The driver is the most difficult club to hit for most amateur golfers. To compound the difficulty there is much confusion about what is the optimal swing and launch conditions for your driver. The short answer is that it depends on how fast you swing your driver.
Before I begin I would like to note that for this discussion “optimal” refers to wind free conditions with normal fairway hardness.
If you play golf in an area that has high winds then you will want to adjust these optimums downward to maximize roll and conversely if you play in an area with soft fairways and less wind then you will want to adjust the optimums higher to maximize carry over total distance.
The Pre Launch Monitor Balata Era
Ball flight optimization has historically been driven by the Tour and the flight characteristics that the best players in the world impart on the golf ball. In the pre launch monitor, balata age the optimal ball flight was a ball that went out low off of a driver, boring through the air, rising at the end of its flight to a peak trajectory before landing softly. While this shot looked impressive it was actually very inefficient as the rise at the end represented excess spin causing the ball to travel upwards instead of downrange. This was also a function of the balata golf ball that had exceptional short game spin but less then optimal distance off of the driver.
The Launch Monitor ProV1 Era
Launch monitors and widespread popularity of the ProV1 golf ball dramatically changed the Tour players approach to striking a ball with a driver. Gone was the low launch, 8-9 degrees, and high spin, 3000-3500. In its place Tour players started launching the ball higher, 11-12 degrees, and spinning it lower, 2500-2800. This new ball flight that is more parabolic in flight replaced the low launch late riser shot of the earlier era.
This became easier for instructors to teach to with the introduction of commercial launch monitors that provided immediate feedback to the player on launch and spin. Suddenly a player who was playing a Titleist Tour Balata with the low launch high spin could switch to a ProV1 with a higher launching lower spinning shot, and with the same club head speed gain up to 25 yards in distance.
Launch monitors also allowed players to adjust their swings and equipment to reach a higher launch with a lower spin. This trend has continued to this day with some players in the 17-18 degree launch range with around 2000 rpm of spin.
TaylorMade Golf released data in 2013 claiming that the optimal launch spin characteristics were 17 degrees launch with 1700 rpm spin. While this is theoretically true to achieve it is much more difficult.
What does this mean for the average player?
The average player can look to the Tour for general guidance, high launch low spin, but optimal conditions vary based upon a players club head speed. The average club head speed on the PGA Tour is 113 mph. The average amateur swings at about 95 mph.
To maximize distance at 95 mph a player should attempt to achieve a launch angle between 13-14 degrees and a spin rate of about 2500 rpm. Note a lower spin rate will provide slightly more distance but if the spin rate drops below 1800 rpm the ball will start to drop out of the sky affecting carry and total distance.
If a player is below 95 mph more launch is recommended. Below 85 mph it is recommended to look to a lofted club such as a 3 or 5 wood to get increased launch. Slower swinging players will not generate excessive spin due to their lower club head speed so a higher the launch 15-17 degrees is considered optimal. If the amateur player is swinging above 95 mph they can lower their launch down to about 12-13 degrees. It is important for players swinging faster then average to monitor their spin. If their spin rate exceeds 2800 rpm they will start to see a drop off in distance due to excessive spin.
How does the average player achieve this?
The best way for an average player to maximize their ball flight is to hit balls with a launch monitor and determine what their current ball flight is and how it compares to the numbers listed above (note; try to use better golf balls as opposed to range balls that generally have excessive spin). It is also recommended to work with a trained PGA Professional to help you interpret these numbers.
If you do not have access to a launch monitor or a PGA Professional here are a couple of tips that you can try. Remember that the optimal ball flight is parabolic. What this means is that the ball should come off the driver with the same angle at the beginning and ending of the ball flight.
If the ball comes out low or medium and rises or “balloons” at its peak this is an indication of too much spin, which will limit distance. In order to compensate for this try hitting the ball higher on the club face or move the ball slightly forward in the stance.
If the ball comes out at a medium or low ball flight and appears to “drop” out of the sky this is an indication of not enough spin. Try testing with a higher lofted club to increase your launch angle and help maximize your distance.
As with any swing change try this on the range until you are comfortable with your new ball flight. Don’t try it out on the course.