Are you playing with the wrong balls?

Understanding the differences could change your score

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How different are golf balls? Well, as different as you want them to be.

A recent essay on from veteran golf ball designer Dean Snell (27 years with Titleist, TaylorMade and now his own company Snell Golf) makes the case that modern golf ball technology has endeavored to make the differences between all kinds of balls not that great—on the tee shot.

We think there can be subtle differences in distance, but the real differences in spin and performance (read: your ability to get the ball to land closer to your target) start to show up the closer you get to the green. The multilayer urethane cover balls (generally, the most expensive) provide more spin and control so shots get closer to the hole. Snell also notes that modern technology in the less expensive balls has made them softer, even softer feeling than the most expensive balls.

But feel is one thing and spin is another. During our Hot List process, the balls that continually received the highest marks from our player panelists were those that were the most expensive, specifically because of their performance around the greens.

We tested this idea out with some player testing of 50-yard pitch shots. The goal was to hit shots that flew most of the way to the hole and stopped quickly after a few bounces. Using a Foresight Sports GC2 launch monitor, we saw clear differences in launch and spin, as shown in this chart here. Generally, the expensive tour-type balls launched lower (29 degrees or less) and spun more (7,000 rpm or more), while the less expensive balls launched higher (30 degrees or more) and spun less (5,500 rpm or less).

Now, what do those numbers mean in terms of what happens to the ball on the green? Again, using Foresight Sports ballflight simulation software, we found that the higher-spinning lower launching balls end up within three feet of a 50-yard target on a green. Meanwhile, the higher-launching lower spinning balls tended to finish six feet or more past that 50-yard target. We saw about 10 feet of difference between shots that launched with around 5,000 rpm spin vs. those that launched with 7,000 rpm.

It makes sense if you think about it this way: The best way to get more distance with your driver is to launch the ball high with less spin. That’s exactly what’s happening with these lower-spinning balls with all shots, even the shortest ones. The difference with expensive balls is that they allow for tee shots to launch with less spin but also for short shots to be hit with a lot of spin. More spin means more distance control.

That flexibility is one of the key reasons why we believe that more expensive balls tend to be preferred by the players in our Hot List evaluations.

Still not sure those differences matter to you? Take Snell’s advice and play a few holes with balls you like from different price categories, focusing on the shots from 100 yards and in. Whether you notice a difference and how much that difference matters to you should determine what kind of ball you should play.

But whatever you do, you need to move past the point of thinking your golf ball choice isn't a matter worth the same kind of serious investigation that you employ for the rest of your bag. Many of the best fitters incorporate ball selection in their process, and we think the benefits are immediate. Just make sure you're evaluating a ball based on how you play. The answer you get could save you strokes, money or maybe even both.

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