The field will play at a TOUR-record 7,800 feet above sea level this week. Expect some long drives.
February 28, 2017
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
MEXICO CITY -- Tee it high and let it fly. And fly. And fly.
The altitude effect should be a significant factor this week at Club de Golf Chapultepec as the world’s best play in the World Golf Championships–Mexico Championship, which at its highest point is 7,835 feet above sea level.
Sure, we’ve seen altitude golf in the past. But nothing to this extent. This will be the highest course above sea level ever played on the PGA TOUR, with Club de Golf Chapultepec hosting the tournament for the first time.
The Barracuda Championship is played each year in Reno. The BMW Championship was held in Cherry Hills outside Denver in 2014. Neither of those venues topped the 6,000-feet elevation mark.
We’ve seen the LPGA play in Mexico City before and the Web.com Tour and PGA TOUR Latinoamerica were just recently in Bogota, Columbia, where the elevation also pushes around the 8,000-feet mark. The European Tour also has some high stops such as the Omega European Masters at Crans-sur-Sierre in Switzerland.
But now 49 of the world’s top 50 golfers – and a field of 77 overall -- will take on Club de Golf Chapultepec, which at its lowest part is 7,603 feet above sea level.
In today’s era of long-ball hitters, are we about to see some out-of-this-world golf? Can this almost 100-year-old course handle the likes of Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Gary Woodland and Bubba Watson?
The premise is simple. At higher altitudes, the lower air density creates less lift and drag on the golf ball. This means the ball will fly further. Expect to see some incredible numbers off the tee.
ShotLink can show us the significant differences at altitude. We can go into the archives and get a quick glance at what we’ve seen in the past, and therefore get an idea of what we might expect this week.
Comparing Montreux Golf & Country Club in Reno (which ranges between 5,476 – 5,952 feet above sea level) and Waialae Country Club in Honolulu (which is flat and at sea level), we see a vast difference.
Montreux has long averaged more than 300 yards in driving distance from the field. In 2011 (the last time it was measured via ShotLink), it was the longest average all season at 314.7 yards, and 21.46 percent of all drives that week were more than 320 yards.
Waialae has stayed under 300 yards on average for some time, and in the same year (2011), it was 284.5 yards. Just 3.06 percent of drives that week were more than 320 yards.
In the past, players would have to estimate the changes in their yardages based on a loose 10 percent rule used for around 5,000 feet. But now, in the technological era, ShotLink stats and companies such as Trackman have eliminated plenty of the guesswork and can ensure players have confidence in numbers, even before arriving in Mexico.
Justin Padjen from Trackman has been studying the effects for years. And while the natural thought might be the bigger the club, the further the increase on the ball, Padjen says it is not the case.
“Altitude is definitely going to impact things significantly in Mexico,” Padjen says. “But this generic notion that it is a straight 10 percent or a straight number doesn’t really hold true. It is a little different depending on the club and the trajectory of the player to an extent.
“And it is more like a bell curve as far as the wedges, and long irons don’t get the benefit that the mid- to short irons do.”
In other words, the mid- and short irons should have the biggest percentage increase. And that presents a significant challenge as professional golfers have become accustomed to the distance control they have over the ball.
Steve Aoyama, the principal scientist of Golf Ball R&D at Acushnet -- the makers of Titleist’s popular Pro V1s – has devised a formula for estimating the percentage difference in distances at elevation: Multiple the elevation in feet by 0.00116. If you take Chapultepec’s highest elevation (7,835 feet), the increase would be 9.0886 percent. Thus, if Aoyama’s formula holds true, a 300-yard drive at sea level would result in an additional 26.58 yards at that elevation.
“The percent increase will be less for players with slower swing speeds and/or when hitting a shorter shot,” Aoyama adds in the study he conducted for Acushnet. “But on a mid- to long approach shot, that could still make a one-club difference. Not to mention that you’ll be about a club closer to the green as a result of the longer drive.”
Padjen has run the numbers for an average TOUR pro at 7,800 feet but in doing so has separated high trajectory players and low trajectory players.
This is because it is important to remember the ball will apex lower and land flatter at higher altitudes. With a flatter land angle, the ball releases more than normal, and sticking an approach on the green becomes much harder.
