Potential & Kinetic Energy

Paula Creamer’s powerful swing has made her one of the top golfers on the LPGA tour. Creamer's swing is analyzed with a high speed Phantom camera in order to illustrate the physics concepts of potential and kinetic energy. "Science of Golf" is produced in partnership with the United States Golf Association and Chevron.

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DAN HICKS, reporting: It's the shot heard 'round the tee.

The big drive down the fairway that can make the difference on any hole.

PAULA CREAMER (LPGA): But you know instantly if you hit it good or you hit it bad. I’m able to get more within my golf swing but that's the greatest thing about golf is that everybody has a different golf swing.

HICKS:  Paula Creamer’s swing has made her one of the top golfers on the LPGA tour.  In 2014, she sank a 75 foot putt to win an LPGA tournament. Though Creamer and other players may have different techniques, all golf swings need energy--specifically potential and kinetic energy--to make the ball go.

STEVE QUINTAVALLA, (Equipment Standards, USGA): A golfer's swing is the most critical part of getting energy into the golf ball.

HICKS: Potential energy, often called stored energy, is the energy an object possesses due to its position, or the arrangements of its parts.

Potential energy comes in many types, from the stored chemical energy in dynamite, to the elastic energy of a stretched slingshot, to the gravitational energy of a roller coaster at the top of a hill.

QUINTAVALLA: In order to make anything move, you have to have some form of potential energy. Whether it's a golf ball or an automobile there's always some form of potential energy that's being converted into kinetic energy.

HICKS: Kinetic energy is energy that occurs when an object is in motion. It also comes in many types, such as when a cannon is fired.  There is kinetic energy in the motion of the cannonball, as well as in its heat and sound.

HICKS: To understand the exchange of potential and kinetic energy in golf, we filmed Paula Creamer with a high-speed phantom camera that captured her swing at up to 10,000 frames per second. 

HICKS: During Creamer’s backswing, the club has some kinetic energy because it’s moving. At the top of the backswing, it also has some gravitational potential energy because of its position. But most of the potential energy here is the chemical energy that will come from Creamer’s muscles, which will power her swing. 

QUINTAVALLA: All of the potential energy in a golf drive is in the body of the golfer.  It's chemical potential energy that gets converted by the body into physical motion.

HICKS: Once the club starts moving in the downswing, this potential energy is transformed into kinetic energy.

JIM HUBBELL, USGA: The club starts with potential energy, translates all that potential energy into kinetic energy at the bottom of the swing and that potential energy converts into kinetic energy in the ball as it flies away.

HICKS: When the club hits the ball, the ball is compressed and the shaft of the club bends. In both cases, some of the kinetic energy of the club head is converted into elastic energy. Both the club and the ball snap back, pushing the ball forward with kinetic energy in the form of motion, as well as thermal and sound kinetic energy.

HUBBELL: Due to energy losses in the ball, due to energy losses to minor amounts of friction and sound, it’s not perfectly translated into the ball.  

HICKS: After the ball is struck, the exchange of potential and kinetic energy continues. This mechanical kinetic energy helps the ball rise into the air, loading it with the potential to fall back to earth due to gravity.

QUINTAVALLA: And then the ball trades potential energy back for kinetic energy as it comes down and hits the ground.

HICKS: The concepts of potential and kinetic energy are an important part of understanding the stem principles behind the game, especially to golfers like Paula Creamer who depend on a solid swing to win championships.

CREAMER: You're so much in control of what you do.  And it's fun.  It's hard.  It's frustrating.  Yes.  But it is so worth it when you are-- you're holding the trophy at the end because you did it yourself.

HICKS: From the backswing to the ball's landing, potential energy and kinetic energy are a part of every shot in golf.

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