If you consider the sheer number of golf ball options on the market, it is easy to get confused. There are seemingly as many types of golf balls as there are golfers, but the truth is a little more benign.
Each golf ball fits neatly into one of a few subgroups, and each of those subgroups is designed for golfers of a certain skill set.
In modern golf ball design, things are not as simple as they once were. Tour-level balls are not only for tour-level players anymore. Just like with golf clubs, manufacturers are now making balls intended to help the average player. And also like clubs, some golf balls are a little more remedial than others.If you’re just grabbing whatever golf balls are on sale in the pro shop before you’re round, you’re paying for it in strokes.
The right golf ball can help you be better at the things you do well, and it may fix some of the things you don’t do well. Choosing your golf ball wisely can make the difference between shooting in the 80s and wallowing in high-handicapper purgatory.
Top Picks By Ben Crane
Types of Golfers
Not all golfers swing alike, and no single golf ball could possibly suit everyone equally. Most importantly, no golf ball can correct for every possible swing flaw. Most are engineered to help golfers in one or two specific areas. Knowing your own skill set and flaws will help you settle on a winner. Let’s look at each skill level and see what those players typically tee up.
Scratch golfers and those with single-digit handicaps typically use tour-level golf balls. It’s not that these players are simply wealthy enough to afford these rather expensive accessories. They just do not lose nearly as many balls to O.B. and water hazards as bogey golfers do.
The tour-level balls these players use are not particularly long and are not particularly soft. They are engineered for the fastest clubhead speeds in the game. They can also have the highest spin rates off the scoring clubs, which makes for impressive greenside shots. Those high spin rates can also easily become slices and hooks in the hands of less-skilled players.
Bogey golfers get to that skill level because they know which equipment suits their game. They have put in the time experimenting and studying the different facets of golf – the games within the game. Hours spent on the range pay off in crisper irons eventually. Time on the putting green and in the practice bunker shave strokes one by one. But mid-handicappers also usually know enough to leave the tour-level gear alone.Mid-handicappers typically have many of the same swing flaws that high handicappers have. They simply use equipment that makes their misses less terrible. Their choice is a delicate tradeoff between feel and forgiveness, and that is especially true of their golf balls.
Any player with a handicap above 20 is generally considered a high handicapper. If this is you, do not be disheartened. Most high handicappers are either new to the game or do not have the time to practice and to improve. Some others are simply experiencing the typical decline in skills that comes with aging. Regardless of the reasons for your struggles, there is a golf ball that can help. The problem for many newbies is that they are lost in the weeds looking for their golf ball – literally and figuratively. They either assume that the golf ball they choose won’t matter, so they play anything, or they believe the most expensive balls will help them the most. Of course, that’s not always true. Choosing a golf ball to help you consistently break 90 is a matter of deciding where you need the most help and finding a ball that addresses that issue. So let’s see what separates one type of ball from another and help you find your diamond in the rough.
Golf Ball Guide
Some golf balls seem inordinately expensive. Others are comparatively dirt cheap. What gives? It isn’t all a matter of branding and marketing, though that side of the golf business surely has some effect. No, price differences are usually a matter of materials and manufacturing difficulty. Let’s uncover the humble golf ball and see what’s lurking under all those dimples. The answers will inform your decision on which golf ball you should play.
Golf Ball Construction
The history of golf ball construction is endlessly interesting, and knowing it can inform you about how we got to where we are today. But that is a subject for another article. What we are concerned with here is the modern golf ball – in all its multilayered splendor – starting with the core.
The core is the inner part of the golf ball, and it is where all the action takes place. The cover is certainly important, and the dimples make consistent flight possible, but it’s really all about the core. Manufacturers pour countless research hours into eliciting a precise response from the core of the golf ball. The characteristic they are manipulating with all that sorcery is compression.
Contact is the spark that ignites the fuel in the golf swing, but compression is the golf ball’s engine. There is a trick to compressing the golf ball, but it is a skill anyone can master. Where the engineering comes in is in the ability to tweak how much force is necessary to fully compress a ball.Once compressed, the elastomer in the ball snaps back into shape, returning much of the energy the golfer put into the strike. Check out this video to see compression in slow motion.
There is really a spectrum of densities in modern golf balls, which is expressed in numbers from 70 to 110. But for the sake of clarity, manufacturers usually divide them into two categories.
High-compression golf balls – those with a compression rating of 90 or more – have dense cores that require fast golf swings to fully compress. Being so dense, these balls snap back into shape quickly, noticeably jumping off the clubface. However, slower swingers cannot hit the ball hard enough fully compress it, making it impossible for them to take advantage of the distance gains possible with these balls.
These golf balls have compression ratings of 80 or less. The cores of low-compression balls deform easily, giving them a soft feel off the clubface. Players with slow swing speeds can take full advantage of their rebound effect, and they may even hit them further than traditional distance balls. The softer ball also stays stuck on the clubface fractionally longer, which improves backspin for higher trajectories.
