The ability to control your tee shots on windy days is an important skill for all golfers. Playing in Scotland, especially on our seaside courses, it's rare to get a day when the wind isn't a factor. The best players can adjust to either lessen the impact of the wind on their tee shots or to take advantage of the wind where possible.
How do they do this? Here are my suggestions...
(Technical note: I’m going to focus on 3 key variables that create the trajectory you see, these are 1. Launch Angle 2. Backspin 3. Ball Speed. These are influenced by how you apply the driver to the ball, specifically, 1. Angle of Attack: Hitting up, down or level through impact 2. The loft you apply to the ball (dynamic loft) 3. Club head speed 4. Strike location: above, below or on the sweet spot of the driver head.)
Where are you starting from?
What is your “stock” driver ball flight? Are you a natural high-ball or low-ball player? From a medium height, it is easier to adjust either up or down.
Golfers who hit high are going to have a tough time on windy days. That’s especially true for golfers who see their drives climb steeply up then stall in the air, often seeing a pitch mark next to their ball when the fairways are soft – if that sounds familiar then you're creating too much backspin. If that’s your typical drive you’re either not using your driver as it’s designed to be used OR your driver is not suited to your swing OR a combination of the two. Either way, you need to work on flattening out your “stock” driver trajectory.
If, however, your typical driver ball flight starts high but then moves forward and doesn’t climb excessively up, and you see good run out when the ball hits the deck, then you’ve got less to worry about. Your launch angle may be high, but your backspin rate is lower – a better combination. The lower backspin rate keeps the ball moving forward through a wind.
Imagined side-on the ideal driver trajectory has been described as a “rainbow” flight.
For the natural low-ball hitters, driving the ball well on a windy day won’t be so tough. The only thing that hurts a low-ball hitter is that they’re losing out on potential distance – especially on downwind holes. However, between the two, I’d err on being a low-ball hitter every time.
If you are a definite low or high ball player I’d recommend a lesson on your driving. However, read on - the suggestion for changing trajectory, while discussed in the context of playing in the wind, may just be what you need to do to improve your stock drive too.
Thank goodness for modern equipment!
Driving the ball well in the wind is massively easier than it once was. The modern ball, especially, has fundamentally changed how players handle the wind, with the new ball spinning half as much as the balata balls of pre-2000s. Combine that old spinny ball with persimmon drivers and you can appreciate how skilled the great players of old were!
Nowadays, if you’ve a correctly fitted driver and good technique, producing that medium trajectory, “rainbow flight” on your stock drives, then hitting into any wind less than say 20 mph won’t be an issue.
Driving the ball lower – control your spin for a flatter flight
When the wind does start to seriously blow into us, how do we adjust our flight?
We can 1. Lower the launch angle 2. Lower backspin 3. Reduce speed. All, on their own or done together, will lower the height of your drive. Into a strong wind I would use a combination of them all, but the most important element is keeping backspin low.
To do that we want to apply a little less loft, while keeping our angle of attack level to even slightly up. The big mistake is, instinctively or consciously, hitting more down on the ball – that steepens the Angle of Attack and can lead to more backspin. For that reason, I don’t recommend teeing the ball lower than normal. A lower tee can also promote a strike lower on the club face – again creating more backspin.
I also don’t recommend putting the ball significantly further back in your stance (an inch or so back is ok but no more than that) – again that risks a steeper angle of attack and more backspin.
Instead, tee the ball at your normal height, set your hands a small amount further ahead than normal (thus taking a few degrees of loft off the driver) and then concentrate on making a level, to slightly up, sweep through the ball.
As with the instinct to hit more down, we need to be wary of an urge to hit harder too. Trying to hit harder can also cause a steeper angle of attack – and thus risk more backspin. Instead, feel a smoother, sweeping (rather than hitting) swing – swinging at roughly 85% to 90% speed. That technique will produce a flatter trajectory that will bore through the wind.
Driving the ball higher – Tee it high and let it fly!
To take advantage of a following wind we want to raise our launch angle. The simplest way to do that is to tee the ball a little higher than your regular height and then set your body weight a little more towards your rear foot, roughly 60/40. Have a feeling of being a little more behind the ball than normal. That pre-sets a more upward angle of attack of the club. From there, just swing – you don’t need to try to hit up. You’ve got no worries here about spin, so go ahead and give it a rip!
Negotiating crosswinds – Don’t fight the wind or your swing
Again, where are you starting from? If your natural flight produces little curve, then that’s a help. And, be thankful for modern equipment – this is much easier than it was! If you don’t impart significant curve to the ball and it’s anything less than a moderate breeze, then the ball won’t drift more than 10-15 yards.
In virtually all instances I’d recommend going with the wind and your natural shape. If you hit with a big slice or hook, you’re not suddenly going to change that on the course, so your best bet is to play with it. If that means aiming to start the ball 40 or 50 yards away from the centre of the fairway then so be it. The goal is to move your ball from A to B as best you can.
Key to success here is committing to your shot. The hardest wind for most right handed golfers is from left to right, as most golfers fight a slice (left to right curve). A big mistake is to aim down the left side of the fairway but then, during the swing, feel the urge to want to start the ball even further left (sensing the breeze at your back). Scared of losing the ball to the right (especially if there’s trouble down the right side) the golfer instinctively swings more across the ball than usual.
With the swing path now severely to the left and club face open (face pointing right) the drive slices more than normal and the ball finds the trouble to the right. The same, but opposite, pattern can happen to golfers who tend to hook the ball in a right to left wind.
To guard against that, commit to exactly where you see your drive starting and then focus on delivering your swing in that direction – don’t waiver from it!
Becoming a better driver of the ball in the wind
I hope that the advice here helps you to develop your ability to drive the ball well on wind days. These are the adjustable skills that all good players bring to playing golf. As always, there's no substitute for getting out and working on developing your skills, both on the course and at a practice ground, in all weather conditions.