What Determines Driver Distance? Skill Triumphs Over All!


Trackman's visual explanation of dynamic loft, launch angle and attack angle

Since the first players started to golf they have been concerned with how far they hit the ball.

And to this day no matter how badly you are playing over a round a large degree of pleasure can still be taken from simply hitting your driver further than your playing partners on any one hole.

Now that the stats are also crystal clear on how important driver distance is to lower scores there is an obvious additional incentive for golfers to be aware of what factors most determine driver distance.

3 key factors determine driver distance – ball speed, launch angle and spin rate. The optimal mix of these is different for each golfer and is dictated by their swingspeed and ‘attack angle’ at impact but in short for most distance a golfer must get the ball up in the air as quickly as possible and not have much spin on it.

Anyone who has played golf for any length of time though knows it is a game of almost infinite variables and the number of elements that determine how far you will hit the golf ball are many and varied.

These include your golf clubs (loft, shaft type, shaft length etc.) the golf ball you choose to play, the condition and altitude of the course you are playing on, not to mention the wind, temperature and humidity of the day you are playing.

With the advent of launch monitors in the modern game we also now have data available for other things that we are now aware of that affect distance such as club or swing speed, ball speed, angle of attack, smash factor, dynamic loft, club and face path angles, spin rates, etc etc.

The list seemingly goes on forever and none of this touches on another often cited factor that determines driver distance – the age of the golfer themselves.

But if you are serious about improving – and driving the ball further should be a key part of that journey no matter what myths you may hear – it is vital that whatever time you have to spend on trying to hit the ball longer distances is focused on the key areas that will make the most difference!

USGA / R&A Driving Distance Report graph of average driving distances for different handicap groups
Source: The USGA / R&A Driving Distance Report highlights the clear link between driving distance and handicap

What is the Major Factor in Distance in Golf? It’s Simply Skill

While many traditionalists rail against the advance of technology in modern golf one of the great things it has helped with is identifying once and for all which areas matter most when it comes to better scoring.

And with all the stats available now one thing is absolutely crystal clear.

The long game is more important than the short game and there is a direct link between distance and lower scoring and therefore handicaps.

Driving the ball further is a huge advantage and given how little time amateur golfers have to play golf, never mind practice, it makes sense then that they understand what makes the biggest impact on distance in golf.

And with modern launch monitors we are now able to identify exactly what has the biggest impact on distance when you tee it up on the golf course.

As a whole ball speed is the single biggest factor in determining the distance a golf ball actually carries and a gain of 1mph of ball speed can increase drive distance by up to 2 yards according to Trackman. To maximize distance ball speed then needs to be combined with the optimal launch angle and spin rate.

But every golf swing is different and entirely unique to an individual player so surely there is no one way to ensure everyone hits the ball further?

That is true, and the answer for one golfer as to how they can potentially make adjustments to maximize their distance is indeed likely to be different compared to another.

That does not change the fact however that if you are looking for the one metric which has the biggest impact on how far a golf ball actually carries you should be looking at your ball speed.

Swingman golf image of a PGA Tour driver's strike pattern after hitting 10 shots
PGA Tour player strike pattern after 10 shots
Swingman golf image of a 15-handicapper driver's strike pattern after hitting 5 shots
15-handicap golfer strike pattern after 5 shots

And what do we mean when we talk about ball speed and why does it matter so much?

In technical terms ‘ball speed’ is the speed of the golf ball immediately after impact but in more useful practical terms it is essentially measuring how well a golfer strikes the golf ball.

Good contact with the ball will translate to increased ball speed.

Strike the ball badly however – out of the heel of the club for example – and your ball speed, and as a consequence the distance you hit the ball, will suffer.

Other swing faults leading to glancing blows created by slices, hooks or hitting down on the ball too much can also reduce ball speed and therefore distance and as such if you ever want to increase it and drive the ball further the major factor to influence this will be to improve how well you strike the ball.

“The one thing I focus on more than anything else is just good contact. Strike it solid because if you strike it solid obviously more times than not it’s going to work out in tour favour”.

Rory McIlroy – World No.1, 4-time Major Champion and consistent top 5 PGA Tour distance driver.

To emphasize how poorly the average amateur strikes the golf ball on average Jaacob Bowden, founder of Swing Man Golf and considered one the leading experts on swing speed training, cites the following stats.

