Are Used Golf Balls as good as New Golf Balls?

Are Used Golf Balls as good as New Golf Balls?

Vanity is a damaging trait to bring to the golf course. It can not only hurt your score by luring you into over-ambitious shots, but also add substantially to your spending on what can already be an expensive leisure pursuit.

The High Cost of Golfing Vanity

Golf Gear Can Be Expensive

Media claims that golf is rapidly losing popularity because of ever rising costs are probably exaggerated. But there’s no doubt that getting started in the game can involve a significant financial outlay even if you have no desire to join the country club set.

A basic starter set of clubs, bag, suitable clothes, shoes and perhaps a pull-cart will likely set you back several hundred dollars as a minimum – a figure which will only tends to increase with the annual release of each season’s “must have” technological advances.

All of this is before you even set foot on the course, where green and cart fees for 18 holes ranging from $50 upwards are now the norm in many areas.

Golf Gets Really Expensive If You’re Losing New Balls Each Time You Play

And whether you’re a beginner or a more experienced player still struggling to keep on the short grass, golf balls can be a significant additional cost if you’re frequently losing golf balls.

There are often discounts available from the big specialist stores and, of course, Amazon, but a dozen tour quality balls can nevertheless easily set you back the best part of $50. Losing a few of these per round, as you easily may, can be a significant add-on to the cost of your weekly golf outing.

Vanity and pride may try to persuade you that you that you just have to have that revolutionary new dimple pattern or game changing core construction.

But the quieter voice of experience may suggest that golf is frustrating enough at the best of times and that it’s not worth risking the extra cost and anguish which will inevitably accompany the sight of yet another top quality (and pricey) new ball vanishing forever into a water hazard.

So how much difference to your game can playing the kind of ball the pros use really make?

Is There Any Difference Between “Tour Quality” Balls and Less Expensive Ones?

According to a Golf Digest report, there are important playing advantages to be gained from the performance of the multi-layer, urethane covered balls which are commonly described as “tour” quality. These balls perform better with every club in the bag but are particularly helpful in providing more backspin and better feel and control for chip and pitch shots around the green.

The report concedes that although it’s true that cheaper “Surlyn” covered balls may sometimes provide a little more distance off the tee, the yards gained at the swing speeds typical of average players were not significant, and would in any case usually be eliminated by the mishits common amongst this group of players.

The conclusion is that for golfers with above average short games the extra expense of the tour ball may be worthwhile, but only if it is coupled with a long game which can be relied on to keep the ball in play.

There’s no doubting the strength and sincerity of the average golfers’ desire to improve. It is perhaps matched only by their enthusiasm for reducing the costs which exponential advances in golf equipment technology keep adding to the game.

That’s why generations of children have found little difficulty in making a few dollars’ pocket money by selling back “found” balls to passing players.

It’s why club and course pro shops also often sell heavily discounted balls they have recovered from water hazards, woods or rough; and why more and more specialist used ball retailers are appearing.

(Click here to check out our review of the best new golf balls currently in pro-shops.)

Are Used Golf Balls as good as New Golf Balls?

But the key question, of course, is whether any used golf ball, whatever its original quality or cost, can really be as good as its “fresh from the box” equivalent?

How Long Before a Golf Ball Starts to Deteriorate?

Leading manufacturers assert that their balls can be safely kept, without any deterioration in performance, for up to five years in normal domestic conditions. It’s important to remember, however, that excessive heat, such as might be found in the trunk or interior of a car, can significantly reduce a ball’s useful life span.

Manufacturers also point out, not surprisingly, that balls should be replaced more frequently if golfers are to keep pace with advancing technology.

But leaving aside manufacturers’ understandable preference for golfers to buy frequent replacements, anecdotal evidence suggests that under the storage, climatic and playing conditions normal in the US, balls should last for many years.

Surlyn covered balls will be less susceptible to wear and tear than the softer urethane covered type, but in both cases any loss of performance is likely to be undetectable by the average handicap player.

Are Golf Balls Damaged by Prolonged Immersion in Water?

It’s probably inevitable that many, if not most, of the used golf balls offered for sale, whether at clubs, courses or by specialized retailers, are those which have been retrieved from lakes or other water hazards.

After cleaning they may well look and feel exactly like other used balls, but are there any specific performance concerns of which you need to be aware?

Unsurprisingly, a company called Golf Ball Divers, which specializes in retrieving balls from the water, has commissioned research to address exactly this issue.

Using Golf Laboratories of San Diego’s state of the art golfing robot and Trackman analytics, the company tested new Titleist Pro VI balls against separate batches of the same brand which had been submerged in cages for one and three months.

The key takeaway from the report was that hitting driver at the average golfer’s clubhead speed of 94 mph, the data produced by the robot showed no significant differences in launch speed, carry, total distance, spin or shot dispersion between the different batches.

It’s not unreasonable to note that the report was commissioned by an interested party. But that said, there seems no obvious reason why an otherwise undamaged ball, protected by a modern covering material, should behave differently because of a period of submersion.

What to Expect When You Buy Used Golf Balls?

