How the wind affects your drives, according to science

flagstick blowing in the wind

The wind can wreak havoc on your game, here's why.

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With golf being an outdoor sport, the natural elements come into play every round. Of the many things mother nature can throw at us on the golf course, wind might represent the most difficult challenge. The variability and direction the wind blows can change any golf course and make it play like an entirely different venue.

But why does wind affect your shots the way it does? And, by how much? In short, it all comes down to physics. And while physics isn’t exactly my forte (I got my degree in journalism after all), there are plenty of resources out there that do break down the science behind golf. For the story of how wind affects the golf ball, we turn to Dave Tutelman, a retired engineer who has a website with a trove of information on the physics behind golf.

First, let’s take a look at the data that piqued Tutelman’s curiosity on the subject. The graph was posted by Ping’s director of innovation and testing Erik Henrikson and models how the wind affects his shots at different speeds. The graph shows carry distance as well as dispersion (i.e. how far off line the ball was from the target), and the results are shown below.

Tutelman had a couple observations about the data, as follows.

1. Into the wind hurts more than with the wind helps.

2. Upwind makes a shot go more offline, and downwind actually reduces dispersion.

For both of these points, Tutelman breaks down the physics behind the phenomenon in great detail. If you are interested in the complex science, I recommend checking out the full article, but for our purposes, I’m just going to explain it in simple terms.

As for why upwind hurts your carry distance more than downwind helps, it’s because of the effect of drag. Logically speaking, we would expect the effect of drag to be the same for both hurting and helping wind, but that’s not the case. As Tutelman explains, “aerodynamic forces are proportional to the square of airspeed,” meaning as the speed of wind working against the ball increases, so too does the effect of drag.

Lift is also an important component in this equation.

“The more the wind “helps”, the more the trajectory loses lift,” Tutelman said. “Deprived of a strong lift, the ball wants to fall out of the air and does so before it reaches maximum possible distance.”

As for the greater dispersion into the wind as opposed to with the wind, Tutelman breaks it down in two separate parts: the parallel component and the perpendicular component.

Parallel component:

“Remember that lift isn’t only vertical,” Tutelman said. “If the spin axis is tilted, then lift is creating a slice or hook. Therefore: Into the wind, with the increased wind speed relative to the ball, the hook or slice will increase … With the wind, with the decreased wind speed relative to the ball, the hook or slice will decrease.”

Perpendicular component:

“Wind acts across the path, and thus curves the path of the ball — completely apart from hook or slice, which are caused by spin,” Tutelman said. “Into the wind, the perpendicular component pushes the ball away from the target line. The stronger the wind, the bigger this force, and the wider the dispersion. With the wind, the perpendicular component pushes the ball toward the target line. The stronger the wind, the bigger this force, and the narrower the dispersion.”

This analysis might be more Bryson DeChambeau than Bubba Watson, but the physics of it are fascinating nonetheless. If you’re interested in the nerdiness of golf, Tutelman’s site is a must.

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