Do Golf Balls go Bad? Grab a Dime to Check!


You can’t play golf without a ball so golf ball quality is clearly a critical part of the game.

Getting ready to play we’ve all that moment when you’ve reached into your golf bag and picked out a cluster of old, used balls and tried to work out which was the best one to play and whether you should just through some of them away.

And the question you are really asking yourself is do golf balls go bad? So do they?

Modern golf balls are designed to be durable so their quality will not lessen through normal play. The ‘surface cover’ is the element of all golf balls most susceptible to damage. Provided a ball suffers only small scuffs or paint loss it can continue to be played without any loss of performance.

You might think it’s obvious whether a golf ball is still able to be used or not.

But not all golf balls are made the same way and given it’s such a vital piece of golfing equipment it surely makes sense to be sure you’re not using an old ball which could be affecting your shots and ultimately your score.

And more importantly given the cost of balls these days you definitely want to be certain you’re not throwing away any used balls which are perfectly ok and have a few rounds left in them at least!

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How Long a Golf Ball Lasts is All About the Cover

To fully answer the question of how long a golf ball lasts we first have to take a look at the composition of golf balls and what may affect it over time.

Golf balls have 3 main elements which matter – the cover, layers and compression – and whatever the design or make of the ball you use it will simply be a variant of a combination of these 3 main elements.

The two most common types of golf balls are however as follows:

  • Two-piece (i.e. 2 layered) ball – Most players are best to start with a two-piece ball with low compression. This ball has a large, rubber centre and an outer cover layer. Two-piece golf balls are designed to maximise distance and durability for beginners and high handicapped players and their simple two-layered construction make them more affordable in most cases. Examples include the Wilson Ultra 500 Distance Golf Ball or the Wilson Titanium.
  • Three-piece (i.e. 3 layered) ball – A 3-piece golf ball has a solid core which is surrounded by an outer layer and a soft cover on the outside. The additional layer and softer cover are designed to promote a greater rate of spin and allow more control over the ball for more skilled golfers. This ball type will typically be more expensive. The frequently best-rated 3-piece ball is the Titleist ProV1.

Although less common, there are also 4-piece and even 5-piece golf balls now available whose design adds additional layers with the aim of delivering even greater control in common with 3-piece balls.

Whatever the ball type however when it comes to judging whether it has gone bad or has passed its useful shelf life it almost always come down to the cover.

And of course, the thing that affects the cover of the golf ball the most is smashing it repeatedly with a golf club and it hitting who knows where on the course.

Our normal rule of thumb for regular golfers is as long as paint loss, a scuff or defacement of the golf ball is less than the size of a dime, it should be good to go.

Titleist representative

Fortunately today’s golf balls are made to be very durable.

The cores of modern golf balls are made from polymers that are much more durable than the rubber bands used in balls of times gone by.

They can stand repeated high-speed swing speeds of up to 125mph without changing shape or deforming according to Golf Digest.

Golf ball covers meanwhile most commonly consist of a firm ionomer (Surlyn is the brand name of ionomer you’ll most commonly find on 2-piece golf balls) or a softer polyurethane usually found on 3-piece or multi-layered balls.

With it’s much harder Surlyn cover two-piece golf balls are much less prone to cuts, scratches and other physical damage from trees, stones in bunkers rocks, cart paths or the grooves of your clubs.

By comparison however the softer cover of 3-piece and multi-layered golf balls are more prone to surface damage and are therefore more likely to require more frequent replacement.

How do you tell what’s enough ‘surface damage’ to warrant taking the ball out of play?

A good rule of thumb is to take a dime (or a 5p piece in the UK) and check for marks, paint loss or scuffs that feel rough to the touch. If it’s smaller than the coin it’s ok. If it’s not it’s probably time to stop using it.

There’s obviously a bit of common sense in this too but that’s a good rule to follow to judge the condition of the golf balls in your bag.

Also given the quality of golf balls today it’s much more likely that you will lose a ball before you get the chance to play it to the end of its useful life.

One additional thing to bear in mind also when it comes to damaging the cover of your ball is water on your clubface.

The presence of water on the clubface when you hit the ball can worsen damage to the cover.

Water decreases the friction between the club and the ball, which leads to slipping and a ‘grabbing’ of the ball by the grooves on your club and therefore increased wear and tear on the ball.

So if it’s raining, or the course is wet, make sure you dry the clubface with a towel before you hit your next shot. It will reduce the damage on the cover of your ball and make it last longer.

Used Golf Balls Are Not so Bad

It is estimated that there are hundreds of millions lost golf balls just sitting there waiting to be found across the golf-playing world.

Any golfer who has been playing for any length of time will have had that perverse joy of heading dejectedly into the trees thinking they’ve lost their own ball only to then find their own and one or even two extras!

But while that’s a great experience for most of us some golfers automatically discard the used ball they’ve found thinking that as it’s been cracked into the trees by another player it’s probably not going to perform well from then on.

