Golf Things Considered column by John Rogers
Golf is a game of angles. Lots of angles. There are shaft angles, spine angles, clubface angles, angles of approach and many others, including launch angle, which basically determines the trajectory of a golf shot.
“Trajectory” is a commonly used word in the world of golf, but it is also commonly misunderstood. Even when golfers know the meaning of the word, many fail to control the trajectory of their ball flight in a way that lets them get the most out of their shots.
The term “trajectory” is used in parts of our culture that are even more confusing than golf, like politics. A political scientist might say something like, “While few of the components of the Republicans’ Contract With America survived for even a decade, the movement of the mid-1990s clearly changed the atmosphere in Washington and definitely changed the trajectory of governmental growth.” Whatever that means.
In golf, there is also some confusion. Many people associate the trajectory of a shot with its height, but that’s not the full story. Trajectory also has to do with the angle of the shot, in a sense the rate at which the shot reaches its height.
For example, I could hit both my wedge and my driver 100 feet in the air. What makes the shots different is that the wedge might get that high after going only 50 yards forward, whereas the driver goes 130 yards before it gets 100 feet high. In other words, the angle is different even if the height is the same.
The trick for many kinds of golf shots is to control the trajectory. I frequently see golfers who have one, favorite club that they hit their chip shots with. I’m not sure that’s the best policy, because different situations on the course require different shots, which means different trajectories (which means different clubs).
For example, imagine George hitting a shot from just off the green. He only needs to carry the ball six feet to be safely on the green, and the pin is only 15 feet from the edge of the green. George loves chipping with his 7-iron, and he’ll use it now. The problem is the low trajectory provided by a 7-iron. If George hits the chip hard enough to carry onto the green, the low angle of the shot will make the ball roll much more than 15 feet, and George will have a long putt coming back.
Sarah likes chipping with her sand wedge. If she has 75 feet of green in front of her, she’ll have to take a fairly large swing, and the high angle of the shot will make the ball stop short. Given the situations, George and Sarah would do well to swap clubs and trade trajectories.
Similarly, golfers tend to hit pitch shots with poor trajectory. The tendency of average players is to try to carry the ball almost all the way to the hole, which means they are usually hitting the ball on steep angles. This introduces several potential problems: the ball will be in the air longer, and therefore in the wind longer; the ball will tend to stop soon after landing, which means the distance control has to be very good; if the ball happens to carry into a slope, undulation, or pitch mark in the green, it will stop dead, short of the hole; and the steeper angle usually requires a wristy, hard swing that tends to lead to bigger mistakes.
Using a wedge with less loft, hitting pitches with lower trajectory, and getting the ball on the ground sooner helps to avoid these problems. It’s interesting that tour players generally hit their full shots high and their short shots low, whereas amateurs tend to do the opposite.
Even in the full swing, though, there are times when it pays to hit shots on a lower angle. When Tom comes to a par-3 he always tries to hit the shortest club possible into the green so that he can impress his friends with the distance he hits the ball. Imagine a back-pin location on a green that slopes upward from front to back. The distance to the hole is 156 yards. If he nukes an 8-iron, Tom can hit it 150 yards. He figures he can stretch it out, and he’ll be the man when his buddies use their 7- or 6-irons.
First, Tom tries to get a little extra on the 8-iron, which means he’ll probably mishit it. Then the ball goes on a higher trajectory, so that it stops on a dime when it hits the up-sloping green. There’s also more backspin created by the higher lofted club. Tom ends up 35 feet short of the hole. His buddy Dan hits an ugly, low little 6-iron that hits on the very front of the green, rolls up the hill, past Tom’s ball, and stops 10 feet to the left of the hole. The lower angle of the shot fit the situation better.
Sometimes a soft, low shot works better, especially when there is plenty of green to work with, and when the wind starts blowing. Other times, like a pin tucked right behind a bunker, a high shot angle (like a flop shot) will give the best results. It’s all about the trajectory.
A solid golf swing not only makes good use of angles, but it produces good angles when it comes to ball flight.