Golf Balls Ultimate Guide: How to Pick the Right Ball

Choosing the Best Ball for You

Many people are unaware of the impact of the wrong type of golf ball on their game. This guide should give you all the information you need to make a more informed decision the next time you decide to stock up on ammo.

Golf Balls Ultimate Guide: Introduction

Golf balls have come a long way since the days of stuffing a top hat’s worth of goose feathers into a small leather pouch!

Prior to the Titleist Pro V1 being launched in 2000, there were essentially two types of ball. Tour players and elite amateurs would most likely use a three-piece wound ball probably with a balata cover. 

Everyone else tended to use a two-piece ball. This would have been due to two main reasons: cost and performance. The balata cover on the most expensive balls would damage easily if the ball was not struck correctly. These types of balls offered the best feel and performance for the most accomplished players.

By contrast, two-piece balls would last longer even if they weren’t struck correctly. They didn’t offer the same level of feel and so were less favored by the better players.

Today we have a much wider variety of balls available with some manufacturers producing five-piece balls. Each model targets a different segment of the market:

  • seniors
  • ladies
  • low handiappers
  • high handicappers
  • etc.

Don’t start playing a particular model of ball just because your favorite professional uses it. There’s a good chance they are being paid to play that particular ball. Even if they’re not the chances are they will want very different things from their golf ball than you do.

Pro V1 with Canadian open logo
Titleist Pro V1 – King of Golf Balls!

How Golf Balls are Made

A typical high-quality modern golf ball will go through a variety of processes before it reaches the retailer. 

Here are the 10 stages of the manufacturing process that a Titleist Pro V1 goes through:

  • Core Mixing: Each model of golf ball has its own unique makeup. The various elements that make up the core of the ball are mixed to produce the desired formulation.
  • Core Molding: The core material is then extruded to create blanks which are then compression moulded to form the core of the ball
  • Grinding: The cores are then ground to remove any imperfections leaving a perfect sphere
  • Casing Layer: A thin casing layer is then moulded onto the core
  • Urethane Cover: The ball then gets cast with a unique urethane elastomer cover
  • Removing the Casts: The casts are then removed and the balls move into the final stages of the process
  • X-Raying: The balls are x-rayed and weighed to check for any flaws
  • Buffing: The balls then buffed to tidy them up
  • Painting: The ball get painted and logoed and the final clear coat
  • Hand Checks: Final hand checks are then performed  to maintain quality.

Not surprising that the best golf balls often cost $50 per dozen! Manufacturing has improved over recent years to make balls much more consistent. In years past some professionals would test the balls they received to make sure they were in balance but these days I don’t think that is a concern.

All golf balls have to conform to rules laid down by the game’s governing bodies the USGA and the R&A

Balls must not have a weight greater than 1.62 ounces and should have a diameter of at least 1.68 inches. They are also tested to make sure they do not exceed an initial velocity of 250ft/s.

In fact every month a list is produced of all the balls that have been tested and conform to the rules. Anyone playing in professional or elite amateur tournaments has to use a ball that is on this list. Even if you are playing in just club events to be safe you should stick to balls that are on the list.

A selection of different golf balls

Components of a Golf Ball

Many different compounds are used in a variety of combinations to alter the characteristics of the golf ball. That’s why you find such a variety of different models available.

The models will have been tuned to appeal to different segments of the market. From beginners to tour pros. People with fast swings to people with slow swings. People who love to hit the ball a long way and people that like to see a golf ball that they can control.

Cover

A natural substance called balata was used as the cover of performance balls from as early as 1903. Better players gravitated to that type of ball because it gave a better ‘feel’. Unfortunately, balata was a soft substance and so was very easily damaged. Not so good if you are a recreational player who doesn’t strike the ball consistently. Or if you have a tendency to hit the ball into trees and other hazards that would damage the ball.

Manufacturers were always looking for ways to improve. By the late ’90s, many manufacturers had been looking at other options such as urethane. In 2000, the Titleist Pro V1 was the model that changed the face of golf ball construction.

Today, the three most likely substances used as golf ball covers are surlyn, ionomer and urethane.

Premium models tend to use urethane or ionomer, while more budget-friendly balls tend to have a surlyn cover. Urethane or ionomer tend to give a softer feel and that is another reason why they are featured on more premium brands. Surlyn is more hard-wearing and is, therefore, better suited to budget options. These are likely to be favored by beginners and intermediates.

Dimples

Most manufacturers have tended to stick to circular dimples. Some have ventured into the realms of using different shapes such as hexagons.

