Can a computer model conquer golf’s toughest 12th hole?

Jonas Blixt of Sweden tees off on No. 12. (Credit: Sam Greenwood/Augusta National Golf Club)

A new computer model is meant to help golfers cope with wicked winds, starting with the unruly gusts that test the world’s best every April on the legendarily blustery 12th hole at the Masters.

Rajat Mittal, an aerodynamics expert at Johns Hopkins University, developed the model with Neda Yaghoobian, a postdoctoral scholar in his mechanical engineering lab. The system, based on computational fluid dynamics, incorporates information on tree canopies to predict how varying wind direction and speed will affect the accuracy of a golf shot.

“This level of analysis has not been available to golfers.”

The researchers also used computer simulations to explore the impact of factors such as spin and launch angle on the flight of the golf ball.

For their proof-of-concept research, the team collected data from a hole known as Golden Bell, the famed par-3 12th at Georgia’s Augusta National Golf Club. The course is the site of the Masters, one of men’s golf’s four major annual tournaments (April 9-12 this year).

Though the 12th is the shortest hole at Augusta, it is subject to unpredictable winds that swirl over and around surrounding trees. It also features a shallow, well-protected green—fronted by a water hazard and bracketed by three sand traps—that often punishes errant shots. The fickle winds can prompt top golfers to tee off with anything from a six-iron to a nine-iron, the Masters website says.

‘Scariest 155 yards in golf’

A 2012 Golf Digest article dubbed the hole “the scariest 155 yards in golf.” It describes how even the world’s top golfers often misjudge the wind conditions, leaving shots short in the water or sometimes overshooting the green significantly.

To gauge wind conditions, golfers often check the flag on the green or throw a few blades of grass in the air. But Mittal—who describes himself as a recreational golfer—and Yaghoobian collected and processed more precise scientific data. In addition to local weather records—particularly wind conditions—they also gathered information about the topography of the hole and its plant canopy.

Their computer simulations showed that the tall trees surrounding the 12th hole have a significant impact on the accuracy of tee shots. They also found that winds from certain directions—particularly the southwest and northwest—are the most dangerous for this hole.

“Our primary goal was to develop a computational tool that could integrate all of these kinds of information to see if it can help predict how the wind will influence a golf ball’s flight on a difficult hole like this one,” Mittal says. “This level of analysis has not been available to golfers.”

With more development, the researchers say, the system might be incorporated into a portable device or application that could help golfers at any course decide what club to use, how hard to hit the ball, and how best to aim the shot, all based on a particular hole’s weather conditions, terrain, and other factors.

“We think that this prototype system is a promising first step toward an app or software program that could help golfers, course designers, and even sports commentators,” Mittal adds.

Yaghoobian presented the team’s early findings in November at a meeting of the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics. Mittal and Yaghoobian have a provisional patent covering the computational tool developed for this project.

Source: Johns Hopkins University