The ultimate 3-step plan to choosing the right golf ball for your game

Inside layers of three golf balls

Choosing the right golf ball can be confusing, but we're here to help.

Jeffrey Westbrook

Were extraterrestrials suddenly to land in the pro shop—seems like anything’s possible nowadays—you know what would really flummox them? The golf ball display rack. Imagine: all those shiny boxes, all those different brands and models. Then opening the packaging with two scaly green fingers to find within… always three dimpled orbs in a sleeve, always 1.68 inches in diameter and weighing 1.62 ounces. Why are there so many versions of the same thing?

Most golfing humanoids could explain matters—up to a point. You see, the balls might look the same, but they each do different things for different types of players and cost different amounts of money. If this isn’t enough to send the aliens beaming back up to their own universe, our convoluted follow-up attempt to explain precisely which ball is right for which golfer would do the trick. (The jeans section at the department store would send E.T. scurrying home, too.)

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Maybe you want to be ready when those aliens come, or know once and for all how to pick the right ball for you. Either way, we’ve got the blueprint, in three steps, newly declassified. And we come in peace, to give you peace of mind.

STEP 1: LEARN YOUR PIECES

The Core — The epicenter of the ball that makes things go. Its importance cannot be overstated.

Why it’s needed: It’s the engine that drives speed, velocity and performance. Without a core, the ball isn’t going anywhere. It should come as no surprise that the core takes up the most space underneath the cover.

How it works: Energy retention is the name of the game. Once the club makes impact with the ball, it rockets off the face with 100 percent of its energy. However, when the ball is airborne, some of the initial energy is lost. A well-designed core will help the ball retain as much energy as possible—hopefully 80 percent—to ensure it flies through the air with the right amount of speed, spin and launch.

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Materials: A slug of uncured or lightly cured polybutadiene rubber is compression-molded into a sphere. Different grades of rubber are typically used in a core to give it certain speed or spin characteristics.

The Mantle — Sandwiched between the core and cover, it helps fine-tune spin and distance.

Why it’s needed: It seals the ball so moisture can’t enter the core through the porous cover. Depending on the number of mantles being used, performance characteristics can also be adjusted for different parts of the bag.

How it works: Based on the thickness of the firm mantle layer, spin can be adjusted up or down. It also helps keep ball speed (energy retention) up after impact without having to go to a harder cover and sacrifice spin. It’s a turbobooster for the ball.

Materials: A blend of different ionomer materials to get the exact hardness and speed characteristics.

Individual materials matter, but it’s how the pieces interact that’s important.

Jeffrey Westbrook

The Cover — Influences two important aspects of ball performance: spin and aerodynamics.

Why it’s needed: It encases the core and mantle. More importantly, it’s the layer that helps impart spin on the ball while also housing the all-important dimple pattern that disrupts the flow of air to keep your pellet airborne.

How it works: Depending on the firmness of the material, it can impact distance and/or spin. At lower impacts (deft chips), wedge grooves can easily grip the supple cover to generate enough spin to stop the ball on a dime.

Materials: Urethane is the polymer most commonly found in premium multi-layer balls. A firmer surlyn is typically used on distance balls for golfers who don’t mind giving up some feel and spin for a few more yards off the tee.

STEP 2: STUDY AND TEST

What Do You Want?

The eternal question. As it relates to golf balls, the answer involves understanding the four general performance categories, namely:

Premium: Tour-level balls (at premium prices) that deliver distance off the tee, greenside spin and control in one package.

Premium Value: Offers some of the same technology as a premium ball (urethane cover and mantle layer) but at a lower price.

Soft Spin Value: Geared for moderate speed golfers who place an emphasis on greenside spin and soft feel.

Distance Value: Firmer option designed for the golfer who wants to pick up distance throughout the bag.

How Much Can You Spend?

If money isn’t a concern and you require the best of all worlds, you’re a Premium player. Case closed.

Premium Value: I don’t want to break the bank, but I want the best my game deserves.

Soft Spin Value: My speed isn’t what it was—I get that. I’ll score lower with a better short game.

Distance Value: Give me distance, whatever it takes.

Narrow the Field

You’ve chosen a performance category. You’re an elevated life-form. Now ask yourself the following:

Around the green, do I like running shots or ones that check? With irons, do I prize distance or consistency more? Do I care more about distance or accuracy with my driver? How do I want my golf ball to feel, firmer or softer?

Test Models Based on Your Ability

General rules of thumb*…

15+ Handicap: Look for a ball that tends to fly straight and offers forgiveness on mishits. Distance is likely the top priority; spin help is often needed to augment a lack of technique to generate enough stopping power.

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5–15 Handicap: Look to maximize distance through the bag. Most players in this subset benefit from higher-launching iron shots; the other emphasis should be on the ability to hit a variety of short-game shots.

5 Handicap and Better: Look for a model that’s producing the right spin window off the tee and provides ample control with the scoring clubs. Generally, you’re already impacting enough spin on the ball. Spin rates and feel are key for these better sticks.

*You are you, and not a general rule of thumb, so analyze and consider your strengths and shortcomings, and then pick a ball that helps neutralize your biggest weaknesses.

Put Your Short Game to the Test

Bring at least one sleeve of each ball you’re testing to the range. Create several different “stations” to evaluate each ball, emphasizing the shots you encounter most often on the course. This should include long pitches, short pitches, chips and lobs; bunker shots, with their greater outcome variability, aren’t necessary here.

Hit every ball you’re testing from the same spots, so you compare apples to apples and learn which performs and feels best, with maximum control for your game. Sound is a part of feel, so to the extent feel is important to you, make sure you can hear contact—stand clear of any gabbers.

Narrow the field to one to two favorites and head to the course.

Put Some in Play

This is essential in order to see aerodynamics and spin impacts, and to assess your game’s strengths and weaknesses with the balls. Bring at least two sleeves of each ball to the course—side-by-side testing is crucial for real-time feedback on performance differences.

Seeing full ball flight is key—two different balls can have the same launch and spin yet yield totally different results due to aerodynamic qualities. If possible, use your home course, where you know your usual distances cold.

Also if possible, hit multiple shots from the same spot—consider a less busy time (twilight or midweek) to make this more feasible.

As a general rule, place the greatest emphasis on approach shots and short-game shots. (A solid driver fitting can help maximize any ball that proves beneficial to finesse shots.)

Focus on the following areas for on-course review: 1. Chip and pitch shots—feel, spin, release 2. Approach shots—trajectory, spin, release.

You’ve Got a Launch Monitor?!

If you own a launch monitor, or have access to one, here are the optimal spin and launch windows to look for:

STEP 3: MAKE YOUR SELECTION

To help you make your final selection, peruse our comprehensive 2020 Golf Ball Guide featuring reviews of 31 new golf balls models.

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Jonathan Wall

Golf.com

Jonathan Wall is GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com’s Managing Editor for Equipment. Prior to joining the staff at the end of 2018, he spent 6 years covering equipment for the PGA Tour.

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Andrew Tursky

Golf.com Editor

Andrew Tursky is the Senior Equipment Editor at GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com.