The average male amateur has an average swingspeed of 93.4 mph which is almost identical to the average LPGA Tour pro swingspeed of 94mph.

But while the former averages 219 yards with their driver a women tour pro averaged a total driver distance of 257 yards in 2022.

That’s an enormous difference of 38 yards with essentially the same swing speeds and the main reason for this is the quality of ball striking LPGA Tour pros achieve compared to regular amateurs.

The average amateur is therefore capable of the same distances LPGA Tour pros drive the ball but is leaving all this distance on the table simply by virtue of their comparatively poor swing technique and consequently ball striking.

So in short the element which has the single biggest influence and impact on driving distance is skill and Arccos’s Distance report based on its analysis of millions of amateur golfer’s shots concluded that skill is twice as impactful as age when it comes to gaining or maintaining driver distance.

For example they found that a scratch-handicapped 70-year-old male golfer will hit the ball further than a 20-year-old 20 handicapper.

So while you may not be able to influence the clear link between reduced hitting distances and age, if you continue to work on your ball striking you can hold off the effects of father time when it comes to driving distance for a long time to come!

[Editor’s note – If you want to explore in more detail how the pros hit the ball so far check out our detailed analysis on this topic here.]

Arccos graph of average driving distances by age and handicap between 2018 and 2020

[Note – If you are interested in Arccos – Golf’s first artificial intelligence shot tracking platform – and getting an exact idea of how far you hit the ball so you choose the right club every time click here to get 15% off when you use our discount code – GOLFINGFOCUS15. Recognised by Golf Digest Editor’s awards 5 years running Arccos’ members improve by an average of 5 strokes in their first year of membership!]

What Affects Driver Distance? All the Key Factors

It would be great if golf were so straightforward.

Be told that ball speed was the single biggest factor affecting driver distance, increase it and as a result start hitting the ball a lot further leading you quickly to lower scores and a better handicap!

Unfortunately golf is a very hard game and as anyone who has played for any length of time knows things are never simple. Everyone’s golf swing is a unique complex movement that is highly difficult to repeat consistently well and very different ones can be equally as successful.

But one of the great things with the introduction of launch monitors into the game in recent times has been the ability for players and coaches across all standards of the game to measure and state clearly all the elements that affect driver distance.

Driver distance is primarily affected by a player’s ability to convert clubhead speed into ball speed while launching the ball at the optimal angle, and with the spin rate, which then produces the best flight trajectory and roll to achieve the maximum possible carry and total distance.

That may sound overly technical to some but those elements – clubhead or swing speed, ball speed, launch angle and spin rate – are the primary components that affect the amount of distance you will get with your driver and other clubs.

Here is a brief explanation of each and what they mean both technically and practically together with a few other helpful notes.

GOLF METRICDEFINITIONDISTANCE NOTES
Club / Swing speedThe linear speed of the club head’s geometric center immediately prior to contact with the ballClub / Swing speed is the key factor for determining a golfer’s POTENTIAL distance

Adding 1mph of club/swing speed can increase your distance by up to 3 yards with the driver.
Ball speedBall speed is the speed of the golf ball immediately after impactThe ball speed created at impact is the biggest factor in how far a golf ball ACTUALLY carries.

Gaining 1 mph of ball speed can increase driver distance by up to 2 yards.
Smash factorSmash Factor is ball speed divided by club speedSmash factor is a measurement of a golfer’s ability to convert club/swing speed into ball speed at impact.

In other words is the player getting out what they, in combination with their golf club, putting in?

The higher the smash factor the better the energy transfer from the club to the ball which means more distance. A smash factor of 1.5 is the target for driver shots.
Launch angleThe vertical angle relative to the horizon of the golf ball’s center of gravity movement immediately after leaving the club face. (i.e. the angle the ball takes off at relative to the horizon)The optimal launch angle not only results in the optimal driver carry distance but more roll as well for increased total distance.

With too high a launch angle, your carry distance will be good but you will get very little roll.

Have too low a launch angle by comparison and you will not get enough carry and your roll distance will be reduced by the constant friction with the ground.
Spin rateThe amount of spin on the golf ball immediately after impact.Spin rate has a major influence on the height and distance of a golf shot.

