Equipment

2021 Hot List

The best golf balls of 2021: We considered 85 options—here are the 28 winners

BEN WALTON

Matching a golfer to the right golf ball, as much as we’d like to help, really is your responsibility. Certainly, working with a qualified fitter is a good starting point. Launch monitor numbers might show you differences here or there with a driver or an iron or a wedge with one ball vs. another vs. a third. But the real work comes with you out on a golf course, or better yet, a short game area seeing if some performance metric resonates with you. That is precisely what tour players do, and it is largely what we do in determining the golf ball Hot List, our guide to the balls that you should focus on when you start your search.

We considered 85 balls for this year’s Hot List, and the 28 entries that earned our highest marks (which includes a combined total of 45 balls) shows that plenty of golf balls work exceptionally well.

The right one for you, though, goes beyond our recommendations and rests squarely in your hands. “We believe golf balls should be fit by the customer’s own spin needs within 150 yards,” says Bo Hodnett of Golf Tech, a Golf Digest Best Clubfitter in Plano, Texas. “It is not uncommon for us to send a customer out to find the ball that works best for them within 150 yards, and then we might refit the driver based on that ball.” Still, there is no doubt that the launch monitor numbers provide direction. Those numbers have shown us that there is a distinct difference between two kinds of golf ball designs. That’s why this year, we’re separating our list into just two categories: Urethane Cover and Non-Urethane Cover. Our data from players and robot testing by Golf Laboratories using the Foresight GC Quad launch monitor shows that with short wedge shots, the urethane cover balls, which are the construction played exclusively by tour players, have a distinct advantage in spin. Now, will every average golfer notice those differences? Our research in that area is not as clear. All of which makes it clear that you should find the ball that resonates with you the most in the short shots (assuming there is one) and then make sure it doesn’t compromise any other shots from tee to green. In the end, it’s the shot that matters most to you—off the tee, into the green, around and on the green—that should dictate which is the right ball for you. As always, let the Hot List help you start that process.

One other change this year: Our star ratings now reflect three scores that comprise the total evaluation of each entry. Performance, which is based on player evaluations of golf balls (with all identifying marks blacked out) and a review of robot testing conducted by Golf Laboratories and using Foresight GC Quad launch monitors, accounts for 65 percent of the score. Innovation, which is our assessment of each ball’s technology and each company’s manufacturing rigor and sophistication along with a company’s commitment to ball fitting, represents 30 percent of the score. Demand, based on our review of the marketplace success and consumer enthusiasm, accounts for 5 percent of the score. (Each star rating is relative to the specific ball category, so for example, a 5-star rating in Non-Urethane balls does not equal a 5-star rating in Urethane balls. In reality, all scores were consistently higher in the Urethane ball category.) Finally, this year, through our player assessment we have a Feel assessment, which is not a grade but a description of the relative softness or firmness of each ball on the list.

URETHANE

$45 ▶ Typically, what makes a multilayer ball fast is not the urethane in the cover. Quite the opposite, as the grabby polymer is more essential to helping short shorts spin than long shots go far. But Bridgestone, which has access to more than 900 engineers (a helpful asset when you’re designing balls for Bryson DeChambeau and Tiger Woods, two of pro golf’s more discerning minds), developed a new element to add to its urethane cover. Called “Reactiv,” it’s Using a mixture of what are called impact modifiers, the urethane on these balls is designed to behave differently depending on the force of contact. So on high-speed full shots, it helps the urethane lose less energy. But on the slower impacts like chips, it’s a shock absorber, which enhances spin. The four models again target two swing speed classes with two feel options for each. Faster swings get a softer (XS) and firmer choice (X), while those at less than 105 miles per hour (including, for perspective, Fred Couples) can choose the firmer RX or the softer RXS.

$48 ▶ Most families of multilayer urethane balls are similar with minor tweaks to thickness or firmness. But to Callaway, different players need fundamentally different ball designs. That’s why the guts of Chrome Soft and Chrome Soft X seem as different from each other as two balls from two different brands. The Chrome Soft (top), which is for the vast majority of swing types and speeds, features a dual core where two kinds of rubber formulations of differing firmness and sizes make up an inner and outer core. Overall it maintains a softer compression for more forgiveness on mis-hits. The Chrome Soft X, however, targets higher swing speeds and features a significantly larger single core (for better energy transfer) and two mantle layers to control spin through the bag. Meanwhile the new X-LS model adopts the same construction as the X ball, but targets consistent ball-strikers who want even less spin with higher launch on all their long clubs. A new thinner urethane cover leaves more of the ball’s volume to the energetic core and mantle layers.