The dimples on the golf ball perform a very important function as they are what provide lift. This was first discovered many years ago when players found that their old scuffed golf balls flew through the air much better than the new ones.

The advent of rubber in the production of golf balls allowed manufacturers to pre-mark the ball to generate additional lift. The design of the dimple patterns on a golf ball are one area that the manufacturers spend an awful lot of time testing to perfect. 

Titleist tour soft
Titleist Tour Soft – slightly cheaper option

The Core and Mantles

Two-Piece Ball

The materials in the core are quite different from balls of 30+ years ago. The basic premise with a two-piece ball is that you have a large core and the cover.

two-piece balls are generally aimed at beginners and intermediates and therefore are likely to have a harder wearing surlyn cover. This type of construction along with the materials used gives them a harder feel than more complicated premium models.

Typically two-piece balls will spin less than their more expensive cousins and so will generally travel further. The reduced spin also has an additional benefit for lower-skilled players, the ball is likely to hook or slice less than the premium models.

Three-Piece Ball

A three-piece ball used to mean one which had a rubber thread wrapped around a central core before a cover was applied.

These days a three-piece ball is constructed of a smaller core with a mantle layer between it and the cover.

The size and type of materials used in the core and mantle along with the type of cover will be adjusted by the manufacturer. They are trying to produce balls that give precedence to either control, feel or distance.

Four-Piece Balls

The four-piece ball will have an extra mantle. Depending upon the materials used, the size of the mantles and the core will determine which aspect of the ball is affected most.

Five-Piece Balls

The only major manufacturer producing a five-piece ball at the moment is TaylorMade.

TaylorMade is just looking to trade off one aspect of the performance of the ball with another. In their case by using an extra layer

Bridgestone B330 RX
Bridgestone Tour B series

Compression

The compression rating of a golf ball is a measure of how much the ball compresses or deforms at impact. The lower the number the easier the ball is to compress.

Ladies, juniors and seniors might find a lower compression ball offers better performance for them. This is because of their slower swing speeds.

Conversely, those with high swing speeds would probably lean towards higher compression models such as ones rated at 100.

The Why Do Golf Balls Spin?

Most golfers are looking to generate more spin on the golf ball. Not all spin is created equal, however.

Most of the time golfers are looking to generate more backspin to help them stop their ball quicker on the greens.

Beginners and intermediate players tend to have too much sidespin on the ball due to poor swing mechanics. 

The factors that determine how much a golf ball will spin are:

  • loft of the club that you used to hit it, the velocity of the clubhead
  • the composition of the ball (in particular the cover)
  • the composition of the materials in the clubhead 
  • whether or not you have kept the grooves and clubface clean. 

One common misconception is that the grooves actually impart spin on the ball. That’s not entirely true. The primary function of grooves is to remove debris that might interfere with the contact between the ball and the clubface at impact.

You may notice when the weather is particularly wet or if you are playing from the rough that you get what is known as a ‘flyer’. It is caused by grass or water getting between the clubface and ball at impact which causes a reduction in the amount of spin imparted. This causes the ball to take off on a lower trajectory and will generally end up with a shot that flies further than you intended.

The point that you strike the golf ball relative to its center of gravity will determine how much backspin you will get relative to sidespin. A well-struck shot below the center of gravity in the center of the ball will lead to a shot that flies fairly straight with a predictable flight. 

Should you strike the ball to the left or right of center then you could be imparting a significant amount of sidespin. This would cause the ball to swerve in flight. It is known as hooking or slicing.

Testing has shown that a driver swing speed of 90 mph will produce back spin of around 3017 rpm. Compare that to a recent test of 52° wedges which had spin rates from 8,225 rpm up to 10,270 rpm!

For those weekend warriors looking to produce tour levels of backspin then you are probably going to be disappointed. The vast majority of players do not have the clubhead speed, the technical ability or use the right ball in order to achieve those sorts of results.

Srixon AD333
One of Srixon’s cheaper models

Questions You Need to Ask

Do you generate enough clubhead speed to get the best out of premium balls such as the Pro V1? Manufacturers would love it if everyone used their premium offering but in reality, most players don’t generate enough ball speed to put those balls in their golf bag.

Players with slower swing speeds would likely benefit from a lower compression ball such as the Wilson Staff Duo Soft which is the softest ball on the market at the time of writing.

Do you spend a lot of time retrieving balls from hazards? If so you might be better looking at balls with a more durable cover.

