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Choosing the Right Shot Shape Pt. 3 -- Dealing With Wind

Posted by on in Course Management
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The flag is staring right at you.  Right in the center of the big old green, with nothing around to protect it.  You're only 140 yards away from a sure chance at a birdie.  The wind is blowing strong into your face, but that doesn't bother you.  You're good with your fade, you're going to aim a little left and let that puppy drop right on the pin.  You grab your 8 iron, swing hard to bash it through the wind, and... helplessly as the ball flies straight up and careens off to the right, finishing well short and right of the green.  Now you're looking at a potential bogey.


Sound familiar?  You bet it does.  It's familiar to me too.  And it stems from poor understanding of how different wind directions affect your ball's flight, and not knowing how to use your shot shape to counteract it.  We're going to get into trajectory and spin a little bit for this one as well.  Being a Texas resident, I have been subject to winds that many golfers don't ever have to face.  Weeks on end of 20+ mph winds steady with gusts over 30 can ruin your golfing life unless you learn how to deal with it!


First, let's talk a little bit about spin and the effect wind has on it.  Let me begin by saying that a struck golf ball can only spin in one direction.  Picture a golf ball sitting on a tee, with a bright red vertical line drawn exactly down the center of the ball.  Upon being struck, the ball will have some kind of combination of backspin and sidespin.  So the line will be leaning slightly to the left or to the right, depending on how the ball is struck.  (see photo below) If the ball is struck with the face absolutely square and the club traveling exactly down the intended line of flight, the line will remain vertical (true backspin).  Also note that the RATE of spin will influence the ball's shot shape.  A ball hit hard with an open face will spin more and therefore fade/slice more than a ball hit softly with the same degree of face "open-ness."


Also understand that backspin in large part is created by the club's loft.  A ball struck properly with a club will roll up the face slightly as it is squashed at impact.  The more lofted the club, the more glancing the blow is...meaning the ball rolls up the face farther before taking flight...thus more backspin.  Remember as well, that an open face has more effective loft than a closed face.  So by the same token, fades backspin more than draws.  This will come into play later.


This picture illustrates that red line I talked about.  The perspective is looking from directly behind the ball in flight.

Okay, so now we are ready to talk the effect of wind on spin.  First, we'll talk about everyone's nemesis, the headwind.  Now, when a ball has backspin (and remember, every shot that flies has backspin...anything with topspin will not get off the ground), the direction it is spinning is back towards the player.  A headwind, therefore, is blowing in the same direction the ball is backspinning.  That means that, in addition to the wind pushing on the ball's physical mass, it is also helping to increase the rate of spin. Also remember that since a ball only spins in one direction during flight, any increase in spin rate means an increase in both backspin AND sidespin.  That is precisely why you have seen your shots into headwinds appear as if they are climbing straight up and always coming up well short, or why your usual little baby fade turns into a big old slice when hitting into the wind.


Conversely, a tailwind decreases backspin rate, since the wind is now blowing in the opposite direction of the spin.  As well, the tailwind is pushing on the ball's physical mass in the direction of flight.  Again, since any decrease in spin means a decrease in both backspin and sidespin, downwind shots tend to fly much straighter toward their target, but also tend to tumble out of the air and run once they land rather than stop quickly.


Crosswinds, on the other hand, do not blow in the direction (or the opposite direction, for that matter) of backspin.  Their effects are almost entirely that of pushing the mass of the golf ball to either the left or the right.  But since a ball--even one curving to one direction or another--has far more forward momentum than it has sideways momentum, a crosswind can have a very drastic effect on the ball's direction.


Alright!  So now armed with this information, we can now talk about how to deal with the wind.  Let's go back to headwinds.  Since we know that headwinds increase spin, then we need to set out with the goal of creating less spin to counteract that.  Remember that the more loft, the more we need to find a way to decrease the effective loft at impact.  There are two ways to do this:  1) Use a longer club, or 2) close the face and hit a draw or hook.  You may find that you need to do both when the wind is really howling!  This will hopefully keep your trajectory down and guard against ballooning, so that you can get your ball to the target.  Especially in a headwind, it is important to keep your trajectory low, because the wind blows even stronger up high than it does on the ground!


In a tailwind, unless you're looking for a big drive on a long par 4 or 5, you're going to want to counteract the loss of spin...because the ball's tendency to hit the ground running can often cause you to run through the green rather than stop on it.  So you need to increase the spin, and that generally means you need a little more loft.  Again, there are two ways to accomplish this: 1) Use a shorter club, or 2) open the face and hit a fade or slice.  This should help throw the ball up higher in the air, mitigating the ball's tendency to tumble forward on its way down, so you can stop it on your target easier.


Now how about crosswinds?  Well, when the wind is only blowing slightly, I usually pay it little mind.  But if it is a strong crosswind, one that will affect the ball's flight, there are some things you can and should do.  There are two schools of thought about crosswinds.  Some people advocate letting the ball ride the wind, while others like to hit the "opposite shot" into the wind to hold the ball against the wind and keep it straight.  I tend to side with the latter.  If the wind is blowing to the left, I'll hit a shot that curves to the right, and vice versa.  The idea is that the ball's curvature and the wind's direction will cancel each other out, hopefully keeping the ball straight.


No matter which way you choose to play crosswinds, however, I strongly advocate keeping the ball low.  Don't throw it way up into the air where the wind is stronger.  Not only will the wind be blowing harder up there, but also the ball will have to fall farther, so the wind has more time to push it around!  It turns into a crapshoot at that point as to whether or not the ball will land on target.  It's why Jackie Burke says "low beats high in almost any game."


Hopefully you live in a place where you don't have to deal with the wind very often...but if you do, be smart about your club selection and shot shape, and you'll have a much easier time dealing with it!


Until next time, keep golfing your ball!

-Tim G.