$33 ▶ Don’t let the name fool you. This ball isn’t for tour players. It’s for you, because while you are not on tour, you want a golf ball with the same short-game spin control that tour players take advantage of. So this ball adopts many of those spin enhancing technologies from its big brother tour balls (including a thin thermoplastic urethane cover), while adding a softer feeling construction to better align with average golfer swing speeds. The extra large core’s transition from a very soft center portion to a progressively firmer outer region combines with a spin-reducing mantle layer to promote distance off the driver and full-swing clubs. Those cover technologies include the same special coating developed for the tour models. Called “slide ring material,” it’s designed to improve the molecular bonds in the urethane cover to help it better engage with a wedge for more spin on short shots. The new core design is larger, too, which means more energy potential for those speeds who need the most help with distance. More help comes with the new Divide version. Its cover is evenly split into two colors (the pigment is not painted on but infused into the urethane), offering an alignment guide but also setting a visual cue that shows whether the ball is spinning and rolling optimally.

$43 ▶ These two balls ask golfers to decide which shot on every hole is most important to you. The answer leads to a ball and a specific technology geared to enhancing that shot. The XV model is built for high speed distance thanks to a dual core structure that receives a special heat treatment that allows the outer core to be more energetic without adding a harsher feel at impact. The standard Z-Star meanwhile is aimed at players who crave more spin around the greens. Its key is a slightly thicker (one-tenth of a millimeter) cover for a softer feel and more spin control on short irons and wedges. Still, for all those specific attributes, each ball accommodates the rest of your needs. The larger core on the Z-Star aids ball speed, while the ultra-thin cover on the XV features the same spin-enhancing “super polymer” coating that creates the potential for more bite in the grooves of your wedges, even on shots from the rough. The updated dimple pattern targets better performance in windy conditions.

$35 ▶ You don’t have to watch a lot of 330-yard drives to realize that tour players are different than you are. But you also don’t have to be able to swing 130 miles per hour to hit a decent chip shot that checks instead of bounding off the green like a superball springing down your driveway. That’s what a urethane cover can do (and, let’s face it, no ball is going to let you start hitting it 330). That’s the mission of the Tour Response: to give average golfers the same kind of cast urethane cover construction that TaylorMade’s big-bombing tour staff takes advantage of on their short shots. The difference is how the Tour Response’s softer compression feels better to average golfer swing speeds. Of course, the even bigger takeaway for average golfers is that while the Tour Response’s three-piece construction provides the right mix of low-spin on long shots and high spin on short shots, it’s also more affordable to manufacture than the fivelayer construction of the company’s tour balls—and thus $13 cheaper at retail.

$48 ▶ Every ball that’s ever been created tells a similar story: how its latest technology makes it so much faster than ever before. The TP5 family isn’t shying away from that claim, of course, but it’s also not afraid to talk about how much better it is at going slow. More specifically, the latest improvements to these balls’ aerodynamic dimple patterns seek to optimize how much better the ball can fly when its speed starts to slow down at its apex and begins its downward flight. The dimple’s flatter bottom reduces drag at the start of flight, while its large volume preserves lift as the ball is losing speed for more distance. Aerodynamics aside, these balls’ still are most notable for their five-layer construction. Three mantle layers surround the core to optimize the different impacts from driver to short irons. Tour staff input led to adding more speed to the softer TP5 through an enlarged core, while enhancing short game performance on the TP5x by softening the cover. The TP5 is still designed to fly a little lower with the highest wedge spin, while the TP5x flies higher with both the driver and irons.

$50 ▶ If ever there was a question that golf balls are designed to serve distinctly different player types, the AVX stands as a definitive example that one ball does not fit all. This is not some hand-me-down urethane cover model but rather a specific design aimed at players who want a softer feel combined with lower flight and less spin. It’s a rare combination— and a unique set of demands—as there are plenty of alternatives out there that might combine two of those characteristics but not all three. Enhancing those performance attributes is a new focus on extra ball speed through a larger (but still soft-feeling) core compared to the first AVX, along with a more resilient mantle layer between the core and cover. The dimple pattern optimizes distance for a lower flight, something especially noticeable on shots with the middle and long irons. The urethane cover is thinner to allow for that larger core (and more potential distance), but its new formulation more effectively works with the core and casing layer for better short-game spin than the original version. Still, it stands alone among Titleist premium balls as the softest feeling, lowest spinning and lowest launching offering.

