How does the weather affect the flight of your golf balls?

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We all know the basics on how weather can have an affect on the flight of that drive you smashed on that par 5 the other day, right?

Most weather effects on your game are pretty much common sense, with the exception of one widely held myth in regards to weather.

A strong headwind can easily take off 10-20 yards. A side wind can make that straight shot look like a banana slice. A tailwind and solid strike can make you feel like Dustin Johnson.

Pretty obvious, right? ┬áMost people probably also understand the effect that temperature as on your ball’s flight. Air is lighter as the temperature increases, which translates into less resistance. Less resistance reduces both drag, which in turn will reduce lift. This can result in lower trajectories, longer distance, and less overall spin. Good news for you amateurs, as less spin can reduce those dreaded hooks and slices! Yes, you read that right. All you have to do is wait until its 100 degrees in the summer and you’ll never hit another hook or slice! Heck, you’ll probably shoot in the 70′s!

Ok, it of course isn’t that dramatic, but the reduction of drag and lift can actually have a pretty noticeable effect on your shots, especially distance. According to testing performed by the USGA, a golfer with a clubhead speed of 110mph can see a carry distance increase of 1.3 yards for every 10 degree (Fahrenheit) temperature increase! That drive you smashed off the tee on hole 6 in 50 degree weather in Michigan could have had a substantial increase if you were in Arizona and it was 110 degrees. That doesn’t even take into account the effect that the weather has on the physical properties of the ball itself! If you take into account the fact that golf balls themselves have different characteristics for cold and warm temperatures, you could estimate about 2 yards increase for every 10 degrees increase temperature!

Another well known weather effect is elevation. Higher elevation equals more distance. I live in Florida, so I usually play at courses that are about 10 feet above sea level, so I’m pretty happy if I can smack one between the screws for 250 yards. I frequently visit Colorado and play at courses that are well over 5 thousand feet and I find myself consistently bombing drives right down the middle for an easy 350 yards or so! Ok, I’m exaggerating again, but only because I really really REALLY want to hit a drive 350 yards. Just once. Even if its because it was downhill and took a good bounce off a sprinkler head, I’ll still take it! Getting back to reality however, one can easily expect a clublength gain with your iron shots and of course a bit more with a good drive when comparing low lying elevations to 5000 feet above sea level.

Headwinds, tailwinds, air temperature, and elevation… The effects these all have on your ball flight seem pretty obvious, right? However, there is one weather factor that is not so obivious. In fact, its the cause of one of the biggest myths in golf. If you already know what that is, give yourself a pat on the back, because you are probably one of the few golfers out there who really understands.

As I said earlier, I usually golf in Florida. This means I’m playing in 99.99% humidity. The air is SOOOOO thick that I have a hard time driving my ball past 230. I bet you I could easily whack my drives 300+ if I were playing in some nice dry air. Common sense, right? Sigh…I really wish that were true. It would give me a great excuse for my lack of distance, but unfortunately I’ll have to find a different excuse. (I think it’s my clubs. Yeah, that’s probably it.)

So many golfers think that because humid air feels “thick”, their ball doesn’t travel as far. However, its exactly the opposite. Science, how does it work?

Dry air is actually more dense than humid air. I don’t want to get too scientific here, but I need to at least attempt an explanation so perhaps golfers will start to abandon this myth about ‘heavy’ humid air.

In a nutshell, humidity is water vapor in the air. Water vapor has a ‘molecular weight’ of 18. Air is of course nitrogen and oxygen. Nitrogen has a molecular weight of 28, and oxygen has a molecular weight of 32. ┬áThe more water vapor that is in the air, the ‘lighter’ the air becomes. This basically translates to less drag, which means more distance for that drive you duck hooked off the tee. Before you get too excited and book a flight to Florida to experience the jaw dropping distances you’ll see with 95% humidity, realize that we’re only talking a couple yards difference between bone-dry air and ‘shirt soaking’ humid air.

So, the next time you’re trying to knock your playing partner’s ego down a bit and he hits a nice drive during a hot and humid day, casually inform him that he’s pretty lucky it wasn’t a bit colder and drier out, or he might not have cleared that fairway bunker.

 

-Joel Madison

 

 

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