Do you currently put a lot of sidespin on your golf ball? If so a lower spinning ball might suit you better and reduce the hook or slice on your shots. Distance balls tend to have lower spin rates so could be worth checking out.

Cost

Unless you happen to be a tour player then you are going to have to pay for any golf balls that you use. With premium balls costing $50 per dozen, this is likely to be the biggest factor in determining which ball you will play.

You need to honestly appraise your game. If you are losing multiple balls per round then can you really afford to buy the most expensive premium type balls?

Even if you can, is a premium golf ball likely to give you significant benefits?

Feel

To a certain extent, feel is subjective. I have played with many players down the years who claim to not be able to tell the difference between a premium ball and a budget ball. While it is possible these days to get budget balls that feel quite playable the area where you will notice a difference most is around the greens. I find the putter is often the most revealing.

Other Considerations

If you have poor eyesight then you might even consider balls that are available in high visibility colors. Actually being able to see where your ball has finished is probably quite high on your list of priorities. As my eyesight has deteriorated I have started playing with yellow balls much more often.

To stay within the rules as a competitive player means you can’t use X-Out balls or other balls not on the conforming list. However, there is nothing stopping you from saving some money by buying logoed balls.

Most manufacturers offer a customization service where they will add a logo or slogan of the customer’s choice. For a variety of reasons, the customer may not buy the whole print run. The manufacturer will then sell on these perfectly acceptable balls well below the normal retail price.

Over the years I have taken advantage of this many times to purchase premium balls for around half their normal price.

Depending upon where you live you may also decide to save your premium balls for the summer/competitive rounds. In the UK for example winter golf often means temporary greens and soaking wet, muddy fairways. In these conditions, it doesn’t really matter what ball you play so I think cost becomes the primary deciding factor.

Nike Tour Rzn
Nike Rzn

Testing Procedure

Try to come up with a shortlist of models based on your budget and style of play. You could then purchase a sleeve of three balls the next time you have a practice session or play a round of golf. 

First of all, I would test the balls out on the putting green since this is the area where feel is most important. 

It might be a good idea to use some form of putting game and then keep a count of how well you do with each different model. Make a few notes on how the ball feels off your putter face. Are you able to judge long-distance putts accurately?

You could then practice chipping to various targets to see if you get the desired performance. 

When you’re out on the course try hitting shots from specific distances (eg 150-yard marker) to see if you are happy with the distance you are getting.

When you use your driver make a note of the holes and the approximate distances you managed to achieve. Ideally, you want to try this when the course is quiet so you can hit a few extra shots without causing any problems.

After you’ve managed to try out all the balls on your shortlist it’s really then up to you to weigh up which features are most important to you.

Whatever you decide I would commit to sticking to that particular model of ball going forward since that will help breed consistency. Chopping and changing between different models is not going to help your game.

Golf Balls Ultimate Guide
Srixon Z-Star

Conclusion

In terms of finding the right ball, you need to weigh up all of these factors to determine your preferred ball. These days the difference in distance between ‘distance’ and ‘feel’ balls is minimal.

I would suggest finding a ball that ‘feels’ best to you on and around the greens as this is where a high percentage of your shots will take place. It is also the area where you can make dramatic improvements in your score.

Just to give you an idea of my own selection. I decided to go with the Srixon Z-star. This was because of a combination of performance and price. The Z star is Srixon’s premium ball and offers a good mix of feel, spin and distance. The big advantage that this ball has over the Titleist Pro V1 is that you can often find retailers selling it for around half the price of the Titleist.

I have done some launch monitor testing using a range of premium golf balls so you can see the difference between the models.

Remember that the best golf ball for Rory or Bryson is not necessarily the best golf ball for you! Picking the right ball could save you a few strokes per round though!

Further Reading

To get a better idea of the best Titleist ball to suit your game take a look at the Titleist ball fitting tool.

Srixon’s range of golf balls along with performance details can be found at their golf ball fitting page.

The Bridgestone ball selector tool offers a couple of interesting options including the opportunity to video yourself so their ball fitting experts can suggest the correct ball for you.

Callaway golf’s ball selector is more straightforward.

TaylorMade also has a golf ball selector but I think you will need a VPN to access it outside the US.

Wilson don’t appear to have a golf ball selector however they do have a blog article explaining how to pick the best ball for you from their range.

Volvik has a fitting tool as well as an explanation of why the balls the pros use may not be right for you.

Vice golf is one of the newer manufacturers and they are making a bit of a splash, they also offer a golfball selector tool.

FAQ

Why do golf balls have numbers on them?

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