Are “women’s” golf balls really the best golf balls for women?
According to recent research from Golf Datatech, 70 percent of women golfers are interested in a golf ball made specifically for a woman.
But here’s the thing: What exactly is a golf ball made specifically for a woman?
Because, aside from packaging or marketing or most especially names, the golf ball might be, or at least ought to be, the least gender-specific piece of golf equipment there is.
“We design the ball based on the moment of impact,” said Bridgestone’s Elliot Mellow. “We don’t know if you, me, she, he, who’s swinging the club. We just know how the club is impacting the ball, and we’re designing the ball for that impact.”
And then Mellow offers this: “What we call the Lady Precept could certainly fit a number of non-ladies.”
Translation: The right ball for a woman might very well be the right ball for a man. And vice versa.
“When we look at what impacts the performance differences of a golf ball, it starts with the golfer, then it goes to the clubs and then it ends with the golf ball,” said Jeremy Stone, vice president of golf ball marketing at Titleist. “At no point in time did I have to outline gender because the golf ball doesn’t know, doesn’t care.”
Unfortunately, sometimes marketing confuses the issue. Yes, there are so-labeled “women’s” golf balls on the shelves of every golf shop in America. But there may be no technological reason for such products to exist.
There are technological aspects of golf ball design that may be pleasing or even demonstrably beneficial to slower swing speed players. The average woman golfer swings slower than the average man (by about 20 percent according to Trackman and Titleist estimates). But all equipment purchases should start with the individual, and the average of all women players is about as specifically useful as the average of all men players, which includes Kyle Berkshire and your grandfather.
So where does that leave the woman golfer looking for a game-changing golf ball?
Golf balls exist essentially in two categories, based on the cover: Those with a urethane cover and those with a non-urethane cover (some kind of ionomer, typically Surlyn). The urethane cover balls work with multiple interior layers including a resilient rubber core (sort of like a superball) and often a firm mantle or casing layer between the cover and the core. Non-urethane cover balls often have similar rubber cores surrounded by a softer cover. The softer cover works with the softer core to make the ball not feel as firm. The grooves on a wedge or iron more easily “grab” a ball with a urethane cover, which works with the firm intermediate mantle layer to create spin on iron and wedge shots. A non-urethane cover doesn’t catch in the grooves as easily, and it may even slide up the face somewhat to help increase launch angle for higher flight.
Typically, the balls labeled “women’s” are lower-compression, softer-feeling two-piece balls. Often, those balls are designed to produce higher flight. In reality, though, these balls do not defy physics. Softer may feel better, but unless it is married with a sophisticated multilayer construction (including a urethane cover), it’s unlikely to offer the range of short-game performance attributes and spin that a player of average skill could take advantage of. A softer ball doesn’t guarantee a woman will produce more distance.
“I think the benefit of a lower compression ball is the softer feel, and as the ball comes off the face, the ball will launch higher and have less backspin and overall spin so it will be straighter,” said Eric Loper, head of golf ball R&D at Callaway. “Is that more beneficial for a player with a 20 percent slower swing speed? I don’t think so. The lower compression golf balls don’t magically get faster at lower swing speeds, there’s just less of a difference between the high swing speeds and the low swing speeds with a low-compression ball so it makes it negligible.”
Loper thinks there are other ways to help slower swing speed golfers, and he points to the company’s Reva ball. Its slightly larger size means the ball’s center of gravity is higher, which could make it easier for slower speeds to launch shots higher. A higher launching iron shot will have a steeper landing angle and thus might make it more likely for a shot to stay on the green. The lower spin could help with distance, too, but when there’s not a lot of clubhead speed to begin with, the benefits of low spin for distance are negligible. The good news is that slow swingers who like a soft ball aren’t really giving up distance. He offered a comparison between the company’s firm tour ball, Chrome Soft X, and the low-compression Reva or Supersoft, noting that someone who swings at 120 miles per hour might see 5- or 6-miles per hour more ballspeed with the tour ball compared to the softer balls. But at slower speeds, 80 miles per hour, that difference in ball speeds between the two kinds of balls “probably becomes less than 1 mile per hour.”
From Titleist’s perspective, the limitation in full-service performance is undesirable for any skill level. It’s why when a major retailer asked which Titleist balls should go in the store’s women’s section, Stone simply said, “Pro V1.” It’s the same ball that is the most played ball on all professional tours, men’s and women’s.
“I think there’s an overwhelming desire for women to play a ‘soft’ golf ball,” he said. “But when you take a really soft core and you put a Surlyn cover over the top of it, that’s a recipe for low spin. Higher spin creates lift, lift is good. Higher spin also helps with greenside control.”
Frank Simonutti, head of golf ball R&D for Wilson, has seen repeatedly the desire of most average golfers for a softer-feeling ball. He thinks the golf ball choice for a woman is no different than it is for a man. A beginning player that isn’t able to execute an array of shots around the green might get all he or she needs from a low-compression, two piece design. They don’t graduate to a more sophisticated design based on speed, but on technique and ability.
“The overall gist is that women golfer requirements, based upon skill, are similar to men golfers,” he said. “I would expect that the best women golfers do not play balls marketed toward women.”
Indeed, according to Stone, on the LPGA Tour, of the women playing Titleist balls, 57 percent use Pro V1x, the firmer of the company’s offerings.
Five rules to follow when purchasing golf balls:
- If you are just starting out, buy the cheapest balls you can find that offer a low compression or soft feel. These do not have to be “women’s” balls, but they should not cost more than $25 a dozen. Some of our favorites: Bridgestone e6 Soft or Lady Precept, Callaway Supersoft or Reva, Maxfli Softfli, Srixon Soft Feel or Lady Soft Feel, Titleist TruFeel or Wilson Duo Soft+.
- As you develop a repeatable swing and short game, contemplate moving up in price to a multilayer urethane cover design, but heed the advice of Eric Loper at Callaway: “If you can’t tell the difference ever, then definitely buy the cheaper one. It becomes a decision around the frequency of how often you experience the benefit [of the higher-priced, multilayer urethane cover ball]. If it’s just not enough, buy the cheaper one.”
- Realize that if you can’t tell the benefits, it might be because your skills have been limited by the ball you’ve been using. You may only have one type of shot you play around the green (a bump and run type of chip shot), but you may only play that shot because the ball you use doesn’t spin. Remember, the legendary wedge wizard Bob Vokey says, “All of us have the speed necessary to create a great pitch or a great chip.”
- Forget “feel” and focus on “height” with your iron shots. If your 7-iron shots aren’t comfortably flying higher than the chimney on a two-story house, find a ball that helps increase that height. Realize that might mean finding a ball that spins more: in other words, a multilayer urethane cover ball. More spin creates more lift and that creates more height. If you’re always bouncing the ball onto a green, then you’re best off choosing the ball that feels the softest, even if it’s low spin.
- When you start considering a jump up in playability, a good place to start is some of the softer, multilayer urethane cover balls. Those include Bridgestone Tour B RXS, Callaway Chrome Soft, Srixon Q-Star Tour, TaylorMade Tour Response, Titleist Tour Speed, Wilson Triad.
When it gets right down to it, the women in the Golf Datatech survey are right: They should be playing a ball designed specifically for them. Each one of them.