We all crave distance, but how a golf ball performs on approach shots and around the green is what saves the most strokes. Maybe that's why manufacturers are focusing on feel—by lowering compression and reformulating softer covers to make chips and pitches check up quicker. It's what we saw in our review of 59 balls for the 2014 Hot List. Both in robot testing and player comments, the meaningful differences clearly came off the short wedge shots, not from the driver. The following pages highlight our favorite balls in three price categories (Over $36, $21-$36, and $20 and Under). So search for distance, but let feel make the final decision.
— Mike Stachura
GOLD: Balls that earned a score of 93 to 100 on our weighted scale.
SILVER: Balls that earned a score of 88 to 92.99.
Star ratings represent a scoring range within each price category. A ½-star is equal to the upper end of a particular range.
< 50 ........................
Price: $45 dozen
This series continues to be unmatched in its variety and commitment to ball-fitting. An intriguing upgrade this year: water-infused cores designed to produce less driver spin.
B330: It's built for Freddie swing speeds with a firmer mantle layer and firmer outer core (pictured). The water-infused core design reduces driver spin.
B330-S: Aimed at 105-mph swing speeds, the four-piece design features the softest cover of any of the B330 balls for high spin around the greens.
B330-RX:The urethane-cover enhances spin on short shots, but its soft compression and thinner mantle layer (20 percent less than before) and new core decrease driver spin.
B330-RXS: The softest overall ball in the B330 line, the new core design means less driver spin, but you'll get more short game spin than RX.
SPEED REGIME (SR1, SR2, SR3)
Price: $48 dozen
Everybody has thought about matching golf-ball compression to different swing speeds. But Callaway also found three unique dimple-pattern aerodynamics to maximize tee balls.
Speed Regime SR1: Designed with swing speed specific aerodynamics, SR1 targets sub-90 mph speeds by increasing lift for longer carry (pictured).
Speed Regime SR 2: Focused on the 90-105 mph swinger, the five-piece construction (two cores, two mantles, cover) is designed for less initial drag than SR1 and more lift than SR3.
Speed Regime SR 3: The firmest overall compression in the series, it features the lowest initial drag for better initial flight for the highest swing speeds.
RZN PLATINUM/RZN BLACK
Price: $46 dozen
RZN Platinum: Like the RZN Black, the RZN Platinum has the new resin polymer core and softer cover, but it's even softer than the RZN Black to produce more spin (pictured).
RZN Black: Nike's new resin polymer core features a waffled shape to improve energy transfer. There's also a softer cover to improve control on the short shots.
Z-STAR: The softer compression version of Srixon's tour balls, the three-piece design features a special coating on the cover designed to increase friction on shorter shots.
Z-STAR XV: There's an ultra-thin urethane cover (0.5 millimeters) to enhance distance and spin on this dual-core design. The cover also features a friction-increasing coating for short-shot spin (pictured).
TOUR PREFERRED/TOUR PREFERRED X
As in previous TaylorMade balls, both of these use multiple mantle layers to enhance performance for specific clubs. A softer urethane cover is the major update this year.
Tour Preferred: This ball uses multiple mantle layers to enhance performance for specific clubs. A softer urethane cover is the major update this year (pictured).
Tour Preferred X: The X is built similarly to the Preferred, but it's not quite as soft. It's geared towards the better player who wants more penetrating ball flight.
PRO V1/PRO V1X
The line—as reliably excellent in our evaluations as ever—features the Pro V1 and Pro V1x.
Pro V1: Due to a lower compression core, this three-piece design (core, mantle, urethane cover) is the softer of the two and the softest in Pro V1 history. Off the driver, it's designed to produce lower flight and less spin than the 2011 Pro V1 for increased distance.
Pro V1x: A new core formulation process on this dual-core design yields tighter manufacturing tolerances than previous versions. Compared to Pro V1, it should fly higher and iron shots should land at a steeper angle.
Wilson study says two-thirds of golfers prefer "soft." So FG Tour's new version has a compression 10-25 points lower than many tour balls. A dual-mantle inside enhances speed.
U/6, U/6LC, U/6X
Each ball features six layers: a cover, four progressively denser mantles and a core.
U/6: There are six layers: a cover, four progressively denser mantles and a core. This ball is for normal swing speeds: soft enough for feel around the green but still long.
U/6LC: There are six layers here, too. The LC stands for lower compression—so, it's geared towards slower swing speeds.
U/6X: This ball is also built with six layers, but it's firmer than the LC and the 6. Since it's high compression, this ball is for faster swingers, to help them hit it long.
Price: $52 dozen
This three-piece, urethane-covered ball is made for swing speeds of 95 miles per hour or higher. For every dozen balls purchased online or at affiliated Nicklaus Design pro shops, the company will make a charitable donation.
WHITE COLOR S3/WHITE COLOR S4
Both feature Volvik's first urethane cover. The main difference between the two is the S4's firmer compression. They're the company's best-spinning balls on wedge shots.
Price: $27 dozen
It's a two-piece ball designed to launch high, but it's the urethane cover that adds tour-level spin on short shots.
The e6 is a consistent favorite in our evaluations. It's also the softest e6 ever made thanks to a lower compression and softer Surlyn cover.
Of the three e-series balls, this is the one that emphasizes distance first thanks to a firmer core. It also should fly a little lower.
The company's softest three-piece ball has a dimple pattern designed to maximize ball speed for swings slower than 90 miles per hour.
This ball's dimple pattern is made for swings over 90 mph. It's also firmer than the X2 Hot but softer than most tour balls.
Price: $30 dozen
It's got the waffled, polymer resin core of the tour balls but in a formula emphasizing distance. Also, the cover is made of low-spin Surlyn.
The waffled core functions like it does on the Red, but it features a lower compression. The cover is a softer Surlyn, too.
Price: $25 dozen
A special coating on the cover helps increase friction to give you more short-game spin than typical Surlyn-covered, two-piece balls.
Price: $32 dozen
This three-piece ball's urethane cover is designed to give you significantly more approach-shot spin than Surlyn-covered balls.
Price: $26 dozen
The Surlyn cover on this three-piece ball is firmer than the 2012 version to provide more distance.
Price: $34 Dozen
Both the dual-core and polymer-blend cover are softer than last year, but the ball still maintains low spin off the driver.
NXT TOUR S
Developed with input from average golfers, it has a soft core and polymer-blend cover.
Price: $27 Dozen
The ball has been updated with a new dimple pattern that produces a shallower landing angle and more roll-out on tee shots.
I NEED THE BALL
Price: $35 Dozen
Laugh at the name if you want, but the cast urethane cover enhances wedge spin, and the tungsten-infused core helps control driver spin.
Price: $33 Dozen
Hard to find these in most golf shops, but the cast urethane cover and inner mantle layer work together for short-shot spin.
Price: $20 Dozen
It's Callaway's softest two-piece ball in its history and as soft as any we've seen (the company says the core compression measures out at zero).
POWER DISTANCE SOFT
Price: $16 Dozen
This bargain favorite features a new, softer ionomer cover and a lower overall compression than its predecessor.
The two-piece design is still the Titleist standard for softness. A new dimple pattern enhances surface coverage for a more consistent flight.
One of the least-expensive three-piece balls available. The core and cover are softer than previous models to help golfers with non-tour swing speeds.
The Duo is designed with a compression rating that's softer than typical two-piece distance balls. It also will launch high on full swing shots.
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