We’ve all had to endure one of golf’s biggest frustrations: hitting the perfect shot only to somehow still end up with a poor result.
You make the ideal swing, contact is great, the trajectory is beautiful only for it to fly the green or cannon back to earth five yards short of the fringe.
You know for a fact your 8 iron goes 150 because you hit it at the range last night. Yet today, for some reason, it’s misbehaving.
This is especially the case if you’re playing in muggy, humid conditions. But does humidity really affect how far your golf ball flies through the air?
Humidity has minimal effect on your golf ball during flight. While humidity can decrease air density, which allows the ball to travel farther, the overall impact is negligible. Raising humidity from 10 percent to 90 percent will increase distance by barely one yard with both driver and 6-iron. Temperature, however, will have a much larger effect, with each 10-degree Fahrenheit rise in heat resulting in an additional carry distance of around a yard.
So, in summary, yes, humidity does help the ball fly farther, but the benefits are so marginal that the average golfer will barely – if at all – notice any difference.
But humidity is only one element, when it comes to weather, that impacts how a golf ball behaves through the air.
Let’s look at some others.
Table of contents
What weather factors impact ball flight?
The overarching weather factor that affects ball flight is air density.
Any phenomenon that increases or decreases air density will have an impact on ball flight, but this might not be as much as you think.
As a general rule, increased air density will lead to shots that fly higher, land steeper and carry shorter distances.
There are three main factors that affect air density (and therefore ball flight). They are:
- Air pressure
Let’s take a look at each in more detail.
Lower temperatures lead to very dense air, taking the greatest amount of distance off your shots.
Your ball flight may look high and towering, but you’ll find the ball being knocked out of the sky during that early winter tee off (even more so if it’s raining).
For every 10 degrees Fahrenheit that the temperature decreases, around a yard in distance will be slashed from your carry.
This equates to a difference in carry of about eight yards when moving from a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Humidity also changes air density, but not in the manner you may think.
While humid air does feel heavier, it is actually less dense than dry air, as the molecular weight of the water in humid air is less than that of the nitrogen and oxygen dominating air that is dry.
As a result, the ball will actually fly farther when air is humid, but only a small amount.
Moving from extremely dry to extremely humid air will barely add one yard of extra distance to each shot.
Air pressure can also influence the way in which the ball travels through the air.
At sea level, high and low pressure systems will alter air density, in turn affecting the flight of a golf ball, but not by much.
Low pressure systems decrease density, increasing carry distance, while high pressure systems do the opposite.
Before you grab more club, keep in mind that these air pressure changes will make less than a yard of difference to your shot from one extreme to the other.
The video below explains this in more detail:
How does altitude affect golf ball flight?
Altitude, otherwise known as elevation, can have a drastic and observable effect on the distance a golf ball will travel through the air. For every 1000 feet (about 300 metres) you travel above sea level, you can expect roughly two yards more carry distance. So, if you are playing at an altitude of 5000 feet, you’ll definitely need to consider club choice closely, as a typical 150 yard 7-iron will actually carry about 165 yards.
Playing at very high altitudes is by no mean unheard of either, as the above scenario more or less applies to Denver, which is situated about a mile above sea level.
Prior to 2007, the PGA hosted a tournament in Denver named ‘The International’ that saw tour players hitting clubs that usually flew 10 percent less than normal to account for the altitude.
Currently, the WGC Mexico lays claim to one of the highest altitude golf tournaments in the world, played at the Club de Golf Chapultepec – situated a whopping 7500 feet (almost 2300 metres) above sea level.
Most players and caddies need to make an adjustment of around 10 percent for each club, essentially the difference between metres and yards.
Why does altitude affect golf ball flight?
The reason altitude affects ball flight so greatly is due to a reduction in air density. The thinner air at higher elevation reduces drag force, allowing the ball to fly farther without the resistive influence. While the force of gravity is also reduced as you move farther from the centre of the earth, there is not a golf course in the world high enough to above sea level to be impacted by gravitational weakening.
