Golf Wind: How To Read The Breeze

golf wind bubba watson
Photo by Christian Petersen Getty Images via golfchannel.com
golf wind scotland
Wind is a near constant on links courses such as the Kittocks Course at Fairmont St. Andrews, Scotland

Does wind make a difference when you’re playing golf? Yes, golf wind matters, big time.

Ask any of the top 93 players in the world after they played the first round of the Masters at Augusta National this year. Winds were sustained at 30 mph with gusts to 40. Only 11 players broke par and the average score for the entire field was 75. For the women, it was the last round of the Volunteers of America Texas Shootout in Alvin TX on April 30. Winds were a consistent 20 mph with gusts to 40-45. Only two players broke par that Sunday. The average score was 5½ strokes over par. Even the great In-bee Park shot an 80.

The overall effects of wind are straightforward enough. A head wind lessens distance, a tail wind aids. However, due to the trajectory of a golf shot, the wind effect isn’t the same. The underspin on a shot causes it to arc upward, more so with a wedge and the least with a driver. A head wind, besides physically pushing against the ball, magnifies the arcing effect and the shot can “balloon,” losing even more distance. A tail wind can physically push the ball forward but also tends to flatten the trajectory or “knock down” the shot. Studies have shown that a head wind of approximately 10 mph can lessen a drive by 12 to 15 yards whereas the same speed tail wind would only add 5 to10 yards. With a cross wind, the ball moves right or left by a varying amount depending on the wind speed.

Taiwanese LPGA player Yani Tseng gets a wind blast at the 2012. Nabisco Dinah Shore tournament. Photo from taipeitimes.com

Making things even more difficult is the fact that wind speed is seldom consistent and becomes less so as wind speed increases. These are the infamous gusts of wind. A period of gustiness often builds as wind speed increases in a fluctuating manner. It will reach a peak and then begin to subside. If time permits, it’s best to just wait out these spells and hit under calmer or at least more consistent wind conditions. If all this wasn’t enough, lurking out there are unseen disturbances in the airflow. Eddies, large swirls of air, are common but typically go undetected in clear air unless there is dust, leaves, or trash in the air to reveal them. These vortices can be vertical or horizontal and can rapidly change wind speed and direction. These can be responsible for “unexplainable” ball reactions.

Inconsistency in the wind is often produced by topography. The overall airflow can be blocked or channeled and overall significantly changed by topographic features such as hills, valleys, mountains, etc. The flatter the topography, the less variation in the wind. A coastal course with an onshore flow from the relatively smooth ocean surface is as good as you’ll get. Mountain courses would be the worst.

I am a professional meteorologist and an amateur golfer. PGA Tour caddies are golf professionals who are by necessity amateur meteorologists. For their thoughts, I turned to Jim Barlett of the Professional Caddies Association and the project editor and main writer of Think Like a Caddie, Play Like a Pro. “After an accurate yardage reading, knowing what the wind is doing is the single most important consideration in sizing up a golf shot.” says Bartlett, “The wind has the potential to affect every golf shot from a 300-yard drive to a three-foot putt.”

So, how do you go about allowing for the wind? The first thing a pro caddie does (or we non-caddied golfers should do) is check the weather forecast for the day before going out. It will give you the expected wind speed (with gusts) and wind direction. Then you apply this information to the course you’re playing. This requires knowledge of the layout of the course especially in terms of compass directions of each hole. Put that together with the expected wind direction and you’ll know if a particular hole should be playing upwind, downwind, or with a cross wind. Pro caddies typically have hole diagrams with the prevailing wind noted. As Barlett notes, “Most of the time, caddies are quite familiar with the courses tournaments are played on, and they know from experience how wind affects certain holes.”

Upon arrival at the course, “Caddies will size up the wind.” says Bartlett, “They usually know what the prevailing or customary conditions are (e.g., in the summer, the winds tend to come out of the southwest) and tend to pay more attention when those “normal” conditions switch, as they do from time to time, to more unusual directions. In terms of meteorology, frontal passages are critical here. When a front passes, the wind direction shifts, sometimes 180 degrees. And often the wind is very strong. That’s what happened at Augusta this year.

How can you tell how fast the wind is blowing? You probably won’t be carrying an anemometer with you. You can certainly feel the wind on your body and determine from which direction it’s blowing and a general idea of how strong it is. Throwing blades of grass up into the air is the classic way of determining wind, but meteorologists and pro caddies agree that it won’t help much. A well hit shot by a good golfer with any club will at some point in its trajectory be 80 to 90 feet above the ground. Wind speed increases with height, often dramatically so. This is even more pronounced if you are sheltered on the ground either by buildings, trees, or the topography itself.

About determining wind speed, Bartlett says, “It’s more of a gut feeling based on past experience. It’s a skill that caddies (and players) develop with experience: how to gauge the wind.” The best thing to do is to check nearby trees to see what the wind is doing higher up. Smaller branches will begin to move when the wind reaches 15 mph. Winds of 25 mph will move large branches. Of course when you can see the green, you can check the flag on the pin. If it’s extended, wind speeds are probably at least 10 mph. There may be other flags up especially at the club house you can check. And an advantage of not hitting first is that you can watch the wind effects on your partner/competitor’s shot.

Golf “gurus” have developed general rules players can use to allow for the wind. They give you specific yardage changes you can expect for various wind speeds and directions. If only it was that simple. The wind often does not follow set rules.

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