Proven by Science: Do colder golf balls lose distance? And does leaving golf clubs in the cold affect their performance?

November 13, 2018
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Matthew Harris / TGPL

With temperatures dipping into the low 40s for much of the country, being properly prepared for the less-than-balmy conditions will leave golfers at least 1 up on the first tee against playing competitors, perhaps more. As golfers in the Northeast and Midwest get ready for their annual Turkey Shoots and Frosty Scrambles—like Golf Digest's annual Seitz Cup tournament that was conducted last week—there are a few things you should know about how to prepare and gain your own advantage.

To begin with, cold air can affect the performance of a golf ball. Cold air is denser than warm air and creates additional drag on a ball. According to Trackman, the difference is approximately one yard of carry for every 10-degree change in temperature. So theoretically, you’re looking at a loss of four yards if you’re playing in 40 degrees as opposed to 80 degrees. Other factors—such as how the body reacts to the cold, and how wearing extra layers likely limits your backswing—can further impact distance. The takeaway: When playing fall golf plan for at least an extra half club, and if your swing is restricted by being fully bundled up, it might even be a full club.

As for trying to keep golf balls warm, don’t bother. For starters, Rule 14-3/13.5 prohibits warming a golf ball during the round. Warming up golf balls is not prohibited, but there is a reason for that—it doesn’t work. Several years ago, Golf Laboratories performed a test that showed you could not get a ball warm enough to have any impact because the ball almost instantly adopts to the outside temperatures.

As for clothing, forget cotton (its breathability that is a bonus in the summer also lets in cold air when cold). Like your mother told you when you were young, it’s all about layering. A turtleneck-like polyester base layer designed to keep out the cold is a must, topped by loose-fitting shirts, pullovers and finally a moisture-wicking shirt or jacket of some kind is preferable. On bottom, typical long pants covered by rain paints will keep the cold at bay while also allowing for easy removal if things heat up. A wool ski cap is preferred over a baseball cap (have to keep those ears warm and since heat escapes from the head, a baseball cap will let more escape. For your hands, winter gloves designed especially for golf or, at worse, rain gloves, will provide a slightly better grip and more warmth.

Finally, don’t leave your clubs in the car. The grips can get cold and get slick or cracked if the temps get too extreme and steel shafts do not react well at all to the cold.

The reason is what is known as the coefficient of thermal expansion. Though it would take a college semester to fully understand this, the bumper-sticker version is that materials expand or contract depending on the temperature, thus affecting their properties. Regarding shafts, graphite should be less affected than steel by cold weather. “It’s why you see more aircraft and space shuttles, etc., using composite materials instead of steel or even titanium. It is less affected by changes in temperature,” one shaftmaker told Golf Digest a few years ago.

And now, armed with all this information, you should be less affected by the cold, too.