Steven Aoyama, Principal Scientist at Titleist Golf Ball Research and Development, puts the effect of altitude on the golf ball into numbers.
You can calculate the distance gain you will experience (compared to sea level) by multiplying the elevation (in feet) by .00116.
For example, if you’re playing in Reno, at 1 mile elevation (5,280 ft.) the increase is about 6% (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.
While you are unlikely to go as far as punching these numbers into a calculator during your round (unless, maybe, you’re Bryson DeChambeau) there are more factors to consider at high altitudes – ones that will further impact your ball flight.
Do higher altitudes impact golf ball spin and launch angle?
Higher altitudes do not have an impact on spin, but they do influence lift, so your ball will have greater difficulty reaching the heights it may at sea level. Expect shots to have a flatter trajectory, less grip and more roll out on greens and fairways. The lower density also means less force will be imparted on the ball, reducing slice and hook.
Overall, shaping shots will be harder.
Finally, the shorter and slower swings will not be affected as heavily by altitude, so don’t adjust as much for those greenside approaches as you might for a booming drive or 3-wood off the deck.
It is important to note, however, that tour players and the average hacker are two very different things.
Trackman have crunched the numbers and revealed that the 10 percent rule at higher altitudes is actually closer to 9 percent for pros, but only 6-7 percent for the average player.
This is mainly due to the skill of tour players in being able to manipulate their launch angle.
Knowing that normal shots played at higher altitudes will run out farther due to their flatter trajectory, tour pros will launch the ball higher than usual, helping it carry further and land softer with less roll.
This adjustment is something the average player usually won’t be able to emulate, hence the overall carry distance will not mirror that 9-10 percent achieved by a tour pro.
Something all players can manipulate at higher levels is the type of club they use, such as playing hybrids instead of irons, or teeing their driver higher.
Both strategies can increase launch angle and achieve a higher apex, ultimately resulting in softer landings with less roll out.
This is explained in more detail in the video below:
How much yardage should you subtract for a downhill shot?
Downhill shots, whether off the tee or on approach to the green, will fly farther than normal, therefore requiring less club. As a rough guide, for every 15 feet (5 metres) your target is situated below you, it’s best to take one less club. For example, if you hit your 7-iron 150 yards but the green you are aiming at is 15 feet below you, then drop down to an 8-iron.
Keep in mind that the ball will come in steeper with less roll and should be considered when making club selection.
If your original plan was to land 10 yards short and run your shot up to the green, you might not need to drop that club in the end, as the longer carry to get there will see the ball pull up faster from a higher trajectory.
And remember: on-course distance markers are always measured to the front of the green. Be sure to factor this in when calculating what club to hit.
How much yardage should you add for an uphill shot?
When playing an uphill shot, you need to take more club as the ball will find the earth quicker than if you were playing to a target level with you. As a rough guide, for every 15 feet (5 metres) your target is situated above you, it’s best to take one extra club. For example, if you hit your 7-iron 150 yards and are aiming at a green 15 feet above you, then move up to a 6-iron.
When playing to an elevated green or landing area, it is important to note a decrease in flight angle, leading to more run out.
The ball will hit the surface at a shallower angle, so don’t expect the ball to grip as hard and pull up close to the pin.
You may want to play a shot that lands short of your target zone, chasing up to the hole.
There are many factors that affect the trajectory of the golf ball, some more drastically than others.
While it may sound logical that humidity and air pressure would affect ball flight, the differences are negligible from one extreme to the other.
Temperature is one factor that does have an impact, with a rise from 40 degrees Fahrenheit to 100 degrees Fahrenheit resulting in as much as an eight-yard increase in distance the golf ball will travel.
Carry distance will increase further yet at higher altitudes, with a round of golf played a mile high adding us much as 10 percent to the distances achieved by tour pros.
In summary, as much as you may like to think your game is that finely tuned that every half a yard matters, it’s unlikely any factors other than temperature and altitude will have a significant impact on your ball flight.