On the face of it one golf ball looks much like another. Yet if you believe some of the hyped-up marketing, there are dozens to choose from, each with different flight characteristics, each promising a magic fix for your game.
Choosing a ball
The truth is somewhere in between. Golf balls divide into two basic types: the distance ball, which feels hard off the clubface and produces relatively little backspin, and the performance ball, which has a softer skin and offers more spin.
Then there is the so-called compromise ball which aims to combine distance with a degree of feel. The difference in feel and performance are significant and the lesson of this is clear - whichever ball, you choose you need to think about its key characteristics every time you step up to play a shot.
Here's some answers to some frequently asked questions about golf balls which may help you decide when making your next purchase.
What kind of ball do I need if I want more length off the tee?
To most golfers the biggest embarassment is being the shortest hitter in the fourball - that's why most pro shops sell more distance balls than all the other types put together.
A distance ball does have its advantages, especially if your course has a lot of long carries off the tee or the greens are soft and receptive, especially in the winter.
A harder ball will also provide some damage limitation to your bad shots. That's because a performance ball spins at about 9,000rpm whereas a harder ball spins at about 7,000rpm.
In other words it offers a 20% reduction in backspin and sidespin. So if you slice or hook, a harder ball will reduce the curvature through the air.
If hitting your approach shots last in your group is what matters to you, a distance ball may deliver. But the putting surfaces need to be very receptive, otherwise playing a hard ball will cost you shots around the green.
So length isn’t everything then?
Certainly not. Long drives are good for the ego but they don't necessarily make the hole any easier. For instance, you might smash your distance ball 20 yards past your playing partner's but if he's playing a soft ball he may well have an easier approach shot - especially if the pin is at the front or the green is small.
That's when distance counts for nothing. Sometimes you're better off being a bit further back, confident that you've got a ball you can control with your shot to the green.
If I’m happy with my length off the tee but it’s control with medium and long irons, what’s the ball I need?
Choose a ball to suit the greens you play on most – your home course.
For the ideal ball for approach shots, you need to analyse the greens on the course you usually play. Small or well protected greens with bunkers or tricky hollows demand a ball that can spin a lot and sit down quickly. A ball with a soft cover would be your choice provided you're playing from a good lie.
A wide green will give the illusion of size but often it's shallow - only around 12 yards from front to back – so your margin of error is small.
With a soft-cover ball you can pitch it on the green and stop it; a hard ball will most likely demand you pitch it short and let it run on - a little more tricky and far more potential for a bad bounce.
Why turn down the opportunity to land the ball on the green? It's the best prepared surface on the course so you'll be virtually guaranteed a consistent bounce.
So size of greens and quality of surface dictates the ball I choose?
It will help, yes. If you play a course where the greens are large, with room at the mouth to run the ball, a harder ball will be fine. If not, reap the rewards with a softer ball for more control.
If I want to make the most of my short game is there a type of ball that’s best for me?
It’s good advice to match club with ball to get it running. Faced with a chip shot with plenty of green to work with, settle for the option that gets the ball running along the ground as soon as possible.
A cute, high-lofted shot might look spectacular but the chances of pulling it off in front of your mates are less than 50-50.
Your choice if you use a hard ball is to take a 7 or 8-iron and run the ball up to the pin imparting a little more spin with a sharper downward blow. Alternatively if you're a 'soft ball' user, rely on a 5- or 6- iron and let the ball release.
Go for less loft with a soft ball than you would with a hard ball, to minimise spin and get the ball running up the green.
What’s the best kind of ball to impart backspin?
While many amateur golfers are looking for extra distance, almost as many demand that they spin the ball back from beyond the flagstick. Both requests are contrary with the same ball.
A hard ball's spin rate is not high enough to produce high levels of ‘juice’, ‘action’ or backspin.
Three things combine to produce a shot that spins back: a ball with a soft-cover and a high-spinning construction ball; an excellent descending blow with clean contact and clean, dry grooves on the clubface.
Grooves grip the ball at impact and provide a fair percentage of its spin, Many club golfers' grooves are clogged with dry mud, killing any decent chance of spin before the swing even begins.
Don't make the same mistake. Use a wooden tee-peg to scrape out the mud from the grooves and keep them clean. You'll notice an immediate improvement in the spin you generate from your irons.
Which ball do I need to hit it high over sand or a hazard and make it stop?
Chipping over a bunker almost always pays dividends when using a performance ball.
There's no way you can spin and stop a harder ball without landing it perilously close to the far side of the bunker in the fringe. Even then it's likely to bounce on a leave you a long putt.
This is a victory for the soft ball. It's the only sensible option.
I’m looking to improve my chipping from the fringe and want the ball to check and run out to the hole.
This is another example of how a performance ball will have a dramatic effect on short shots for example that 20-foot chip from fringe grass.
A softer ball will come off the clubface more slowly and a little higher because of its greater spin rate. It will also land more softly and run out less than a harder ball. This helps control the first bounce and ultimately the weight of the shot.
If you pitch a harder ball on the green, it will run away from you, Pitch it on the fringe and you're entering the unknown.
The softer ball is a winner here by far. With any kind of delicate chip, it's the only chance you've got of knocking it close.
I tend to get in a lot of sand. Which ball is the best option?
With a longish bunker shot, you will generate enough clubhead speed with a soft ball to get the ball spinning rapidly and stopping almost on the spot. Alternatively use a less-lofted club to produce a longer running trajectory to get the ball rolling up to a top tier.
With a harder ball a low, running shot is the only option.
However if cost is a factor a harder ball is more durable. After two or three shots from sand, the grooves on the club combined with the abrasive sand tends to mark the ball.
If I don’t want to lose my putting touch, which ball should I choose?
A softer cover means the ball will roll more slowly on most greens. Choosing the ideal ball depends chiefly on the type of putter you use and the type of greens you usually play on.
If you use one of the popular insert face clubs it's easy to leave putts short - accentuated by using a soft ball and on slow greens you'll feel you have to give the ball a serious rap - not conducive to a smooth stroke for judging distance consistently. On fast greens it's less of a problem.
Think about the speed of the greens and the type of putter you use. Beware mixing slow greens with a soft ball and a soft-faced putter.
So the type of course I regularly play on should dictates the type of ball best suited for me?
That’s right. Many factors come into play when selecting the right golf ball to suit you and the course you play. If length isn't a major factor and the greens are well protected and small, a soft performance ball will help you more than you dreamed.
If it's a monster, with long carries and big greens, a distance ball has its merits, though around the greens it can be a disadvantage. A compromise ball, okay for distance and offering a little more feel around the greens could be the answer.
Cost and durability are obviously key factors but if you want to maintain a low handicap, the playability of the performance ball is an essential. If you're still not convinced take a hard ball and a soft ball on to the course and play one against the other for nine holes. You'll be amazed by the difference in feel and performance, especially if you're a straight-hitter.
Granted, you'll lose a bit of distance off the tee with a softer ball, but the increased options around the greens could well knock a stroke or three off your score.
What balls do the professionals use?
Tiger Woods - Nike ONE Tour D
Phil Mickelson - Callaway HEX Chrome+
Bubba Watson - Titleist Pro V1x
Rory McIlroy - Nike 20XI X
Paula Creamer - Bridgestone Golf TOUR B330-RX