Equipment

Inside The Hot List

An equipment skeptic went behind the scenes of the 2021 Hot List. Here's what he learned

I’m the furthest thing from a gearhead. This tends to shock my peers because I’m a scratch-level player who covers golf for a living. But when it comes to equipment, I am woefully uninformed. Or I was woefully uninformed. At this time last year, the whole of my knowledge of Golf Digest’s Hot List was that Callaway, Ping, TaylorMade and Titleist seem to do well every year, and that some in the golf industry are convinced the reason for that is the whole thing is bought and paid for by advertisers.

I was curious to find out if those accusations are true. I also wanted to know what role the Hot List should play in an age in which just about everyone, including the Hot List editors, believe all golfers should be custom-fit for clubs. It all brought to mind the phrase “Paradox of Choice,” coined by psychologist Barry Schwartz. I’ll summarize: When it comes to consumption, we have more choices than ever. At a supermarket, you will find 175 salad dressings and 40 toothpastes. Yet the buying process is less enjoyable. We can’t decide what to choose, and when we do make a choice, we aren’t satisfied. There were 174 alternatives, and this salty balsamic vinaigrette is the best I could do!? This is, more or less, how I’ve always viewed the club-buying process. It’s overwhelming—too many options. Just put something good in my hands, and let’s call it a day.

As an equipment outsider and a Golf Digest newcomer—I started here a year ago as a staff writer—I was a perfectly unjaded candidate to observe the Hot List process. It’s what Golf Digest Senior Editor Mike Stachura, half of the duo known in the industry as the Mikes, likes to call “not a some-of-the-time thing but an all-the-time thing.”

Admittedly, I was skeptical. I had always figured that the Hot List, like a lot of magazine “best of” lists, is decided by a few people sitting around a table for a few hours shooting from the hip. I was in for quite the education. As with all things in 2020, it started on Zoom.

THE INAUGURAL HOT LIST

Today’s Hot List process is unrecognizable compared to the bare-bones original, which was born in 2003. Stachura and Golf Digest Equipment Editor E. Michael Johnson, the other half of the Mikes, had pulled something together at the request of Golf Digest Editor-in-Chief Jerry Tarde, who saw no reason Golf Digest shouldn’t plunge into the trend of ranking products.

“My first thought: Bad idea,” says Johnson, who saw problems with such an unprecedented undertaking. Surely it would damage relationships with the equipment companies, which were a big source of Golf Digest’s advertising revenue. “The industry was used to equipment coverage just being a rewrite of its press releases.”

But the re-written press releases were not providing readers much insight or direction. If this club is great, but so is that one, and that one rocks, too, then, well, which one should I get?

“Isn’t this one of the great services we can provide golfers?” Tarde says. “There are questions that our readers come to us with, and at the top of our list has always been: What should I buy?”

So the Mikes and other Golf Digest editors rounded up what they thought was a good representation of clubs on the market. They did so without any cooperation from the manufacturers because the idea was for the inaugural Hot List to be a true blitz on the industry. Competitors couldn’t know, so neither could club companies. Once they got their hands on the new sticks, they discussed their merits, tried them and came out with a list. “We thought we were pretty buttoned up,” Johnson says.

The clubmakers believed differently. In addition to being blindsided, they had serious concerns with the off-the-cuff methodology. At the first PGA Merchandise Show after the initial Hot List, the president of a major equipment maker greeted Johnson’s handshake overture with a firm, “What the f___ do you think you’re doing?”

Since then, the Hot List has grown from about a five-person job to a year-round endeavor involving dozens of people. The Mikes still anchor it all, with Golf Digest staff writer Joel Beall participating as a voting judge, but the supporting cast has grown dramatically: There is an academic panel of five Ph.D.s and former USGA senior technical director Dick Rugge, a retailer panel comprising the most plugged-in folks in the club-selling business, and a 16-person player panel that conducts the actual club testing.

MEETINGS, MEETINGS, MEETINGS

I joined the process after the initial step, which involves the unsexy task of reaching out to every clubmaker under the sun and asking them to submit their products. It’s a courtesy, really, because participating in the Hot List is not a choice. A few years ago, a mid-major manufacturer—spend too much time with the Mikes, and you begin to refer to club companies like March Madness teams—decided participation was not in its best interest and did not comply with requests for product meetings and samples. So the Mikes got their hands on the clubs and put them through the testing process. That mid-major has complied with every deadline since.

My first peek behind the curtain came in the form of a six-hour Zoom meeting with the R&D folks from Cobra Puma Golf. Because this gathering took place in the afterglow of Winged Foot, they were more than happy to talk any and all things Bryson DeChambeau. (Turns out, the curious tinkerer bit isn’t an act at all.) Everyone knew one another, and everyone knew what phrases like radius of gyration meant in relation to golf clubs. (I knew neither, but, again, that was the idea.) In non-COVID times, this meeting would take place at their headquarters in Southern California, where I assume my frantic Googling of mechanical jargon would not go so unnoticed.

