The Golf Digest Hot List is one of the most respected equipment publications in the golf industry.
Despite the depth and volume of information presented, the final product is barely a reflection of the exhaustive process that goest into the Hot List’s publication. GolfWRX was fortunate to interview Gold Digest Equipment Editor Mike Stachura and Golf World Equipment Editor Mike Johnson for an about the work that goes into the production of the Hot List.
To listen to the interview, please click here or read along with the transcript.
00:08 – GolfWRX: Okay we’re here today with Mike Stachura and Mike Johnson from Golf Digest. Guys, how are you doing today?
00:10 – Mike Johnson: Excellent!
00:20 – GolfWRX: Before we get started, we were hoping you could give us a little bit of your backgrounds with Golf Digest and golf in general?
00:30 – Mike Stachura: Sure, this is Mike Stachura, the “Gouge” of Bomb and Gouge fame. I’ve been with Golf Digest since 1992. I am an average player my index is 11.2. I’ve been playing golf for twenty-some years. I’ve been Equipment Editor at Golf Digest since 2002.
01:00 – Mike Johnson: This is Mike Johnson. I’ve been with the Golf Digest Company since 1996. I’ve been Equipment Editor for Golf World for the last six years. I’ve been playing golf for thirty-five years. Currently, I’m a 4.2 handicap and in an earlier life, was an Assistant Director for Golf at the Country Club of New Canaan in New Canaan, Connecticut.
01:24 – GolfWRX: Now, could you tell us a little bit about the history of the Hot List?
01:39 – Mike Stachura: Sure, the Hot List kind of grew out of our readers which is really interesting for a service magazine to have that opportunity. Over our previous 52-year history, the most common question from readers has been: we need you to review new products. We honestly never felt comfortable with the methodology. In the summer of 2003, we spent a lot of time thinking of a way to do it. I think the 2004 Hot List, which was the first time the Hot List came out; the main mission of that February issue in 2004 was to answer the number one question from our readers. It was the first time in my recollection that any golf publication stepped out and really selected its top products. Certainly our process has evolved and expanded over the years. I think what started with really a handful of editors over a few weeks back in the fall of 2003 is now really a year long process which involves, in this latest generation, more than 50 contributors. It’s obviously a huge part of what we do and I think it’s generally regarded as the most important piece of service journalism Golf Digest does every year.
03:04 – GolfWRX: I know the Hot List always an eagerly anticipated issue and everyone’s always looking forward to it being published. Now can you tell us what the best and worst part of making the Hot List is from your point of view?
03:22 – Mike Johnson: Obviously the best part is that we’re getting paid and make a good living trying out all the new golf equipment. That’s not a bad way to earn a living, nor is the fact that we’re able to get a look at the equipment well before almost anyone except the people who work in the R&D departments. It’s not unusual for us to see something four, five, or six months in advance of it actually coming out to market. So that’s pretty cool, as is the ability to pick the brains of the brightest R&D guys in the industry. The worst part really is having people question our integrity. We put endless hours into this, we spend untold nights away from our families. That’s fine, but when people at the end of the day point at us and say, “Well it’s all just about the advertising and nothing else really matters,” that really sticks in our prop quite a bit.
04:26 – GolfWRX: Definitely, I know that’s something we’re hoping to clear up here today, so I’m glad you got to that right off the bat. Can you give us a brief overview of how the Hot List is exactly made?
04:41 – Mike Johnson: Sure, I think it’s important to know that the Hot List is not just a one month thing, but is a year long thing. We’ve come a long way since the first year, five years ago, when essentially we were able to fit all the clubs in trunks of three cars and take them to the test site. This past year, we had more than three thousand pounds of equipment loaded into a trailer that made its way out to Mesquite, Nevada. As I said, it’s a year long process that encompasses visits out to manufacturers throughout the year to meet with their R&D people. That’s not just to get a better understanding of the products, but of the trends that are happening in the industry as well. We review and test products, the four judges – myself as well as Mike Stachura, Stina Sternberg from Golf For Women, John Strege is our West Coast Editor and situated in the hot bed of equipment in Carlsbad, California. The four of us are testing products right throughout the year. Come July is when things really tend to get into full swing. We receive the product nominations from the manufacturers and start getting some of that product in. From that point, we begin the process of trying to whittle this unbelievable mass of product down to the products we think are significant enough to allow our panelists to go out and test at the Hot List Summit.
