One of the fundamental questions that golfers consider is whether to play a hard or soft golf ball. Many might be confused by the premise of this, because almost all golf balls seem roughly the same when you hold one in your hand. What does hard or soft mean, and does it really matter which type I play for my game? Does it have to be one of those, or are there mixes between hard and soft?
In this article, we will explain the core difference between hard and soft golf balls and how it relates to which ball you should choose.
Golf balls are organized by their compression value, which means how much a ball is distorted in shape when hit. If you were to take a super slow-motion camera and look at the impact of a club hitting a ball, the ball changes shape for a moment. How much it changes shape is how compression is evaluated.
As you might imagine, harder golf balls change shape less. Softer golf balls change shape more. Differences in core, cover materials, or amount of layers within the ball can influence this change in shape.
Golf has a compression scale that gives a relative idea about how hard or soft a ball is, and that scale ranges from about 30-110. The lower end indicates a softer ball and the upper end indicates a harder ball.
In general, a high compression rating (for a harder ball) means that the ball will spin more and can be more easily controlled on approach shots. Softer golf balls usually spin less and can travel farther with longer clubs because of that, but control is less precise.
Most high-end golf balls are harder because they are meant for higher swing speed players. If your swing speed is over 100 mph, you should likely be using a harder golf ball. The amount of force being imparted on the ball is so great that the ball benefits from having less interaction with the club face. If a faster swing speed player used a soft golf ball, it would feel like a sponge and would likely launch too high, leading to less distance.
An example of a hard golf ball is a Titleist Pro V1, which has a compression rating near 90. There is also a Pro V1x version, which is just a harder golf ball with a compression rating just over 100. The Pro V1x will spin more, which some players like to see because it can help with shaping shots in different directions.
Most golfers shouldn't be playing harder golf balls, however. It actually makes the game more difficult because these balls have more side-spin, leading to shots going even farther offline than normal.
The vast majority of golfers should use softer golf balls. For slower swing speeds, these balls will launch higher, with less spin and travel longer off the tee while not going as far offline. There is some control sacrificed on approach shots and short game, but the long game benefits far outweigh any disadvantages.
This is counterintuitive because most golfers would think that they need to buy an expensive golf ball to have success. Instead, those expensive golf balls could be doing nothing but hurting your game and leaving a gaping hole in your wallet.
This can be one of the more confusing elements. Almost all golf balls, regardless of being harder or soft from a compression standpoint, are marketed as having a soft feel. The Pro V1, for example, is known as a ball with a soft feel despite being a harder ball overall.
This part seems strange, but really it comes down to the outside cover of the ball. Most high-end golf balls use a urethane cover, which provides more feel and spin around the greens. A lot of other golf balls are made with Ionomer or Surlyn covers, which are harder and spin less. These are often more durable covers, but they don't have as soft of a feel as the urethane covers.
So yes, a golf ball can be both hard and soft. One element answers the compression question, but a harder golf ball usually has a soft feel on shorter shots.
And in case you were wondering, there are soft compression golf balls that also have soft feel. The Vice Pro Soft is a good example. It comes in at a mid-range price point because of this factor.
A lot of this simply comes down to swing speed. If you are below 95 mph or so, go with a softer golf ball. This is especially true if you have less experience overall or you have a hard time with side-spin on slice and hooks.
The good news is that softer golf balls tend to be cheaper. This doesn't mean the quality is poor — you can find a great soft golf ball that suits your game.
On the other end, faster swing speeds will want to gravitate to harder compression golf balls.
At the end of the day, golf balls come down to personal preference. Make sure to test all different types of golf balls, experimenting with how far each flies and what type of performance you get from each ball. If something works for you, that is all that matters.