Simple as they seem, golf balls are not created equally. Nor do they react the same to a golfer's swing, for any given shot. Each model has unique performance nuances, leaving most golfers confused regarding how to buy the best one for their game. After all, it's easy to become overwhelmed by ball packaging and marketing claims.
Regardless, don't buy a ball just because your favorite Tour pro uses it. After all, you and he strive for completely different performance benefits from a ball. Tour pros look for short game spin and control, so they can master low shots that check on demand. Amateurs usually want high shots and more spin. Now if your handicap is 15 or less and you're looking to improve your game, you may want to consider one. Ultimately, though, opt for the one that best allows you to maximize your performance. There's a distinct performance difference between distance and premium balls, but not all golfers have a swing that would take advantage of these performance benefits. If you can't keep long shots in the fairway, you may benefit from distance balls that spin less. If you bump-and-run most of your short shots, rather than craft flop shots, you likely won't care about the high spin of premium balls. In general, less-skilled golfers needn't shell out extra money for premium balls, but as their game improves, they may want to experiment with them to help advance to the next level.
It also helps to know the basics of ball construction – just to guide you through the ball section at the pro shop. You'll hear about two, three- and four-piece balls. This simply means the number of layers. A two-piece ball consists of a core and a cover; a three-piece has a core, cover and mid-layer or mantle; a four-piece is just like a three-piece with either an outer cover or second mantle layer.
Also know that there are two main cover materials: urethane and ionomer (a.k.a. Surlyn). Generally speaking, urethane is used in three-piece balls, where the mid layer is an ionomer that helps maintain ball speed. Because the ionomer is better at returning energy – it's firmer, thicker and durable — it also makes an ideal cover for two- and three-piece distance balls since it can maintain ball speed. But it feels harder than urethane and doesn't spin as much on short shotsAlso know that there are two ball categories: distance and control. Distance balls are generally two-piece, with an ionomer cover, less greenside control, and they travel far. If you're solely out to bomb tee shots, or if you tend to employ bump-and-run shots around the green, play a distance ball. If you don't mind paying a little more for a softer ball that spins more around the green and still gets you distance, then play a control ball. Control balls are either three- or four-piece construction with a urethane cover that generates more backspin on shots into the green.
A really simple-yet-intelligent way to find the best ball for your game: Buy sleeves of several models with various construction types (two-piece, three-piece and four-piece balls), then chip with those balls. Choose three or four that you like best, then start hitting them from 100 to 150 yards. Watch for feel, sound, accuracy, and how the ball releases when it lands. Lengthen the shots and eliminate balls that feel or perform harshly. Putt your final ball selections – they may very well feel and sound differently on the green. If you're still undecided on a winner, pick the least-expensive ball remaining. You might also benefit from a ball fitting session through a golf professional or retailer who's equipped with a launch monitor. It'll help you discover which ball most consistently delivers your desired results – particularly on short shots where you're seeking performance and spin. Tee shot launch data is valuable, too, but inevitably you need to decide which ball helps your shots perform best, feel best, and lower your scores. Also key: Select your ball before being fitted for a driver, because your optimum clubhead loft will depend on the ball you use during the fitting process.
Veteran golf equipment writer and former Golf Magazine senior editor Scott Kramer has published a new e-book, How To Buy The Right Golf Equipment. The easy-reading book helps the average golfer by simplifying the process of buying clubs, shafts, balls, bags and shoes — as well as buying equipment for other people, including your spouse and kids. The following excerpt is the chapter on buying putters. For the complete book, visit amazon.com for the Kindle version or lulu.com for the instant pdf download.