This article is from the Golf FAQ, by marcelo@nntpserver.Princeton.EDU (Marcelo A. Gallardo) with numerous contributions by others.
Balata and Surlyn are ball-covering materials. But there are typically
other differences between balata and surlyn balls besides the cover.
A balata covered ball is typically a three-piece ball: a core wound
with rubber and covered with balata. There has been a lot of discussion
as to what "balata" is. Let's just say that balata is a soft substance
which leads to cuts and nicks. This "softness" is said to offer "better
playability" which is to say that the golfer can "shape" his/her shot
(fade/draw), and get more "action" (backspin) on the greens.
A surlyn covered ball is typically a two-piece ball: a solid core with
the surlyn cover. Surlyn is a man made "uncuttable" substance which is
designed to eliminate the cuts and nicks. The drawbacks of the harder
ball are that it is more difficult to "shape" his/her shot (fade/draw),
and get "action" (backspin) on the greens.
** Balata **
1. Softer cover
o Better spin
o scuffs and cuts easily
2. "Works" the ball better because of spin (Draw, fade, backspin)
3. Usually three-piece ball (Liquid-filled core, wound rubber, and cover)
4. Usually more expensive:
o Higher first cost
o Shorter life
** Surlyn **
1. Harder cover
o Not as much spin
o resists scuffs and cuts
2. More distance
3. Usually two-piece ball (Solid core and cover)
4. Usually less expensive:
o Lower first cost
o Longer life
Compression of a golf ball is designed to match the "feel" of the ball
to the golfer's preference. Typical compression ratings are between 80
and 100, with most players using a 90 compression ball as a compromise.
Many above average golfers tend to agree that hitting a 100 compression
ball feels like "hitting a rock". Contrary to golfing myth, there is no
correlation between compression and distance.
Now what you really want to know: Determining the type of ball you
should use, as well as the compression is purely preference. Some
people find that a surlyn covered ball is quite playable, while others
feel they need the "action" a balata ball gives. I generally play
whatever ball I find while searching for the ball I lost, but then
again I'm not on the PGA tour.