As much as it might feel like it, the search for the best golf ball for you is not quite like Tinder or Bumble or even Hinge. Yes, there are dozens of options to sift through — for our Hot List this year, we tested 89 balls to narrow our selections to the 26 winners and 40 models that earned our highest recommendations. Like any number of dating apps, you can plug in some of your characteristics or desired attributes and get an online “match.” However, as with the search for a soul mate, finding the perfect ball is very much a personal choice based on direct experience.
We pride ourselves on helping golfers winnow the universe of golf-ball choices, but you still need to carry the ball (literally) the rest of the way. Part of that process is learning about what individual ball models offer (their “profiles,” if you will). How do you do that? Well, a clubfitter is a great place to start. A quality fitter can provide you with launch-monitor numbers that might indicate differences in launch, trajectory and spin rate on long shots and short ones. In our research with the team at the premium clubfitting firm Cool Clubs and its swing robot, we again saw significant differences in how balls performed in the short game.
This is why we divide our list into two categories: Urethane Cover and Non-Urethane Cover. In simple terms, balls that have urethane covers (with a few notable exceptions) are generally the balls played on the professional tours. Non-urethane balls are all the rest, ranging from the softest two-piece balls designed for golfers with slower swing speeds to the pre-packaged 15-ball distance rocks to the latest experimental middle-ground offerings that feature a new, cheaper cover compound that is meant to grab and spin like urethane. (In our assessment, they haven’t quite found it yet.)
Our star ratings reflect three scores that comprise the total evaluation of each entry. Performance accounts for 65 percent of the score and is based on our panel of player evaluations. We judge Innovation (30 percent) based on technical documents submitted by manufacturers and our review with our Hot List technical panel of Ph.D. scientists. Finally, Demand (5 percent) reflects our review of the marketplace, tour use and general buzz. Feel is not a score but a rating based on our players’ input on the relative softness of each ball.
How you assess which dimpled sphere is right for you goes back to the qualities that you’re looking for. We’ve provided a baseline of what to expect with each of our selections on this year’s Hot List. Just like the perfect first date, though, ask enough questions. The right one will have all the answers.
Our robot testing by clubfitter Cool Clubs reveals that urethane-cover balls spin more than non-urethane-cover balls on shots around the green, sometimes twice as much. Using Foresight Sports FSX software, the difference between the lower-spinning balls and the urethane-cover balls essentially is the difference between a 10-foot putt and a 22-foot putt on a flat green (more than double that on a sloping green) . The balls in the middle of our group still meant a six-foot longer putt. What’s five or 10 feet difference mean? On the PGA Tour, they make 10-footers about 41 percent of the time, 15-to 20-footers 18 percent of the time and 20-to 25-footers 12 percent of the time. If your chance of getting up and down more than tripled just by changing to a multilayer, urethane-cover ball, would you do it? If you wouldn’t, maybe you’re playing a different game than we are. – MS
Short game shots are the key.
Although the Golf Digest Hot List and Golf Digest Golf Ball Hot List share similar names, they are anything but in terms of player testing. In many ways, testing golf balls is far more difficult. For clubs, testing is done on a range setting with a variety of player types. Between adjustability and different shaft options, fitting plays an important role. The number of variables that can be discerned are plentiful. Distance, trajectory, turf interaction, spin, look, sound and feel all contribute to the impression of a club. However, golf balls are all round and primarily white and dimpled, so the “look” isn’t a significant factor. There are no fitting levers to work with, either. Sound? Probably not. Meaningful player testing, however, can be done. Unlike clubs, all markings are blacked out. Club testing is conducted with handicaps that go into the 20s, but ball testing entails better players exclusively, with the highest handicap a 5 and most scratch or better. That’s because the vast majority of ball testing is done inside 100 yards and around the green on a golf course. As such, a reliable short-iron game and significant short-game skills are needed because it is these shots where differences appear and can be felt and seen.