U.S. Open

Pinehurst Resort & Country Club (Course No. 2)

Ball flight formula

This formula predicted the top 3 at last year's British Open—here's who it likes this year


Ross Kinnaird

Last year, I fell down a deep golf rabbit hole about ball flights. The different shapes of ball flights. The different heights. The different speeds, and how all those things come together. What do those things reveal about how players, well, play golf? And could it even predict who would play well at the Open Championship, where navigating the wind is the crucial element?

So last year, ahead of the 150th Open Championship, I tried it—and some interesting details emerged.

Turns out, the 11 most preceding Open winners for which data was available averaged…

  • A higher than tour average launch angle (angle the ball flies into the air)
  • A lower than tour average spin rate (how much backspin the ball has)
  • An average apex no lower than two feet below tour average (the highest point of the shot)

Basically, I was looking for players who launched the ball high into the air, but without using a lot of spin.

We break down the reasons why this makes sense in the video below, but in a nutshell:

  • Sending the ball high into the air helps players get ultra-aggressive downwind
  • Hitting the ball with low spin prevents the ball from ballooning uncontrollably into wind
  • High ball hitters can choose to hit the ball low with a shot like a stinger, whereas low ball hitters can't really choose to hit the ball high (because that usually requires adding swing speed that they don't have).
  • The same applies to spin. It's easier to add spin than to take it away.

Anyway, using these parameters, the formula spat out 20 names, including four of the top five finishers and eventual winner Cam Smith.

Not bad!

So, let's take another crack this year, using the same formula. Here's who the model likes, with top 25 players in the OWGR in bold...

Players in the field within above average launch, below average spin, and a no-lower-than-average apex.

  • Billy Horschel
  • Ben An
  • Cameron Young
  • Chris Kirk
  • Collin Morikawa
  • Danny Willett
  • Davis Riley
  • Emiliano Grillo
  • J.T. Poston
  • Jason Day
  • Matt Wallace
  • Michael Kim
  • Rory McIlroy
  • Scott Stallings
  • Stewart Cink
  • Tom Kim
  • Tyrrell Hatton
  • Zach Johnson
  • Sahith Theegala
  • Scottie Scheffler

Frustratingly, data like this for LIV players isn't available, but based on previous years' data, two more top players fit this profile.

  • Cameron Smith
  • Dustin Johnson

Take all of this with a grain of salt, because the data isn't perfect, and yes, it is a sizable 21 names in total. But nevertheless, it is worth noting that this method predicted six of the top 10 players at the Scottish Open last week, including eventual winner Rory McIlroy.

An early indicator, perhaps, that we may have landed on something special with this simple formula? We’ll find out in about a week.

Is it the British Open or the Open Championship? Is it the British Open or the Open Championship? The name of the final men’s major of the golf season is a subject of continued discussion. The event’s official name, as explained in this op-ed by former R&A chairman Ian Pattinson, is the Open Championship. But since many United States golf fans continue to refer to it as the British Open, and search news around the event accordingly, Golf Digest continues to utilize both names in its coverage.