You don’t have to be a massive brainiac to know that the optimum launch angle for any projectile is 45 degrees. It’s one of those nifty factoids you learn early on in physics class.
But here’s the thing…this doesn’t really apply to golf, which is why a golf driver doesn’t have a 45-degree loft.
Think about it. The only clubs with such higher loft angles are the pitching wedge (usually around 45°) and the sand wedge (usually 54-56°), yet they’re not at all suitable for long, driving distance. They’re more suited to high-flying, short-range shots.
Drivers, on the other hand, are capable of hitting the golf ball over great distances. The driver head usually has a loft between 9 and 12 degrees, but why is this?
Is a golf club capable of defying the laws of physics?
Before we dig deeper into this mind-bending phenomenon, I’ll answer the question as plainly as possible.
So what degree driver hits the farthest?
For maximum distance, your driver should have between 9 and 10 degrees of loft, but that’s only if you have a swing speed of over 80 miles per hour.
If you are a beginner golfer or a player with a slower swing speed, you will almost certainly see some solid distance gains if you use a driver with more loft. The degree driver that you use should have 11 or even 12 degrees of loft. This will promote better ball flight.
Now let’s explore the reason that drivers with a low degree of loft strike balls the farthest.
Why 45° Isn’t the Ideal Driver Loft
What most people don’t realize is that the classic science tidbit about 45° being the optimal launch angle of a projectile, is based on calculations that assume the projectile is being launched in a vacuum.
Since you’re not hitting your golf balls in outer space, there are a number of variables that affect the behavior of your ball in real life. Clubhead speed, shaft type / shaft flex, and whether or not your hit the sweet spot are all factors that influence your driver distance — but we’re focusing mainly on the loft here.
The 45°calculation takes into account the effect of gravity on the projectile, but there are two other forces at play when we slug the ball with our driver, and these forces are drag and lift.
When we bring drag into the equation, we learn that the harder you hit the ball, the more drag it will be subjected to. That changes the optimal degree for launching a projectile to 35°.
So, that brings us a little closer to the truth, but 35° is still dramatically different from a loft driver of 9-12°.
To make matters worse, that 35° calculation only amounts to 112 yards traveled. This tee shot would be nowhere near pro-level drives or the driver distance of an average golfer with moderate club speed. In fact, a high handicapper could probably drive 112 yards.
But when we factor lift into the equation alongside drag, it all starts to make a little more sense. Lift is created by backspin and the speed of the ball, and it drastically alters the aerial behavior of projectiles.
Back in 1983, a physicist named Herman Erlichson figured all the geeky stuff out for us. He discovered that the optimal launch angle of a golf ball isn’t actually 35 degrees, but something more to the tune of 16 degrees.
A driver with this setup and 1983 club head speed and ball speed would result in a 200 yard shot. Most recreational golfers hit drives between 195 and 205 yards, so this is a much more realistic distance.
Do bear in mind, though, that these calculations were done by Herman Erlichson way back in 1983. If you have some spare time, you can find Erlichson’s work on Google Scholar.
With advances in both technology, design, and driver shaft materials, modern-day pros have a higher driver swing speed. These improvement account for their ability to drive the ball over 300 yards.
I know what you’re thinking…what about the 16° you mentioned earlier?That’s still quite a ways off from 9°.
The way in which Herman accounted for this mysterious difference is that during a driver swing, the ball is struck just after the bottom of the swing.
This means that at the point of impact, the launch angle is actually slightly higher than the loft of the driver.
Spin rate. Loft angles. All of this science makes my head hurt, but I’m glad we have some answers.
Why is a Lower Loft Better for Distance Drives?
Even though we’ve solved the mystery of the 45 degree launch angle (actually the brilliant work of Herman Erlichson solved it for us), we still haven’t discussed why a 9-degree loft drives the ball further than 11 and 12-degree lofts.
It’s another puzzler, but one that’s not too hard to figure out. The long and short of it comes down to the fact that drivers with lower lofts have the potential to provide greater energy transfer at the point of impact.
Simply put, lower lofts hit harder and move the ball faster. Studies have shown that taking a couple of degrees of loft from your drive can increase ball speed by as much as 3.2 miles per hour, which doesn’t seem like much, but when the ball’s in the air, it can have a dramatic effect on your average distance.
Furthermore, modern drivers shift the center of gravity back and low down in the club head so they naturally produce more lift. This setup giving golfers the go-ahead to knock a few degrees off our loft to reduce spin and maximize distance.
So, there you have it folks. When it comes to drivers and loft, less is more, but that’s assuming that you have a swing of 80 miles per hour or above, otherwise, the extra loft can indeed help tack a few yards on your drive.
So, while less loft has the biggest distance potential overall, it’s not always the fix you should be looking for.
If you’re not sure about your swing speed or other factors, it may be worth visiting a pro shop to get some professional recommendations. They can help you sort out the details (graphite shaft, Callaway, TaylorMade, etc). You could also measure your loft angle with a launch monitor.
I have friends who swear by their adjustable driver, so if you don’t want to get fitted, you can experiment with a driver with adjustable loft and make modifications on the fly to suit your game.
Here are a few of the most popular adjustable drivers:
Knowledge is power, and now you know what degree driver hits the farthest. Go out and crush your friends!
Become a golf club expert by reading some of our other in-depth articles.