Golf IQ

This might be the most important chart in golf. Here's how to understand it

February 22, 2023

Harry How

At the Genesis Open last week, Rory McIlroy hit a shot that was maybe, probably, quite literally perfect.

It came during the second round. After Tiger sent one of his new go-to cuts 385 yards down the fairway, a day after Rory admitted he didn’t like seeing the 47 year-old hit the ball past him, Rory pumped a drive 388 yards down the fairway.

As for what made this shot — outside, of course, for the end result — perfect, was its launch and spin numbers. According to Shotlink, Rory sent this ball into the air with more than 183 ball speed, 13.2 degree launch and less than 2,000 RPMs of spin.

It's those rather wonky numbers make this an almost exactly perfect shot, because it all comes down to a concept called Optimal Launch Conditions. One of the most important things golfers, from the PGA Tour down through the recreational ranks, should know about.

Optimal Launch Conditions, in a nutshell

The name says it all, but basically optimal launch conditions represent the absolute furthest you can possibly hit the ball with your swing, based on physics. The closest your are to your optimal launch conditions, the more you’re reaching your distance potential.

Chris Broadie and Marty Jertson along with the other bright minds over at PING, have poured countless hours putting together what many consider the definitive optimal launch conditions chart, which you can see below.

Broadie explained at the recent World Scientific Congress of Golf event the painstaking process PING took compiling this data, but for the rest of us, calculating your optimal launch conditions come down to measuring three things:

  • The golfer’s angle of attack (AKA, how far up or down they hit on the ball)
  • The golfers swing speed (AKA, how fast they move the club)
  • The temperature and air density

The chart below is below on a day around 70 degrees, Broadie says, and once you factor in all those elements, you’ll be left with an ideal loft and spin number that the driver you’re swinging should produce.

Generally speaking, less spin and higher launch is the formula for longer drives, but there are some important caveats that Broadie explains. Some players naturally produce more spin based on how they swing a club and may need a lower launch because of it. Other golfers, with slower swing speeds, may need more spin to keep their ball hanging in the air.

Put simply, finding your own “optimal launch conditions” are highly dependent on your swing.

“We know that 2,000 spin would probably lead to more distance, but a Lee Westwood or Cameron Champ lives in this high 2,000 zone [based on how they swing],” Broadie explains. “Cameron Champ bombs the ball, but he’s got a negative two angle of attack, he’s 190 ball speed, so after doing this analysis we found he’s actually gravitating towards a spin rate that makes sense for his attack angle.”

On the whole, if you can get pretty close to your Optimal Launch Conditions, you’re doing well. And if you’re still with me and wondering how this relates to the shot Rory hit last weekend, it’s because on that shot, Rory appears to have been within a razor’s edge of his absolute peak of efficiency.

Assuming that Rory hits up on the ball in the range of four-to-five degrees, that’d put Rory with 0.1 degrees and around just 400 RPMs of his perfect optimal launch conditions.

TLDR: Rory basically got everything possible out of that drive, because pros pay a lot of attention to their Optimal Launch Conditions. You should too, so ask your coach about them. Unless, of course, you like leaving distance on the table.