Are the most expensive golf balls really that much better than the less-expensive ones?
Yes. Premium multilayer balls with urethane covers generally are superior because they perform well throughout the bag. On wedge shots, for example, they spin more because of the soft urethane cover, and off the tee they have the same distance-producing characteristics as firmer Surlyn balls. Do the less-expensive balls travel a little farther and straighter off the tee? They can, but when we tested both types of balls at average-golfer swing speeds, the difference was almost negligible: six yards, usually less. The real advantage of urethane-cover balls is the extra spin, feel and control they offer on shots near the green. If you have a decent short game, these balls might be worth the extra money. If you don't, stick with the lower-priced balls and use the savings to pay your bets.
Do tour players play the same balls for sale at my golf shop?
Not always. On any given week on the PGA Tour, about a third of the field uses a tweaked version of the ball consumers can buy. Peruse the USGA's conforming list of golf balls, and you'll find models that aren't sold in stores but are being played by some of the PGA Tour's top players. So what gives? Some guys just prefer a slightly firmer or softer core or mantle for a minuscule difference in spin, feel or both. Just as with their clubs, elite players want a ball that fits their game. Modern golf-ball manufacturing makes these custom options for tour players possible. The really interesting question is whether personalized ball technology is in the future for the rest of us. For now, it's still impractical. The hardest part won't be making these golf balls, though, but getting golfers to understand what they need from a ball.
Recent start-ups sell "tour balls" with multiple layers and urethane covers that cost less than the traditional $40-plus a dozen. How?
First, the highest-priced balls from leading companies tend to have the most elaborate and innovative manufacturing processes and quality control, as well as the richest marketing budgets. Big companies have more experience making complicated products like multilayer urethane-cover balls. Start-up companies and even some well-known brands don't have this kind of R&D. Instead, many collaborate with Asian manufacturing outlets. Some of these vendors (Taiwan-based Foremost, GTS and LTC are three of the more popular) have plenty of experience, too. They have designed hundreds of golf-ball models. In fact, there's so much manufacturing capacity in Taiwan, China and Korea that even if you don't know a mantle layer from a drag coefficient, you can be in the ball business tomorrow. For less than the cost of a luxury sedan, you can get 3,000 dozen multilayer urethane-cover balls, including packaging and shipping. But we know golfers are reluctant to play a brand they've never heard of. Consumer surveys say other than performance, brand name is the most powerful influence on a golf-ball purchase, and established companies aren't ready to concede anything. Acushnet, parent of Titleist, filed a patent-infringement lawsuit in April against 17 less-expensive "tour balls" from start-ups. That's only going to make it harder for these companies to compete.
How should I determine my price point for golf balls?
Pay the most you can until you and your skill level stop noticing a difference in performance. But it's not just your handicap. Fact is, if you miss a lot of greens, you might need an expensive, high-spinning ball to help you get up and down more often. That said, don't buy multilayer balls with urethane covers until you can get through a round without losing two sleeves. That's not ball-fitting, that's economics.
How do I test a ball or get fit for one?
The popular methods involving drivers and launch monitors are a start, but the only real way is for you to test a variety of short-game shots using different balls. Decide which shot is most important to you, and choose the ball that performs the best on that shot. If you have to sacrifice a little distance, odds are you won't notice it that much. If you do, there are at least three dozen other balls from the 2015 Hot List you might want to try.