06:12 – GolfWRX: So how would you advice readers to use the Hot List to guide themselves on making future purchases?
06:24 – Mike Stachura: The important thing to remember about the Hot List is how it started. The readers are looking for advice because quite frankly, they’re confused. It’s a difficult marketplace to understand if you only do it part time, let alone full time. But most readers don’t even do it part time. Their experience with new clubs is the first time they walk into a shop or the first time they look online. We want to be their starting point in the shopping experience. I think one of the reasons we eliminated Editor’s Choice was because we thought it was getting in the way of us helping them work through the products in the marketplace. People would see Editor’s Choice and they would stop reading and stop investigating. Again, the Hot List is a starting point and not an end point. Looking at the universe of equipment, like we say in the article, we have 552 products that were on our original considerations list. To get down to 130 is fairly impressive and more importantly helpful to the readers. I think that’s what we’re trying to do – say these products are the most significant in the game. These are the products you should look at. Now go about your search in your own way starting from this point.
08:00 – Mike Johnson: I think in many ways what we’re looking for is we want people to think of the Hot List as basically taking the four Equipment Editors of the Golf Digest publications with them into the pro shop when they go to make their purchasing decisions. As Mike Stachura said, we’ve eliminated Editor’s Choice this year because quite frankly if you were to take the four of us with you into a shop, we would not recommend you try one club and one club only. We would want you get a consideration set of several clubs, go through the process of seeing what works best for you, and go from there.
08:35 – GolfWRX: Perfect. Now how are clubs obtained for the Hot List? Do manufacturers submit them, or are they purchased from stores?
08:40 – Mike Stachura: Basically we ask for manufacturers to submit clubs for consideration. But over the years, sometimes manufacturers have opted out and we’ve then gone back to them and requested products specifically from them. If they’ve still opted out, we’ve purchased them on our own. When possible, we’ve used other connections to get product that is not yet on the marketplace whether it’s through other manufacturers or whatever. The point is we’re trying to get all the product that is going to be in front of our readers. I think what’s important to know is that we do our best to contact as many manufacturers as possible. I think this year we’ve heard from eighty-six companies. There’s no question in my mind that there are more out there. We’re always willing to listen to anybody that’s got a new idea or new product. Again, we’re trying to survey as much of the marketplace as the average reader is going to come into contact with. Again, those products are provided by the manufacturers. We actually get with the manufacturers, provide them with launch monitor data from all our panelists; we provide them all the club specs for our panelists. Again, the manufacturer can literally fit all the players that we have. But by in large, not everyone does that, certainly when you’re talking about sixteen or twenty different versions of each club. What we do at minimum is have three or four different flexes of each club available to our player panelists.
10:40 – GolfWRX: I know people will be very interested to hear that. Are all manufacturers invited to participate? With so many manufacturers in the market, how do you draw the line?
10:59 – Mike Johnson: Essentially, all manufactures are invited to participate with the exception being we do not take components. We only take assembled golf clubs. So if a company strictly makes heads and does not provide us with assembled golf clubs, they would not be eligible to be considered. That said, we try to contact as many manufacturers as possible, if there’s one we missed and one contacted us and wanted to submit their product for evaluation, absolutely! We’re not looking to leave anybody out. We’re open to considering anyone and anything for the most part. That’s what makes the job rewarding. It’s not just finding the new stuff from the big companies but every once in a while you’ll find a putter like this year – the Profound putter made our list. I don’t think probably one tenth of one percent of our readers have ever heard of that company. But they submitted product, it went through the process, and actually ended up on the list.
12:04 – Mike Stachura: It’s important to remember that we’re not going to eliminate any company. If it is a component company, most of those component companies are happy to supply us with fully assembled clubs and certainly the folks at Golfsmith were part of our consideration set for this year. Tom Wishon’s been on the Hot List before and this year his fairway wood was on the Hot List and he’s obviously very much a component company. Again, we’re trying to stretch out as broadly as possible. It’s not like we’re trying to keep the Hot List a secret. I think the industry does know about it, so if they want to be part of it, they’re more than welcome.
13:04 – GolfWRX: I know a lot of people had questions about why smaller OEM’s seemed so under-represented, especially in the putter category?
