One of the great mysteries of links golf—aside from why there isn’t more of it in golf’s competitive landscape—is the inherent inscrutability of the wind. Golf on linksland has many distinct challenges from firm conditions that emphasize ball control over power, to bunkers that have nicknames like “Coffin” and “Hell” for what amounts to almost factual reasons. But given its completely exposed conditions, its greatest defense—and greatest riddle—is the wind. While golf has come to rely on almost poetic instructional concepts like the “knockdown” shot, “two-club wind” or “swing with ease against a breeze,” calculating the exact effect on distance and direction requires a special kind of mental abacus.
Which is what we've arrived at here:
What our new interactive tool showcases is that as much as there will always be an intangible element in properly navigating the wind at an Open Championship and elsewhere, the truth is there’s hard science, too.
Our research into ball flight simulation technology suggests the wind’s power can be its own kind of New Math. So it will be with the British Open’s return to the exposed linkland of Royal Portrush. Perched on the edge of Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast, Royal Portrush could be an especially breezy conundrum. Although July is generally the calmest of months in Northern Ireland, the average wind speed during the Open week for Portrush is projected to be around 13 miles per hour. Still, it is not entirely unusual for sustained winds to reach nearly 30 miles per hour. (Fortunately, the Open Championship isn’t contested between October and March when winds are about 25 percent faster and daily extreme gusts have reached above 60 miles per hour. In fact, a record was set last September when wind speeds reached 91 miles per hour. It’s also worth noting that according to the Northern Ireland Department of the Economy, Northern Ireland is regarded as having one of the greatest wind energy resources in Europe.)
While all that blow can play tricks on the sharpest of minds, rather than guessing what a 30 mile-per-hour wind might do to a wedge shot, we’ve worked multiple simulations to come up with some real estimates of just how much the wind can alter the average tour player’s game. Short answer from our calculations: A lot more than you think. Depending on the direction, it can add 50 yards to a tour player’s drive, but when turned around it can subtract more than that from his wedge.
Our numbers start with the average tour player launch conditions as calculated by Trackman. We then input those launch conditions into Foresight Sports GCQ Simulator tool, which predicts the baseline distance numbers in calm conditions on a firm Open-like track, but also what every change in wind speed and direction would do to that same shot. We took four common scenarios (driver off the tee, and 4-iron, 7-iron and pitching wedge approach shots). Here are some general takeaways:
1. Shots hit into the wind are penalized more (and sometimes much more) than shots hit downwind with the same breeze are rewarded. Example: A tour-level 7-iron in calm conditions carries 166 yards. With a 10 mile-per-hour tailwind, those same launch conditions yield 13 yards more carry, but with a 10 mile-per-hour headwind that shot falls 17 yards shorter. Our calculations showed that as wind speed increases the negative effect of headwinds can be almost 50 percent more than the tailwind’s potential positive effect. (At 30 miles per hour the 7-iron shot would gain 25 yards but lose 64. Ouch.)
2. Shots hit with clubs that have more loft are affected more than shots hit with clubs that have less loft. In terms of percentage effect, 7-iron and pitching wedge distances were impacted (negatively) by as much as 30-48 percent. By contrast, drivers and 4-irons only saw negative effects in the 20-percent range when wind speeds got to 30 miles per hour. (That’s why at 20 miles per hour, a 4-iron into the wind is going to carry about the same distance as a 7-iron in calm conditions.)
3. The infamous “Stinger” tee shot only is going to be as valuable as a standard driver if you have significant clubhead speed, very firm fairways and, of course, the tremendous skill to hit a long-iron solid. You would have to hit a low-lofted iron at both a very low launch angle (two or more degrees lower than an ideal driver launch angle) and with plenty of ball speed (close to that produced by a 3-wood) to get the shot to roll out with useful driver-like distance. Using the Foresight Sports GCQ simulation software, with a 25 mile-per-hour headwind, driver tee shots only finished seven yards farther than a “stinger” long iron shot. The iron shots flew 15 yards lower, meaning they were less exposed to the effect of the wind. In addition, that low trajectory led to a flatter landing angle (the angle formed by the ball’s trajectory compared to the baseline of the ground). That led to twice as much roll on firm fairways for the iron shot. On the tarmac-like fairways often found on an Open Championship links that same shot could produce 40-50 yards of roll and close to 280 or even 300 yards of total distance.
The benefits of downwind shots start to diminish as wind speed increases. While the negative effect of shots into the wind quadruples as wind speeds go from 10 miles per hour to 30 miles per hour, the positive effect on carry distance for 4-iron, 7-iron and pitching wedge shots hit downwind barely doubles.
Of course, what the best players do is not merely take more club in strong wind conditions. In many cases, they are hitting the ball with different launch conditions that either maximize the advantage of down-breeze conditions or mitigate the damage of into the wind conditions. For example, launching the ball higher by a degree could produce five more yards with the driver with the wind helping. Meanwhile, a 7-iron hit into the wind would carry five percent farther than normal if it were launched a couple degrees lower than standard.
In many cases, though, the best plan isn’t to simply hit your 7-iron or wedge lower, but to hit two or even three clubs more than normal to better let the lower trajectory combined with increased ball speed yield the yardage that you need. The downside of that calculus of course is the lower you hit that shot the flatter it lands, leading to balls that bound forward when they land much more than they come to a gentle stop.
But getting your math right is only half the battle in beating the wind. The rest is will and resilience. As Golf Digest top teacher Butch Harmon says, “The players who get it done in the wind are the ones who don't try to fight it.”