Golf Ball Technology Changes with the Times
It wasn’t too long ago that selecting a golf ball was easy, because you had two basic choices: A balata-covered wound ball, or a two-piece Surlyn-covered ball. Balata balls were considered “players” balls because the soft cover produced high spin rates, even off the driver. This ball went shorter but had excellent control into the greens. Surlyn was a very durable cover material, and its lower spin rates meant increased distance off the tee, combined with decreased control into the greens.
This all changed around the year 2000, when two things happened. First, the discovery of the Precept MC Lady golf ball by advanced golfers. They found that they got more distance than with balata balls, but still had a soft feel and decent control into the greens. This led to a sea-change of softer-core Surlyn balls coming into the marketplace. The second was the introduction of urethane as a cover material. Softer than balata, but with more durable properties, urethane covers could now be combined with solid cores, something not possible with balata. Callaway introduced its Rule 35 ball, and other companies quickly followed suit.
Today, golf balls come in all sorts of constructions. You have hard covers and soft covers; hard cores and soft cores; single cores and multiple cores. Endless combinations are
possible with all of these variables. How can we help our students pick a golf ball that
suits them, and for that matter, ourselves? It’s important to have accurate information at our disposal to give informed advice.
Believe it or not, golf balls today all are about in the same distance range as any other! Tests with hitting machines show that the farthest golf ball goes only about 10 yards more with a driver than the shortest golf ball at a swing speed of 90 mph. So-called “distance” balls are not necessarily leading this category, as some premium urethane-covered balls are also at the top end of this spectrum. The main difference is in spin rates, where urethane-covered balls easily out-spin distance balls with both mid-irons and wedges.
A myth that persists to this day is that a golfer needs to “compress” a ball in order to achieve maximum distance, and that this cannot be done by golfers with lower swing speeds using “harder” balls. The fact is that a certain golf ball will compress about the same with the same club, regardless of swing speed (unless the swing speed is very low).
A relatively new development in the past decade is the multiple-layer golf ball. Presently, the most layers any ball has are five, but it’s possible we will see even more in the future. Engineers tell us that the more layers, the more the spin rates can be controlled with different clubs. Today, the same golf ball that produces a very low spin rate off the driver can produce a very high spin rate off the wedge – in other words, a steeper “spin slope.” Generally, the fewer layers a ball has, the less steep the spin slope is.
There are two schools of thought regarding premium urethane balls. One involves having a harder version for distance and a softer version for increased spin. An example would be the Titleist Pro V1 X (harder) and the Pro V1 (softer). The other school of thought involves having differing models based on swing speed. Callaway does this with its Hex Black (higher swing speeds) and Hex Chrome (lower swing speeds). Bridgestone, not wanting to choose between schools of thought, combines both with four different models in its B-330 series.
Given all this, how can we best recommend a ball for our students, and for that matter, to pick one for ourselves? Since distance is virtually no factor, the main thing is selecting a ball based on spin rate. Advanced golfers will want a premium urethane ball to maximize approach shot and greenside control. Average and high-handicap golfers may do better with Surlyn-covered (often referred to as ionomer-covered) balls, to reduce sidespin associated with mis-hits. Since Surlyn balls are less expensive than urethane balls, golfers who tend to lose a lot of balls will do better to stick with Surlyn. Also, if they are losing a lot of balls, their lesser skill level means the better playability of urethane balls probably won’t benefit them on approach shots or greenside shots, anyway.
But, make no mistake – some less expensive Surlyncovered balls offer surprisingly good greenside control. They may not be the worst option for more advanced players on a budget.
Technology in golf changes rapidly, and golf balls are no exception. What we are using today certainly may be old news tomorrow.