Wind resistance and airflow around a smooth golf ball
Wind resistance around a smooth golf ball. Source: USGA
Wind resistance and airflow around a dimpled golf ball
Golf balls have dimples to reduce wind resistance or ‘drag’

“Golf Balls have dimples ro reduce wind resistance or aero dynamic drag. When you reduce it you can make golf balls go a lot farther … A golf ball with dimples will go almost twice as far as one without.”

Steve Quintavalla, Engineer, Equipment Standards Dept, USGA

The problem with wind however is that while it clearly has a tremendous effect on how far the golf ball flies it is not predictable to the point that anyone can predict its precise impact to the extent that they can say exactly how yards you will lose or gain for every mph of wind you are hitting into or playing with.

A rule of thumb that a headwind hurts twice as much as a tailwind helps is often cited but this is only true at higher wind speeds and is not a hard and fast rule.

A 10-mph headwind for example reduces the carry distance of the average PGA Tour player’s 7-iron by 19.2 yards while the same strength of tailwind will increase the carry distance of that same shot by 14.6 yards which is clearly not a 2:1 ratio.

Trackman graph highlighting larger affect of headwinds on golf ball distance compared to tailwinds
Headwinds affect golf ball distance more than tailwinds. Source: Trackman

The wind by its very nature is chaotic and during the course of one shot can vary in strength significantly.

This is what makes it so challenging to play in the wind and why it is impossible to be entirely exact as to the distances you will lose and gain playing into different strengths of headwinds and tailwinds.

What can be said with clarity however is that lift and drag do not affect the golf ball in the same way and that is why a headwind hurts more than a tailwind.

Not only that but wind crucially also plays havoc with the amount offline you will hit golf shots as well as the distance you hit the ball. In other words wind greatly affects your ‘shot dispersion’.

Ballnamic, a specialist golf ball fitter, have simulated that a 15mph wind that varies in strength and direction by +/- 3mph and +/-15º will increase the dispersion of a shot twice as much as a constant 15mph wind.

Meanwhile they estimate for a PGA Tour 7-iron, offline dispersion changes by ~10% for each 10 mph change in wind speed.

To combat the large effects of wind on a golf ball, and to play effectively in it, it is therefore vital that golfers understand how the launch angle you hit the ball at, and the spin rate you put onto it, influence the outcome of their shots.

And if your main goal is distance when playing in windy conditions you need to focus on hitting lower spin drives into a headwind.

That is because swinging harder typically generates more clubhead speed, which in turn creates more spin and therefore more lift and drag, and this allows the headwind to have a greater influence on the ball and make it go even shorter.

The old adage of ‘into the breeze swing with ease’ is told for a reason!

Instead using a club with less loft is a better idea to reduce the spin rate when you are aiming to hit the ball as far as possible into a headwind.

A down degree ‘angle of attack’ rather than an upward one, created by hitting down on the ball, also helps lower spin rates, as does the quality of the strike on the ball most importantly. Hitting the ball low in the face is bad for example and leads to more spin.

By comparison when playing with a tailwind higher launching drives are what you are looking for to help the golf ball fly as far as possible.

A tailwind produces shots that carry longer, fly lower and land flatter and although you can use a higher lofted club to create more spin to increase flight time the best bet is to launch the ball higher to maximise distance.

Ballnamic chart showing how different launch angles and spin rates affect golf ball distance
Increasing launch and spin increases shot flight time allowing the wind to affect carry distance more. Source: Ballnamic

How Does Altitude Affect Golf Ball Distance? Tee It High!

The next key factor we need to consider which affects golf ball distance is ‘air density’.

The greater the density of the air the more resistance there is on the golf ball which means more lift and drag and shots flying higher, landing more steeply and carrying shorter distances.

And one of the main 3 components which impact air density is ‘air pressure’ and what affects air pressure, and therefore golf ball distance, the most is altitude or elevation change.

On average male amateur golfers hit shots 6% further at an altitude of 5000 feet according to Trackman. By adjusting to launch the ball higher PGA Tour pros can make the ball travel 9% further with their mid-to-short irons at the same altitude and at courses 8,000 feet above sea level, can achieve 10-15% distance gains.

So in short altitude affects golf ball distance by impacting air pressure and as elevation increases air pressure decreases resulting in less resistance or drag on the golf ball which therefore flies farther at higher altitudes.

