A popular trend that has emerged during the past few years is ball fitting. Offered by both ball manufacturers to help players select the best ball within their brand or by retailers or equipment providers across all brands, ball fitting is purportedly driven by advanced data analytics from millions of launch monitor data points using advanced algorithms. They promise to help choose the best ball optimized for the driver, irons and approach shots. Sounds impressive. After all, few players would buy a new driver or set of irons without first being fitted for lie and shaft flex? Why not also fit the ball?

Ball Fitting Is a Bad Idea
I think ball fitting is a bad idea.

Ball fitting looks at analytical data to primarily optimize full swing shots with an emphasis on hitting the driver. Here’s the problem: the performance difference across premium golf balls for driving and full swing shots over 100 yards is minimal. You may buy a “longest” golf ball, but in reality it really isn’t. The differences in ball performance around the green, however, are real and impactful. In my view most golf ball fitting programs optimize where it does not much matter – the longer shots – and miss where it does – around the green.

In 2021 MyGolfSpy, and independent golf website, tested 37 of the most popular golf balls using a robotic golf machine for driver, mid-iron and 50-yard wedge shots across a variety of swing speeds.

  • For a driver with a 100 mph clubhead speed the differences between the 10 longest balls (which included nearly all the most popular brands was only little more than 4 yards with an average distance of 281 yards. For an 85mph clubhead speed (fairly close to the typical golfer) the distance across balls was less than 3 yards or 1% difference. These distance differences are close to measurement noise. Other tests of golf ball length show even less distance between the “longest” and other balls.
  • For an 8 iron struck with a 65mph swing speed the distance in difference across the top 10 longest was only 3 yards. Differences in spin averaged only 250 rpm. Again, not significant, especially for the average player.

Ball fitters would argue that someone who hits the ball too high would benefit from a lower flight golf ball. Possibly some balls may provide a slightly lower ball flight. But will they then be sacrificing spin around the green which is likely more impactful on their score? Or would it be better to simply address the reason they are hitting the ball too high instead of “fixing it” with a different ball?

Tour players who win or don’t win large sums of money with slight improvements to their game most often do not switch golf balls when they need to hit it lower. Even in extremely windy conditions very, very few tour players will use a lower flight golf ball. Almost all stick with their regular ball and work on hitting it lower. Not because their stubborn, but rather they know what will help them score the best.

Shots Around and On the Green Should Dictate the Type of Ball You Play

As the performance difference across the most popular balls for the longer shots are minimal, should we then just forget about the brand and buy the cheapest ball? No. There is an area where the type of ball you use can have a big impact on performance: the short game.

As we get closer to the green, real performance difference emerge in three distinct areas:

Spin – Premium golf balls can have significantly more spin. For example, a ProV1 hit correctly on a 35-yard shot may spin at 4500 rpm, while a two-piece ball may only produce 3300 rpm. The ProV1 could roll to a stop within a couple of feet of landing while the lower quality ball could roll out as much as 10 feet. These are significant variations for the short game. Some worry that the extra spin can backfire with balls sucking back off the green when they land. The proper distance wedge technique, however, players can hit high-spin balls and produce a “one hop and stop” action.

Launch – Launch is the angle from the ground the ball flies immediately after being struck by the club. Better performing golf balls will – somewhat counterintuitively — have a lower launch angle around the green even though they spin more. High quality balls are more easily grabbed by the clubface and the swing speed energy is better converted into spin. Lower quality balls tend to roll up the face a little more and launch with as much as 10 degrees high launch angle. A higher-launching ball is harder to control and less predictable as it impacts the green.

Feel – Feel is an important performance component. Different balls have different feel, especially when putting. High compression balls produce a slightly harder “click” feel while medium and lower compression ball feel softer. Often this comes down to player preference. Largely personal preference playing a ball that “feels good” to you when putting is likely to improve your performance.

My issue with ball fitting is that it tends try and optimize the long game where this is little difference and ball fitting discounts the performance and feel elements of the short game, where there are significant differences between the types of balls.

Note that I’m not arguing that all players – high and low handicappers – should play the spiniest ball they can to help their short game. Rather they should choose the one the fits their game the best, balancing spin, ball flight, feel and durability. I play a Titleist ProV1, even though the ProV1x spins a little more around the green. I prefer the slightly softer feel of the ProV1.

A $50 Ball Fitting Exercise

Here’s a $50 ball fitting exercise you should try: Purchase three of four sleeves of different brands. Take them to putting green. Try some short finesse wedge shots from 10 yards and see how they react to the green. Try some longer 35-yard shots and note how these react on landing. Hit some low trajectory shots rolling onto the green from 20 yards. Now play a round with them. How did they play? Were they durable? Did you like them? You will learn that even data science-driven, statistically-filled analytics does not replace actually playing with a ball. If you play once a week the ball fitting exercise should take about a month. It’s OK if price is part of your equation. It’s sometimes hard to stomach hitting a virgin $5 golf ball into the water. If you find something less expensive that still works for you, go for it.

Finally, when choosing a ball there are no right or wrong answers. Rather a ball that performs the best for your game, that feels the best to you when you play it, and that will play most consistently for you. Pick what really works best for you.

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