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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Working the Ball with the "New Ball Flight Laws"

A lot of you are going to read this post and say, "My gosh, Mike -- why didn't you just say this in the first place?" But most teachers aren't going to be as clear as I'll be in this post, so you'll have to reason out what they mean... and that means you needed all that theory.

Today, we joyfully shout "Screw theory!" and simply learn how these "new ball flight laws" can save us a few shots on the course. (With pictures!) And just so you know, they do it in one of two ways:
  • They help us avoid getting in trouble in the first place.
  • If we do get in trouble, they help us get out of it in fewer shots.
Personally, for all the talk about how these new rules are such a drastic change... I don't see it. There are some important changes but, when you state them simply, it's just a "duh!" moment where you wonder why it wasn't taught this way in the first place.

Let's look at a simple situation where the new rules make a big difference in how you play the shot. We've just mis-hit a shot into the woods. We found the ball, but there's a big tree right between us and the hole. We've all been taught to set up with the face of the club aimed at the hole (and therefore at the tree) and swing on a line around the tree. Here's a diagram showing what happens according to both sets of rules:

How the rules differ

Two very different outcomes, aren't they? And I suspect most of us have experienced the "new" version's result more often than the "traditional" version's. So why did the traditional view survive unchallenged for so long?

Well, I can think of at least three common examples of the situation that would make it look as if the traditional view was correct:
  • If the tree was fairly thin and your club path was wide enough -- and let's face it, you'd probably aim to be sure you missed the tree if you had room -- the ball path would still miss the tree.
  • If the tree was thicker but you were far enough away from it, you might miss the tree.
  • And there's always the possibility that players closed the club face as they swung, since the ball may have been in thick rough. That would change the club face angle, again allowing them to miss the tree.
I imagine these three situations occur quite frequently -- certainly often enough to convince us that the traditional rule was correct. But because we've seen these happen, we've also hit the ball into the tree way more often than we should have.

If you asked a child how to deal with this, what do you think the child would say? The little angel would probably say, "Why don't you just aim around the tree?" and smile at you like you were an idiot. And guess what? That's exactly what the new rules say we should do!

What the new rules tell us to do

Simple, huh? So why are teachers making such a big to-do out with all the talk of "new ball flight laws" and acting like this is a revolution of some kind?

I think it's just shaken their worlds in some profound way -- is it possible they kept hitting trees yet didn't dare question what they'd been taught? -- and now they feel as if they've been freed from prison. If you watched the video I posted a couple of days ago or read this post to which Jonny sent me the link, you've seen Nick Faldo lambasted for repeatedly teaching the incorrect laws. How often do you think Faldo's had to get out from behind a tree? But in the examples shown, he seemed to be far enough back from a thin tree that the traditional method may have worked. Is it possible the pros knew enough to be skeptical of the traditional approach?

To be honest, in all my golf reading, I can't remember anything from a player specifically on how to play around a tree. I have an old copy of Jack Nicklaus' Playing Lessons -- yes, the one done like a comic book -- and I couldn't find a single thing about playing out of trees, although you would think a book aimed at amateurs would include something. The closest I could find was some advice on playing doglegs on page 73. Jack clearly advises playing well clear of the dogleg -- to the left side of the fairway on a dogleg right, for instance -- and calls attempts to cut them close "gambling." I now wonder if this was in part because he didn't trust the traditional approach to playing them enough to pass it on to weekend golfers.

I suspect all of us grasp this to some extent. Ironically, Jonny had posed this question because of the Understanding Your Shot Shape post I did, but in the following day's post I applied the new laws to describe those same shapes... not because I knew they were the new rules or contradicted the traditional rules, but just because it made sense. And nobody questioned it, which means either you guys aren't paying attention or it made sense to you also. (I'm going to assume the latter. Since you follow my blog, it's obvious that you're a truly intelligent bunch.) So it certainly appears that the context has a lot to do with which laws we apply -- I applied the traditional laws when explaining a traditional teaching in the first post, but instinctively followed the new laws when presenting new material. You probably do the same thing.

So let's try to get all our Titleists in one box, shall we? Let's find some practical, simple-to-use advice on how to use the "new ball flight laws" to cut strokes from our game. First, let's make sure we understand what's changed and what hasn't:
  • What hasn't changed is what a shot is and how it's shaped. A shot starts on a certain line -- we'll call it the starting path -- and then curves to one side or the other unless it's a straight shot. We call this a "shot shape" and it's determined by two things --  the swing path and the face angle, which can be open, square, or closed relative to the swing path. All of that stays the same.
  • What has changed? Only one thing: We used to think the swing path had the most influence on the starting path, but research has proven that isn't true. The face angle has the most affect on the starting path, which means the starting path is closer to where the face angle is pointing than where the swing path is headed. That's it -- that's the change.
What makes this single change so complicated is that it also changes our entire frame of reference for thinking and talking about the swing. We used to think about aim in terms of the swing path; now we have to think in terms of the face angle. More fundamentally, we used to think the face angle caused most of the curve, but now we give that job to the swing path. (Most teachers won't say that upfront, but it's implied in all the discussions.) It turns our whole way of thinking on its head... although the practical applications are very simple.

The new rule can be simplified as one simple rule of thumb:
"Aim the face of the club in the direction you want the ball to start flying. Adjust your swing path to make the ball curve -- aim right to curve left, aim straight to fly straight, aim left to curve right. The ball will start out between where the face is pointed and where the swing path is headed... but it will be closer to where the face is pointed."
Just aim the club face where you want the ball to start, not where you want it to end up. The irony is that, properly taught, the traditional view should have given the same results. The traditional view says the ball will land on the line where the club face is aimed at impact... then bounce across it. To get the ball close, you should have aimed the way the new laws say you should, anyway!

When the ball lands on the target line

So here's how to use the new rules on the course:
  • If there's nothing between you and your target: Aim and play as usual. You might want to aim the club face a little to one side and use the swing path to give the shot a little curve. Remember: If you curve the shot, you need to leave room for the shot to bounce toward the target.
  • If there's something in your way (like a tree): Aim the club face to miss the tree, and aim your club path enough left or right to add some curve. You should miss the tree. (Hooray!)
  • Curving around a dogleg: Unless you're going over the trees or whatever is in the way, make sure the club face is aimed in the fairway. Then aim your club path to give the shot some curve. As long as you take enough club, you should go around the dogleg without any problems.
And that's all there is to it. It's complicated theory, but simple application. And now you not only know how to use it on the course, but you should be able to figure out which theory a teacher is using by how they describe things. As long as you remember that the ball starts out between the swing path and the club face -- but closer to the club face -- you should be able to figure out how almost any shot will actually start off and curve.


  1. Wow. I have a lot of catching up to do. I was having problems with my computer and finally had it fixed. Haven't been able to visit in a while. New Ball Flight Laws? Have the laws of physics been changed:-D I'll be talking to you after I get all caught up.

  2. Ok - so your first diagram will have everybody turning their back on these new "laws". Too many of us already know what happens when we richochet a ball off of a tree. :-D

    (no - I haven't read it yet - just thought the picture was funny - panel #1 sweeps around the tree - panel #2 hits the tree and bounces left of the first glance)

    Been really busy the last two days, so I'll be digging into the last two days.

  3. Leave it to you, Court! ;-) Of course, the first diagram shows the difference between what the traditional and new rules say will happen when you aim straight at the tree and expect to get around it.

    Fortunately, that's explained in the writing above the diagram. But I'm glad I brightened your day anyhow. ;-D

  4. Thanks Mike for this series of posts. I knew you would be the right guy to process and convey this information so that a weekend golfer like myself can digest it. I apologise that it has rocked a few worlds along the way but it's all for the greater good. Looking forward to March when I can use this knowledge to start moving the ball and my handicap in the right direction.

  5. Thanks for the kind words, Jonny. And there's no need to apologize -- I suspect this will become common knowledge over time. I also suspect most people will just read this post -- with the practical guidance on how to make the shots -- and ignore the rest, but at least now it's all out there for folks who want to understand the why behind it.

    Enjoy shooting around them trees! ;-)

  6. I managed to put the theory into practice for the first time last week and all I can say is that it works. Ball required hooking around and over the woodwork. Set up with the clubface closed but aimed to right of the tree and hey presto, ball flew around the tree towards target. Now if I could just apply the theory to stop getting into the trees in the first place...

  7. Glad it worked, Jonny. About that other problem... I've got one word for you:


    Just sneak onto the course the night before you play. ;-)