13:15 – Mike Johnson: We’ve seen that, and I would suggest to them that they re-read not only this year’s Hot List but the Hot List from years past. I couldn’t disagree with that more. In this year’s putter category alone, we’ve had putters from companies such as SeeMore, David Whitlam, Zen Oracle, and Profound make the list. So when they talk about smaller OEM’s being under-represented in putters, I’m really not sure where that comes from. In addition to that, the top Technology scores went to Nike, who’s not exactly a putter behemoth. As for why smaller OEM’s seem under-represented, we’ve discovered many fine clubs from smaller companies over the five years that we’ve done the Hot List. Not a many people had heard of Bobby Jones Golf before they appeared in the Hot List in 2006. Tom Wishon made the list this year. That said the fact is that well known companies do tend to do well. I know some cynics will say that may be due to the advertising. But I would counter that large companies are large companies for a reason – that they usually make really good products and that they have well staffed R&D departments that are thinking up new ideas 24/7, 365 days a year.
14:38 – GolfWRX: I think that will clear up a lot of the misconceptions about the OEMs we see and it might be a bit of not seeing the forest through the trees. Now, why are some pre-release clubs like the Bridgestone J36 line included while others like the Titleist AP and ZB aren’t?
15:00 – Mike Stachura: I think we try very hard to get products that aren’t even out yet in our Hot List Summit on-site evaluation which happens in mid-October every year. That puts us in a position where we’re asking companies to get us products that may be four or five months from being on the market. In many cases we’re able to get that product. If you look at the Hot List this year, you’ll see the new driver from Cobra, the Speed LD, is not the current Speed LD but an updated Speed LD. We actually had that in October and were able to evaluate the new version for the Hot List. Same way with the FP irons from Cobra, same with the S9 irons. Both of those were updated for ’08 and we were able to get early versions of those. Titleist was not able to get us new product. Again, Bridgestone conversely was able to get us new product and we were able to put those irons through our Hot List process. We were not able to get the Titleist irons until mid-November. And we’re not going to put an iron on our recommended list unless we put it through the full Hot List process. Nevertheless, we did get a chance, as editors, to take a look at the new Titleist products and we did think they were significant just like the new hybrids that are coming from Adams and the new irons coming from Nickent. We know these things are going to be out and we feel an obligation to let readers know that these are products they should also be aware of. That’s why we included them in the side bar, but again we couldn’t get product by our Hot List deadline.
16:48 – GolfWRX: That’s a very fair explanation. Now how do testers test the clubs? Do they only test them on the range, or do they get to take them to the golf course? How were their results verified?
17:00 – Mike Johnson: Testers do a combination of range testing which admittedly makes up the high majority of their time. But there is some time spent on the golf course as well. In addition, golf ball testing is done entirely on the golf course as well. We feel that is the best place for them to get a feel for how a golf ball reacts in a game-time situation. Clearly range testing is a little better way to do the clubs. You can hit more golf balls, you can compare apples to apples out there a little easier. As for how are the results verified, I’m not sure exactly what that means, but we have one editor assigned to every two player-testers. They are watching as the panelists hit the clubs and hit the balls. And basically what they are there for is if the panelists comments don’t seem to match up with what the editor witnessed, then they’re going to press them a little harder as to why they hit the clubs great but maybe didn’t give it such a good review. They’ll ask them some additional questions as to why and vice versa. If they hit it poorly and still gave it a glowing review, they’re going to ask them why. We don’t discount their comments certainly, but we press them a little more to get what they truly feel about the product.
18:36 – Mike Stachura: I think it’s important to know that we as editors are professional interviewers. We’re not claiming some secret knowledge of physics, engineering, or statistics or anything like that. We believe this player evaluation is an important part of our process and we believe in it so strongly that we’re sticking an editor with each tandem of players as they hit every club and we are grilling them on every shot. That’s how we get their input and that’s all it is – input on how we make decision on each club and each criteria with our system of evaluation. It is twelve hours a day on the range, and it’s not very exciting watching people hit balls. But we are focused and that’s pretty much the strength of our process.
19:35 – Mike Johnson: I think it’s also important to note that there might be a misconception that the testers opinions are the only ones that count when it comes to the score on Performance-Playability. Certainly we value their opinion greatly. But at the end of the day, no one ever casts a vote or a score on the Hot List other than the four judges.
