Choosing a golf ball used to be relatively simple. You had the pro's choice – wound balls, where a small core was wrapped with a long strand of rubber and the two were then encased within a thin cover. Titleist led this market. And you had the casual golfer's typical choice – solid balls with a thick core surrounded with a thin cover; Spalding's Top-Flite pioneered that ball. Wound balls were expensive; solid balls weren't. But now wound balls are extinct and the solid ball market is … well, complex.
The two-piece solid ball of the past was a little rock that gave you distance but no feel. Modern multi-layer balls using mantles of urethane and polymers are engineering marvels. Now you can get a relatively inexpensive two-piece ball that plays better than the old wound balls the pros used, a three-piece ball that provides both feel and distance or a four-piece ball that can be tailored to perform anyway you like. And some manufacturers in search of still more control, like TaylorMade and Mizuno, make five-piece balls.
In the early 1990s, you could choose between distance and feel, but you couldn't have both. Now you can have it all and more -- at least, that's the advertising hype. You can get a ball that goes a long way and doesn't feel so hard coming off the clubface. You can get a ball that performs better around the green but still flies a long way. And by combining the advances in materials with flight monitors and other technology, you can find an all-around performance ball that maximizes both for your particular swing speed.
It's easy to think of golf balls only in terms of the cover material, with softer materials giving you more performance options in exchange for less durability. But you can also choose the materials used in the core and the various mantle layers to get a ball that suits your game. Of course, this sort of customization means that you need to get fitted for golf balls the way you get fitted for clubs.
All this adjustability translates into dollars. As a general rule, the more layers a ball has and the better it performs in a large number of situations, the more the ball will cost. And as new technologies are introduced and the United States Golf Association decides which are acceptable and which "violate the spirit of the game," the relative prices of each will change. But no matter how much the market changes, you can find your way through the maze much more quickly by using two simple criteria – how much spin around the green you want and how much you're willing to spend.