Got balls? If not, don’t despair – they’re on sale

For reasons passing understanding, the one piece of equipment that seems to have a truly hypnotic effect on me as the start of the season draws tantalizingly near is the golf ball.

At this time of year, nothing gets those golf endorphins flowing like the feel in your fingers of a brand new ball _ the satisfying symmetry of shape, the strange heft of a mysterious combination of high-tech materials, the smoothness of an unscuffed cover.

Taking a Sharpie to a brand new box of balls is a euphoric experience, an almost narcotic combination of Christmas-stocking delight and first-snow satisfaction, something akin to carving turns through fresh powder on a brand new pair of skis.

Loyal readers of this space will know of TaylorMades My TP Ball service, launched in the U.S. late limg_1859ast season and deployed in Canada near the end of the year. For the record and in the interests of full disclosure, under my desk rests four dozen TP Reds adorned with my lucky 88 _ a tribute to the great Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Lynn Swann that dates back to Grade 5 and Super Bowl XIII.

But TaylorMade represents just one of several strong premium ball offerings available for the 2009 season.

Weve gone on at length at Gear Head about the calibre of Callaways new Tour i and ix balls, which rank as two of the best products to emerge in 2008. And the reigning champ is weighing in again in 2009 as Titleist introduces updated versions of the ball that started it all, the Pro V1 _ watch this space for a review later this spring.

The Pro V, however, is not for everyone, apparently.

If youve been paying attention, youll know that Srixon, for instance _ the upstart Japanese ballmaker and companion brand to Cleveland Golf _ has lured Cleveland ambassadors Vijay Singh and Boo Weekley away from the Pro V and armed them with the new three-piece premium Z-Star and Z-StarX.

Like the other premium brands with which it was designed to compete, the Z-Star is the latest ball to offer so-called smart technology _ the ability to minimize spin and maximize distance off the driver, while at the same time providing maximum spin off the short irons for the best possible feel and control.

Its a 2009 upgrade to Srixons earlier players Z line, the Z-URS and Z-URC urethane three-piece offerings, which were (and still are) viable substitutes for a better player looking for a cheaper alternative of Pro V-calibre balls, but willing to forgo a little of that unrivalled, razor-sharp feel around the greens.

z-urc_sleeve Indeed, both the URS and URC (the latter spins a little more off the driver and is intended for players with higher swing speeds, while the URS offers the best feel around the greens) can be had at Golf Town right now for $39.99 a dozen, a shade lower than the Z-Star line, which is retailing for $46.99.

(Speaking of ball bargains: if youre looking for a premium ball and dont mind last years model, Callaways HX Tour and HX Tour 56 balls are going for $35 a dozen at GT, a good $15 off original retail. Last years Pro V1 and V1X are also $10 off a dozen at $39.98).

My own admittedly unscientific tests of the 2008 models place the Titleist Pro V, the Callaway Tour i and TaylorMades TP (the newer LDP version, not its decidedly unremarkable predecessor) in a class all by themselves, with the Pro V maybe edging the other two by a hair for its unparalleled greenside feel. But among the challengers to the crown, the balls that land just outside the Holy Trinity, theres one that for my money comes the closest to cracking the ranks: Bridgestone.

The B-330 and B-330s, their 2009 formulations essentially unchanged from previous years, proved a  consistent performer throughout 2008. The addition of the RX, a premium ball designed for slightly slower swing speeds and aimed at a niche segment of the market (high single-digit and low double-digit handicaps), gives the B-330 line a bench depth that covers the waterfront in terms of its reputation as a players brand.

The advent of Bridgestones ball line has coincided with the remergence of players like Fred Couples and, to a lesser degree, Charles Howell III, and of course the continued strong showings of Stuart Appleby. When you properly factor in the extent of the impact the ball can have on a players performance, it becomes clear this is more than just coincidence.

Indeed, the B-330 and B-330s are excellent performers off the driver, but the important thing to me is that they retain that precise feel out of bunkers and around the greens, as well as off the putterface. This, to my mind, is where many of the modern balls seeking to latch on to that segment of the market not willing to pay the Titleist, Callaway or TaylorMade premium tend to fall short.

Thats not the case with the top-line Bridgestone balls, which still provide strong feedback off pitch and chip shots, spin beautifully off full-swing short irons and wedges and provide a nice, satisfying sensation with the putter while consistently measuring up off the tee.

The B-330 RX ball, which is targeted at the same players who might latch on to Srixons URS, is also a strong performer, although better players who demand the extra attention to detail offered by the best balls on the market will likely notice as strong a performance as ever off the tee, but a slightly muddier feel off pitches and chips.

So there you have it _ more than a few options going into the 2009 season, complete with bargains for anyone keen to play a top-notch premium ball from last years lineup. As mentioned, watch this space for a more complete look at the 09 Pro V and Pro V1X later in the season, as well as the ball that supposedly lured Vijay away – the Srixon Z-Star.

Oh, and if you find a TaylorMade LDP Red with the number 88, let me know. Thats one of mine.

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James McCarten

When James McCarten isn't at the Ottawa offices of The Canadian Press, where he works as parliamentary news editor, he's either on the golf course or putting off his latest freelance golf-writing gig to spend time with wife Lisa and school-age kids Claire and Lucas. With 20 years of experience in Canadian journalism, James also suffers from a financially crippling addiction to all things Scotty Cameron.

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