How to Practice and Play Golf in the Wind
by Bradley Turner Keiser University College of Golf Director of Online Golf Instruction – MBA, PGA
For most golfers, playing in a strong wind can become a frustrating day on the links. In this article, you will learn about the fundamental influence of the wind on a golf shot and implement strategies to mitigate the wind’s effect on the ball. In addition, you will understand how to practice on those windy days and turn a challenging blustery day into an opportunity to climb your local leaderboard or at least impress your playing partners with your ball control skills. Let us begin with a basic understanding of wind.
The Nature of Wind
According to the National Geographic Society, “wind is the movement of air, caused by the uneven heating of the Earth by the sun and the Earth’s own rotation.”
Most of us can remember back in high school science class that warm air rises. Any golfer playing by an ocean-side course will experience this very phenomenon. This happens when the sun begins to heat up the land and the associated air over the land. As the warm air over the land rises, the cooler air sitting over the ocean begins to rush in to replace the rising warm air. And so, the golfer experiences the “ocean breeze” when the wind comes in off the ocean.
Wind does not blow at a constant speed. It is not like turning on a fan, but more like the waves of the ocean. Because the wind does not blow at a consistent speed, it can make shot selection very challenging for golfers. We have all heard golfers say, “I caught a gust of wind” when their ball ends up short of the green. Golfers can also claim “the wind died down on my shot” as the ball lands over the green. Both scenarios are true and illustrate the uncertainty and influence of wind in playing the game.
At What Wind Speed is Golf Unplayable?
The wind speed chart created by the PGA tour will not answer this question. Golf becomes unplayable when the ball begins to move from a stationary position on the putting surface. There are two key variables combined with the wind speed that will make golf unplayable. The first variable is the speed of the putting greens. In major championship conditions, the green height is lowered to increase the challenge for the world’s best players. The faster the greens are rolling; the more likely strong wind can move a ball from a stationary spot on the green.
The second variable is the overall contour of the green complexes. Some golf courses can handle higher green speeds as the contour is very subtle. Play was suspended due to high winds in the 144th Open Championship on the Old Course at St. Andrews.
The green complexes on the Old Course are outrageous with the severity of some of the slopes. Sustained winds of 30 mph with gusts cresting 40 mph made the golf course unplayable because the ball would be blown right off the green.
Does wind affect putting? Absolutely! Many of the world’s best players have a lot of experience playing in high wind conditions. According to these players, the biggest problem in performing in these conditions is the difficulty in putting. These players are competing on challenging golf courses under championship conditions. A putt can be blown very easily off its journey to the cup. This makes for an anxiety inducing day on the golf course. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of amateur golfers will not be faced with major championship course conditions. From tee to green the wind can be a ferocious barrier to good scoring, but the course can still be playable, as long as the green speed is slower.
Understanding Spin and Spin Loft
The most important concept to understand in playing strong wind is the effect of ball spin on the golf ball’s flight.
Spin is measured in revolutions per minute or RPM’s. A driver spin rate is around 2500 rpms, and a pitching wedge will have up to 9500 rpms. The ideal ball spin rate is not the same for all golfers primarily because of the variability in three important factors. These three factors directly influence the spin of the ball.
Dynamic Loft – This is a relatively simple idea to understand. Let’s assume that you have a 9 iron with 42 degrees of loft. This is called the static loft of the club, the loft the manufacturer set in building the club. The best ball strikers deloft the club by leaning the shaft approximately 8 degrees resulting in the dynamic loft of 34 degrees at impact, and the lower the dynamic loft, the less spin on a golf shot.
Angle of Attack – This is the degree of descent or ascent of the club through the impact zone. When a player strikes the ball on a descending angle, this will begin to increase the spin of the golf ball.
Spin Loft is the difference between dynamic loft and the angle of attack. If you strike down -5 degrees, then the spin loft increases (34 minus -5) = 39 degrees of spin loft. If you ascend by 2 degrees, then the spin loft is reduced (34 minus 2) = 32 degrees. The more spin loft, the more the ball spins!
Ball Speed – The faster the clubhead speed, the more potential ball speed. With higher ball speed, you will also see an increase in ball spin. When golfers see Phil Mickelson spin his wedges when landing on the green, many of them want to do that! But for that to happen, a golfer will need to swing the driver at about 118 mph like Phil Mickelson! Any golfer that has high clubhead speed has the potential to put a massive amount of spin on a golf ball.
