A staggering estimated 1.2 billion golf balls are manufactured around the world every year – but what are they made of? Are they hollow or solid? You may be surprised to learn that not all golf balls are created equal: there are many different varieties, and the ball you use can profoundly impact your game.
Golf balls are solid. Most golf balls have rubber cores, sometimes made of several layers of different rubber. Some older golf balls, called ‘wound balls,’ are filled with rubber threads wrapped around a solid or liquid-injected core.
The rest of this article will help you decide which kind of golf ball is right for you. We’ll explore the evolution of golf balls over time, the different cores available today, and how different cores affect the ball’s overall performance.
Golf had its origins in Scotland in the 15th century, and back then, the balls were made of solid hardwood. Eventually, innovators moved on to leather balls stuffed with feathers.
Still, true change only came in 1848 when Robert Adams Paterson invented a ball made of gutta-percha – rubbery sap that could be reshaped into a sphere even after multiple uses.
These were significantly cheaper to manufacture and soon became the most widespread golf balls. It was gutta-percha balls that first were marked or scored on the outside to help get a smoother flight trajectory – a forerunner of the dimples we use today.
Different Types of Golf Balls
Different golf balls are created to meet different goals. Traditionally, there’s been a trade-off between distance and control: professional golfers have tended towards higher compression with softer outer covers that allow for greater spin and more precise control, while amateur golfers often opt for balls with harder coverings and softer cores, which are better at achieving distance but less good for delicate maneuvering.
If you have ever thrown or dropped a ball of rubber bands and seen it bounce, you’ve got an insight into the inner workings of a wound ball. Invented in 1898, these replaced balls made of gutta-percha and dominated the professional golf scene throughout the 20th century. They are made of a central core, either solid or liquid, wrapped in rubber threads, and then coated.
Benefits of Wound Balls
These balls were a significant improvement on anything that had been used before. As their design developed in complexity with different layers and tensions, different characteristics could be accentuated depending on a player’s game. Wound balls were lighter, so they went farther, and they could achieve high levels of spin, which enabled control the likes of which had not been seen before and made them the make of choice for pro golfers.
Disadvantages of Wound Balls
While pros loved the workability that wound balls offered on the green, most amateur golfers stuck with solid one-piece balls for several reasons.
The softness of the balata coating of wound balls did not stand up well against the imprecise swings and poor aim of learners, who could swiftly mark up the golf balls and make them unfit for play. The high levels of spin on these balls made it harder for casual golfers to get a straight hit on drives, and the relative complexity of the manufacturing process also drove prices up and made wound balls too expensive.
Shift to Solid Multi-Piece Golf Balls
In 1996, as with every year preceding, wound balls made up over 80% of the golf balls played at the US Open. But by 2001, 85% of balls played there were solid multi-piece balls. What happened?
Nike was the first to launch a solid core ball aimed at touring golfers in 2000, but Titleist’s now-iconic Pro V1 swiftly followed them, and this is the ball that really took off. Titleist pioneered a urethane covering, which was soft like the balata cover on old wound balls had been, allowing for a controlled spin with irons.
However, the gradation of hardness in a solid-core ball meant it also went greater distances on the drive. Within two years, it had replaced wound balls almost completely in the touring sphere.
The wound balls couldn’t compete, and now they exist mainly as collector’s items for golf enthusiasts. In fact, professional golfer Stewart Cink tested a wound ball from the 90s against a modern multi-piece golf ball – the Pro V1 from Titleist, to be exact – and found it handled very similarly except for one significant difference. He tweeted, ‘The wound ball was a full 8MPH slower!’
So, what kind of golf balls are available today?
One solid piece of synthetic rubber with the dimples pitted directly onto the surface; these balls are not used for serious playing. Without a harder outer cover or layers of different material to convert a strike’s energy into momentum, they deform and quickly become misshapen. They are cheap to produce, though, so they are still used as practice balls and mini putting courses.
This is probably the ball you started on. Two-piece balls are made of a solid rubber core with a separate outer casing. Common at clubs and driving ranges, they are the widespread choice for learners and high-handicap players. This is partially due to affordability: with relatively simple composition, balls like this are cheaper to produce. But its popularity is also down to a few other factors.
One of the most important to consider is swing speed: if you’re swinging below 90mph, a two-piece is likely to be the right choice for you. That’s because the lower compression in the core gives you more of a spring on impact in your drives, and the thicker outer casing minimizes side-spin for a cleaner, straighter shot.
If you’re looking for some two-piece balls to start on or practice with, check out the Mizuno RB 566. The low compression on this model is great for slower swing speeds, and the 566-dimple pattern works to eliminate drag in the air. For a more affordable option, consider Vice Drive – the core compression on this model was lowered this year for an even softer feel.
Many of the market premium balls today are three-piece: underneath a cover, the central core is wrapped in another layer of a different material called a mantle. The different compressions and properties of separate rubbers mean that in some cases, the force from a strike can be converted into kinetic energy, adding momentum.
Different parts of the shot can be modified: the arc can be slightly adjusted or the speed augmented. For players with a high swing speed or a low handicap, the Bridgestone Golf E12 Soft or the Kirkland Signature could be what you need to take your precision to the next level.
Four or more
These days, with balls that are made with four or more components, pro golfers are actually being fitted for bespoke balls that can be tailored to their needs. If you’re not quite there yet, but you’re looking to buy something top-of-the-line, consider the Callaway Chrome Soft X, which has been recently honed for distance with an enlarged core and two mantles.
TaylorMade, among others, has even come out with a five-piece ball: the TaylorMade TP5x. As innovation continues to increase, we can expect to see even more leaps forward to create balls that are fine-tuned for every player’s game.
Golf balls have not always been solid, but they are now. The golf ball’s evolution has seen some twists and turns throughout history, and these days, they are only getting better.
If you want to see the different cores and layers within golf balls with your own eyes, check out this YouTube video: