The weather over the last couple of days has felt more like summer with highs in the mid 80s and sunny skies. These warm temperatures have convinced many in the area to break out the golf clubs for the first time.

The warmer than normal conditions has allowed for the golf courses to dry out. You might have noticed that your drives are going further than they were earlier in the spring. However, is there another reason for increased ball flight? What weather conditions maximize the distance of your golf shots? How can you use the weather to lower your scores?

The driver heats up with the temperature and humidity

There is a common misconception that humid conditions result in reduced golf ball flight because the air is “thicker”. However, the opposite is true. The distance of golf shots increases with increased heat and humidity.

The reason for increased distance is because warm air is less dense than cold air. Additionally, warm and humid air is less dense than warm and dry air. Therefore, both the temperature and moisture content of the atmosphere affects the distance of golf shots.

However, the temperature of the air affects how far the golf ball goes more than the humidity. Andrew Rice, a golf teaching professional, ran an experiment on tour professionals to assess the effects of temperature on a golf ball.

The results of the studied found that driving distances increases by approximately two yards for every 10 degree rise in temperature. The difference in distance is less for higher lofted clubs like the pitching wedge.

Temperature (Fahrenheit)Driver (yards)4-iron (yards)7-iron (yards)PW (yards)
Distance of driver, 4-iron, 7-iron, and pitching wedge as a function of temperature at sea level pressure.

These numbers are taken at sea-level and would be much different at higher altitudes (see below). Also, this chart is for a golfer that hits the driver around 250 yards in 70 degree weather so adjust the values accordingly for your distances.

Climb the mountain for longer drives

The biggest impact on driving distance is the altitude of the golf course. The same study above found that the distance of golf shots increases approximately 4.5 yards for every 1,000 feet gained in elevation. Therefore, that same 250 yard drive with 70 degree temperatures at sea level would fly 270 yards with a 90 degree temperature at 7,000 feet elevation!

Now it probably makes sense why you see long drive competitions in the desert southwest. The combination of warm temperatures and higher elevations results in extremely long distances!

Desert Golf
Adobe Stock

The science behind the distance

Earlier in the article, I talked about how there is a misconception regarding humidity and its affect on the flight of golf balls. Higher moisture content actually makes the golf ball fly farther. How is this possible? Also, how does temperature and elevation affect the flight scientifically speaking?

First, we can begin with the easy ones: temperature and elevation. The “temperature” of our atmosphere is really a measure of how fast the molecules of air are moving. When the temperature is cold, air molecules are packed close together and move slowly which results in a high density.

When the temperature is hot, the air molecules are widely spaced and move with greater speed. This results in a lower air density and thus less resistance to a projectile such as a golf ball.

Visual description of air molecules moving slowly in cold temperatures and air molecules moving fast in warm temperatures. Image courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The reason for longer golf ball flight at elevation is also easy to explain. Decreased oxygen with increased elevation is one of the first things people think about when hiking in mountainous terrain. In fact, the amount of atmosphere in general decreases with increasing elevation.

The atmospheric pressure (or the force exerted by air molecules in the atmosphere) decreases exponentially with increasing elevation. Thus, there are fewer air molecules at 5,000 feet elevation than there are at sea level. The decrease in air molecules results in less resistance on the golf ball and farther ball flight.

This is the reason why golf shots fly further when playing on golf courses in the mountain west.

Mountain Golf
Adobe Stock

The reason for longer ball flight in humid conditions is a little harder to understand. First, it is important to understand what our atmosphere is composed of. The Earth is comprised of 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, <1% Argon, and 0.04% Carbon Dioxide. Several other gases make up 1% of Earth’s atmosphere and that includes water vapor which is the gaseous form of water.

Composition of Earth’s atmosphere. Image courtesy of NASA.

If you were to take an atmosphere comprised of air with absolutely no water content (which never happens on Earth), then you would have an atmosphere comprised mainly of diatomic Nitrogen (N2) and diatomic oxygen (O2). The atomic masses of N2 and O2 are 28 and 32, respectively.

The chemical formula for water vapor is H2O which is two Hydrogen atoms and one Oxygen atom. Hydrogen is the lightest element in the periodic table only having an atomic mass of 1. The atomic mass of oxygen is 16. Therefore, H2O has an atomic mass of only 18 which is less than that of N2 and O2.

Thus, when water vapor is added to the atmosphere, the H2O molecules displace the heavier diatomic Nitrogen and Oxygen molecules which results in less air density and less resistance to your golf ball. While humid air may feel heavier, it is always lighter than dry air.

The next time you go golfing, make sure to check the weather so you can blame it when your drive does not go very far!