Analytics 101

Golf Ball Launch Analytics 101: Understanding the Basics

February 2, 2021
8 min

For the average golfer, looking at a set of data after making a golf swing can be intimidating. Some elements of golf ball analytics are straightforward, but understanding how each piece works together is key to knowing what adjustments you may have to make in your game. 

You might not think that ball data that you see on the PGA Tour is relevant to you, but it is certainly an advantage to utilize technology in the modern era and break it down to simple, usable information. Accurate data for variables like overall spin, spin direction, launch angle and carry distance can allow a golfer to reverse engineer a golf swing to get the desired result. No, you don’t want to compare yourself to elite tour players, but having a range of quantifiable data to compare to gives you a solid idea about what to work on during practice sessions. 

Ball Speed and Carry Distance

The most basic component of golf ball analytics is ball speed. Ball speed is the measurement of the golf ball’s velocity just after impact and is the main component in generating distance. Carry distance, a direct relative to ball speed, is the total distance of flight produced by initial launch. 

For example, a player using a driver who has a ball speed of 150 mph will produce a carry of between 254-275 yards assuming there are no external factors like wind. A player using a 7-iron with a ball speed of 120 mph will generate a carry of roughly 162 yards. 

Higher ball speeds and longer carry yardages can definitely be advantages, but consistency is more important. During practice, you should aspire to have your range of ball speed to be within 1-3 mph with each swing. This will allow a player to have a better feel for exactly how far they can carry each club.  

Launch Angle and Spin Rate

While carry distance is a direct effect of ball speed, not every shot with the same ball speed carries the same distance. There are a couple of reasons for that. 

Let’s say one player uses a 5-iron with a ball speed of 118 mph and carries their shot 170 yards, while a stronger player uses an 8-iron and has the same ball speed of 118 mph. His ball, however, will only travel about 155 yards. 

This is because of launch angle and spin. In general, a club with more loft (in this case, it is the 8-iron) produces a higher launch angle and more spin. Launch angle is the initial vertical angle of ascent relative to the ground plane measured in degrees. Spin is the amount of rotation around the tilt axis that creates curvature and lift. 

Marrying the proper launch angle and spin rate has a significant effect on how far a ball travels. A player who carries his driver about 270 yards will want his launch angle to be around 11 degrees and his spin rate to be about 2700 rpms, or revolutions per minute. If the spin rate is too high, the ball will not travel as far and will be more susceptible to going off line. 

However, another player who has a lower swing speed and only produces a ball speed of about 140 mph with their driver would want a higher launch angle, somewhere in the area of 14 degrees, with a spin rate fairly similar to the stronger player. The less powerful golfer wants a higher launch than more powerful players because too low of an angle creates unpredictability — a 7-iron with a launch angle of 12 degrees will likely carry short of the desired distance and will be more reliant on roll. 

When it comes to irons and wedges, being able to carry the ball a certain yardage and stop it within a few yards of where it landed is paramount. Having a predictable ball speed, launch angle and spin rate will give you a solid foundation for knowing 

The proper launch angle goes up as you increase loft, with the exception of fairway woods. Faster swing speed players will want their fairway woods to be launching around 8 or 9 degrees while slower swing speed players who have ball speeds around 130-140 mph will want to launch their fairway woods at 10-12 degrees. Note that both launch angles are lower than the ideal launch for a driver. However, all launch angles continue to get higher as the club gets shorter from that point forward. A pitching wedge, for example, is likely to be launched in the area of 21-24 degrees. The slower your club head speed, the higher part of the range you will find yourself. 

While you could hit one hundred 5-irons and not see a drastic difference in launch angle, wedges and short irons are more susceptible to big jumps. Picture a wedge approach where you catch a shot high on the face, or vice versa. There can be a wide variability of launch, and a big part of learning about advanced analytics down the road will be knowing how to control a wedge shot that pierces the wind at 18 degrees launch versus a high-lofting shot that launches somewhere around 35-40 degrees. It is also great practice to know how high a player launches a wedge with half, three-quarter and full swings. You will find there that slower, more controlled shots have less spin. 

When you are talking about your average pitching wedge approach — that can be upwards of 10,000 rpms — knowing your spin variability has a massive impact in how far the ball travels. 

Other Golf Ball Analytics Terms to Know 

A golf ball can spin in multiple directions: the direction of flight (top spin), against the direction of flight (back spin) or to either side of the direction of flight (side spin).

Side spin, or the component of total spin that defines ball curvature or shot shape, is a key ingredient in understanding how reliable certain shots are. For instance, if you hit a fade that starts 15 yards left of your target and finishes 10 yards right of your target, seeing your side spin metrics decrease will provide evidence that you are molding a more repeatable shot shape. 

Offline, which is the end position distance left or right measured from the target line, will also tell you everything you need to know about your side spin. 

Peak height, or the apex of the trajectory measured from the ground plane, is a direct relative of ball speed, launch angle and spin. The higher all three of these are, the higher the peak height. The average 6-iron will reach a height of about 76 feet. If you are consistently well above or below an ideal peak height, going back to see whether your launch angle and spin rates are within the proper range will be crucial. 

Examples of Using the Golf Ball Analytics You Have

Let’s say you want more distance and have tried several things to make your swing faster but have not seen any meaningful results. Seeing a spin rate well north of 3,000 rpms would allude to the fact you are creating too much back spin and side spin. The harder you try to swing, the more you are compounding the issue of adding too much spin, which shortens the length of shot and gives the ball more of an opportunity to go offline.

In this case, you may need to look at your equipment — especially your shaft — to see if this is a swing problem or an equipment issue. Consulting with a PGA professional is always advised in these situations. Or perhaps your angle of attack, the descending or ascending path of the club head measure in degrees, is too steep. This means your swing needs to be shallower coming into the ball to reduce spin.

On the other side, if you are struggling to get height on your irons, seeing a lower ball speed and lower spin rate will be proof as to why the ball does not carry as intended. Many times more solid contact with the ball will alleviate both of these concerns. Too many golfers spend time trying to find height by manipulating their hands or trying to lift the ball up. This is the exact opposite of what you should be attempting to do. Changing technique, such as moving more of your weight onto your leading side, putting the ball position further back in your stance and working on drills that prioritize hitting the ball first and turf second will yield more spin and a higher launch. 

The reality is that having golf ball analytics allows players to investigate exactly what type of changes are necessary. Every player — from a novice to a professional — can get significant use out of knowing what type of contact they are making with the ball. The evidence you receive will send you on your way to becoming a more consistent player who understands their game at a higher level. 

For more information, you can listen to The Club podcast with Alex Fortey to gain more information on how golf ball analytics can impact your game.  

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