About Trajectory

An Angle for Every Occasion

October 28, 2005

Golf is a game of angles; lots of angles. There are shaft angles, spine angles, clubface angles, angles of approach, and many others, including launch angle, which basically determines the trajectory of a golf shot. “Trajectory” is a commonly used word in the world of golf, but it is also commonly misunderstood. Even when golfers know the meaning of the word, many fail to control the trajectory of their ball flight in a way that lets them get the most out of their shots.

trajectory1Many people associate the trajectory of a shot with its height, but that is not the full story. Trajectory also has to do with the angle of the shot, in a sense the rate at which the shot reaches its height.

For example, I could hit both my wedge and my driver 100 feet in the air. What makes the shots different is that the wedge might get that high after going only 50 yards forward, whereas the driver goes 130 yards before it gets 100 feet high. In other words, the angle is different even if the height is the same.

The trick for many kinds of golf shots is to control the trajectory. I frequently see golfers who have one, favorite club that they hit their chip shots with. I am not sure that is the best policy because different situations on the course require different shots, which means different trajectories (which usually means different clubs).

For example, imagine George hitting a shot from just off the green. He only needs to carry the ball six feet to be safely on the green, and the pin is only fifteen feet from the edge of the green. George loves chipping with his 7-iron, and he will use it now. The problem is the low trajectory provided by a 7-iron. If George hits the chip hard enough to carry onto the green, the low angle of the shot will make the ball roll much more than fifteen feet, and George will have a long putt coming back.

Sarah likes chipping with her sand wedge. If she has 75 feet of green in front of her, she will have to take a fairly large swing, and the high angle of the shot will make the ball stop short. Given the situations, George and Sarah would do well to swap clubs and trade trajectories.

Similarly, golfers tend to hit pitch shots with poor trajectory. The tendency of average players is to try to carry the ball almost all the way to the hole, which means they are usually hitting the ball on steep angles. This introduces several potential problems: the ball will be in the air longer, and therefore in the wind longer; the ball will tend to stop soon after landing, which means the distance control has to be very good; if the ball happens to carry into a slope, undulation, or pitch mark in the green, it will stop dead, short of the hole; and the steeper angle usually requires a wristy, harder swing that tends to lead to bigger mistakes.

trajectory2Using a wedge with less loft, hitting pitches with lower trajectory, and getting the ball on the ground sooner helps to avoid these problems. It is interesting that tour players generally hit their full shots high and their short shots low, whereas amateurs tend to do the opposite.

Even in the full swing, though, there are times when it pays to hit shots on a lower angle. When Tom comes to a par-3 he always tries to hit the shortest club possible into the green so that he can impress his friends with the distance he hits the ball. Imagine a back pin location on a green that slopes upward from front to back. The distance to the hole is 156 yards. If he nukes an 8-iron, Tom can hit it 150 yards. He figures he can stretch it out and he will be the man of the group when his buddies use their 7 or 6 irons.

First, Tom tries to get a little extra on the 8-iron, which means he is likely to miss hit it. Then the ball goes on a higher trajectory, so that it stops on a dime when it hits the up-sloping green. There is also more backspin created by the higher lofted club. Tom ends up 35 feet short of the hole. His buddy Dan hits an ugly, low little 6-iron that hits on the very front of the green, rolls up the hill, past Tom’s ball, and stops ten feet to the left of the hole. The lower angle of the shot fit the situation better. Now Dan is the man.

Sometimes a soft, low shot works better, especially when there is plenty of green to work with, and when the wind starts blowing. Other situations, like a pin tucked right behind a bunker, require a high angle (like a flop shot) for the best results. It is all about the trajectory.

A solid golf swing not only takes advantage of good angles during the swing, it also produces good angles when it comes to ball flight.


  1. Don says:

    I totally agree with you on using more than one club for chipping around the green. I normally use an 8 iron for most of my chipping, but move down to an 9 or wedge when the carry distance gets longer and the roll needs to be less. This is how I learned to chip. I like to use pretty much the same chipping motion and let the loft of the different clubs do most of the work for me. I find it easier than using one wedge and having to make different strokes to fit the distance needs of the shot.

  2. Jim says:

    I enjoy most of your articles, but this is one that I struggle with. First is the assumption that average golfers must use an 8 or 7 iron to hit the ball 150 yards. I guess I’m not average, despite the fact that everything in the golfing world tells me I am. My average pitching wedge is right on at 150 with my smoothest, most gentile swing. Swing harder doesn’t usually help because it only makes the ball flair, is more likely to shank, and it generally ends up the same distance on anything close to the sweet spot. With this swing I can stop the ball dead in it’s tracks, and sometimes it will zip back a little (which I prefer it not to do because it ain’t gettin’ me any closer to the hole!)