As Aoyama explains in his study: “Since the air is less dense, the spin has less effect on the ball's flight. The ball's spin generates a lifting force (like the wings of an airplane) as it moves through the air. The thinner the air, the smaller the lifting force. Thus, at higher elevations the trajectory is less influenced by lift, and thus has a ‘flatter’ shape and a more glancing impact with the ground. This produces extra roll, which contributes to the increased distance but also makes it harder to hold the green, even though the spin is the same.”
As such, Padjen believes a high ball hitter is likely to have a significant advantage this week. Not only does their carry increase by a range of 8 to 15 percent depending on the club they’re hitting compared to low-ball hitter gains that range from 4-12 percent, but they’re also more likely to maintain a manageable land angle.
Padjen remembers clearly hearing players talk of the green firmness at Cherry Hills a few years ago but believes the altitude was the real culprit.
“A lot of players were commenting on how hard the greens were regarding release,” Padjen says. “But I don’t think it had as much to do with the actual firmness as it did with how shallow the ball was coming into the green because of the thin air.
“So I expect the same in Mexico. I would expect it will make it seem like they’re firmer greens then they actually are. And my feeling in general is the higher ball flight guys are probably better off because they can still maintain a decent land angle. One of the trickier things at altitude is knowing when the ball is going to stop.”
Padjen expects some players will spend the early part of the week trying to adjust their swings to return their flight to what they are used to. He says some low spin players may even consider going to a higher spin ball.
“Low ball flight could really be a challenge,” he adds. “It will be interesting to see how guys adapt. How easily can guys launch the ball higher? They’ll obviously have to adjust something in the swing to create more loft at impact. And you have to be careful of getting into any bad habits.”
Using a driver, an average TOUR player with a high trajectory (launch angle 10.7 degrees) and 113-mph club speed would typically see an apex of 102 feet at sea level, with a carry of 282-yards. In Mexico, this would change to 84 feet for apex and 306 yards of carry – an increase of 8 percent.
The land angle at sea level would typically be 38 degrees with ball speed at 65 mph, but in Mexico that would change to 29 degrees and 75 mph.
A low trajectory player (launch angle 8.9 degrees) would see an apex of 76 feet at sea level and a carry of 277 yards, but in Mexico that player can expect 60 feet for apex and 288 yards of carry. Just a 4 percent increase.
Land angle would be 31 degrees and ball speed 67 mph at sea level but in Mexico City, it would drop down to 22 degrees and up to 81 mph.
Remember, these numbers are for the average PGA TOUR pro. And we all know the likes of Dustin Johnson are not average. Padjen predicts the current world No. 1 and other big hitters will be able to launch it significantly higher and carry upwards of 350 yards.
Last season David Toms led the PGA TOUR in average launch angle off the tee at 13.42 but he won’t be in Mexico. Zach Johnson (13.40) will be. Justin Thomas is another who sports a high launch angle.
As far as apex average off the tee – in 2016, J.B. Holmes led the way at 130 feet, 10 inches. Thomas was third (126-11), with Gary Woodland, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler amongst those inside the top 10.
At Cherry Hills some of the longer guys were seeing 11-12 percent with the driver. In the Pro-Am that week, McIlroy hit a 370-yard 3-wood. It could get seriously scary.
That is, if the course doesn’t fight back.
One man who is trying to turn off the air-raid sirens is the head pro at the course, Manuel Inman. While he knows the 7,330-yard course will play short thanks to the elevation, he certainly isn’t expecting any Happy Gilmore-like shots cutting significant corners.
“The aggressive player is bound to pay the price here. It’s a strategic course. It’s not just put it on the tee and grip and rip it – that won’t work here,” Inman warns. “I don’t think they can take too many crazy lines. The corners are far enough and the trees are tall enough that cutting corners are not worth it really.
“There are lot of chutes from the tees – it almost demands you shape it both ways. And there are a lot of trees. It could be the most trees on a course some of these guys have ever seen.
“If you miss a fairway, you’re in jail. It’s a lot of punching out. The trees are thick. A lot of pines. When you hit a limb, it is dropping down, not going through.”
Shaping shots around those trees should also be more difficult due to the thinner air density. Aoyama notes that while hooking and slicing will be reduced in severity, so will the ability to manipulate shots left and right.
Writes Aoyama: “A hook or slice is generated when the lifting force pulls a little to the left or right (as a result of the golfer imparting some amount of sidespin to the ball) instead of straight up. Thus, instead of just holding the ball up against gravity, the lifting force also pulls to the side, creating the curved trajectory. If the lifting force is less due to lower air density, then the curvature will also be less. At 5,000 feet elevation, the air density is about 14 percent lower than at sea level, so the lifting force is also about 14 percent less and the hook or slice will curve about 14 percent less. It's easier to hit the ball straight, but it's harder to intentionally curve it.”
