The Mythical ‘Ball Boost’

The USGA dips its toe into the ongoing debate over whether players with super-fast swing speeds gain an “extra boost” of distance.

Fred Funk, one of the shorter hitters on the PGA Tour (which, at 49 years of age and 5’8″, is not altogether shocking), is feeling left out these days. He believes that the modern golf ball gives players who swing 115 or 120 MPH a “boost.” More specifically, as he said in a recent interview, “You just get this huge gain hitting the ball a certain speed.”

Unfortunately, despite what Fred and others believe, the facts on this issue have recently been made quite clear. The USGA, on April 11, dispelled some commonly held beliefs in an article called “Myths About Golf Equipment and Performance.” The first myth was “Golfers with faster swing speeds get disproportionately greater distance benefits from new golf balls that have been introduced after 2000.”

The USGA explained the falsity of this myth as such:

False. Physics, scientific tests, and actual results on the PGA Tour all confirm that faster swinging players have not gained a disproportionate amount of distance from modern golf balls. An example: Corey Pavin, the shortest hitter in 2000, gained about the same amount of distance from 2000 to 2005 (7.4 yards) as the longest (John Daly at 8.7 yards).

Now, even the most ardent supporter of the modern golf ball and technology in general could find holes in that argument. Simply limiting the “proof” to two golfers leaves a gaping chasm.

The real proof came barely a week later. The USGA on Wednesday, April 19 published a scientific article that fills the holes. This article asks and answers the question: “Do Long Hitters Get an Unfair Benefit?” This article, published with an accompanying technical document, strongly refutes the claim that players get a “boost” from the golf ball if they reach a certain swing speed. In fact, the report indicates that ball distance demonstrates a law of diminishing returns as clubhead speed increases, as evidenced in this graph:

Usga Distance Myth
If players gained disproportionately more distance the faster they swung, the line would increase in slope to the right, not trend flatter. A perfectly straight line would be the “fairest” line possible, where gains in clubhead speed correspond with proportional gains in distance.

Who are you going to believe? Someone who argues that the game is in ruins because technology has gotten out of hand or an organization who has the means and know-how to conduct a scientific study and which publishes the results, both in laymen’s terms and in a scientific document, for all to see? As a scientist, there’s no doubt which way I lean: I’ll side with the facts every time.

Fred Funk’s Perspective
But even still, Fred Funk may have a point, and to see where he may be coming from we have to look at his opinions more closely. Fred says “with the golf ball going when I first came out on Tour, it was 30, 35 yards between me and the longest guys on Tour, and now it’s 70, 75 yards. It’s all the golf ball.”

In other words, this “boost” Fred perceives is not limited to the modern golf ball, but more in how the golf ball has changed since he came on Tour. We already know the modern golf ball does not provide a boost (given the USGA’s study discussed above), but relative to the golf balls of, say, 1995 let’s look at how a relative “boost” might be possible.

Usga Distance My Version
A graph demonstrating a possible explanation for Fred Funk’s belief that modern balls give a “boost” to players with faster swing speeds. The green line representing 1995 is purely hypothetical.

The USGA did not publish a similar study in 1995, but had they, I suspect we’d see a graph like the hypothetical graph above. As you can see, I’ve retained the red line from the USGA study and I’ve added a green line indicating how the golf balls of 1995 might have performed.

If you look at graph, you’ll see that Fred Funk, who swings at around 105 MPH, has “gained” only about three yards from the golf ball alone from 1995 to 2005, while Tiger Woods (in the 125 MPH area) has gained over 20 yards. That’s not a proportional response.

In 1995, hypothetically, golf balls were actually less fair to golfers with high swing speeds, and the “boost” Funk perceives is merely a matter of the golf ball becoming more fair. Remember – the straighter the line, the fairer and more proportional the distance gains relative to the swing speed increases.

This hypothetical graph jives not only with statements from Jack Nicklaus, who has often said that even in his prime he was only 10-15 yards longer than most guys (indicating a severe law of diminishing returns), but also Fred Funk’s assertions that higher swing speeds get a “boost.” They do, if you consider 1995 to 2005 and if the hypothetical graph is at least reasonably close to the truth.

The 1995 numbers, again, I made up. But think back to 1995. Titleist’s “Tour Balata” still ruled the professional game. These balls spun like crazy. They were softer and had liquid-filled centers. Golfers associated the term “smiley” with a bladed iron shot, not a symbol used on the Internet. Launch monitors didn’t even (really) exist.

These balatas, when struck hard, tended to balloon. Players with high swing speeds in 1995 had 7° drivers in large part to minimize this spin. Also, the harder a golfer hit the Tour Balata of 1995, the more they got into the “squishy liquid center” of the ball. It’s not hard to imagine that the law of diminishing returns played a bigger role in limiting the proportional response of the ball to clubhead speed in 1995 than with today’s solid-core balls.