    Now if it’s a windy day I could be looking at trouble, and I can see the virtue of a low running shot. But here’s my big concern. How is someone supposed to play a low running shot reliably? On a calm day I can stand and put 9 of 10 shots from 150 within 30 feet of the pin (I won’t insult you by exaggerating). On the same calm day, with a 7 iron in my hands, I would have to guess the bounce, anticipate the firmness of the grass in front of the green, hope for a true first bounce both in terms of trajectory and angle, account for subsequent bounces, and then anticipate roll and break. That’s a lot of variables to consider rather than just flying it to the heart of the green and hoping I stuck it successfully. Perhaps I’m just a horrible chipper, but I would put my success rate much close to 2 or 3 of 10 using this approach. So I ask in all sincerity, how do you account for all of these extra variables playing bump and run golf?

    • John Rogers says:

      Hi, Jim. Thanks very much for checking out my articles. You bring up some very good points/questions about trajectory and club selection. A few thoughts:

      As far as you being an “average” player, I cannot gauge that, and I do not know how well you score (the average male golfer shoots about 99); but the numbers you offered about your game are definitely not average. Your ability to hit 9/10 balls to an average of 30′ from 150 yards would put you in the top-190 on the PGA Tour (it only takes an average of 27′ to make the top-50!). Not only that, but the average tour player would be between 8 and 9-iron from that distance–you are LONGER than the average tour player with your pitching wedge. You are much longer than the average guy off the street who averages about 100-120 yards with a wedge. So, you might feel like you have an average game, and possibly you score like the average guy, but your statistics are far from typical.

      As for the example you give about choosing a full pitching wedge on a calm day versus a knock-down 7-iron from 150 yards: under those circumstances, you might be right to choose the full shot. My guess is that with a little practice you could get a knock-down 9-iron or 8-iron closer on average than the full-out PW, but for you 7-iron is much too strong for 150 yards on a calm day. Top players would often choose to flight this shot down slightly (maybe use one club more and smooth it), even on a calm day for a reason you mentioned–backspin (which is another reason you are not like the average guy who cannot spin the ball back). I once saw Tiger hit a 9-iron from 113 yards because there was water in front of the green and he needed to reduce the spin, which he did by avoiding a wedge.

      A few other general thoughts. Not all conditions are conducive to bump-and-run golf. Notice that you see more bump-and-run shots at the Open (British) every year than all other PGA events combined. That’s because it’s generally firm and windy over there–and under those conditions even the best players in the world try to get the ball on the ground. In the US, conditions are generally fluffier, softer, and often less windy which makes running shots less useful and it’s harder to gauge them in furry conditions. But back to the average player (and I’ve had a front-row seat watching average players for the past 18 years at my job): he has a terrible time hitting 35-yard “flip wedges”. He’ll chunk them, blade them, shank them, etc. But if the mouth of the green is accessible, he could likely take a 7-iron and get the ball running well enough to get on the green. He might not stick it tight, but if he hit 10 wedges versus 10 bump-and-runs, his average will likely be much better with the lower shots.

      So, yes you are likely better off hitting a wedge from 150 yards on a calm day than a 7-iron. But it’s possible that the best choice is either 9 or 8-iron. Like I tell my junior golfers when they start pounding 175-yard 7-irons: now they have proven they are gorillas, but it takes a real golfer to learn how to take that same club and hit it with control at 150 yards. Learning to control their swing and trajectory in that way will make them a much more complete golfer.

      Thanks again for checking in, and best wishes with your game!

  3. Jim says:

    By the way, in hopes of avoiding looking like an idiot, I meant to type ‘genteel’ and not ‘gentile’.

  4. DON says:

    Hi Jim; As John mentioned, hitting a Pitching Wedge 150 yards carry is NOT what the average golfer hits it. Not even close to being average. I hit my PW 135 yards carry and I’m one of the longest hitters in any foursome I play in. And I also play at 5300 feet above sea level, which gives my more distance that I get at sea level. So your 150 carry with a PW is very long and not close to average. As for hitting a low bump and run shot, I totally agree with you in terms of figuring out how the ball might react once it lands. You have to play the shot according to the conditions you have to work with. If you have deep rough in front of the green, NO WAY would I recommend that you play a bump and run shot. No way of knowing where the ball might end up. But if the green is OPEN in front your chances of getting it close to the flag might be much higher playing a bump and run shot. It all depends on what type of shot YOU hit the best.
    I remember having an instructor telling me NOT to hit a flop shot with my 60* wedge from the rough from about 20 yards to the flag. He told me it was a LOW percentage shot compared to a more normal pitch shot. I ignored his advice and stepped up to the ball and hit my normal FLOP shot and had a 3 foot putt for birdie. What the instructor didn’t know was that I PRACTICE hitting this exact type of shot all the time and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. So while it may not be a high percentage shot for MOST golfers, it is a shot I’ve learned to hit quite well with lots of practice. and it’s a shot I hit much better in this situation than I would a more normal pitch shot. IF I were to practice a normal pitch shot more with the same situration, I’m sure I could learn to hit it just as well as I hit my Flop shot, but I don’t have a practice area near me that allos me to hit shots from short grass in front of the green. The range I use for practice has only about 4 feet of fringe around the practice green and than it’s 3 to 4 inch rough. So learning to hit a flop shot around the greens was MY best option under the conditions I had to work with. Now that I’ve found a practice area I can use with lots of short grass around the green, I plan to learn to hit a more normal pitch shot before the start of spring golf begins.

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