19:58 – GolfWRX: Now is there any thought being given to allowing readers to participate in the Hot List via online polls or forms in the future?
20:12 – Mike Stachura: We’ve looked at all sorts of involvement from our website. I think for the Hot List itself, one use of our website came to fruition this year. We actually expanded the panel through a request on our website for panelists. We added three panelists from our web search. But in terms of having online polls, I don’t really think it’s practical with we’re doing. There are a large percentage of products for the Hot List that is new and not yet introduced and sometimes that product is even in prototype form during our evaluation period. So surveying readers about products they haven’t seen let alone hit is probably not useful for our purposes. I know we’ve done some online polls in the past and we certainly do use consumer data in understanding one of our criteria – the idea of Buzz Factor. Part of Buzz Factor is understanding where consumer is on certain products or brands. We’re looking to make it as interactive as possible. We had great success searching for Hot List panelists online, and I think we’ll probably do something similar this summer again. So I would encourage all the folks at GolfWRX to keep their eyes peeled on the Golf Digest website because we’ll be looking for new panelists.
21:59 – GolfWRX: I know we’ll be doing that for sure. From the outside looking in, it seems like a lot of the testing is qualitative, based primarily on user feedback. Was there any thought given to including machine testing in the future for a more numbers oriented comparison?
22:16 – Mike Johnson: That’s an area we hear a lot about both from readers and some people in the industry. That said, robot testing can sometimes be a little bit of an iffy proposition, especially when you are talking about certain categories irons, wedges, and fairway woods. With that said, we did incorporate some robot testing this year in areas we felt it would be relevant and would be helpful – notably the driver category. We used Golf Labs which is the industry recognized standard for robot testing and they tested every single one of our drivers. In addition to that, we used the Trackman radar device out in our Summit in Mesquite to again provide a little bit of additional data for us on the products.
23:07 – Mike Stachura: No question we’ve looked at robot testing and we’ve used it very often in Golf Digest stories to sort of test a concept. I think there’s certainly some issues with relying on robot testing as being somehow definitive about a comparison between one product and another product. We did normalize our driver robot testing results. But just to show you how much variability there can be: our calibration club was a TaylorMade R7 425, we used this same driver on seven days of robot testing to set the baseline. The variety of results on those seven days ranged across eleven yards. You’re talking about the same exact club hitting it eleven yards different on different days. So, to say we’re going to do robot testing and rank clubs based on these results, first you have the problem with being able to repeat the results you get. That’s very time exhaustive to say the least and I’m not sure you could get significant differences – you may get significant differences between two products, but you’re not going to get significant differences and repeatable differences when you test thirty-four drivers or thirty-five drivers. The other thing that worries me about robot testing is we’re not evaluating clubs based on how robots use them. We’re evaluating clubs on how significant we think they are for golfers. That goes beyond things like how far an eight iron goes, or how much spin a sand wedge generates. I think in a lot of ways those numerical differences can be blown out of proportion and in some cases I think they can be wrong. I don’t know that in the grand scheme of things you’re going to see differences that matter. I think when you look at something like the driver category, there’s a reason there’s seventeen drivers that are on the Hot List. It’s because we think that’s the group of products that are significant. Could you tell me that the driver that is at the so-called bottom of that group of seventeen is twenty yards behind the top? There’s no way that you could probably produce any significant statistical difference between those drivers. The third thing, and I know I’m rambling about this, but what set of launch conditions are you going to use to determine: this is how we’re going to evaluate product. Are you going to do it with one set of launch conditions? If you’re doing an average set of launch conditions, that applies to absolutely no one. If you’re trying to say let’s do three or five sets of launch conditions? Again, you’re doing approximations and you’re not getting at any meaningful differences. Again there is a time element here. To do this type of testing in a serious way I think would probably take a minimum six months. We’re taking a little bit of robot testing and using it at face value. We’re not blowing it up as the most important thing. I think it’s a contributing element to our process. It is new to our process this year. I think it has helped, but it’s not definitive and we don’t treat it that way.
27:08 – GolfWRX: Excellent, that’s a lot of great information, I know it will help everybody understand exactly why that’s not included as a bigger part of the Hot List so thanks a lot for that. I know custom fitting is all the rage these days, and I know you touched on this a little bit earlier. But are all the clubs custom fit to the tester’s specs or are they off the rack?
