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Is golf’s greatest equipment myth true? An investigation into foreign substances and driving distance

July 22, 2021

Foreign substances are outlawed by the Rules of Golf but they are also outlaws, their criminality so prodigious and versed and begrudgingly respected it has become folklore. No matter what form the weapon takes—cooking spray, lip balm, moisturizer—legend has it a little lubricant on a club face makes a ball go a long, long way. Its use is common practice in high-stakes games in Las Vegas, and the mini-circuits are littered with (likely apocryphal) stories of guys wiping down drivers with greased-down towels. That golf is a sport that beats its chest about honor and integrity only adds to the mythos.

Of course “mythos” is a Greek word to signify a fable or invented story that has nothing to do with reality. Tales of 20-yard distance increases seemed to be just that. Besides, golf doesn’t kid around with that integrity ethos; players are stigmatized for life at the mere whisper of impropriety. So for most golfers, the foreign substance talk remained, well, talk.

However, Major League Baseball finds itself mired in a foreign-substance scandal involving pitchers’ spin rates, with statistics illustrating a clear delineation before and after policing. Which begs the question: Is golf’s greatest myth not fiction, but fact? We set out to find an answer.

• • •

Our experiment is, in fact, illegal. According to the Rules of Golf:

Deliberately Changing Club’s Performance Characteristics During Round. A player must not make a stroke with a club whose performance characteristics he or she deliberately changed during the round (including while play is stopped under Rule 5.7a): • By using an adjustable feature or physically changing the club (except when allowed to repair damage under Rule 4.1a(2)), or • By applying any substance to the clubhead (other than in cleaning it) to affect how it performs in making a stroke.

How foreign substances change performance is relatively straightforward. The lubricants minimize friction at impact and reduce sidespin, keeping the ball from curving too dramatically. The straighter the trajectory, the higher the likelihood of increased distance. There is an upshot, as the backspin can be reduced as well. Depending on a player’s launch characteristics, that could lead to a loss of a distance.

That’s the explanation on the chalkboard, at least. We wanted to see how foreign substances performed on the course.

Joined by Golf Digest equipment editor Mike Johnson, we conducted our test at the 320-yard par-4 fourth at Rock Ridge C.C. in Newtown, Conn. We applied three different substances—cooking spray, lip balm and petroleum jelly—to the face of a driver and swung away, charting five quality hits for each lubricant. Thanks to a launch monitor we were able to capture ball speed, carry distance, backspin and launch angle. As our average baseline numbers:

Joel: 160 mph speed, 274 yards carry, 2834 rpm spin, 14.2 degree launch
Mike: 138 mph speed, 213 yards carry, 3544 rpm spin, 8.5 degree launch

A blue line on the charts highlight where a drive was significantly shorter than average, yellow indicating an increase in distance. Here are the results.

COOKING SPRAY

The astute reader will note we just mentioned charting five swings, yet our first graph shows seven results. In full transparency, we overdid it with the cooking spray. The resulting first drive plummeted out of the air, almost like its engines fell off, and Try No. 2 didn’t go much further before crashing. They were both straight as Colorado border lines, however, splitting the fairway each time. We found the sweet spot in terms of surface viscosity with the fourth shot, carrying almost 300 yards with only two yards of left-to-right curve, and the spin rate remained lower than our baseline creating extra rollout. The final three shots were close to our average carry distance, yet the spin numbers indicate more roll than usual.

Mike saw a similar trend, his first shot falling 30 yards shorter than his average carry. It wasn’t until his fifth swing where he saw a 10-yard bump in distance. Again, however, the spin numbers were much lower than his average, indicating more forward roll when landing. Plus each of Mike’s drives were missiles that never left their target. The man would have done serious damage in a “Closest to the line” contest.

LIP BALM

It’s at this point we want to restate that what we are doing is very, very illegal, and getting caught putting such substances on your driver in a competition or money game will lead to a world of hurt. We say that to say this: Lip balm gets it done.

Mirroring the cooking spray, the first drive fell down like a European soccer player, making it just 238 yards before taking a hard dive. Attempts two through four, though, went so high and long and far that they may have entered the private spaceflight race. Nos. 2 and 4 crossed the 300-yard barrier, and No. 3 wasn’t too far behind at 291. The spin numbers for this group were relatively low, providing decent rollout when they reentered our atmosphere, and the dispersion remained tight. But by the fifth shot, the balm seemed to be counterproductive, and though they’re not charted we tried two extra shots that produced similar carry and spin.

It’s worth noting, though, that Mike—whose speed is closer to the average American golfer—didn’t see quite the same bump in carry distance or spin. In that same breath, each driver continued to be right down the pipe, so he wasn’t complaining.

PETROLEUM JELLY

We mentioned this all constitutes cheating, yes? Good. Because for those hoping to stuff their pockets with lip balm next round, go ahead and gob Vaseline on your forearms while you’re at it.

No initial dud here. The first three drives came out hot, with the second crossing 300 yards of carry with ample roll. If there’s one nitpick, the third, while producing good carry (291 yards) saw an uptick in backspin at 3505 rpm. Similar to lip balm, after a few hits the jelly becomes detrimental, with carries 20 yards shorter than average and higher than average backspin.

Mike’s best drive was also in the beginning, with his subsequent hits not carrying as far and producing more-than-desired backspin. But, and we apologize for sounding like a broken record, they again never moved from their line, producing an astoundingly easy pick-up for us when the experiment was done.

FINDINGS

Our editor originally asked to illustrate the experiment via shot tracer but that would have been futile, because that illustration would have shown 30 drives on top of each other. That is no exaggeration; nearly every darn ball went straight with little curvature. It is impossible to not be accurate.

As for distance, the foreign substances appear to have the most juice around the second or third drive. After that the substance needs to be reapplied. In effectiveness the lip balm was our winner, with the jelly a close second. That goes for ease of use as well. Again, not that we’re advocating cheating, but people might start asking questions if you carry around cooking spray in your bag.

Admittedly we were a little surprised how much help the foreign substances provided. Then again maybe we have seen this coming. After all, an outlaw gets his reputation for a reason.