$50 ▶ When nearly 50 percent of the golf balls being sold in the retail market fall under this model line, fundamental technological changes do not come on a whim. The rigorous testing and re-testing, recalibration and re-calculation from the company with the most U.S. golf ball patents yielded new cover designs that could only be optimized as more progress was made with the core components of each ball. That’s why the new aerodynamic dimple patterns on both the Pro V1 and Pro V1x started more than 10 years ago. Everything from the number of dimples to the size, shapes and depths were configured to yield a slightly flatter flight on the Pro V1 and a more efficient higher trajectory on the Pro V1x. Both balls benefit from the higher-flexing mantle layer that was originally developed for the “Left Dash” Pro V1x. That model was limited to just elite players, but it has taken up a spot at retail for high swing speed players looking for a firmer feeling ball that combines higher launch and lower spin. Still, approximately 95 percent of players will be better suited to the Pro V1 and Pro V1x standard bearers, both of which feature a new urethane cover formulation that is the softest ever used on either ball.

$40 ▶ While Titleist engineers have long emphasized that its flagship Pro V1 family of balls benefit from a superior and proprietary cast urethane cover, this ball is the company’s first effort with a thermoplastic urethane cover. Why go with a manufacturing process they previously found inferior? One, it’s a more affordable process and thus a $10 lower price point. And two, Titleist’s team realized that there might be a different way to approach a TPU cover that could satisfy certain players’ needs better than its most famous ball. That specific need for non-tour-level players is a search for more distance, while providing the greenside benefits of urethane in the cover. This ball combines the TPU cover design’s distance benefits with a mantle layer that features the most resilient ionomer in the company’s line-up. The mantle works with the soft but resilient core to produce ball speed and lower spin, particularly on shots with the longest clubs. That provides just the distance benefit more average, non-tour golfers routinely might find in a distance ball that has a Surlyn cover but adds more greenside spin through the urethane cover.

Maxfli Tour CG

$35 ▶ These two balls provide a familiar duo in the multilayer urethane cover golf ball space: One is built to accommodate faster swing speeds, while the other is for the rest of us. The two go about those performance metrics with fairly standard practices. The standard Tour is a three-piece design with a large volume softer core and a stiff mantle layer for speed off the long clubs with distance-enhancing lowered spin. The X uses two mantle layers to better optimize long game speed and spin. Both models are improvements over their predecessors from a year ago in core and mantle resilience and the urethane cover’s short-game spin. But Maxfli’s team made an extra technology commitment that’s rarely considered by the average consumer. In the manufacturing process, the ball’s center of gravity is more explicitly defined and then the sidestamp is specifically applied to match that position. This lets golfers better align that center of gravity on tee shots and putts, thanks to a new aiming sidestamp feature. The ultimate benefit should be a truer flight and a cleaner roll on putts.

Mizuno RB Tour

$35 ▶ Mizuno waited some 113 years to bring the golf ball business to the U.S. so you can imagine the thinking process went beyond just doing what everyone else was doing. Of course, this two-ball tandem does adopt the industry standards of a multilayer construction and a urethane cover, including a dual core design on both balls. Like other balls, those attributes combine to provide distance and low spin off the full swings with high-spin in the short game. But the Mizuno engineering team, which benefits from a global sporting goods focus that runs the gamut from baseball to skiing to volleyball, took advantage of its in-house aerodynamics studies to rethink the dimple patterns on these balls. The 12-year study produced a new design, a coneshaped “C-Dimple,” which creates more trigger points to keep fast flowing air close to the ball’s surface in its initial launch when the ball is moving its fastest. That reduces aerodynamic drag and makes for a more consistent, penetrating flight. Further adding to the inventiveness, the choice of the proper model isn’t left to a scattering of chip shots or tee balls. Rather, the company’s club fitting system, which automatically divines the proper shaft after just a few swings, also can determine which of the two balls is the best option based on those same swings.

Snell MTB

$34 ▶ Snell golf balls have used the company’s cdirect-to-consumer platform to develop and tweak designs that reflect the needs of average golfers by listening and learning from their online comments. Besides, as company founder and designer Dean Snell, a proven engineer at the top of design teams at Titleist and TaylorMade over the years, likes to say, “Having Dustin Johnson tell me he needs more or less spin on his 8-iron shot is not going to help me design a ball for everyday golfers.” These balls embody Snell’s belief in the benefits of a multilayer design with a cast urethane cover, but they also offer two distinct alternatives: The MTB-X uses a soft but smaller core with a thick, firmer mantle for more long game speed and distance but more spin on iron shots. The original MTB Black is also a threepiece design but uses a softer mantle for a softer feel and more controlled mid- and longer iron spin for the flatter trajectory better players desire. Both balls employ a low-drag 360-dimple pattern for a flight that resists ballooning in the wind.