We won’t go too far down this rabbit hole, but the important thing to note is that COR (coefficient of restitution) is a physics description of an object’s bounciness. It is a scale from 0 to 1, with higher numbers corresponding to materials that rebound with more of the energy put into them. Lower numbers mean softer materials. The tricky part is that most golf balls have a COR around .6, as long as they are struck with the swing speed they are designed for. This USGA video explains the science. It’s complex, but it’s not too dense. Watch this video
The material from which the cover is made can drastically affect the feel of the golf ball. Some materials have less drag than others, for example, so they spin less and fly straighter. Others are soft enough to allow the club’s grooves to bite into them – great for wedge spin, terrible for longevity. Luckily, you only have two choices.
Urethane is an organic polymer with unique properties that are easy for engineers to tweak. It is tough and resilient, yet it feels silky soft on impact. A golf ball with a urethane cover provides sensory feedback that better golfers use to dial in their short-game shots. The urethane is applied to the ball in a casting process that allows manufacturers to produce extremely thin covers. Golfers are rewarded with great short-game control and can take full advantage of the compression of the core. However, being made in small batches typically makes urethane-covered balls more expensive.
Ionomers are synthetic polymers that have many of the same properties as urethane. They are often made under brand names like Dupont’s Surlyn, which itself has many uses besides golf ball covers. These synthetic resins produce covers that are almost always tougher and smoother than urethane. Because the manufacturing process allows for much larger batches, ionomer-covered balls are almost always cheaper to produce than those with urethane covers. Manufacturers then pass those savings on to the customer. The tradeoff is a lack of feel. Synthetic covers almost never have the soft, buttery feel of urethane, which is the real reason that tour-level balls always have urethane covers. Synthetic covers are poured thick, partly because of the limitations of ionomers and partly because of manufacturing issues. Ionomer covers are thick and consequently produce a harsher feel, especially on off-center strikes. But these balls inflict less pain in the wallet when lost.
Two-Piece or Multi-Layered?
This distinction is more related to cover material than many golfers might assume. Two-piece balls are made up of one large core and a cover, which is almost always synthetic ionomer. Having only one material in the core limits what these balls can do to a single purpose – soft feel perhaps.Multilayered golf balls have an inner core surrounded by one or more mantle layers of elastomers with different properties. This way, engineers can tweak the ways in which balls respond to swings of different speeds or paths. Many tour balls have four or more layers, including the cover. Performance and prices both tend to rise with the amount of layers in a golf ball.
Types of Golf Balls
These golf balls have all the features better players need. Thin urethane covers provide bite and feel. Mantle layers are positioned to provide precise response at different levels and angles of deformation. Dense cores allow for explosive distance and couple with the mantle layers to give players the ability to hit any shot required. From 100 yards and in, tour balls earn their place in the bag. The check these balls can produce on greenside shots is amazing, and the feedback they give is invaluable for instilling the touch required to get it up and down. Players can expect to pay a premium for this tour-level performance, though.
These golf balls often have dense, high-compression cores that require moderately fast swing speeds to fully compress. If you have a slow swing speed and miss the sweet spot just a little, these types of high-compression balls will feel like stones on the clubface. They also won’t work. However, some distance balls do their magic differently, such as using a microscopically smooth ionomer cover that slips easily through the air. Less drag means more carry, with the added benefit of less curve on shots with sidespin. Balls that couple these high-tech covers with high-compression cores may add as much as a club’s worth of distance for those with mid-paced swing speeds.
Distance balls have different ways of doing their job, but the feel ball is a one-trick pony. The only real way to produce a soft feel in a two-piece ball is to use low-compression elastomer in the core. Because they deform easily, these balls have a squishy feel that eliminates much of the harshness imprecise golfers feel at impact. Even with ionomer covers, these golf balls earn their reputation for softness. Faster swing speeds will deform these golf balls too much, too quickly. The term for this is blowing up the ball, which results in a marshmallow feel and a noticeable loss of distance. Slower swingers may actually gain carry distance, because they are able to fully compress the ball. Either way, shots with the scoring clubs always feel silky with a low-compression ball. The ball sticks to the face on short irons, giving it time to zip up the grooves and produce backspin for higher flight, steeper descent and shorter putts.
The 6 Best Golf Balls for High Handicappers
Titleist Velocity – Best for players who crave distance
From the industry leader, the Titleist Velocity is a pure distance ball. It relies on a large, high-compression core to increase initial ball speed on the straighter clubs. The synthetic-blend ionomer cover reduces spin for straighter shots, and is tough enough to last for 18 holes. Even if one gets lost, it’s okay, because this is the most affordable ball in the Titleist lineup. It’s also the hottest. Trajectories are piercing, with peaks deep downrange.