“Typically the Mikes come spend a day with us,” says Tom Olsavsky, vice president of R&D for Cobra Puma. “They’ve always been keen about learning. That’s really a key thing that I appreciate. Whenever there’s something new or interesting, they come out here wanting to learn about it. They listen not just to what we say about our own product, but about everyone else’s product.”

The Cobra folks took turns playing lead narrator alongside a vibrant PowerPoint presentation that outlined the technology in their Radspeed drivers. But they could never speak for more than, say, 45 seconds before one of the Mikes chimed in with an incisive question, using all the correct verbiage. Johnson studied business in college, and Stachura was a philosophy major, but after 17 years of doing this, both could pass for mechanical engineers—at least to the untrained ears of this writer.

“Mike and Mike are an amazing set of individuals in that they have slowly convinced the industry to tell them the secrets of designing golf equipment,” says Bob Thurman, vice president of Wilson’s in-house innovation team. “Over time, we have inadvertently created the two smartest non-R&D equipment guys in the world.”

The Mikes and Joel have similar meetings with every manufacturer that submits a club for the Hot List, from the major brands to the mid-majors to complete outsiders and every company between. In normal times, one member of the academic panel is assigned to every manufacturer and will meet with that company with the Golf Digest editors or on their own. This year, multiple members of the panel Zoomed in to each manufacturer meeting. It’s always a good idea to have a proper scientist in the room, even if it’s a virtual one.

Not every club submitted makes the Hot List by receiving a Gold or Silver rating— for the 2021 Hot List, 270 products were submitted with 137 making the final list— but every club gets a fair shot.

“Some of the most gratifying times for us are when a small company that no one has heard of submits a club, and it turns out to really resonate,” Johnson says. “You feel like you’ve uncovered something, like you’ve discovered something.”

Once the technical meetings are done, the process of acquiring the clubs for the Hot List summit commences. For the manufacturers, Hot List deadlines are often out-of-cycle; Golf Digest needs the new products by early fall, but most will not hit the market until the beginning of the next year. Some companies, according to sources in the industry, have changed their release dates to better line up with the Hot List schedule. But the top companies primarily have not, which means the Golf Digest editors see the new clubs before even tour players. Yes, the Mikes had their hands on the new TaylorMade SIM2 driver months before Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy got a peek.

“What I always tell manufacturers,” says John Krzynowek, a partner at the market research firm Golf Datatech, “is to never miss a deadline for Hot List. Get them what they need, when they need it, because it’s really important.”

TESTING THE EQUIPMENT

The heart of the Hot List is the summit, which in normal years would take place for more than two weeks at some warm-weather location. It’s the type of gathering COVID laughs at: Thirty-ish people fly in, stay at the same hotel and, after a day’s work, mingle over drinks in the lobby. Obviously, that was not possible this year. Some parts of the summit made a seamless transition to a pandemic world, like meetings between the Mikes and Joel and the retailer panel, in which they discuss how much a company’s clubs have sold, the manufacturer’s reputation, how retailers think a new technology will resonate with consumers, which tour players have it in the bag—that sort of thing. This category, known as Demand, is a target of Hot List critics despite the fact it accounts only for 5 percent of a club’s overall grade. The Mikes and Joel know this and try desperately to avoid having Demand be the deciding factor for any one club.

“Mike and Mike are remarkably knowledgeable about the physics and technology that go into these clubs,” says Tom Mase, a professor of mechanical engineering at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. “They can’t sit down and solve differential equations or do the simulations, but they have a really good feel now, and it’s a great discussion for us technical people. Mike and Mike are like project managers; they are kind of pulling it out of us. They’re like, ‘What about this? Could this actually be happening?’ ”

If the heart of the Hot List is the summit, the heart of the summit is the player testing. Player testing cannot happen over Zoom. This led to a hectic summer of planning for Hot List coordinator Daria Delfino. Travel restrictions made going back to the usual participants impossible. In a normal year, about 13 of the 16 player testers are returners. “Being a tester is a skill, mentally and physically,” Stachura says. “Your 200th ball needs to be as good as your first ball, and that’s not as easy as it might sound.”

Usually, the 16 will fly in from all over the country. This year, they had to be within driving distance of TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Conn., where this year’s three-day summit took place. Each person on site took a COVID test a few days before testing began, and players did not stay in a hotel—they commuted from the local area each day, and there were daily temperature checks before any players or editors were allowed on the range.

Heroically, 16 players of varying swing speeds, body types, ages and handicaps were secured. Players sent in their specs— what they are playing now, what their swing speed is, etc.—to ensure Golf Digest had the correct shafts available. Every player signed a non-disclosure agreement because each is testing unreleased product and is forbidden from posting anything equipment-related throughout the year. One year, a former panelist was barred from returning after editors discovered a Facebook post in which the panelist expressed his excitement to be a part of TaylorMade’s “M family.” Bias—even if perceived—will not fly.

I attended the second of the three testing days. In this God-forsaken year, the golf deities smiled on the testers with three straight days of 70-degree sunshine in November, which rendered superfluous the hand warmers and space heaters on site. On the docket for Day 2 were wedges, game-improvement irons and drivers. Each player hit about 300 full-swing shots and 300 wedge shots. In related news, there were foam rollers and an ample supply of Aleve on the premises. After hitting each club, panelists rated it for Look, Sound, Feel and Performance, and they submitted comments through their phones. Normally, they would say the comments out loud for the editors to write down, but, you know, social distancing.