Here is a summary. The more lofted club you use, the more you hit down
15 mph – At this wind speed, the flag is at full attention and flapping vigorously in the wind. For those experienced in the wind, this is commonly referred to as a two-club wind. The average golfer will have a 10-yard gap between irons. Players with less clubhead speed will have a variance of only seven to eight yards. PGA Tour players can have a larger gap of closer to 12 yards. As wind speed increases to 20 mph, players may need to adjust to a three-club wind! Most golfers just don’t know how powerful the wind can be! In addition, putts will be affected by the wind, especially with high green speeds. This can be a fun and challenging day for those that understand how to play in the wind.
25+ mph – This is when golf can become extremely challenging since the wind will influence every golf shot. The most difficult is putting, and since we know the wind is more like the waves of the ocean, you will never know when the wind will blow your golf ball off the intended line. The good news is that the wind can blow a poor putt right back into the hole! Needless to say, at this type of wind speed, the game is more survival than testing your golf skills.
Playing in the Wind
With a clear understanding of spin loft, a golfer has a realistic chance of turning a stiff wind into a scoring ally! Yes, the wind can be your friend if you implement the following strategies on the golf course.
There are four general wind directions that influence the play on the golf course. Playing downwind, against the wind, and the two crosswinds (left to right wind and right to left). Of course, there are quartering winds such as “in from the right,” but to really understand golf performance in strong wind conditions, we will focus on the four general wind patterns.
Downwind – Everyone enjoys playing a hole that is straight downwind. There are a few really good reasons why it is to your advantage as a golfer. First, the ball will travel a greater distance. That is simple. But also, the ball will fly a bit straighter too. Assuming a player strikes a shot with a 15-yard slice, the wind will want to push the ball straight down the fairway. The ball will still slice offline, but it will only end up a few yards less offline than the normal 15 yards. This should give a player confidence standing on the tee that, all things being equal, the tee shot should go farther and straighter than normal. Downwind is definitely an ally!
Playing downwind is great, but there can also be some unwanted challenges too. Specifically when the hole location is close to the front of the green or when the green conditions get firm and fast. In these scenarios, it is important to put as much spin on the ball as possible to help the ball stop. As we found out earlier, the air and ball resistance are less playing downwind, resulting in a ball that will want to land and roll out. To play to a front hole location, it is best to take the most loft club possible and swing hard to maximize spin. This shot must be executed perfectly to get the ball close to the hole. My suggestion is to be smart and play to the middle of the green and avoid making a big mistake.
Cross Wind – When I was in college at Bowling Green State University, we played in some powerful winds in the spring tournament season. It seemed as if the Windy City of Chicago sent the wind straight across Indiana and into northeastern Ohio. Tom Watson was the best player in the world at the time and had already won five British Open championships. He was considered to be a great wind player, so it made sense to try and implement Watson’s ideas of playing in the wind. For example, with a right to left wind, Watson would try and play a fade shot to mitigate the effect of the wind. On a left to right wind, he would play a draw shot. He essentially eliminated excessive curvature of the golf ball, a great skill to have if you are competing in the Open Championship. When I tried to implement this into my own game, I found out something very important. I wasn’t Tom Watson.
I concluded that the best players in the world could successfully execute golf shots like Tom Watson, but the average golfer does not. I felt I was always fighting against the winds of Mother Nature, and it was mentally fatiguing over a breezy round of golf. I thought that maybe I should stop fighting against her. What if I didn’t fight the wind but made friends with Mother Nature by playing with the wind, not against it? I started to play shots that matched the wind direction. If the wind was blowing right to left, I would ride the wind with a draw shot (for a right-handed player). This change in imagery made a big difference in my confidence and the execution of a golf shot.
By changing to playing with the wind, two things are certain when playing in a crosswind.
First, the wind wants to push the ball a certain direction, and I was going to make the ball go that same direction. The moral of this story, do not fight Mother Nature!
A crosswind became my ally as I began to eliminate the dreaded double cross in golf. A double cross is when a player tries to hit a left to right golf shot but hits it right to left instead. This almost always leads to big numbers on the scorecard. Imagine going out to play, knowing that you have eliminated a double cross golf shot! Your only task would be to control the amount of curve, not the direction of curve. This is exactly why I prefer to play on days when there is a moderate amount of wind. Downwind, I hit it longer and straighter. With the crosswinds, I know which direction the ball is going to curve. The same will happen with you when you know the direction the ball is going to curve.
For example, you are playing a 7-iron shot to a left-hand hole location. The wind is strong and coming from right to left. This is a “green flag” location, meaning that the wind is helping you to move the ball closer to the hole. My suggested strategy is to play a curving right to left shot to the left-hand hole location. There are two benefits to this, even if you make a mistake on the amount of curve. First, if you curve it too much and short side yourself, the benefit is that your next shot is against the wind. Many times, a short-sided shot requires a high lofted shot to minimize the roll of the ball once it lands on the green. The wind will aid you in stopping the ball. Once again, the wind becomes your friend. Second, if you do not get enough curve the ball may miss the green to the right, but that leaves you plenty of green to work with in getting up and down.