Things We Liked
- Noticeably hotter off the driver than most other golf balls in the price range
- Quite soft for what is usually a segment of rock-hard golf balls
- Blended (NaZ2) ionomer cover is impressively scuff-resistant
- Flies straight, and higher than many distance balls
- Gets more roll on the ground
Things We Didn’t Like
- Even Titleist only claims the short game feel is “playable”
- Soft for the segment is still pretty hard when you miss the sweet spot.
Srixon Soft Feel – Best for slow swing speeds
The Srixon Soft Feel’s large 60-compression core is among the softest in golf, but its new gradient design means it is more difficult to over-compress. Srixon engineered the ionomer cover to be softer than ever, but it is as resilient as you would expect a synthetic cover to be. The result is a feel ball that plays more like a tour ball than it has any right to do. Faster swing speeds can still overpower the squishy core, though.
Things We Liked
- Plenty of pop for average swing speeds
- Soft core that anyone can compress
- Can play with any other ionomer-covered golf ball around the green
- Buttery on short irons and full wedges
- Cover can take a shot without scuffing or cutting
Things We Didn’t Like
- Average swing speeds or faster will lose distance
- Soft feel doesn’t translate to greenside spin – pitch with care!
Volvik Vivid – Best for average swing speeds
The Volvik Vivid incorporates a unique matte finish on its hyper-colored golf balls, but these balls are no gimmicks. The Vivid is a three-piece distance ball for players with slow-to-average swing speeds. The 80-compression core is surrounded by a harder mantle, the reverse of many other low-compression balls. The zirconium-blend ionomer cover is tough and has a soft feel comparable to urethane, and the vibrant colors are easy to spot on the course.
Things We Liked
- Nonconformist matte neon colors are just cool to look at.
- Has loud distance to match those loud looks
- Spinning shots around the greens feel almost urethane-like
- Noticeable distance gains for mid-speed swings
- Nice pop off the putter for an 80-compression ball
Things We Didn’t Like
- The blue ones disappear in the sky on a clear day
- Slower swingers can’t easily compress these past the hard mantle
Srixon Z-Star XV – Best for players who want max distance and tour feel
Srixon’s fifth version of the Z-Star is a tour-caliber distance ball. A hard ionomer mid-layer mantle transfers energy better to the core layers. The dual-gradient core is softer toward the middle to maximize deformation with the longer clubs. And the already-grippy urethane cover sports a special outer coating that creates added friction to improve spin on the scoring clubs. Average-to-fast swingers who lose shots around the green have been wishing for a ball like this.
Things We Liked
- A tour ball that plays like a distance ball off the tee
- Urethane cover has great feel, and the spray-on coating works
- Hard mid-layer produces noticeable pop with the driver
- Plays the low spinner like the big boys
- Cover is surprisingly resilient for urethane
Things We Didn’t Like
- Extra spin from coating is hard to master for feel players
- Length is deceptive; club down on long approach shots
Bridgestone B RXS – Best for slow swingers who work the ball
Bridgestone redesigned the B RX and B RXS to be a tour-quality ball for the average golfer. The RXS has a softer, gradational core that players with slower swings can easily compress. Otherwise, this is a tour ball. Its proprietary SlipRes urethane cover has a buttery feel that belies its resilience – one-ball rounds are doable. The zip that cover produces around the greens is where this ball can save improving players strokes.
Things We Liked
- Tour-level ball for average swing speeds
- SlipRes urethane produces predictable spin from a tough cover
- Gradational core is compressible for anyone
- Improved distance with no sacrifice in feel and playability
- Feels identical to the B XS off the putter, and that’s a good thing
Things We Didn’t Like
- Faster swings will blow up the soft core, gradational or not
- The redesign had B330-RXS fans in a tizzy, but most are now content
Bridgestone E6 – Best for those who want distance with feel
The words soft and distance don’t always go together, but the E6 is an exception to a lot of rules. The core is gradational, getting firmer toward the middle to keep it from over compressing. The reformulated Surlyn cover is softer than in previous generations, with a unique dimple geometry that produces a straighter flight. But the star is the mantle layer. Few distance balls have three pieces, but this one has a firm, anti-spin outer core that increases rebound and produces less sidespin.
Things We Liked
- One of the softest distance balls available
- Surlyn cover is durable yet approximates urethane
- Mantle layer effective at reducing side spin
- Unique dimple geometry helps produce piercing flight
- Three-piece design is rare for the category
Things We Didn’t Like
- Will blow up for faster swings
- Like cold medicine for a slice – won’t heal it, just makes it less awful.
At first glance one golf ball is like any other golf ball. The rules of golf dictate that, but there is still enough leeway for innovation within the rules. Manufacturers are taking advantage of modern engineering and materials to produce golf balls unlike any before them. The corrections they make to our games are more helpful, and the compromises we have to make to use them are less severe all the time. No matter your miss, there’s a golf ball on this list that can alleviate it. There are no magic cures, but sometimes a spoonful of medicine helps.