Having a high spin rate ‘lifts’ the ball up into the air, creating a lot of height and a steep landing angle with minimal roll.

A low spin rate by comparison will typically make the ball fall out of the sky, creating not much height and a shallow landing angle but with a lot of roll.
Sources: Trackman, Golf.com, AndrewRiceGolf.com

And those are not the only numbers that are now available to golfers and coaches when using launch monitors to check on their game and find the reasons they are driving the ball the distance they do.

Modern devices now also measure things like ‘attack angle’, dynamic loft’, ‘spin loft’, ‘peak height’, ‘land angle’, ‘club path’, ‘face to path’, ‘spin axis’ etc and if you spend too long looking at one you may be forgiven for thinking that they simply make an already difficult game even more complicated.

But what they do allow is for golfers to understand the precise elements of their own golf swing that are affecting their driver distance, and then if they want, to do something about them.

A golfer’s optimal ball speed, launch angle and spin rate are primarily dictated by club/swing speed and attack angle and an understanding of this data can help all players work out not what just affects driver distance in general but most importantly what affects the distance they hit their own driver!

For example if we take a look at the graph below from Trackman, one of the industry leaders in launch monitor technology, analyzing the optimized numbers for an average male amateur with a club/swing speed of 95mph, we can see that as the attack angle increases the optimal launch and spin for the golfer changes.

[Editor’s note – The ‘attack angle’ or ‘angle of attack’ is the vertical (up and down) angle the club is moving on during impact]

This then results in a variance of ball speed of almost 5mph (140.7 vs 135.8mph) between the two extremes of -7º and +7º attack angle and a whopping 30 yards difference in distance.

Trackman graph showing optimal carry distances for a player with a 95mph club speed hitting the ball at different attack angles.

And just to emphasize how important these key numbers are when it comes to driver distance take a look at one of the best drivers of a golf ball in the world Rory McIlroy, and his launch monitor numbers below when he did a test with Me and My Golf recently.

By translating a very fast swing speed of 117mph club/swing speed into a super high ball speed of 174.1mph, while at the same time launching the ball at a near-optimal angle of 14.2º he carried his drive an enormous 307.1 yards.

His low spin rate of 2103rpm then allowed him to roll the ball out a further 20.7 yards for a total driving distance of 327.8 yards.

And that’s before we even consider that his smash factor on this drive of 1.48 means that there he has still more yards in the tank when he can push that number up closer to 1.5 with a more optimal strike on the ball.

Comparing our driving distance to arguably the best driver of the golf ball in the world is probably not a healthy idea but by looking at his driving distance and stats what it does show us is that he is looking to optimize the very same numbers we should be.

Therefore any improvement we can make to our understanding of what our own club/swing speeds, ball speeds, launch angles and spin rates are, and how they affect our own driving distances, can only help allow us to try and hit our drives further.

Rory McIroy launch monitor numbers during test with Me and My Golf
Source: Me and MyGolf

Final thought

All golf swings are different as we know and there is no question that your own swing is unique.

And while it is important to have an idea of what determines driver distance and the numbers and reasons behind why you drive the ball as far as you do we would always recommend getting a lesson or a fitting from a coach or expert club fitter if you really want to boost your driver distances.

A good coach will use all these same launch monitor numbers to assess your game but most importantly they will have a detailed understanding of what they all mean and their impact on each other in relation to your own individual swing to let you make the best decisions on how to improve.

They will explain why when you’re using your driver you should ideally have a positive attack angle but when using an iron it should be a negative angle.

“If a golfer’s attack angle, dynamic loft, face to path numbers, and impact location are good, then I will definitely question if the equipment is the correct fit. If these items are not optimal then I will educate the player to understand what we are looking for.”

Richard Woodhouse, Former Australian PGA Teacher of the Year.

Similarly an expert club fitter will again be in the best position to use these numbers to make sure you are playing with the equipment most suited to you.

And if you find a good one they will most likely give you a bit of a lesson at the same time as your fitting!

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Graeme Hay

Graeme Hay is the owner of GolfingFocus.com. Graeme started playing golf when he was only 4 years old and has loved the game ever since. A single figure golfer all of his adult life he lives in London and still enjoys playing whenever he can with friends and family.

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