Let’s Talk Golf Balls

Am I Crazy to Buy High-Priced Balls Like Titleist Pro V1s?
How Much is Too Much?

Technology has brought the golf ball a very long way from the wooden balls made from beech or elm initially used in the 14th century. In the 15th century golf found a home in Scotland where first it was a pebble knocked about on the beach. Then as the game progressed around 1475, the players search for playability found a more desirable choice – a small round leather pouch filled with cows’ hair.

The search for a better ball continued, and the cow gave way to the fowl as the leather pouches were soon stuffed with chicken or goose feathers and coated with paint, usually white. These balls were called the featherie and were much more expensive than your high-performance balls of today. They required a top hat full of feathers, boiled and softened before stuffing them into the leather pouch. A ball maker could only produce a few balls a day resulting in the high cost of 2 to 5 shillings each. In today’s money that would amount to 10 to 20 US dollars and makes our best balls seem relatively cheap.

This featherie ball was the ball of choice for more than 350 years until the arrival of the “gutty” ball in 1848. The new ball, shaped from boiled sap of the gutta percha tree, had a rubber-like feel and was low cost and more playable than the featherie. Quite by accident it revolutionized the game.  
The “gutty” ball was made by hand, smooth on the outside and coated with three coats of paint. Then an accidental discovery brought aerodynamics into the game. The smooth “gutty” had an erratic flight and not great distance. After some use it was discovered that used “gutties” with scuff marks from play flew straighter and longer than new balls. Soon, hand-hammered patterns appeared on the surface of the balls. These were followed by balls that came from molds that produced dimples and were prototypes of the modern ball.

The high-tech balls of today are direct descendants of the rubber balls that were made and used in Britain starting in 1901 and with the addition of resin to the construction in the early 20th century. 21st century ball makers take advantage of every innovation in design and materials while maintaining adherence to The Rules of Golf. The rules state that the ball must be spherical in shape with a mass no more than 1.620 oz and a diameter that is not less than 1.680”. Science tells us that dimples on the surface of the ball create turbulence in the air around it, creating lift and reducing drag, resulting in a ball that will fly farther and straighter than a smooth-surface ball. However, the ball’s dimples must be symmetrically arranged so as not to influence the directional stability of the ball.

USGA-approved balls have limits on maximum distance, and balls that are produced to exceed these limits are referred to as “hot” balls and are illegal. The List of Conforming Golf Balls is updated effective the first Wednesday of each month. The current list is 38 pages long, with each page listing 36 balls. That means there are one thousand, three hundred and sixty-eight balls currently approved for play by the USGA. Go to www.usga.org if you are in doubt about the ball you play. The test includes a spin rating for the ball based on low, medium and high. The ball gets two ratings one for the driver and one for an iron. Example rating of L-H would be Low spin with the driver and High spin with the iron.

Let’s get on with answering the question: Golf balls can be thought of as friends, acquaintances, and quite possibly the enemy. It is all in the frame of mind that you, the golfer, have when addressing the ball. If you look down at the tee and your mind sees a wadded up five-dollar bill rather than a golf ball, your ability to successfully strike that object is reduced. On the other hand, if you see the ball as a high-tech sphere designed to bring out the very best in your ability, you have a friend and your results will be more generous.  

Have you ever noticed that if you put a new putter in your bag somehow it helps you putt better, hitting with a new driver gives you the feel of added distance, and playing with the newest high tech ball given to you by a friend has temporarily made your ball striking more effective? This does happen, but for most golfers the game performance improvement comes more from their perception about balls and clubs rather than true technical differences. Bobby Jones said golf is “mainly played on that five-and-one-half- inch course, the space between your ears.” Not everything that goes on in that space has to do with strategy. That space is where your golf game lives. Your brain is analog in its construction. Everything that happens in your golf game involves more information than you realize, because you brain is putting together bits and bytes of information from your total golf experience (some of which you are not aware of) to influence every decision you make and every action you take.  

At about age one your brain conquered the problems associated with standing and walking without any instruction from an outside source. It is wrong to think that it is not involved in the choice of your golf ball. The conscious or cognitive ability of your brain forms perceptions about certain balls, and at the same time, your subconscious brain is forming opinions based on what you have seen and experienced. These opinions may be in conflict, so choosing the ball you play will not be played strictly by the numbers.  

If the brain were digital, you would select the best ball for your game and pocketbook by analyzing data like ball construction, spin characteristics, distance and stopping ability, and price. No need to know whether you like the ball or not. It would be a numbers game. However, your brain is not digital and will not say, “give me the numbers and I will play that ball.” We know that confidence is necessary to play good golf. Your confidence in your game is influenced by your perceptions and anything you can do to make you more comfortable with your perception of the task of playing golf contributes to that confidence. You don’t want to be distracted wasting energy and emotion by thinking about anything other than the task at hand: striking the ball one shot at a time and getting it into the hole. Nothing else matters.

Let’s get back to balls, if your perception of how you play has you playing a multi-layer ball then play that ball. If the ball you play does not have any effect on your perception of how you play the game, you can play any ball. You can test your perception/choice with reality by buying several sleeves of multi-layer and two-piece balls and comparing the playing results you get with each type. You will soon know if there is a discernible difference in your play of the game with each type of ball, and then choose one you like.   

  • The two-piece ball has a solid rubber core with a surlyn or urethane cover and provides lower spin rates, which makes hitting the ball long and straight less difficult. These balls are considered distance balls because the cover is harder and will resist the cuts and scuffs that often come with mishits. These are the positive traits of the two-piece ball. The negative side of a two-piece ball is that the low spin rate makes it more difficult to control your distance with your irons and wedges. Putting these balls has a different sound and feel when compared to the multi-layered ball. Here are just a few of your many choices: Titleist Tour Soft and DT SoLo, Callaway Supersoft and Warbird, TaylorMade Distance Plus.
  • The multi-layer ball can have as many as five layers with each layer designed to benefit feel, spin, or distance. In general, these balls are constructed with a small solid or liquid core, one or more layers of ionomer, and a urethane cover. Because of this construction, the multilayer ball has a softer feel combined with a higher spin rate. The high spin rate offers more control hitting to the green but has been considered harder to control with the driver. New technology in the layers has given these balls lower spin rates with the driver while maintaining the high spin rates with the irons and wedges. The three, four and five-layer balls are more expensive but overall offer superior playing characteristics for that extra cost. Just a few of your many choices: Titleist Pro V1 & V1X, Callaway Chromesoft & Chromesoft X, TaylorMade TP5 & TP5X.

Note: You can spend anywhere from less than $1.00 to about $4.50 per golf ball. This range of prices includes used and X-Out balls. If you like a high dollar ball, but the price bothers you, check out the sites that sell found and refurbished balls. You can buy the ball of your choice in mint condition at 50% off or more. Tests have shown that mint condition used golf balls have less than 2% performance change when compared to new balls. 

Keep it in the short grass.

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