27:31 – Mike Stachura: Like I mentioned this before, we provide tester’s launch conditions and club specs of all of our panelists to all of our manufactures. We also say at bare minimum we need three to four flexes of each club. There are a few manufacturers that will send us sixteen to twenty drivers matched up to our players’ specs. I will say that a majority don’t go down that road, but everybody provides that bare minimum of three to four flexes of each club. So you can see why we had more than three to four thousand pounds of product we brought out to Mesquite. I think again, we’re not saying every player on our panel has been custom fit to every club. But I am saying we’re not having a guy with an 85 mph swing swinging an X-flex driver. That’s another benefit of having an editor paired off with every two players. We had a seventy-three year old tester this year and he may have been more comfortable with an R-flex because that is what he always was using but we weren’t having it – he was swinging a senior flex. So it’s not custom fitting, but it’s not a free-for-all either.
29:05 – GolfWRX: Now onto what might be the biggest point of contention on the board – the infamous Buzz category which seems to be pretty misunderstood. Can you guys tell us why it was included in the test?
29:22 – Mike Johnson: Sure. You’re right; Buzz always seems to be the one category everyone wants to discuss. They wonder why it matters? They wonder why it’s even a consideration? I think a good starting point is to clarify that buzz is not simply market share. A lot of people seem to think that is the one and only criteria for buzz and it absolutely is not. It’s certainly one of the factors. Whether or not a company has significant market share or not, there are other areas of buzz you can get points for. Although, if a company advertises or not in our magazine, we don’t care; but if a company has got a snazzy ad campaign that people are talking about and it’s creating excitement about the product – an example might be Top Flite’s D2 campaign with Kenny Mayne. People are talking about it at the water cooler – that’s buzz and they get some credit for that. Buzz is essentially how much attention a club or a company is getting or is expected to get. Last year, square drivers were not even in the marketplace, but it was all anybody wanted to talk about. That’s buzz and it’s meaningful. If it creates excitement about the product to the point where people are dying to try it, I don’t understand why that’s not significant? When TaylorMade came out with the R7 driver originally, the first one with the moveable weights, everyone wanted to try it. Why is that not significant when you’re putting together a Hot List? Buzz only accounts for ten percent of the score. We have heard people and we’ve reduced it. It was twenty percent of the score in the beginning. But I think ten percent’s a comfortable number. A club is not going to not get on the list necessarily because it doesn’t have a high buzz number and it’s certainly not getting on the list solely on the strength of a high buzz number. It has to score across all five criteria in order to get on the list. To reward a product for creating excitement, we think is justified.
31:43 – Mike Stachura: We think it’s important to know that the Hot List is not the “This driver hits eighty-seven percent of the fairways list” or, “This iron spins back the most from 135 yards.” I think what we’ve tried to do with the Hot List is create this sort of shopping guide of must have products or at least must be on your consideration list products. As such, to be hot, I think it’s fair to say a product needs to be in demand. That’s not an indication necessarily of greatness, but it is an indication of appeal. Part of that evaluation of appeal is talking to retailers who see at least as many products as we do and that’s about all of them. They know what works and what doesn’t work. You can argue they’re getting pushed this way and that way form sales reps and manufacturers. But our group of retailers is a group of top people in the industry, respected universally. And it’s no holds barred – we grill them and they give us answers and they tell us what’s working and what’s not working. What companies they respect and what companies they don’t respect. That’s reflected in Buzz. But again, you’re talking about something that has the smallest part of our percentage breakdown. It’s ten percent and like Mike Johnson said, it’s not going to determine whether something gets on the list and it’s not going to prevent something from getting on the list. The fact is that idea of creating demand can be achieved in a lot of different ways. Not a lot of people may know about Wishon Golf. And I bet you their operation can probably fit in a corner of one floor at Callaway or TaylorMade, but there’s no question that Tom Wishon’s name has a certain resonance and a certain degree of respect and that counts toward Buzz. Buzz is a lot of different things, and not one of those things takes precedence on evaluating Buzz. Certainly success in the marketplace is important. But it’s not if you’re successful in the marketplace – boom, you’re automatically on the list.