However research shows that’s a mistake and although a used ball may be showing visible signs of wear, as long as it passes ‘the dime’ test on visible inspection, it’s not going to suffer performance-wise.

To highlight this a study from Practical-Golf tested a new Pro V1 golf ball against 3 used ones – one which had only gone a few holes (Eagle Ball), one with visible discolouration and imperfections (Birdie Ball) and one with visible scuffs after hitting a cart path (Par Ball) – and found that the used balls performed almost identically, compared with the brand new ball.

The test used two different clubs, a driver and a sand wedge, to put the four different balls through their paces and came up with the following findings:

CLUB: DRIVER
Ball
Quality
Ball Speed
(mph)
Total Spin
(rpm)
Launch Angle
(Degrees)
Carry
Yards
Total
Yards
Brand New148196914.7242270
Eagle149202813.5246275
Birdie149204113.6244273
Par148204813.6243271
Source: Practical-Golf
CLUB: SAND WEDGE
Ball
Quality
Ball Speed
(mph)
Total Spin
(rpm)
Launch Angle
(Degrees)
Carry
Yards
Total
Yards
Brand New85812730.6102107
Eagle85803030.3103108
Birdie84811430.1101106
Par86821930.2104109
Source: Practical-Golf

While it must be noted that this test was carried out on a premium golf ball – the Titleist ProV1 – and that other less expensive balls may not potentially get the same results it shows that golfers shouldn’t under estimate the durability of modern golf balls.

Even those 3-piece and multi-layered balls with the softer covers are pretty resilient these days and although it may not look as pleasing on the eye as you would wish your shots are not going to suffer performance wise.

So the good news is your used golf balls have probably got a few rounds left in them yet and if you’re not wanting to spend a fortune on new balls there are most likely lots of excellent 2nd hand golf balls out there also which are perfectly fine to use.

Golf Balls Don’t Even Go Bad in Water

We already know that the having water on the club face when you hit the ball can worsen the damage to the cover of a golf ball.

So surely golf balls that have spent some unknown amount of time underwater go bad and are not worth using even if you are lucky enough to fish out what looks like a great looking ball from the edge of the lake or pond you’ve just passed by.

Well it turns out that the modern golf ball really is incredibly resilient.

According to the Golf Ball Divers team numerous research tests show little or no loss in yardage between new balls and used balls which have spent the most recent part of their life underwater.

And while you may think it must make a difference if a golf ball has spent a long time underwater University run studies demonstrate that’s not the case either.

It seems the length of time a ball spends under water has no affect on its performance either.

A study by Oakland’s Michigan University in 2018 compared a set of brand new balls with used balls which had spent 1-month, 3-months and 5-months respectively at the bottom of a golf course pond.

Unbelievably all three groups of balls fished from the pond performed exactly the same as the new ones when tested.

So the next time you find a ball in one of the watery graveyards on your golf course, and it looks ok, you can pretty confident it’s good to go!

Just remember though to dry the face of the club you used to collect the ball before you hit it.

Because even if the ball has survived its bath a wet club faces striking a golf ball will still accentuate cover damage.

Avoid the Extremes to Make Unused Golf Balls Last

Once you have played golf for a number of years it’s not unusual to come across a sleeve of balls which you’ve either been given as a gift or at an event at some point in the past.

And given the balls are new and never been touched surely there’s not going to be a problem with using them?

While some say unused golf balls can at least anywhere from 5 to 10 years, Daril Pacinella, a nominated top 100 instructor in the US, suggests that modern golf balls will not go bad at all.

There is a caveat to that though and that relates to the conditions in which the balls have been stored.

Don’t store your golf balls in the freezer!

Storing them in extreme hot or cold conditions such as in the freezer (beware the myth that freezing golf balls preserves their compression better!) or even in the trunk of your car during the summer if you live in a hot climate is not a good idea.

Leave your unused golf balls in a cool dry place ideally, and to be honest normal indoor conditions will be fine, and they will last for a long time.

There have been no definitive scientific studies on exactly how long they will be fine for however golf ball researchers at Titleist state that as long as you keep your golf balls away from excessive heat or cold they can safely be stored for five years and most likely up to a decade.

The only thing to bear in mind however if you do end up finding an old sleeve of 10-year-old plus new golf balls somewhere in the house is that you may be missing out on any technical advancements the golf ball manufacturers have made in the intervening period.

Final Thought

So, in summary, the good news is that the modern golf ball is incredibly durable and its performance is not negatively affected even when it’s showing visible signs of wear or is left in water for months.

The bad news is the odds are you are going to lose your ball before you get a chance to test the limits of its shelf life!

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Graeme Hay

Graeme Hay is the owner of GolfingFocus.com. Graeme started playing golf when he was only 4 years old and has loved the game ever since. A single figure golfer all of his adult life he lives in London and still enjoys playing whenever he can with friends and family.

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