Vice Pro

$35 ▶ The internal construction of the three balls in this family are distinct in their specifications for firmness and resilience to target golfers largely based on swing speed and type. Outside, though, the cast urethane cover is very much the same with a focus solely on maximizing greenside spin. Another in the directto- consumer game, it uses an online fitting survey to help golfers narrow their choices. Still, the differences are clear: The Pro Plus uses two mantle layers and a cover with large, shallow dimples to better work for swing speeds over 110 miles per hour. The Pro Soft is aimed at more average swing speed players (under 95 miles per hour) who are looking for soft feel with higher spin around the greens. Its three-pice, singlemantle construction features a compression that’s about a third less than the other two balls in the family. Meanwhile, the standard Pro, also with a three-piece construction, features a softer compression than in the past but still is geared to swing speeds of 95 to 110 miles per hour.

Vice Pro Zero

$30 ▶ Already firmly in the lower-priced alternative through its direct-to-consumer approach, Vice now is offering a fourth urethane cover model that utilizes an even less expensive thermoplastic urethane cover manufacturing process—and thus a price more like what you’d see for some twopiece distance balls. That allows this design to promote more distance for average golfer swings (it targets players with a swing speed of around 95 miles per hour, or about the middle of the road for typical male golfers) through a firmer compression than the cast urethane Pro and Pro Soft models. But using urethane in the cover allows it to react with the softer mantle layer to produce better short-game spin than golf balls with non-urethane covers. The TPU cover also is designed for increased durability, another benefit to average golfers who not only have to pay for their golf balls but tend to hit more cart paths and trees than better players do. The 344-dimple pattern is designed to produce a slightly higher but stable ball flight even in windy conditions. Its affordable price gets more affordable with bulk orders, too.

$35 ▶ Wilson balls have pushed boundaries in lower compression with its less expensive, low-spin ionomer covered models like the Duo Soft+. But the Duo Professional takes those same demands of average golfers for a softer feeling ball, and imports them into the category of high-performance golf balls with multilayer constructions and most importantly urethane covers. In other words, the gentle feel and forgiveness that average golfers crave in a lowcompression, two-piece ball lies at the core of this ball, but then the urethane cover adds a potential for greenside spin that two-piece balls can’t match no matter how soft they feel. How soft? The Duo Professional features a compression that is a third softer than other typical urethane-cover models. Its cover is about 40 percent thinner than its predecessor at barely twohundredths of an inch thick. But while many average golfers prefer that soft feel of a low-compression core construction, it’s the combination of the thin urethane cover and actually a harder mantle layer that yields the higher spin those low-compression balls with non-urethane covers can’t create. The thin cover also means more of the ball’s volume can rest in the core and mantle, which together help create more velocity potential for full swings.

$45 ▶ These balls are geared to the most skilled players through their multilayer, dual mantle layer construction. In fact, the construction of both balls is exactly the same, with cover, core and mantle layer specifications identical. The dual mantles include a highly resilient inner and a firmer outer. The two contribute to better energy transfer and reduced spin on longer clubs, while the firmer outer mantle works in concert with the softer urethane cover to better grab in the grooves for more spin on shorter shots. But there is a striking difference between these two identical designs. The R version comes with an uncoated cover. That lack of a coating is designed to avoid the inconsistencies in surface coverage of the final coating manufacturing process. Without that possibility, Wilson engineers found the “raw” finish version produced more consistent distance and reduced dispersion compared to balls with a coating. They also found that the uncoated “R” model generated more friction on shots with higherlofted clubs than its own standard model, resulting in more short-shot spin.

NON-URETHANE

$30 ▶ When you have a team of 900 rubber and polymer engineers at your disposal, it would be foolish not to lean on them. The result for Bridgestone is a three-piece ball that employs a “Contact Force” dimple that features a raised area in the center, the idea being that the raised dimple creates more contact (38 percent) with the clubface at impact compared to traditional dimples. That results in a more efficient transfer of energy and an ability to activate the core of the ball better for faster ball speeds while reducing sidespin off longer clubs.

$35 ▶ Let’s face facts: players looking at balls in this category dream of hitting that shortgame shot with lots of spin to stop it but don’t have the skill to pull it off. The threepiece ERC Soft accepts that fact and uses a cover with a collection of ionomers and an impact-modifier additive from Dow Chemical to improve the high-launch, low-spin formula that works so well for distance on full-swing shots, while also producing softer, higherlaunching shots on short-game shots. Once on the green, the Triple Track feature assists alignment for those having trouble finding the target.