34:15 – Mike Johnson: I would also add, I find it interesting that so many people are down on Buzz when if you just look at GolfWRX and the chatter that goes on. The chatter is virtually all because of Buzz. People want to talk about the Ozik shaft at $1000 and they think it’s all the rage, not necessarily because it’s a great shaft at $1000 but it’s because it’s what everybody’s talking about. I find it interesting that people want to kind of home in on that one area and say it shouldn’t be included when it’s really what we all talk about. It’s why we’re in business as golf magazines, to talk about the things people are interested in. And I think that’s why Buzz has a place in our process.
35:08 – Mike Stachura: The funny thing is some of the guys on the websites may be against it, but they’re contributing to it.
GolfWRX: That’s very true, and I would like to ask you one more question about this. It has to do with the factors of Buzz I know you talked about advertising, water cooler talk, those kinds of things. One of the other factors I read about on the web site was Tour use. One of the members posed an interesting question with programs like the pay to play programs on Tour and the discrepancy in advertising budgets among the OEM’s, how much is the Buzz category skewed toward larger OEM’s?
35:50 – Mike Johnson: That’s a two pronged question there, and I’ll answer at least the first part about Tour use. I think what people have to understand is that when we say Tour use, we’re not necessarily talking about Tour dominance. Does TaylorMade get some credit for being the number one driver on the PGA Tour, yeah they get some credit for that. But SeeMore putter gets just as much credit, maybe more, because Zach Johnson used their putter to win The Masters. I think more people took note of the SeeMore putter that Zach Johnson used than what a guy might be using during the Turning Stone Resort Tournament. Tour use is important, but it’s not necessarily about who wins the counts. Again, it’s kind of the excitement created by that tour usage.
36:48 – Mike Stachura: Right. There’s no question larger OEM’s have more capacity to generate Buzz. But larger OEM’s have other elements of Buzz that may not be positive. What would happen if a major company introduced a new driver that had to be pulled off the shelves? You compare that situation with a minor company that introduced a driver that had to be pulled off the shelves. It probably negatively impacts the larger company more than it does the smaller company. Again, it’s a two edged sword and no one element of Buzz – it’s kind of an amorphous collection of things. It’s really little pieces that we all add together. If you dominate the tour in irons, are you automatically on the list solely because of your dominance on tour because of your irons? Frankly, no.
38:02 – GolfWRX: Excellent, and once again going back to your original point, it’s almost a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the overall score because it still counts for the lowest percentage of the overall score. Right?
38:16 – Mike Johnson: Right. It’s ten percent of the score and really the difference between the top score and the lowest score on Buzz is two to three points probably.
38:30 – GolfWRX: Now getting into a couple of other categories, how do you draw a distinction between performance and function?
38:40 – Mike Johnson: I think that’s a great question and I think it’s one people do need to understand because there’s certainly some confusion on that. Performance as we’ve gone over is based largely on player panelist evaluations of the product. That is encompassing a fairly wide range of players – it’s better players, it’s average players, and in some of the game improvement iron categories and the like, we incorporate a group of higher handicappers. Function is the judge’s interpretation of how well the product performs for intended its target audience. As an example, a driver that is designed primarily for better players may not receive a high score in performance from all of the player panelists. But if in the judge’s opinion the club fulfills its mission – that is being a good driver for better players – it will receive a high function score. If a super game improvement iron set we feel really helps the super chopper, they will get a high function score. Again, they have fulfilled the mission of designing a club for their target audience. I know it seems like a very slight and subtle difference, but it is a difference so we decided to have the two categories. On top of that, the performance-playability score, when we get together to do our deliberations is kind of group sense. We look at all the notes, we look at all the data, we look at all the panelists’ comments and scores and we arrive at a score for performance playability for each product. The function area is the only area of scoring where each judge gives his or her own individual score. So it’s really our own interpretations of how well that product fulfills its mission.
40:41 – Mike Stachura: I think the main benefit in the way we come to our individual scores and grades is that in performance-playability and especially in technology-innovation, having the four of us in a room looking intently at each products presentation of its technology and having essentially a debate on every product. We get to hear all sides before we make any kind of a decision. I think that’s a big part of our process. We come to one score, but it’s based on the input of four people who’ve devoted a year to figuring this thing out. It’s what we try to do. And it’s not the quickest way to do things, let me tell you that. It is the best way given our process.
