Swing speed, also known as clubhead speed, is all about how fast a club is traveling when it reaches impact. It's not easy to maximize clubhead speed, but anyone with the strength and flexibility — or the desire to work on those two things — can have a relatively high swing speed. For instance, a professional baseball player could have a high clubhead speed on the golf course. That speed may be well above what the average PGA Tour player generates.
This is why ball speed is so important. Ball speed, which is the measure of velocity the ball travels at just after impact, takes coordination into account. Yes, clubhead speed greatly impacts ball speed. But someone swinging a golf club as fast as they can without hitting the center of the clubface is not transferring much power to the actual ball itself.
In that case, a golfer's ball speed is relatively low compared to the their clubhead speed. This ratio is measured in smash factor, a centeredness of contact metric that divides ball speed by clubhead speed.
Said another way: If you can increase your ball speed while maintaining the same clubhead speed, it's proof that you are hitting the ball better. You are getting cleaner contact closer to the center of the clubface.
This is what separates a PGA Tour player or elite amateur golfer from the rest of us. The best players are maximizing the swing speed abilities they have so they can be as efficient as possible. Rarely does a PGA Tour player have to swing outside of their comfort zone. In the end, getting solid contact will often make up for a lack of swing speed.
The average PGA Tour ball speed with a driver is about 171 mph. This has gone up about 4 mph in the past five years.
The highest ball speed this past season was Cameron Champ at 188 mph. There were 21 players above 180 mph or better. You can contrast this with the lowest ball speed on the PGA Tour last season, which was Brendon Todd at 158 mph. There were only five players below 160 mph.
Keep in mind, that players are often not swinging to their max. Many players estimate that they are swinging around 80-90 percent effort in an attempt to have better control on the ball. A few players over the years have shown practice shots where they are over 200 mph of ball speed, but it's difficult to control a shot like that.
And how about with other clubs? Ball speed continues to fall because clubs get progressively shorter, which means it is harder to generate speed. Higher lofts can also reduce ball velocity.
The average 3-wood ball speed is around 161 mph. A higher-lofted fairway wood like a 5-wood is going to fall to around 155 mph.
This isn't a hard and fast rule, but it's something to keep in mind. Just like a player has yardage gaps in between each club — hitting an 8-iron 155 yards vs. a 9-iron 145 yards — there should be a fairly consistent gap in ball speed between irons.
On the PGA Tour level, a 3-iron is about 145 mph, and you can start subtracting about 5 mph for the next few irons on the list.
It is normal to have a slightly larger gap as you get lower in your bag. For instance, a PGA Tour player's 9-iron is about 113 mph in ball speed, which is 7 mph ahead of their average pitching wedge.
This happens for two main reasons. One is that the loft gaps of wedges is slightly larger than other irons. A pitching wedge is around 46 degrees of loft and a gap wedge is around 52 degrees, making a 6-degree difference. This is in contrast to say, a 5-iron (24 degrees) and a 6-iron (28 degrees) that are only separated by four degrees of loft. Naturally the ball speed gap widens as well.
The second reason is that professionals are usually not trying to hit wedges and short irons as hard as other clubs. In fact, PGA Tour players almost never take a full swing with a wedge, because it imparts too much spin on the ball and becomes too difficult to control.
Now you know roughly where a PGA Tour player stands when it comes to ball speed. Why is that relevant information for an average golfer?
First of all, it is unrealistic to think you have to match these averages. The vast majority of players won't produce the kind of clubhead speed and coordination to reach these numbers on a consistent basis.
Still, these numbers can be a benchmark. If you hit a 6-iron at 121 mph of ball speed, you can tell you are about 10 mph behind an average PGA Tour player. It provides some sort of boundaries for what is attainable.
But the most important message is to understand that ball speeds are the most important measure of speed. If you have the chance to watch a PGA Tour player warm up on the range while using a launch monitor, you will notice how consistent their ball speed numbers are. They are creating speed by prioritizing efficiency. You should never sacrifice efficiency for speed.
Make sure to keep track of your ball speed numbers if you have access to that data. As you improve, you can notice ball speeds going slightly up over time.
Ball speed monitoring can also help indicate issues. For instance, if you are trying new clubs and you test a 6-iron with a noticeably lower ball speed, it's likely that you are using the wrong shaft for your game. Also, if you are warming up for a round and see a drop in velocity, that is evidence that you aren't making as good of contact as you previously were. It's something you can plan for during a round by playing slightly more club. Remember, 1 mph of ball speed equates to over 2 extra yards.
No matter what, keep in mind that a "slower" swing with good contact can produce a lot more ball speed than a faster swing with poor contact.