Trackman graph highlighting affect of altitude on golf ball distance
The average male amateur golfer hits the ball 6% further when playing at an altitude of 5000ft. Source: Trackman

The golf ball also however experiences less lift as well as drag at altitude meaning golf shots which fly farther but with a lower peak height.

And it is for this reason you will often find PGA Tour pros “teeing it high and letting it fly” when hitting their drives at high altitudes to maximise launch angle and therefore carry distance.

Golfers can also use different clubs to help increase the distance they hit the ball at higher altitudes.

For example hybrid golf clubs are designed to launch the ball higher than their iron counterparts and therefore simply by playing a hybrid rather than an iron players can launch the ball higher which has the double benefit of making it carry a bit more and also making it easier to stop the ball on the green.

Given that club head speed and the trajectory you launch the ball at also have an effect on the distances you gain when playing at altitude there is no one exact one size fits all way to know precisely how many yards each foot of you play above sea level will increase your distance.

However Steve Aoyama, a scientist in Titleist’s Research and Development Department, has given it a shot and calculated that multiplying the altitude you are playing at (in feet) by 0.00116 will give a very decent estimate of the % distance gain you will achieve.

For example if you play your golf in Denver at 5280 feet and normally hit your drives around 220 yards at sea level you will lively drive it about 233 yards in Colorado.

In other words:

5280 multiplied by 0.00116 = 6.12% farther

And because the top pros are well aware of the numbers and how ‘hang time’ takes on greater importance at higher altitudes they adjust their game accordingly to take advantage of the conditions to produce some dramatic distance gains.

GolfTV image of Rory McIlroy's stock yardages
Rory McIlroy's yardages when playing at an altitude of 7500 feet

Just take a look for example at the ‘typical’ average stock yardages Rory McIlroy hits the ball on the left above and then the notes taken of his yardages at the World Golf Championships at the Club de Golf Chapultepec in Mexico City on the right.

Club de Golf Chapultepec at its highest point reaches 7,835 feet above sea level.

To put that height in context Muirfield Village in Ohio reaches 910 feet, Augusta reaches 310ft at its highest point and of course Pebble Beach is played pretty much at sea level.

Playing at nearly 8,000 feet we can see that McIlroy is expecting in or around 30 yards (10.4%) extra distance with his driver and nearly a massive 17% distance gain with his 5-iron!

[Editor’s note – While altitude has the biggest impact on air pressure, and therefore the distance a golf ball travels, weather patterns also create small changes in air pressure. High-pressure systems for example increase air density while low-pressure ones decrease density. However any normal changes in air pressure caused by weather will likely result in less than 1-yard difference in distance.]

How Does Temperature Affect Golf Ball Distance?

Weather clearly affects golf ball distance and a key component of weather is obviously temperature.

As we have already noted the greater the air density – which is ultimately the factor determining how far the golf ball flies – the more resistance there is on the golf ball meaning it carries shorter distances.

And as temperature has a direct impact on air density how hot or cold the weather is, is going to affect how far a golf ball travels.

As a whole golf balls go farther in warm weather and every 10ºF rise in temperature above 40ºF (4.4ºC) increases carry distance by 1.33 to 1.5 yards depending on the club being used, according to Trackman. This is because hotter temperatures reduce air density which results in less resistance or drag on the golf ball.

For anyone who has played a lot of golf over the years, both in the hot temperatures of summer and the much colder winter months, it is likely not news that you lose yardage in cold weather but golfers, including many pros, often overestimate the effect of temperature on golf ball distance.

Getting only an additional 9 yards when hitting your driver when playing in roughly 38ºC (100ºF) compared to playing in just over 4ºC (40ºF) is a lot less of a gain than many people expect but it is also important to remember that the impact of cold weather on distance does not solely relate to its effect on air density.

Amateur male golfer playing golf in the sun

The temperature you are playing in also affects the amount of clothes you wear and your muscle flexibility so warm temperatures not only mean lower air density and therefore less drag on the golf ball but also looser muscles and fewer clothing layers resulting in higher swingspeeds and therefore distance.

The elasticity of your golf ball – in other words its ability to get back into its normal shape after being smashed with a golf club – can also change with temperature and make the distance increase seen at higher temperatures even larger.

Saying all that however it is important to remember that temperature does not have nearly as big an effect on air density, and therefore golf ball distance, as altitude and even in extreme hot weather cases do not expect the added distance you gain to be ever any more than a club distance.