41:33 – Mike Johnson: I think when it comes to function, we’ve heard the argument before, “What makes you guys the experts to give your own opinion on this.” We don’t say we’re the experts, but we certainly have access to the experts who can help us understand everything. And this is our job every day. I think what we’re trying to do is inform the consumer as best we can. And I like to think of ourselves as the best-informed consumers there are.
42:09 – GolfWRX: I don’t think many people are going to argue with that because given your day jobs you guys have to know what’s going on. Going onto the next question, why is performance only worth forty percent of the overall score? In the end shouldn’t performance be all that matters for a golf club?
42:30 – Mike Stachura: I think for a lot of people they’ve offered that opinion. Certainly a few people on the manufacturing side have offered that opinion. We think there’s no question performance-playability is a very important part of our evaluation that’s why it has the highest value of our evaluation. I think again what we’re trying to do with the Hot List is recognize the products that are the most significant in the game right now. In our opinions, to reach that level of high significance, you need to show capacities that go beyond performance. In other words, the Ping Eye 2 irons still perform great. TaylorMade R580 driver is really good still. Cleveland 588 wedge, you can find some still out on tour, it’s a quality wedge. But the products that earned our top honor this year advanced their category in new, exciting, and significant ways. That’s what the five criteria are trying to get at. We want the efforts in Technology-Innovation to move the category in an intriguing direction. People have always had their criticisms of Buzz. We also think Buzz, in terms of a product being successful in the marketplace, that’s sort of an indication of acceptance of a product’s technology. It’s an evaluation on a large scale we can’t make, so it counts. Value is HUGELY important in our surveys of our readers every year. That’s why it stays as part of our process of evaluation. The bottom line is a great performing product at $2000 isn’t worth it, not just because the price is so high but also because whatever perceived performance advantages over another performing product probably are not going to be that significant if they even exist at all. Again, value is important because our readers say it’s important. It gets back to why we do the Hot List at all – because our readers want us to do it.
44:37 – Mike Johnson: I would add in, especially as it relates to the value category, if people are saying, “Isn’t performance all that really matters.” Well okay, if that’s the case, isn’t everybody out there driving a Lexus instead of a Hyundai? Certainly the Lexus performs better. I know some would argue, “You’re talking about cars.” Okay, does the Ozik shaft at $1000, doesn’t that perform better than another shaft at $65? It might, but there’s a cost benefit analysis that we all do on virtually every product and that includes golf equipment. That’s what the value category is. And I think it’s important to know that it’s essentially our cost benefit analysis of the product. It’s not that the cheapest product, it’s the highest value score. If we think a high-end golf ball at $45 is really worth it, it gets a high value score. But conversely, if we think a set of irons at $600 is every bit as good as one at $850, that’s going to get a good value score too. The other argument we often hear is, “Well, why does Performance scores differ from Technology-Innovation? If you have Technology-Innovation, shouldn’t the club perform?” Well, again, a club can have technology but it might not have innovation. Two clubs might perform relatively the same. But if a club makes it through either adjustability, or a great fitting system, or options in lofts, that allows a player a better opportunity to get fit into a proper product. And that’s what we’re trying to help the reader to do. Get them into the product that’s going to get them to play better golf. And if a company offers more opportunities to do that, they should be rewarded for that.
46:46 – GolfWRX: Interesting. I know one of our readers had a question about why all of the clubs that were tested weren’t mentioned in the issue. Would you guys ever consider providing the reason for why certain clubs didn’t make it to the Hot List?
47:00 – Mike Stachura: Good question, but fortunately we have a pretty solid example at Golf Digest for why we don’t do that. It’s called our 100 Greatest Courses. We don’t put every course in our 100 Greatest issue, we don’t put it on our website, or anything like that. The point is we’re trying to honor and indicate the most significant golf courses or the most significant equipment. We list on our website the clubs we are evaluating, certainly the clubs that are finalists. I think the mission is always to give the best buying advice. And by doing that what we’re really trying to do is sort of clear away the clutter. That’s why we focus only on the top products. I think it should be fairly self-evident as to why certain products don’t make the list. I think it’s safe to assume that those products were not among the top scorers in Performance-Playability and Technology-Innovation. If they’re not among the top scorers in those two criteria, you’re sort of behind the eight ball. It’s hard to get to that minimum 92-point level which gets you to the Hot List.