The Look and Feel of Used Balls

Many Used Ball Retailers Have Developed Their Own Grading Scales.  Modern ball coverings make cuts in the skin far less common than they used to be, and no reputable supplier should offer such damaged balls for sale anyway.

But a variety of less obvious surface defects commonly appear even on balls which have been used for a single round, or less, and these variations in quality are described in various ways by different retailers.

Broadly speaking, however, used balls are generally offered according to scales which grade them in descending order of quality as “mint”, “near mint”, “good” or “value”.

Alternatively, they may be classed, again in descending order, as “AAAA”, “AAA”, “AA” and so on. If a used ball is described as “mint” or “AAAAA”, then you might think that it should look new, and be in all cosmetic aspects almost indistinguishable from a brand new one. Some retailers, however, will place balls which carry pen markings or logos within this category.

A “near mint” ball may also bear these kind of marks as well as perhaps some more general discoloration or other blemishes.

It is in the end a matter of personal taste how much superficial imperfection you will accept in return for the cost saving these balls can offer, provided of course that you can be confident that the performance of the ball will not be impaired.

Used Ball Performance

Nobody wants to shoot 185 to the pin with their rangefinder, make an excellent strike on the ball and see the ball go 175!

So how do used balls rate against new ones in terms of performance?

The answer, it seems, is very well indeed.

In 2016 PluggedInGolf.Com conducted a comprehensive experiment testing several different grades of used ball against what it called the “4 Myths” – that used golf balls feel like new on impact, and also perform like new when hit with wedge, iron or driver.

The conclusion was clear. None of these “myths” was in fact a myth. Whatever club in the bag was used by testers, and with any of the grades of used ball tested, there was no significant impact on performance.

But it’s important to note that only putters were used to test feel, so it could be argued that there might be differences in the feel of a ball being compressed on impact with the longer clubs which were not be picked up.

Moreover, the tests were conducted indoors using launch monitor technology, so there might be some concern that they did not necessarily replicate the results which might be observed under playing conditions.

For example, the testers themselves noted that balls of the lowest grade tested sometimes had scuff marks which might cause them to react differently in the wind.

But the results were nonetheless striking.

Using a wedge for 30 yard pitches, a 7 iron for full iron shots and a driver off the tee, testers could find no difference in performance data between new and used balls when averaged over 50 shots.

Hitting Driver with a Used Golf Ball?

Doubts about the performance of used balls may perhaps be particularly pronounced when it comes to the driver, if only because increased distance off the tee is one of the key claims which manufacturers tend to stress in marketing their latest technological innovations.

But these tests revealed no material difference between used and new balls in launch speed, spin or “smash factor” (a clever stat that measures the efficiency with which energy is transferred from the clubhead to the ball on impact *)

* for perspective: longer hitters on the PGA tour, such as Bubba Watson, are said to have a smash factor of around 1.5, meaning that a clubhead speed of 100 mph delivers a ball launch speed of 150 mph. The average amateur, however, typically has a smash factor of only around 1.2.

Which Used Ball Is Best To Buy?

If it is accepted that for the average player used golf balls are for all practical purposes just as good as new, then the question becomes – which kind of used ball is the best buy?

The answer is that this is more a matter of comparing price than it is performance.

As noted above, every retailer will have a top grade of used balls, although they may use different terms to describe them. These balls will often be called “mint” and should look and feel like new, but it is important to read the retailers’ descriptions very carefully so that you know exactly what you can reasonably expect for your money.

A common problem is that balls of this mint or top grade are often not much cheaper than the brand new version, particularly when you take into account the frequent discounting of new golf merchandize which now occurs throughout the year.

More attractive savings are generally to be found by buying a medium grade used ball. Often these have been downgraded only because of very minor cosmetic defects which are no worse than a new ball might have after being played for a single round.

Buying a tour quality ball of this lower grade probably offers the optimum combination of price, playability and appearance. You can of course save even more by opting for a used Surlyn ball of this grade, but you should only do this if you would also choose this type when buying a new ball.

Also be aware that retailers often classify some of their used balls as “Practice” grade and there is no harm in having a supply of these if you are fortunate enough to have a practice net at home or a backyard large enough for chipping and pitching practice. Many of this grade are still markedly superior to the composition type of ball unfortunately found on many driving ranges.

Final Thoughts

If you’re still in doubt about buying used balls, perhaps the best question to ask is simply whether the extra cost of a new ball can really be justified by any marginal gains in distance and accuracy you might achieve.

For the pros, of course, who are trying to squeeze the maximum possible competitive advantage from their equipment, the answer must be yes.

But remember that while they can easily afford an unlimited supply of top quality new balls, they usually don’t pay for them anyway!

It’s highly unlikely that the average, or even high standard, amateur will notice any difference between the feel of a used and a new ball on impact.

Nor will there be any appreciable loss of distance, height or spin.

So if you’ve been playing golf for any length of time but find yourself still struggling to improve your scoring, it’s a pretty fair bet that the problem does not lie primarily in the quality of the balls, or, for that matter, the clubs which you’re using.

If you need to increase your distance or smash factor, or get more spin on the ball – and which of us doesn’t – you will do far better to focus on hitting more shots out of the sweet spot of your clubface, thereby improving both your compression of the ball and the feel of the shot.

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