The point here is that Fred Funk may be right – the modern golf ball may give players a boost relative to the balls of 10 or 20 years ago. But for Freddie, it’s a matter of perspective. But Funk is also wrong, because for the USGA, their perspective in this study is confined to only one year: 2005. Freddie’s perspective spans his career. If anything – and again if my hypothetical graph is even close to the truth – the distance the modern ball travels is fairer for players of every swing speed than it was 10 years ago.

The Fight Goes On
In the end, where does this leave us? With more facts, more knowledge, and a better understanding of the physics of golf. The USGA’s study contains those for anyone who cares to read it.

Unfortunately, it also leaves us with no shortage of naysayers and doomsmen. The game, after all, is in ruins. Or didn’t you get that memo?

9 thoughts on “The Mythical ‘Ball Boost’”

  1. Its easy to understand where Fred is coming from. In today’s age of Tiger-Proofing and lengthening all we’re accomplishing is taking guys like Funk and Pavin out of the equation. Its also easy to understand how Funk could get really riled up over this issue especially if he thinks he’s getting shafted.

    It seems like every day there is a new article by some genius claiming that the golf apocalypse is upon us, but these claims are usually backed up by emotional or “empirical” thoughts instead of cold hard facts.

    Sure, the players today are longer. Sports evolve. Thats what golf is doing.

    Nice article, Erik.

  2. I agree with everything you said. As the athletes in golf get better the ball will go farther.

    Look at all professional sports. What you see today as opposed to yester year is bigger, faster, and stronger athletes. The game of football has changed dramatically and even though there have been huge changes in safety equipment, those changes cannot be blamed on how the game has evolved. The same is true for the NBA, and the equipment there has changed very little in the last 50 years but todays game is nothing like 50 years ago.

    When taking a sport like golf where conditioning, flexibility, and strength training were not in existence 10 years ago, it would be impossible not to see huge increases in performance once those aspects are intoduced.

    I feel for Fred but he’s past his prime. It’s time for him to go quietly into that goodnight or at least that other tour.

  3. Great article.

    People have forgotten that Fred Funk won our 5th major last year. The TPC course rewards pinpoint accuracy in the fairway and green. There are some holes that reward distance as well, so that the approach shot is more manageable, but the course is definitely not overly long by any means. I think it is a very “fair” course.

    The article is correct that lengthening courses is not helping the Funk’s of the world. Lengthening may tip the scales more towards distance than accuracy. Courses should try to emphasize both facets equally in a perfect world, but they do not.

    The USGA info was interesting, but looking at the last 4 years of major winners, the longer hitters have benefitted the most from course setups. Clearly the major winners (Tiger, Phil, Retief, Vijay, etc.) are also great iron players and great wedge players and at least good putters.

    Looking at the top ten drivers and saying distance does not equal money is a mistake by Dick Rugge. It is probably impossible to judge exactly what value distance brings to players, but clearly the Big 5 can all hit the ball far.

    I think Fred is just indicating that distance is more emphasized today than when he started, and looking at today’s PGA Tour, most everyone would agree. More PGA courses should emphasize location in the fairway and greens more like the TPC.

    People also forget that the ball improvement is just one factor in the increased distance. The shafts today are so much better and the club heads are also much better for generating trajectories and spin rates that are desired. These factors are not addressed in the USGA tests and could account for what Fred feels. I would give Fred the benefit of the doubt given how close he is to the day to day action.

  4. The only problem with this thesis is that it is not supported by the ball companies themselves. Erik was at the TaylorMade ball launch earlier this month and the head of R&D for the company said quite clearly to me that one of TM’s challenges was to allow those with swing speeds of 80 miles per hour to get as much out of the ball as those that were swinging 120 miles per hour or more.

    Since they are the ones designing the ball, I assume what Benoit Vincent is saying is actually the case, and it seems to contradict what is being said in this op-ed.

  5. It is not supported in their marketing, and my hunch is that Robert may have swallowed a line of marketing. Here’s the problem: people swinging 80 MPH still buy 9.5° drivers, so yeah, it’s a unique challenge for them to get the same out of a ball as someone who hits it 120. The guy swinging 120 could easily get more distance under a huge range of launch conditions, but the guy swinging 80 with a 9.5° driver won’t.

    If you want an actual answer, two things: a) don’t believe the marketing that tries to make the ball sound good for everyone (remember that TaylorMade knows that most people don’t swing 120 MPH, so they have to try to convince them the ball is good for them, too) and b) ask the guy who actually knows a pointed question instead of believing a line said to the masses.

  6. Personally i can understand why everyone is getting so ticked about golf balls. But i mean theoretically is it really giving longer players that much more of an advantage. I mean many players can consistenly find the fairway with drives well over 280 yards. The fact is though that if you dont have a short game these new balls are not going to help much. And anyway the only reason Funk is saying anything is because he is frustrated. Let’s face it guys he has been cold for a while and if he wants to blame it on the technolegy let him.

  7. So if we turn the argument around it would mean that if we’d had better balls in the earlier days of golf, the older courses would have been longer by design already ….
    My advice to most … play from the correct tee’s

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