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Understanding ball flight

This season, the articles I’m writing are going to be much more in depth on the technical aspects of the game and swing, as well as how to develop yourself as a player through quality practice. I have always stayed away from giving “tips” on the golf swing, as tips are only helpful if they are relevant to the specific fault of the player reading them. Rather than giving “tips,” my goal this year is to give information and understanding so that you can assess your own swing, understand your faults and know how to start to make the necessary changes.

Without accurately knowing what you do, it is impossible to know what change you need to make. The players I see that are the most lost, are usually the ones that try something new every week or even every day. They are in a search mode for a magic cure. While it may work for a shot, a hole or a round, it doesn’t stick because there isn’t enough understanding for why it worked and what to do when it stops working.

To accurately assess what you do, the first thing you must understand are the skills required to hit a golf shot. When I’m working with students, I go through a checklist to evaluate what they do. First, I look at their technique, then the consistency and quality of the strike, next the ability to control start direction and finally their ability to control shot shape. While I do not consider technique a skill, better technique usually allows for more consistency in the skills required to hit quality shots. The skill level of contact, start direction and shot shape are what separates most players.

To understand what you’ve done, you must understand why the ball is doing what it's doing. If you can assess why the ball did what it did, you have a much better chance of understanding what happened in the swing. Understanding the ball flight laws is the beginning. The ball flight laws teach us why the ball started where it did, and why it curved in the manner it did.

The start direction of a shot is primarily correlated to where the face is at impact. Assuming a center strike, the face is approximately 75% responsible for start direction. In the example above, the club is swinging 2 degrees right of target, while the face is 2.3 degrees left of target. The ball started 1.6 degrees left of the target line and curved 79 feet left because of the relationship between the face and the path.

Why is this important to understand? If we misinterpret why the ball does what it does, we are apt to put in the wrong "fix." Often times in lessons I will hear a player say the ball started left because they were "over-the-top." If that was the assessment for why this shot occurred, they would try to swing more from the inside on the next swing. If they didn't change the club face, the ball may start more left and would certainly curve more to the left if they did what they tried to. Now they are heading in the wrong direction. The simple answer here is that the ball started left because the face was left of the target at impact. It curved left because the face was closed to the path.

Here are your baseline rules: The face controls where the ball starts, and the face to path relationship controls the curve. For a right-handed player, if the face is closed to the path the ball will curve left and if the face is open to the path it will curve to the right.

Armed with that knowledge, here is how you can implement better understanding into your practice. Take as much of the guess work out as you can. First, you need to have a target. If you are hitting balls towards the range, you are not getting adequate feedback to make any sort of assessment. Secondly, take the variable of aim out of the equation. I like to put an alignment stick 12-15 feet in front of the ball on the target line, as well as having a stick down for alignment of the body. In the picture above you can see we have taken out the variables of ball position, aim and target line. Now, when you hit a shot, you do not have to question if you were aimed there or if you did something with the face in the swing. Since aim is no longer a variable, you can adequately assess where the face was at impact, and the shape of the shot will give you a better idea of what the path was doing as well.

To play good golf you need to have a plan for each shot. In order to make that plan you must have an idea of where the ball is going to start, which way it is going to curve and how far it will go. Use this practice setup to test how consistently you can start your ball in your intended direction and if you can control the curve to match. Use your understanding of the ball flight laws to make adjustments to the face or path to get the results you want. If you are struggling with contact while doing this, that needs to be first priority, and I will cover contact/distance control in my next article.

I hope you found this article helpful and if you have any questions feel free to reach out at any time.

Enjoy the process.

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