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Online Extra: The Best Buy in Golf?

Cheap is good. In fact, lower-price golf balls are not just a whole lot better than they used to be, they may be as good for your game as the priciest of balls. That's because the difference in performance between golf balls that cost $35 or more a dozen and those that retail for $25 or less can be much less than the price tags suggest. Nowadays, lower price is not necessarily an indication of lower performance, especially if you're a golfer of average skill.

Frank Thomas, who tested thousands of golf balls as technical director for the U.S. Golf Association, puts it this way: "Ninety percent of the golf equipment made today is better than 90 percent of the golfers' ability to utilize it. For most of us, we don't have to pay a lot of money to get a very acceptable ball and one which is generally better than we are."

Unquestionably, many of the new lower-price balls have benefitted from technology that has trickled down from high-end models. As a result, "The degree of trade-offs between the extremes is not as significant as it used to be," says George Sine, vice-president of golf ball marketing for Titleist.

Two-piece balls feature a solid core and firm shell often made of Surlyn, a less-expensive but more shear-resistant material than the urethane covers of high-end balls. Not only is the material less expensive, it gives the typical golfer what he wants, says Dave Branon, former chairman of Dunlop Slazenger Group Americas. "The most desired characteristic in a ball, according to consumer studies, is distance, and it is the least expensive attribute to buy."

Today's premium balls are typically multilayer in construction -- a solid core is surrounded by a thin hard mantle and soft-feeling cover made of urethane or a similar elastomer. "This is the combination that the very best golfers want," says Thomas, who now serves as Golf Digest's Chief Technical Advisor. "All golfers can benefit from using this type of construction, but all may not need it. And it is an expensive product."

Think of a multilayer ball as a two-piece distance ball encased in a tour-caliber cover. As such, multilayer golf balls such as the Titleist Pro V1, Precept Tour Premium LS, Strata Tour Ultimate 2, Nike Tour Accuracy, Maxfli Revolution, and Callaway HX offer the distance benefits of harder-feeling, lowerspinning two-piece balls off the tee while providing softer feel and more spin around the greens.

But here's the beauty of cheap: The two-piece ball also has a few new tricks up its sleeve, even as ballmakers are holding the line on prices or reducing them. On the outside, there are newer, softer forms of Surlyn. On the inside, the cores of some of the hottest "value" balls are much softer than the two-piece "rocks" of old. Indeed, overall compression ratings for some of the latest two-piece balls have dipped into the 60s, even 50s -- versus the 90- and 100-compression ratings common a decade ago -- without sacrificing playability for most golfers.

Increasingly, many balls on either end of the price spectrum hover in the same range of cover hardness and core softness (see chart). On average, the best-performing lower-price balls have a 10- to 15-percent lower (or softer) compression rating than high-end balls, while their covers can be about 20 percent harder than high-end balls, sometimes less.

Although the compression of a ball is only one factor in its overall performance, the softer-core value balls are designed to give average swingers the opportunity for more distance off the tee. "They're better for the player with a medium to slow swing speed -- the balls come off the face faster because they can be compressed more easily," says John Calabria, vice-president of research and development at Dunlop Slazenger Group Americas and a member of the Golf Digest Equipment Panel.

Precept led the charge to high-performance/lower-price balls with the giddy success of its low-compression MC Lady, followed by the rollout in January of the even softer Laddie. Other ballmakers have rushed into the market created by the Lady. Maxfli's Noodle is a low-compression distance ball that sells for less than $20 a dozen.

Even cheaper is Dunlop's LoCo, short for Low Compression. Titleist's hot-selling NXT has a compression in the same range as the Lady. ("People think it's the affordable version of the Pro V1," says Greg Milligan, owner of Bobick's Pro Shop in Grange, Ind.) And the grandfather of all two-piece balls, Spalding's Top-Flite brand, has a low-compression option in its new XL 3000 line, the Super Feel, which sells for $18 a dozen.

Traditionally marketed as durable distance balls, many lower-price models now offer short-game performance sufficient to satisfy even expert players. Says Sam Farlow, an Alabama state senior amateur champion who has played the Precept MC Lady: "It doesn't bite quite as well with a chip shot, but other than that it really doesn't have a weakness. It seems to be the kind of ball that works out well for everybody."

"Who's benefitting from the new technology? No question, it's the masses," agrees Stephen Graham, Precept's marketing director. "To me, it's an exciting time for that level of player."

As proof of how far two-piece balls have come, go back to Greg Norman's win at the British Open in 1986 with the two-piece Tour Edition ball. The new Top-Flite XL 3000 balls are even softer than Norman's winning ball -- and is longer to boot, according to Mike Ferris, executive director of golf balls for Spalding. "The XL 3000 is technologically superior and softer feeling than any ball we made in the 1980s under two-piece technology," he says. "A Top-Flite XL 3000 could be played on tour today."

Even so, more golfers have chosen high-price balls over the low end. In the past two years, the market share of golf balls that sell for more than $35 a dozen has increased 60 percent, or nearly four times the rate of growth for balls selling for less than $25 a dozen, according to Golf Datatech, a research firm that tracks sales at on- and offcourse golf shops. Titleist's Pro V1 dominates the market, even though it is the most expensive ball on the shelf.

So, are the Pro V1 and its high-end rivals worth it? Or is the $25-a-dozen ball really the best buy in golf? "That depends on the consumer," says Titleist's Sine. "Certainly for the average player, that could be true. For the more accomplished player, that's an overstatement."

It all has to do with perception, says Talmun Lardmie, a golf retailer in Knoxville, Tenn. By choosing a high-end ball over a value ball, "The guy is saying he wants to get every advantage, perceived or otherwise, and he's willing to pay for it."

What it comes down to is choice, says Ferris of Spalding, which also markets the higher-end line of Strata balls. With the premium ball, "You're paying for new technologies, more complex performance benefits," he says. "You're going to have to ask yourself, "Is low spin off the driver and high spin around the greens meaningful to me? Can you even tell?"

You may not be able to tell how golf balls affect your play. But the effect on your wallet is clear. Eric Hamilton won the Alabama Mid-Amateur using a $20-a-dozen ball and celebrated his victory by trading in seven boxes of the tour-caliber balls he had in his locker for 14 dozen of his winning model. Even so, Hamilton has switched back to an expensive ball. His feeling now? "Most people would spend whatever they could spend if they felt like it contributed to lower scores. "But those two-piece balls do fly farther and straighter." BY MIKE STACHURA

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