Analytics 101

How Ball Speed and Clubhead Speed Affect Distance

September 10, 2021
7 min

Who would you guess led the PGA Tour in average ball speed this past season?

Both casual fans and experts would likely point to Bryson DeChambeau, a player who clocked in with an average clubhead speed of over 132 mph last season. That shattered the previous record of 128.18 held by Ryan Brehm in 2017.

Since 2010, there have been six seasons where the leader in clubhead speed didn’t reach 125 mph. Being over 132 mph is a stunning number.

However, clubhead speed and ball speed are two different variables. Clubhead speed is how fast the club is traveling when it reaches the ball, while ball speed is how fast the ball is traveling just after impact. While faster clubhead speeds generally result in faster ball speeds, there isn’t an exact correlation.

A more efficient golf swing with a lower clubhead speed can produce a faster ball speed than another player who swings faster but may not consistently catch the center of the face.

Despite DeChambeau enjoying such a massive advantage in club head speed — he finished ahead of second place by nearly 5 mph — it was actually Cameron Champ who produced a slightly higher ball speed than DeChambeau. We are talking fractions here. Champ reached an average of 190.94 mph and DeChambeau came in second at 190.72 mph, but that still shows how crisply Champ can hit the ball without swinging out of his shoes.

There’s an important note to remember from this example. The gap between these two variables may be small for the best players in the world, but it’s often a lot wider for the average player.

Here’s why. Even if, hypothetically, a normal golfer has the strength to get their clubhead speed up near DeChambeau or Champ, other imperfections in their swing would greatly reduce the energy they are actually transferring into the ball. Hitting a hook, a slice, hitting down on the ball too much or otherwise making poor contact will take away from ball speed regardless of clubhead speed.

Yes, clubhead speed is a great indication of potential distance.  However, ball speed is the ultimate indicator of distance and comes based on how well you are making contact. Meanwhile, clubhead speed is not impacted by how well you actually hit the ball.

Ball Speed Benchmarks

For every 1 mph of ball speed you add to your swing, you are gaining about two yards of carry distance. That is something you can measure for long-term progress. It’s also something you can measure on a day-to-day basis.

Golfers don’t show up to the course with the exact same swing every day, so being able to assess where you are at  during your warm up — whether that is in your backyard with the Graff ball or on the range prior to your round — then you can formulate a plan for how far the ball will fly that day. It may only be a few yards of difference, but that can still be crucial.

More than anything, your speed going up or down is usually an indication of better or worse compression of the ball at impact. Most of us don’t suddenly speed up our swings. Ball speed tells you how crisply you are hitting it.

If you are looking for some benchmarks for where you should be, here is a general idea of what you should be looking for. A PGA Tour player averages about 168 mph with their driver and a high-level male amateur is around 160 mph. A 5 handicap would be around 147 mph. A 10 handicap would be around 138 mph. A 15 handicap would be around 133 mph and a 20 handicap around 130 mph.

For female golfers, a 5 handicap is around 125 mph and an average player is around 111 mph.

The average PGA Tour player is around 127 mph when hitting a 6-iron and around 102 mph when hitting a pitching wedge. For most of us, it’s nearly impossible to reach these numbers while still being in control of the clubface. That’s why there are other benchmarks that explain an optimal relationship between the two variables. For instance, a 6-iron with a clubhead speed of 80 mph and a ball speed of 110 mph is an ideal combination for control. So is a pitching wedge with a clubhead speed of 72 mph and a ball speed of 86 mph.

What does this mean? It means that the transfer of power from your clubhead speed into the ball is efficient. You are hitting the center of the clubface and are essentially getting the most out of your power.

If you are hitting your 6-iron with a 100 mph club head speed and only seeing 120 mph of ball speed, check some of the other variables. Notably, what is your spin rate? Is your launch angle abnormally high or low?

In an ideal world, we would all swing as fast as we can and hit the middle of the clubface while we do it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. There’s a reason hockey players make better golfers than football players. Golf is less of a game of pure strength than it is of timing and coordination.  

Smash Factor

Ball speed is more a measure of solidness of contact. You can also think of it as a close relative of smash factor.

Smash factor is ball speed divided by clubhead speed. With a driver, an optimal shot would have a 1.5 smash factor. For instance, a 100 mph clubhead speed producing a 150 mph ball speed. That is the ideal ratio.

For clubs with more loft, a lower smash factor is optimal. Take a pitching wedge, for example. A smash factor of 1.25 is optimal. Think about why this is. If you swung a pitching wedge with 70 mph clubhead speed, it wouldn’t be possible to reach 105 mph of ball speed.

Shorter clubs mean that the two variables are closer together. Longer clubs means that you should try to be getting as close to 1.5 as possible.

It doesn’t take a lot of clubhead speed to increase your smash factor. Even someone with a relatively slow swing can work on better contact. That will increase their ball speed and lead to a better smash factor.

The average on the PGA Tour with a driver is 1.49, while the average with a 6-iron is 1.38. These are of course slightly lower for the average player, but not dramatically. A typical 14 handicap has a smash factor of about 1.44 with their driver. That .05 difference is just in solidness of contact, not in carry yardage or clubhead speed.

The most important thing to remember is that increasing clubhead speed only helps if you are doing it within your swing. Just swinging harder doesn’t increase your ball speed, or add distance to your shot.

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