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Another take on Langer's high swing speed distance boost

Misinformation is a dangerous thing, and were it not possible that a misinformed opinion would unjustly shape an argument that already is more about heat than light, it would remain comical. Fortunately for all of us, I am not talking about political campaigns.

Instead, I'll stick to something that I at least have spent some time trying to understand: the distance a golf ball travels. Today's discussion centers on the comments Bernhard Langer made regarding his belief that the modern solid-core, non-wound golf ball provides some special advantage for faster swing speed players. Langer is known to be reserved and not prone to hyperbole, vitriol or anything but the most well-reasoned thoughts. But he seems to be falling prey to the idea that selectively anecdotal evidence is an indication of irrefutable scientific fact. 


In a press conference at this week's Toshiba Classic, Langer explains his assessment this way:

"Was it [Keegan] Bradley last week at the 8th hole into the wind at Doral, he had like 251 into the wind, and he hit a 3-wood and flew it over the green. So he flew it 260 into the wind, so he carried it probably 275 or 280, if there had been no wind, with a 3-wood. That's just unheard of. Or used to be. But it's a common thing nowadays.

"I think what happened is when we switched from the balata wound ball to the two- or three-piece balls, whatever they are now, if you swing the club 10 miles faster than the other guy, you used to get about 10 yards for every mile about a yard. Now if you swing it 10 miles faster, you get about 20 to 25. So you get a lot more out of the equipment than we used to.

"So the guys who swing it faster or harder have, you know, even more of an advantage, and that's where these tremendous distances come from."

Good story, high entertainment value for a certain segment, but low on science, however. Here are some facts: A 2006 paper produced by U.S. Golf Association research engineer and Ph.D. Steve Quintavalla, and updated again last year, clearly shows that the benefit of speed on distance actually tends to flatten out as you get toward extreme, tour-level speeds. The ball's coefficient of restitution (COR), or its resiliency when compressed, actually goes down as the swing speed goes up. 

"Tests have proven repeatedly that the energy "boost" at Tour-level speeds is a myth," the USGA's paper reads. "Balls are actually less effective at translating energy into distance at higher swing speeds." 

Indeed, Quintavalla's work shows that the rate of increase in driving distance seems to decrease slightly as you move in 10-mile per hour increments from 90 to 120 mph in swing speed. A player might gain nearly 30 yards in going from 90 to 100 miles per hour, but only gains maybe 25 or so yards when you increase swing speed from 110 mph to 120 mph.

The gain or loss in ballspeed for every one mile per hour of clubhead speed is at best a 1.5 to 1 ratio. If you swing 10 miles per hour faster than me, you gain 15 miles per hour of ballspeed. When I plug in numbers on the GC2 Launch Monitor's shot simulation software, it shows that the distance gain for each mile per hour of swing speed was around three yards in total distance  for all swing speeds from the mid-80s to those higher than 115 miles per hour (the lowest speeds had the highest gain, as a matter of fact, but that's splitting hairs).

One other thought worth examining: Bradley's Cleveland Launcher FL 3-wood (14 degrees) is pretty close to what a driver used to be in length and head size with a clearly more flexible face, so the fact that he's hitting it as far as Langer's old persimmon driver perhaps is not all that alarming. 

Certainly, the question exists whether there is a new boom in distance after last year's 3.6-yard gain in distance and a continuing trend so far this year. But those numbers speak to an overall performance improvement, not a selective benefit to faster swingers. And even the trend in ballspeed alone, as measured on the PGA Tour by Trackman, shows almost no meaningful change over the last several years. Langer, meanwhile, is now averaging 272 yards off the tee playing the Champions Tour, or 28 yards longer than he did when he won the Masters in 1993. 

--Mike Stachura
Follow me on Twitter @MikeStachura
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