With balata having gone the way of the 8-track tape, most golf balls feature a cover made from either Surlyn or urethane. When choosing a ball that’s right for your game, it’s important to know the difference.
Surlyn is an ionomer resin introduced by DuPont in the 1960s. It’s been the material of choice for the covers of so-called “distance balls” – like Top-Flite and Pinnacle products – for decades. Surlyn is extremely durable and will not cut or scuff through normal use (although mower blades and cart paths can damage it), making it the preferred cover for most amateur golfers.
The primary drawback to Surlyn balls is that they don’t provide the backspin or feel demanded by professionals and many low-handicap amateurs. And that’s where urethane comes in.
Urethane is softer than Surlyn and delivers higher spin rates on iron and wedge shots. Skilled golfers prefer this control and, because they generate high clubhead speeds, lose little if any distance compared to Surlyn balls. Urethane is technically softer than balata – the cover material of high-performance balls of the past -- but is actually more durable and less prone to cuts and scrapes.
In a nutshell, Surlyn-covered golf balls are generally less expensive, slightly more durable and may provide a little more distance than urethane models, but don’t provide the spin needed to stop shots quickly around the greens. Golfers who don’t mind spending more for urethane will see most benefits in the short game while giving up very little in the distance and durability departments.
The other major factor that affects performance is a golf ball’s core composition. While research of different brands and models can guide you toward the right ball for your skill set, a comprehensive golf ball fitting is your best bet.