Golf Balls: What’s the Difference? A lot, as it turns out.
Of course, regulation play requires them to be a specific size and weight, with that symmetrical dimple pattern. Outside of this, there can be a lot of variation.
The history of golf ball design is long and fascinating. Modern golf ball technology is surprisingly complicated but can be distilled down to a handful of qualities: core, cover, and dimple design. Which are the best golf balls for any given player will depend upon that player’s goals and type of play — regulation or non-regulation? Long game or short game? — and other factors.
Start with the Core
Let’s start with the core of your ball. The core is the innermost part of the golf ball, and is the ball’s main “power source.” It’s typically made of cured rubber. Golf balls can have a single or a dual core. Cores can be of different size, compression, resilience, and stiffness. These characteristics will affect the ball’s spin rate, distance, and “feel.” A dual-core, for example, gives a firmer feel, higher launch, and lower spin. This can be desirable for the long game, as it allows for greater distance.
A soft core also gives lower spin and great distance, but with a softer feel. A very soft core may be desirable for your short game, as it gives better control. A low compression core can give greater distance and higher ball speed. In general, the more layers a golf ball has, the more spin it will have. Golf balls with fewer layers give greater distance. You can read more about core technology and how it affects play in this interview with two golf ball designers from Titleist, as well as in this article at Golf Info.
The image below shows what’s inside commonly-used golf balls.
Surlyn vs. Urethane Golf Ball Covers
One of the main influences on the price of a golf ball is the coating or cover. Cheap golf balls — or at least less expensive ones — are typically covered with Surlyn— a type of plastic with elastic properties. More costly balls usually have a urethane cover. The cover affects the ball’s feel, as well as spin rate, backspin, and other factors.
Surlyn covers are often preferred by amateur golfers, as the coating doesn’t scuff or scratch easily. The balls are more durable and often give better distance. On the other hand, a urethane cover gives better spin, performance, and control. You can read more about the difference between urethane and surlyn golf ball covers at Golf Info.
Kids put golf balls with surlyn, ionomer, and urethane golf ball covers to the test.
As it just so happens, a couple of kids put golf balls with three kinds of covers to the test for a science fair. Their hypothesis was that the urethane golf ball would go farther than the surlyn one when putted. But their experiments proved them wrong. For them, The Surlyn ones went the greatest distance and the ionomer ones came close. Meanwhile, the more expensive urethane ones came in third by a long shot.
Believe it or not, this actually makes sense. After all, there’s more to good golf ball performance than how far you can hit them. As golf expert Clay Ballard explains below, the advantages of urethane golf balls are often lost on less advanced players.
This has always been an area rich with innovation and rife with controversy. Golf balls were basically smooth until around 1900. Then, natural dings and divots resulting from the club striking the ball were discovered to affect the ball’s flight, trajectory, and spin. Players were able to put a greater backspin on the ball, meaning it would stop more quickly on the green.
Regulation golf balls must have a symmetrical pattern of dimples, however, the number, depth, and distribution of dimples can vary. Most of them have around 336 dimples. Dimples increase the turbulence of the air around the ball in flight, which affects both backspin and sidespin. Dimples can make the ball go farther, or not so far; they can give the player greater control over the ball. Golf Info has some excellent in-depth articles about golf ball dimple physics and how it affects play, if you want to read more about it.
The Best Golf Balls for Your Play
Brian Comeau, Manager of Materials Research at Titleist Golf Balls, reminds us that, “It’s important to remember that no single element of design can determine the performance of the golf ball. There needs to be a symbiotic relationship between all of the elements, from the core to the intermediate layer, to the cover and dimple patterns.”
Golf A Lot has a golf ball buying guide that can help you to make sense of the many, many options out there, and find the best golf balls for your game.
Cheap Golf Balls
If you’re looking for inexpensive golf balls for everyday play, there are a variety of options available. Look for single-layer construction: many of the cheap ones are put together in one piece. Surlyn covers will also lower the price. You can even buy reclaimed golf balls, if you’re interested in recycling.
Personalized Golf Balls
Personalized golf balls can be a fun gift for your favorite golfer. They can also work great to hand out as a promotional item for your business. A Google search can turn up dozens of options for having them printed with your logo, slogan, or even a photo.
Whatever your play level, whatever your game, there’s a golf ball design out there that’s right for you.
Watch: Father and son What’s Inside? team cut open 300 golf balls to see what’s in them.
Featured image CC by CC0, via MaxPixel