Any golfer will tell you there’s an addictive rush that comes from absolutely nuking a golf ball into the heavens. Assuming your tee shot doesn’t find the hazard stakes, you feel like a pro with a PGA Tour card for a fleeting moment.
Play at high altitudes and that feeling can persist for 18 holes.
Without getting too far into the weeds, the layman’s reason for why the ball flies further as elevation increases is directly connected to a change in air density, which results in the ball moving more efficiently through the thin air with less lift and drag, resulting in more distance with a lower apex and extra rollout.
The average golfer will never turn away more distance, but when it comes to the best players in the world, teeing it up at courses like Club de Golf Chapultepec, site of this week’s WGC-Mexico Championship — which sits at 7,603 feet above sea level with a peak at 7,835 feet — it pays to have a calculator or TrackMan handy to get a handle on exact yardages.
“I think this is going to be the best week for their branding, for sure, versus any other week,” Justin Thomas said last year of the launch monitor’s value during the tournament week. “You look out on the range, about everyone’s using one just because we’re able to get a lot better idea of the numbers.”
Using the TrackMan’s Normalization function, players can adjust altitude to get a better handle on yardage gaps for every club in the bag. The device takes a lot of the guesswork out of the equation and places more of an emphasis on learning the layout and verifying those yardages match what a player is seeing on the course.
So how does a course sitting at just over 7,600 feet affect distance? Depending on who you ask, the percentages vary from 10-15 percent based on launch angle. According to Ted Scott, Bubba Watson’s caddie, they add 10 percent for Watson’s “low shots,” and closer to 15 percent on the ones that get launched into the stratosphere.
The math seems to match up with a writeup Steven Aoyama, a principal scientist in Titleist’s golf ball R&D department, published a few years ago that stated distance can be calculated by”multiplying the elevation (in feet) by .00116. For example, if you’re playing in Reno, at one mile elevation (5,280 ft.) the increase is about six percent (5,280 x .00116 = 6.1248). If you normally drive the ball 250 yards at sea level, you will likely drive it 265 yards in Reno.”
Using Aoyama’s formula, players will be looking at an increase of nine percent this week, meaning the 7,347-yard layout is essentially a 6,700-yard course at sea level.
Of course, adjusting for yardage isn’t the only way to get a handle on the course’s higher elevation. Some players, Tiger Woods included, will bump up the loft this week on certain metalwoods to increase spin, optimize launch and get the ball back in their normal window.
“I’ve always been pretty good at taking spin off, but I’m trying to get the ball up for this week and trying to hit the ball high,” Woods said. “I knew that that was going to be one of the things I needed to do. And also getting ready if I was going to play Mexico, it was going to be two weeks of trying to get that ball up because obviously it’s at altitude next week and the ball doesn’t spin a lot.”
Because the air is less dense at higher altitudes, hang time takes on greater importance. For players like Woods and Watson, launching the ball higher and/or increasing loft on the club can tack on spin and carry, leading to longer tee shots with an optimized landing angle that negates rollout. The increased carry is one of the reasons why Scott adds closer to 15 percent for Watson’s high-launching shots, which tend to hang in the air for an inordinate amount of time.
A degree in Mathematics isn’t required to play well at higher elevations, but as players maneuver their way around the Mexico City layout, it’s worth understanding the number-crunching and potential equipment tweaks that go into not only club selection but bag setup as well.