For Inman, who has spent time playing on the Mackenzie Tour- PGA TOUR Canada, PGA TOUR Latinoamerica and the Web.com Tour on and off since 2008, the key factor in this altitude will instead be the feel shots.
Mirroring Padjen’s thoughts on the land angles, he says Club de Golf Chapultepec’s firm, sloping, small greens will be the defense, particularly if players don’t maintain a high ball flight.
“The adjustment with the wedges will be really important. The hardest part is adjusting in half shots, in wedges less than 100 yards,” Inman continues. “You have to feel a 50-yard shot and here -- when you hit it, it feels like 50 but it flies 58. At that close range, those 8 yards are really important.
“They will be hitting a lot of wedges. The greens are very slopey and some greens you have to aim away from the pin and let a slope take it down to the hole. You have to hit it high. The greens will be firm and if the ball is coming in low there is nearly no chance of stopping it.”
Inman predicts a winning score of somewhere between 15 and 20 under but thinks some of the field will end the week right around par.
For Fowler, who enters off a win at The Honda Classic, the change is as much a mind battle as anything else.
It is one thing to know your numbers. It is another thing to trust them.
“Getting adjusted to how far the ball is going can be a struggle but it is more mental than anything,” says Fowler, who tied for fourth at Cherry Hills in 2014.
“Telling yourself this 7-iron is going to go 210 or whatever it might be. And then you add factors like hitting into the wind … it is just weird and plays tricks on your mind. It is a week you have to think through everything and get really committed.
“It will definitely be a factor. Sometimes you can hit a 4-iron up in the air and it can feel like it will never come down. It is rare you get a number and just pull a club and go. Instead you have to crunch your numbers and work out where the shot will fly to and it is more of a grind on every shot.”
Of course any time you are trying to make adjustments and crunch numbers in quick time, a good caddie can really come in handy. This week, those carrying the bags will face perhaps their sternest test of the year.
Temperature and humidity can also affect the numbers slightly so they have a plethora of calculations for every shot. The forecast currently calls for lows in the morning around 51 degrees and highs around 75 degrees. As the heat rises, so does the length of the shot.
Trying to keep track of this could certainly do your head in. And some players don’t want to hear anything other than one simple adjusted number from their looper, who’ll feel pressure to provide the right info.
Jim “Bones” Mackay has been with Phil Mickelson for multiple tournaments in altitude. The pair were together for two wins at Castle Pines in Colorado in the old TOUR event, The International, and always took meticulous notes. These will form a good starting point for Mickelson’s game plan and prep in Mexico City.
“Phil had success in Denver and all we did while there was to go off previous years in Denver only. We used our history,” Mackay says.
“We were keeping track of every shot he ever hit in Denver and we would be rifling through the book looking for a similar yardage and similar conditions and similar temperature.”
Mackay and Mickelson will try multiple shots both on the range and on course on practice days to get as much information as possible. Consider it a last-minute cram session before a big exam.
“You can literally set your brain on fire trying to work it out so I think you will see many guys trying to hit as many shots as they can in practice just to get as much data as they can,” Mackay says. “If we get a windless day on the driving range and guys can record how far the ball is going, that will be invaluable.”
Not only does the caddie’s math need to be spot on, but so does their fitness. With less oxygen in the air fatigue can become a serious concern. While the course is not hilly, which helps, the body will still be making its own adjustments. Players and caddies alike will need to be aware.
Hydration and energy levels need to be monitored as the body will fatigue quicker. Water intake may need to be doubled while potassium rich foods will certainly be on the menu for plenty.
And we may even see some altitude sickness. While most golfers are in great shape, altitude sickness does not discriminate and can affect the fittest of the bunch as easily as anyone else.
“I think we will be OK in that regard,” Bubba Watson says. “But you always have to try to stay on top of everything. With a few days to acclimatize before we play, hopefully everyone will be OK.”
Watson’s smile widened when asked about what it might feel like to hit the ball even further than he’s used to.
“Bottom line is it should be fun. You like it. You get excited to see it fly,” he says. “When you have a 600-yard hole and you’re hitting irons to it in two, you feel good. It pumps you up for sure.”
The thought of it has us all pumped.