$27 ▶ The feel and spin are impressive for a two-piece ball, and while the ionomercovered Q-Star won’t ever be a choice of elite players, it addresses the distance and approach-shot spin needs of golfers who typically buy in this category. To unlock more ball speed, the core is soft in the center and gets progressively firmer toward the perimeter. But distance is only half the equation. A superpolymer is used to help strengthen the molecular bonds in the cover material, producing a blended cover designed to get more grab from the grooves on short irons and wedges.

$25 ▶ TaylorMade figured that a smart way to make a ball for the masses was to gather input from thousands of golfers. The wants were simple: more distance with soft feel. To get there the company used U-shaped dimples to promote increased lift and decreased drag, allowing the ball to stay in the air longer at lower spin rates—a good recipe for distance, especially for those without high swing speeds. The low-compression (35) core and soft ionomer cover provide the soft feel. Can you hit that 40- yard spinner wedge? Probably not. But get back to us when you have that shot.

$35 ▶ Depending on your skill level, these balls might offer more scoring potential than their big brother Pro V1/Pro V1x for a bit less cash. The Tour Soft has plenty of pop off the tee and decent short-game spin thanks to a larger core for distance around a slightly firmer cover that works with the core to produce better short-game spin. A new dimple design produces a more penetrating trajectory for better aerodynamics The distinctive T-shaped side stamp is a bonus for those who like an alignment line for putting. This is plenty of ball for people who work for a living.

$23 ▶ Callaway’s Supersoft line of balls has resonated with golfers for years. That’s partly because many golfers need more distance and higher flight and want it at a palatable price point. The Supersoft line checks these boxes with twopiece, low-compression balls aimed at boosting distance for average golfers while using a new cover blend borrowed from the up-market ERC Soft for better greenside performance. The oversized Supersoft Max is about 4 percent larger in diameter to help those with slower swing speeds prone to mis-hits launch shots higher through the bag.

Maxfli Softfli

$20 ▶ As its name suggests, the Softfli emphasizes a soft feel achieved through an ultralow 35 compression. But soft feel is not its only attribute. The low-compression nextgeneration core helps create faster ball speeds by reducing spin while the dimple pattern is designed for higher flight. The Surlyn cover provides durability (an important trait for most everyday players) and features an aggressive side stamp for alignment where a pair of black lines frame the name of the ball to assist with aim on the greens. The price point also is appealing for those that tend to go through a sleeve per round.

RZN Distance

$23 ▶ Get over the gaudy logo and alignment lines on the ball as well as the down-market packaging. The technology in this three-piece ball gives you plenty for the price. It all starts with the resin core first brought to market by Nike in 2006. The core boasts an x-shaped surface pattern that creates more surface area to allow for a more efficient energy transfer. On the cover, microdimples improve lift and drag properties, particularly at the end of the ball’s flight. This is a fresh development using a tried-and-true technology while allowing you to put aside a few bucks in the process.

Snell Get Sum

$21 ▶ Forget the funny name, this direct-to-consumer ball is sneaky good for a twopiece offering. The soft, lowcompression core results in a low-spinning ball off the tee. That’s a welcome development for those who tend to hit wayward shots because less spin helps keep those strikes from going monumentally offline. The soft Surlyn cover is more than durable enough while helping avoid the rocklike feeling of some two-piece balls while still delivering enough speed for the distancechallenged. So should you Get Sum? It’s at least worth considering.

$22 ▶ When a golf ball goes through 12 iterations, the people creating it probably have learned a few things over that time, such as how to maintain an extremely cushy feel while enhancing distance. To achieve that, Srixon changed the way the core gradually transitions from soft in the center to firmer toward the perimeter while providing increased resiliency for more rebound at impact. The thin ionomer cover (just .063 inches thick) boasts a refined 338-dimple pattern that helps reduce drag while providing more lift as the ball slows down during its descent for increased carry.

$28 ▶ Although the Titleist Velocity doesn’t grab headlines like its Pro V/Pro V1x tourplayed family, those that use the ball know what they want: distance, distance, distance with a hint of ability to stop the ball on the greens. A larger, faster core in this version takes care of the distance end of the equation. Stopping power in a two-piece Surlyncovered ball, however, takes some doing. In this case, it’s created not by spin, but rather by a 350-dimple pattern that helps create a higher flight on approach shots that comes down steeper, limiting rollout.

$20 ▶ The Wilson Duo line of golf balls has become synonymous with soft feeling, two-piece distance balls. Still, making a ball that feels soft and flies far is a distinct challenge. For Wilson’s Duo Soft+ line, the secret sauce was a change that was made to the core formulation that increased velocity up to 2 miles per hour on 90 mile-per-hour swing speeds. Although more distance was a priority, the new ball did not forego its soft heritage despite the cover being slightly firmer. A pillowy 35-compression provides more than enough cushion the line has come to be known for.