The Science of Speed: Why Speed Matters in Golf and How You Can Improve It

If you have the slightest curiosity about the science of the golf swing, you’re probably familiar with Dr. Sasho MacKenzie.  Dr. MacKenzie is a biomechanics expert who teaches and researches out of St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish Nova Scotia.  He’s also a valued advisor of Rapsodo.

Though he spends the bulk of his career conducting original golf research and consulting with TOUR players, he’s generous enough to take the time to enlighten weekend warriors like ourselves.

Below is a transcript of a recent webinar we hosted with him.  Our goal was to discuss the obsession with speed in golf.  Is it a worthwhile pursuit?  If so, what did his research have to say about key factors that contribute to speed?  Finally, we wanted to provide some insight for how an amateur golfer could use technology like the MLM to achieve speed gains.

Speed is the most popular trait to chase in practice, training or equipment.  Is it right for amateur players to be so committed to improving speed?  Does it offer the most benefit?

Yes, definitely.  There’s some very convincing statistical research produced by Mark Broadie that says at the PGA TOUR level that says that Driving Distance is relatively more important for shooting lower scores and making more money than Driving Accuracy.  And it scales to be more favorable for high-handicappers.  As handicap goes up, the relative importance of distance over accuracy goes up.

There’s a very clear relationship between handicap and clubhead speed.  High handicap players tend to not swing the club fast.

How does this relate to Broadie’s work around the Strokes Gained statistic?

One representation I’ve heard is that on the PGA TOUR, for every 3 yards you gain, you can afford to be 1 yard less accurate to keep your “Strokes Gained Driving” the same.  So your dispersion can increase by 1 yard for every 3 yards of increased distance.

The opportunity is even greater for a higher-handicapper.  As a 15 handicapper, for every 3 yards you gain off the tee, you can be 2 yards less accurate.  So if you gain 3 more yards off the tee and are only 1 yard more crooked, you’re going to shoot better scores.  This stat comes from Mark’s son Chris Broadie who works at Ping.

Ok, so speed is important.  Got it.  What does your latest research tell us about how speed is produced in the golf swing?

I wanted to look at clubhead speed from the perspective of cause and effect.  Let’s look at it from a Newton’s Law’s perspective.  I chose a work-energy perspective and from a work-energy perspective, there are only 4 things that are going to determine how fast you get the club head moving.  

  1. The average force you apply to the grip in the direction that the grip is traveling.
  2. The distance that you move that grip.  We can call this the hand path.
  3. How much you rotate the club through the swing 
  4. How much torque you apply through that rotation

From a physics perspective, a longer hand path, higher average force, more rotation and more torque, all will make you swing faster.  Long Drive guys max out all of those things.  

What I hoped to answer was what factor really separates one amateur golfer from another in terms of speed.  What I found was that the average force you apply to the grip is by far the most important determining factor.  Also the hand path length – the arc that your hands trace out – the bigger that is is the next important.  The average torque you apply to the club is third.  And the amount of rotation of the club is not very predictive of clubhead speed.

So what does this mean practically for the average golfer?

If the average golfer were able to increase their hand path by 4 inches in the backswing, they could increase their club head speed by 2.4 mph. It’s about what you’d get from lifting your lead heel and allowing your pelvis to rotate a little more.  

You don’t have to lift your lead heel if you have the flexibility of an Adam Scott, but most amateurs don’t have the flexibility of an Adam Scott.

How does working with a launch monitor help a golfer improve speed?

Golfers benefit from the feedback.  Even if they are making a mechanical change, they get to associate that mechanical change with an improvement in speed.  Maybe it was relaxing their grip or making a bigger turn, they’re able to immediately see the results and know that that move produced a faster swing.  

Training is really important, but being able to realize feedback from mechanical changes through a device like Rapsodo MLM is invaluable. 

Why is that feedback so important?  Why does it make training to improve speed more effective?

I think anyone who plays a sport has some level of competitiveness.  Even the most casual golfer probably has some desire to improve, and it’s much easier to improve if you see the number you’re trying to beat.  There’s a magical curiosity of trying to learn what it feels like to swing faster.  Without that feedback, you’re pretty lost.  

So it’s almost half motivation and half affirmation that the change you made actually worked?

Exactly.  There’s a level of self-organization that requires feedback to believe.

What would be the best way to incorporate a launch monitor like MLM into speed training?

If you have an MLM, you’re in a really good position to do a self-study.  Set your baseline.  Do a pre-test and post-test.  Get warmed up and hit 10 balls with your driver.  Since the data is stored in the MLM app you can refer to it later.  Then do your speed training with the MLM.  Maybe you’re experimenting with mechanical changes or practicing drills like a Step Change, the feedback is critical and will help encourage maximum effort when necessary.  Then go back and repeat your pre-test. See how much you actually improved.