How Does Humidity Affect Golf Ball Distance? It Ain’t Heavy

The third and final main component of weather which impacts air density and therefore affects golf ball distance is humidity.

And while it may feel like the air is heavier when you are playing golf in very humid conditions humid air is actually lighter than dry air which means the air is less dense and therefore the resistance or drag on any golf ball is also less.

As a whole increased humidity means golf balls fly further however the overall effect on distance is very small. An extreme change in air humidity from 10% to 90% would add less than 1 yard to a mid-trajectory 6-iron according to Trackman and just over 1 yard to a drive.

Trackman image highlighting affect of humidity on golf ball distance

That air density decreases and golf balls fly further in humid conditions, which can often feel quite oppressive and heavy to golfers playing in them, can sometimes take golfers by surprise however the reasons for this can be found in the science.

In dry air with little humidity the atmosphere is made up of nitrogen and oxygen both of which are heavy gases. The water vapour found in humid conditions however is lighter due to the presence of hydrogen which being the lightest gas makes humid air lighter than dry air.

And the more water vapour in the mixture as the humidity rises the less dense the air and therefore the less resistance or drag on the golf ball.

However whatever the science there is not a lot of need to understand it in detail that much when it comes to humidity’s effect on golf ball distance as the impact, although positive, is very small.

Many regular players in humid conditions often find it difficult to believe that humidity is not an important factor when it comes to distance and often cite numerous examples of their shots not going as far on hot and humid mornings.

This however is likely to be due to moisture on the ball rather than moisture in the humid air.

Ballnamic, the specialist golf ball fitter, has found in its tests that iron shots will fly up to 5 yards shorter and drivers up to 15 yards shorter when a ball is sprayed with water.

So the next time you think that your ball is not going as far due to the humidity in the air, especially in the early morning, it’s worth checking the water on your ball rather than blaming the water in the air.

How Do Slopes Affect Golf Ball Distance?

While weather and especially the wind is usually what preoccupies golfers the most when it comes to assessing how conditions will affect the distance they hit the ball the location and features of the course also have a clear impact.

We have already covered how the altitude impacts how much further a golf ball will travel but how do the natural slopes and undulations on a golf course, especially a hilly one affect golf ball distance?

As a general rule a golf ball will travel further when hit downhill and a shorter distance when hit up a slope due to the corresponding increased and decreased amount of time the golf ball spends in the air in each shot. There is not however a 1:1 distance correlation between each yard of slope to distance lost and gained.

When it comes to playing on hilly golf courses with big slopes and height changes between tees and greens the slope function on modern laser rangefinders enables the modern golfer to take account of the elevation of the slope that is affecting their next shot.

Golfer and caddie walking off the 9th tee at Royal County Down Golf Club

But while such information is undoubtedly helpful it is important to remember that the ‘adjusted’ yardage a laser rangefinder gives you still requires the golfer to exercise judgement when finally choosing the club to use.

Rickie Fowler’s caddie, Joe Skovron gives a great example of this at Augusta, the exceptionally hilly venue each year for the Masters golf tournament.

In an interview with USA Today Sports Skovron explained how the 18th at Augusta requires players to hit approach shots up a 14-yard upslope.

But based on his experience Skovron knows that the upslope only shortens Fowler’s iron shots by between 5 to 8 yards thereby highlighting the point that there is not an exact link between the amount of downslope or upslope a golfer is faced with and the distance which their shot will be impacted by.

And similarly to slope it is also worth remembering the effect that the conditions of the course you are playing on have on golf ball distance.

Waterlogged fairways compared to bone dry ones are obviously going to have a major impact on the total distance a golf ball travels and this is also something to bear in mind when you watch the TV and see how far the top pros are hitting the ball.

The pros are of course the best players in the world and their skill is the key factor in explaining how much farther they hit the ball than us regular amateurs.

But the world class course conditions they play on every week also have an impact on distance to the extent that 6-time PGA Tour winner Marc Leishman recently stated that part of his strategy for the upcoming season was simply to try and hit more fairways because he believed he could gain up to 30 yards of distance due to the great condition of the fairways on the PGA Tour!

So while the weather clearly has a huge effect on golf ball distance don’t forget in your final club calculation about how much of an impact course slopes and conditions also have.

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