If the hole location is on the right side of the green with the same strong wind from right to left, you simply make sure to NEVER miss to the right of the flagstick. Aim at the flag and let the ball curve right to left. This is a “red flag” location, meaning do not try and get the ball close to the hole. Tom Watson might be able to do it, but most of us do not have that skill level!
Therefore, I have three of the four winds as allies. This will lift your confidence and help you to score better! Now for the last wind, playing against the wind.
Against the Wind
There is no way around it. Playing against the wind is the enemy. Here is a simple question to set the tone for playing against the wind. How many times have you seen someone hit the ball over the green when playing against a strong wind? How many times do golfers end up short of the green? The answers are almost always the same regardless of how many golfers you ask, never and always. And the main reason golfers never hit it over the green and always come up short is that they do not use the best club for the job.
Traditional wisdom in playing against the wind was to play the ball back in the stance and hit the ball hard. This would hopefully keep the ball at a lower trajectory and lessen the influence of the wind. Unfortunately, that tactic increases the angle of attack that the club is moving at impact and increases the spin loft of the golf shot. The net effect of higher club head speed and an increased angle of attack is more ball spin. And with more ball spin, we increase the lift of the ball resulting in the ball ballooning into a strong wind.
The phrase “swing easy when it is breezy” is old wisdom, but good wisdom too! We all can take Tom Watson’s advice when playing against the wind when he says, “don’t change the ball position, just take more club and swing the same.”
Too many golfers attempt to overpower the ball when hitting into the wind resulting in inconsistent contact (which will leave the ball short of the green) or increased ball spin (which results in a ball ballooning up into the wind and falling short of the green). The way to tame this wind is with increased firepower.
Club selection is the key to beating this foe, and with more firepower comes the need to swing easier. It is amazing how different the mind is when you have plenty of club in your hand when hitting against the wind. Most golfers have never hit the ball over the green when hitting against a strong wind. I am pretty certain it will take you a few extra clubs to get the ball to end up over the green. Once you have experienced that, you will never go back to playing the ball back in your stance, hitting down on it to keep it low and hitting it with maximum effort. Those days will be over!
Practice Strategies for Taming the Wind
The only way to become educated in playing in windy conditions is to spend some time hitting golf shots in those conditions. The next time you are faced with a blustery day, find some time, and head to the practice range, and hit plenty of shots in the wind. The following is a ball striking practice plan that Tom Watson would be proud of:
Downwind – Most practice facilities only have one end of the range to hit from. Some have a practice area at the back of the range, which is great. But if you go to the range and find that you are practicing downwind, don’t practice in this wind; go play. We already know you are going to hit it farther and straighter. Practice should be appropriately challenging, not easy.
Crosswind – When you are at the range with a crosswind, you can play one of my favorite skill development games. If the wind is blowing from left to right, find a flag or target on the range, and imagine this flag as a “green flag.” The hole location in this scenario is on the right side of the green. Your task is to hit as many shots left to right that land left of the green flag. Do not allow the ball to land to the right of the flag, which is a short-sided situation. How many consecutive shots can you strike that stay to the left of the flag?
Next, imagine that same flag on the left side of the green. This is a “red flag” with a left to right wind. How many consecutive shots can you strike that land to the right of the flag? Remember, you are practicing with the help of Mother Nature to move your ball in the direction the wind is blowing. Never miss to the left of the “red flag” in this situation.
Against the Wind – Have some fun the next time you are practicing against the wind by taking three or four more clubs than you ever imagined. If you have a target on the range at 100 yards and the wind is blowing a good 10 mph, take your “normal” club selection and hit some shots. Take note of the landing point and the trajectory of flight. Then take the next club in your bag. Keep going until you are hitting a 5 iron to a 100-yard target. For most of you, a 5 iron to a 100-yard target is too much. But watch the ball flight trajectory and landing point. You might be pleasantly surprised by your findings!
With a better understanding of the effect of wind on the flight of a golf ball, you will be better prepared the next time the wind wants to play havoc on your golf game. Remember, the wind is your friend. Three of the four general winds are there to help you play better. The last wind can be beaten by using enough club. I hope you look forward to the next windy day on the links and implement these strategies to make the day a fun and enjoyable experience.
If you’d like to study with Bradley Turner and other PGA Master Professionals, contact the College of Golf today.