Golfers on average change their equipment every four or five years. If you don't, you risk getting left behind in technology. Equipment Editor Mike Johnson's analysis of the 102 players on the PGA Tour who qualified for distance-stat tracking in 2013 and again in 2017 shows the average distance gain was 2.2 yards, from 289.8 to 292.0 yards. Sixty-eight players got longer; 34 got shorter. Rory McIlroy gained the most: 15 yards. Experts will tell you distance gain is actually greater because pros can hit it farther when they want to. There were 29 drives of 400 yards or more last year on the tour. But let's talk about us, not them, and why you should use this 15th edition of the Hot List (View the complete 2018 Hot List) as a shopping guide. I'm calling in Senior Editor of Equipment Mike Stachura to testify:
How often should I buy new equipment?
Stachura: The minute you get excited about a new club, start the process of demo-ing and fitting. But own nothing older than five years except maybe a divot tool.
When my partner says he's hitting it 20 yards farther with his new driver, is he only justifying the $500 he spent?
Certainly possible if he wasn't fit for his old driver. Put him in front of a launch monitor with his old and new clubs. Numbers. Do. Not. Lie. Every shot we hit at the Hot List testing is captured by a launch monitor, so we're not going only on hearsay and feel.
What's the biggest breakthrough in golf equipment for 2018?
Highly forgiving, supersize drivers used to pay a penalty for slightly higher spin, but that compromise no longer exists. These new drivers give you higher launch with less ball spin, which means more carry and overall distance.
How much farther will one of these new drivers get you today compared to four or five years ago?
Golf Digest's robot testing with Gene Parente at Golf Laboratories showed that at average golfer swing speeds, there's a gain of six yards on center hits, nine yards on heel and toe mis-hits, and 11 yards on low-face impacts.
At the extremes, we saw some new drivers that were nearly 10 yards longer for on-center hits and 13 yards longer on off-center hits than older models.
What's happening with driver lengths? Is longer longer?
Driver lengths have settled back down, generally to around 45½ inches. Longer isn't longer; properly fit for length (and loft and face angle and weight and bend profile) is longer. Although longer shafts generate more speed, shorter shafts might give you more distance because you find the center of the face more often. Rickie Fowler went down to a 43½-inch shaft last year and lost only one yard, but fairways hit went way up.
There was a movement to more loft on drivers a few years ago—I went from 9 to 10.5. What degree loft should I buy now?
Across the board there is less spin per degree of launch than there was a generation ago. More loft is usually better than less loft. But if you're adding loft by hitting up on the ball at impact, higher loft can hurt you.
Should I buy the stock shaft for my driver or spend another $100-plus for a super-duper shaft like DJ's got?
Stock shafts are somewhat better than they used to be. I look at it this way: Stock shafts are like shoes. If you wear flip flops all day, one size fits all. But if you want to run, I'd get some running shoes that fit my feet.
What's the benefit of the new irons?
The biggest benefit I see is the number of iron sets designed progressively in a job-specific way. Long irons designed with distance-enhancing technology, while short irons are compact for shot-making control.
How often should you change your wedges? Do the grooves really wear out?
If you play 15 to 20 times a year, practice your short game once a week for half an hour and haven't changed your wedges in three years, you might as well be throwing the ball on the green.
Putters are putters. Will the new ones really help me make more putts?
No. That said, at the very least, they will reduce your three-putts. But I wouldn't want to get between the love of a golfer and a putter, seriously.
MY TOP-10 REASONS
THE BALL IS BEING HIT SO MUCH FARTHER BY TOUR PROS THAN WHEN I WAS A KID:
1.) Oversize metal drivers aiding off-center hits and encouraging golfers to swing harder without fear.
2.) Trampoline faces.
3.) The ball.
4.) Shaft technology.
5.) More athleticism (see Billy Casper, above, versus Dustin Johnson).
6.) Better fitness and training.
7.) Launch monitors and ball/clubfitting that optimize ball speed and spin
8.) Coaching 24/7 by teams of teachers, trainers, psychologists.
9.) Higher course-maintenance budgets, improved grass strains and mowing equipment that led to firmer, faster fairways.
10.) Private aviation. OK, it might not add distance to your drives, but wouldn't it be nice!