Golf ball technology has consistently evolved. The original featheries gave way to the gutta-percha and that was in turn supplanted by the rubber Haskell golf ball.
By the late 1990's it seemed that Tour level wound golf balls came in two compressions, 90 or 100, with a soft balata cover giving the balls the softer feel that players preferred.
But then around the year 2000 manufacturers, most famously Titleist with the Pro V1 franchise, introduced the multilayer, urethane-covered balls that top players flocked to, trading a harder feel for the obvious benefits of the new low-spin and high-speed distance golf balls.
Since then these performance balls have got softer but the real growth has been in more golf balls introduced with a focus on soft feel and lower compression. We spoke to all the major golf ball manufacturers to see if this was indeed the case and if so why.
Are balls getting softer?
Yes. A look around our golf ball reviews will show that there are more soft golf balls in the market today, or at least the marketing focus is on the softer feel attribute of many golf balls, as this is something in blind testing that have identified appeals to many players.
All manufacturers want to present a range of golf balls that will appeal to as many golfers as possible, so this means they have products that spread across the factors that influence purchase such as price, colour, performance and feel.
What has enabled balls to get softer?
New materials and manufacturing processes. New materials have enabled manufacturers to create cores that are soft, but do not lose as much energy and therefore speed as previous generations of soft balls.
New manufacturing processes have also developed, allowing balls to be constructed using soft cores as part of a multi-layered package, as well as the ability to manufacture the golf balls to a higher level of consistency, which was a problem with softer balls in the past.
What is meant by golf ball compression?
In general golf balls are categorised by their compression, meaning how much they deform under a load and the lower the number the softer the golf ball is, although there is no fixed number which defines a ball as soft. However when talking about compression it is important to bear in a mind some important factors.
Firstly, there is no fixed measure of compression with different manufacturers using different methods to determine compression. In the 1920's Dr. Atti was asked by the PGA to design a machine to help determine compression and this resulted in a scale that started at a ball with no deformation, which was given a score of 180, and then a point was dropped for every 1/1000th of an inch of deformation. This relative scale is still used but because the loads applied to the ball are not the same in all cases the numbers generated are best seen as relative numbers.
Secondly, the compression numbers quoted are the total for the golf ball and do not account for the compressions of the balls individual components. For example a soft core covered with a hard cover could have a similar overall compression number as a ball with a hard core and a very soft cover, but these balls are likely to behave differently due to being constructed differently.
How do you decide if a ball is soft?
Even though we can use compression to say if a ball is considered 'soft' or not the question of what feels soft to any individual golfer is not so straightforward.
All manufacturers have told us that when testing balls with players, each one determines softness in different ways and therefore what "soft" means is a different thing to different people. Some players will hit some chips and putts to decide if the ball feels soft to them, whilst others will head to the practice tee and hit balls with their driver.
A soft feel in the short game will almost certainly come from the cover of the golf ball, whereas balls that feel soft from a driver are very likely to have a soft core compression and a firmer cover, showing that feel is very much an individual and not something that can be easily categorised.
What are the characteristics of soft balls?
It is generally agreed that soft golf balls spin less than firmer golf balls so from the tee they should be longer as well as straighter, having less back and sideward spin. However, spinning less will mean that there is less control into and around the greens so the balls are harder to control and will feel softer off a putter face.
Is there also a trade off in performance at faster swing speeds?
In general it is considered that at faster swing speeds of around 95mph and upwards there can be a fall off in ball speed of a softer compression ball relative to a firmer ball. This is because softer ball deforms to a greater extent from the greater force at impact resulting in energy being lost and this reduces the ball speed. Opinion appears to be divided whether the lack of spin of the softer ball makes up for this drop in speed when looking at total distance.
How do you decide whether a soft golf ball is best for you?
It is best to decide which ball you prefer and is most effective with your irons and also for how you like the ball to behave and feel into and around the greens. Although softer golf balls go further from the tee for lower swing speed players, the gap across the whole range of ball types is only around 5 yards, so it is more important to fit the ball to your irons and then fit your driver to your preferred ball to maximise distance.
Soft golf ball designer interviews
For more information read our interviews with the designers of the major soft golf ball brands:
Callaway Dave Bartels Chrome Soft Golf Ball Interview
Srixon Brunski Interview On AD333 Tour & UltiSoft Balls
TaylorMade Project (a) Golf Ball Eric Loper Interview .
Titleist Golf Ball Interview With Matt Hogge
Wilson Staff Frank Simonutti Soft Golf Ball Interview