Clubfitter Garth Murszewski of Golf Galaxy moseyed about seeing if he could tweak a setup to improve ball flight. Each full-swing shot was documented on the Foresight Sports GCQuad launch monitor, and driver swings were also captured by the Rapsodo Mobile Launch Monitor. Every player hit the same type of tour-level ball, and to guard against unconscious bias that might develop from staring at the same logo for three days, the balls were made to show only the Golf Digest “G” logo on both sides—no brand name or numbers.

It was an all-encompassing grind. Around lunchtime, the news networks called the presidential election for Joe Biden, and no one seemed to notice. These testers had a job to do. On second thought, “job” isn’t the right word. The testers do not receive any payment apart from room and board, and they receive no free equipment. The lucre is modest: a Hot List hat and, this year, that nifty Golf Digest mask. What kind of sicko would sign up for such torture?

Equipment nuts, that’s who. “I love it,” says Larry McCoy, a longtime player panelist and 6-handicapper from Connecticut, after hitting yet another 7-iron. “I don’t even need to play actual golf; I just need to be around the products. I cannot get enough of it.”

AND THE WINNERS ARE ...

Once the summit concludes, the deliberations begin. This year’s deliberation process took about two weeks of full-day, spirited discourse. Probably because of the extra layer of insulation Zoom provides, the discussions I witnessed were rather cordial, but I’m told that is usually not the case in person. Name-calling is not uncommon—one year, in a particularly heated exchange, an editor called Mike Stachura a communist. Another legendary clash happened during the 2014 Hot List, when the Mikes debated for 12 hours whether the Callaway Big Bertha Alpha or the TaylorMade SLDR deserved the best Innovation score. The best part: The readers would never find out which got the top mark. The Hot List does not do a “Best in Category” award, only stars. Both clubs got a five out of five.

Eventually, the Mikes and Joel will cast their votes and agree on a final list. Although they rely heavily on the player panel’s Look/Sound/Feel and Performance scores, as well as the retailer and academic panel’s conclusions, those three and only those three get a say in the final list. “Everything we get from the players, academics and retailers are data points to consider that help inform our thinking,” Johnson says. “But, at the end of the day, we’re the judges. We don’t shy away from that responsibility.”

Then the issue hits newsstands and the Interwebs, and, predictably, out come complaints and accusations of bias, typically from online competitors. Ask Johnson about these, and his tone shifts to a mix of tired exasperation and resignation. This kind of stuff used to grind his gears, but somewhere along the way he realized there’s no point in stressing over it. “The truth is, we have never been asked or told to change anything,” he says. “We hear in the Twittersphere, the advertisers win, blah blah blah. The argument falls flat on its face. First, the big companies are the big companies for a reason. They spend more on R&D, on materials, on talent. They’re just not going to put out crap very often. But we call them out when they do. A couple of years ago, one of the leading manufacturers had a new iron they thought was fantastic. Well, it sounded like a car crash, and it barely made the list as Silver. Also, if advertising is how you get on the Hot List, I don’t see many Bettinardi ads in Golf Digest, and they have done extremely well. Titleist didn’t advertise with us for years, and we didn’t care. It’s simply not part of our considerations.”

During driver deliberations this year, Beall played the role of the Hot List cynic, forcing Johnson and Stachura to justify their decision to give a TaylorMade club a certain score in a certain category. Not only were they not biased, but they made sure to stay a 48-inch driver’s length away from bias. Once all three believed they had made a decision they could defend to a ticked-off manufacturer, if need be, they moved on to the next.

The best testament to the thoroughness and legitimacy of the Hot List is that it carries so much weight within the golf industry and with consumers. According to Golf Datatech, the Hot List is the No. 1 most-read annual equipment review among serious golfers and has been for more than a decade.

CUTTING THROUGH THE HYPE

The Hot List editors want to make clear that their list is not a be-all, end-all bible for buying golf equipment. The idea is not for you to buy whichever club gets the highest Performance or Innovation score. The Mikes and Joel firmly believe that, if financially feasible, golfers should be custom-fit for clubs to find the setup that maximizes their potential. The problem, however, is that too many options are available. “It’s an overwhelming amount of choice in the market,” says one player panelist, a quote that could have come straight from the pages of Barry Schwartz’s book. “This is monotonous, hitting 20 clubs in a day. No one really wants to do that.”

This is where the Hot List comes in. “You look at other service-journalism publications, and their goal, I think, is to be the angel on the shoulder of the consumer,” Stachura says. “If you read the Hot List, you might think Oh, these clubs could be a good fit for me because now I know more about them. If we can help golfers narrow it from 20 to five, we’ve done our job. So now when they go into the store, they don’t have to waste time with whatever sales pitch is going to be thrown at them. They have a baseline—ideally to go see a fitter.”

In other words: If before you had 175 salad dressings, now you have five.