My name is Dean Snell, and I own a golf-ball company called Snell Golf. Maybe you’ve heard of my company or even used one of my golf balls; that’s great. My company isn’t the focus of this piece, though; it’s you. GolfWRX has given me the opportunity to help its readers understand what type of golf balls are best for them. I’m a golf junkie, like many of you, so I often find my way to this site. I love reading what you all have to say about my golf balls, and golf balls in general. That’s why I said “yes” to writing this article. I hope to save some of you a few strokes, and some of you a few dollars.
To me, there are really only two different types of golf balls; premium golf balls, which are called “tour balls,” and then all the other balls, which for the sake of this discussion we’ll call “distance balls.” They’re more affordable. I sell both a tour ball and a distance ball, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. It’s true what you’ve heard, though, tour balls do technically perform better than distance balls, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs a tour ball. Once you know the facts, you’ll know why.
I’ve been designing golf balls for 27 years, and things have changed dramatically in golf-ball design during that time. The change was so rapid, in fact, that many golfers don’t have their facts straight about what the new tour balls do, and what they don’t do. Back in the early ’90s, when we used to test drivers and 8 irons for performance, the Tour Balata was the true tour ball, but it scared a lot of golfers away due to high driver spin rates. In fact, tour players back then used 6- or 7-degree drivers just to try to reduce the spin a bit. For the average golfer, the driver spin rate would go even higher, thus producing huge hooks and slices off the tee. So if you played a tour ball in those days, you might have had a driver spin rate of 4000 rpm. If you played a distance-ball, your spin rate rate probably dropped to about 2500 rpm. Since reducing the spin of your drives creates more distance, for the most part, many golfers liked distance balls better, even though they were harder to stop on the green.
It took some time, but today tour balls are designed with multiple layers, which help to create what’s called a spin curve across your set of clubs. What that means is the new tour balls give golfers the distance of those old distance balls, but the control of the old tour balls when you need it. The new distance balls are better than they used to be, but they don’t have the same spin curve the new tour balls do. With distance balls, golfers will experience low-spin performance with all their clubs, which makes it difficult to stop shots quickly on the green. Better players also have trouble controlling shots with distance balls, as they tend to launch higher and with less spin, creating shots known as “fliers.”
Now, this may be the most important paragraph in this story. Whether you buy a tour ball or a distance ball, know they will both go about the same distance off the tee. That’s because leading golf ball designers have worked to get the spin rates of all their golf balls in a very similar range off the tee, and aerodynamically each ball’s dimples are correct for its particular construction. The ball speeds of all of them have been maxed out to USGA limits, as well.
Once you leave the tee is where tour balls start to outperform distance balls. Statistically, golfers hit most of their shots from 150 yards and in, and more than half of those shots are from less than 100 yards. Inside 150 yards, and especially inside 100 yards, is where certain golfers can truly benefit from tour-ball performance. Although you may not be able to spin the ball back like a pro, you will still be able to add some spin and control to your shots with a tour ball. With every 1000 rpm of spin you can add to a wedge shot, you can stop the ball 5 feet closer to where it lands on the average green. Having the ball stop faster may mean a birdie, or reduce the chance of a three putt.
So, lower spin rates for longer drives, and more spin for more control around the greens are the biggest pros for tour balls sold today. With the new balls, however, something completely flip-flopped in the feel category. Back in the day, distance balls were very firm in feel, and the tour balls were very soft. Better players used to love the soft feel. To improve their performance, tour balls have gotten firmer over the years, and distance balls have become incredibly softer. So if a soft feel is important to you, some of the distance balls on the market today feel much softer than tour balls. Just like the old days, the durability of distance balls is also still a plus, but the gap is closing. Most distance balls are made with an ionomer or Surlyn cover than is less prone to getting cut, scraped or gouged, but improvements to the urethane covers used on tour balls have added to their durability.
The biggest con of a tour ball continues to be its price, though. They can cost as much as $48 per dozen. Regardless of how you feel about that price point, there is a reason tour balls cost more than distance balls. All tour balls use at least a three-layer construction, which improve performance, and also adds to the cost of making them. Their urethane covers are also more expensive, from both a materials and labor standpoint.
Still haven’t made up your mind about which ball is for you? Here’s how I suggest golfers make the decision between a tour ball and a distance ball.
Get a sleeve of tour balls and a sleeve of distance balls, and compare them against each other on the golf course. You don’t need to play both balls tee to green, though. When you can, hit multiple shots with each ball from 100 yards, 75 yards and 40 yards. Try chips and putts from different lies. Then, go to the next hole and do the same thing, and repeat this process for 5 or 6 holes.
By the time you walk off the last green, you should have a favorite, and it’s not always a tour ball. Maybe you liked the way one ball felt, or noticed that one ball was stopping closer to the hole because it was either checking up more or rolling out more. Something will likely stand out to you. If it doesn’t, then buy distance balls. There’s no reason to throw your money away for no measurable benefit.