48:28 – GolfWRX: Another question about the club categories such as game improvement, super game improvement, that sort of thing. Do you guys ever see any overlap between categories such as a player’s iron which someone found ridiculously forgiving?
48:45 – Mike Johnson: I think what we’re trying to do with the categories is to avoid that overlap. Certainly there’s some blurring of the lines. There’s no doubt about it. As offerings have become more plentiful, what’s a player’s iron and what’s a game improvement iron in some instances is up for debate. And what’s a game improvement iron and what’s a super game improvement iron is certainly open for debate. But I think what we try to do is work as diligently as we can to make sure each club is in its proper category. I think what we’ve done the last few years is categories have pretty much stayed the same. Although, this year for example, we added an additional golf ball category because we felt there was a substantial difference now between golf balls in the under $20 category and those in the $20-$30 category. A lot of those golf balls in the $20-$30 category are multi-layer balls, they have much more technology than they used to, they have better covers. It’s not just the old, cheap-o ball. So, we felt there was a need for an additional category there. But for the most part we try to avoid the overlap. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that.
50:10 – GolfWRX: Now we’ve got a lot of muscle back and blade players on our board and a lot of them were wondering if we’ll ever see them included in the test again?
50:19 – Mike Stachura: Short answer – no. Our opinion, and we’ve stated this the last couple of years, is that if you play muscle back blades, pure muscle back blades then you don’t need our advice on equipment. In fact you’ve probably got a team of advisors that can probably handle that for you. Our job with the Hot List is to make recommendations for the overwhelming majority of golfers. Bottom line, I don’t really believe that there are any players, ANY players and I’m talking PGA Tour or club champions who would be hurt by choosing any of the clubs we recommend in the player’s iron category. I just don’t think that’s the case. In fact, I was just having a conversation with Jeff Harmet this morning, Jeff Harmet from Titleist/Cobra. He said their new Titleist AP iron is drawing a lot of interest from tour players. Okay, that essentially is a game improvement iron from Titleist. So if the best players in the world need a little bit more help, that’s good enough for me to say I’m not in a position to recommend the hardest golf clubs in the world to hit as recommended advice for our readers.
51:36 – Mike Johnson: I think following up on that, I did a story for Golf World last year and less than thirty percent of the PGA Tour uses muscle back blade irons. If only three out of ten of the greatest players in the world are using that club, why on Earth would we recommend that to our readership? Certainly the people who visit GolfWRX, I’m sure the demographic is a very low handicap group. And a number of them play muscle back blades and that’s great. If you can handle that, go ahead. I’m a 4.2 and I wouldn’t dream of doing it. But the readers of Golf Digest, the average handicap is in the 10-11-12 range. They’re not hitting muscle back blades and if we recommended them, we’d be doing a disservice to that readership.
52:28 – GolfWRX: That’s a great and very valid point. I know a couple of people had questions about certain clubs which won Gold Medals last year which were unchanged into this year but completely failed to make the Hot List. I think the Adams Idea Pro hybrid was one. Can you explain how a club could fall so quickly?
52:51 – Mike Johnson: Yeah, actually the club didn’t fall at all quite frankly. It’s a good question though, and the example you give is a good one. The fact is Adams did not nominate its Idea Pro hybrid for this year’s Hot List. The reason is they have a new hybrid that is coming out that is going to serve as the new flagship product in that category. They certainly could have nominated it. That would have been fine. We are not opposed to having product that is “old,” if you consider a one-year-old product “old,” on the Hot List. And as you see there are a number of products on last year’s Hot List that are on this year’s Hot List. But what we ask is that the product is still going to be in the line at least through the first six months of the year. And by that we don’t mean in a closeout mode or something like that. In this particular instance though, Adams simply decided to not nominate that particular product and instead nominated its new flagship product in that category.
53:58 – Mike Stachura: I think it’s important to note that while products that straddle both years are always considered, it is the Hot List and we are looking for newer things. I think people often point with this year’s Hot List, they ask about the Ping Rapture driver which clearly we thought was very good and was Gold a year ago and didn’t make the list this year. Well, part of the reason why it didn’t make the list this year was there were so many new drivers that were introduced. Again, if there is an advantage, the newness is an advantage sometimes. It’s an advantage especially if a certain product has been around and not necessarily captured the kind of significant market share other products have captured and it’s sort of on a downward move. But you look at some of the older drivers that made the Hot List, the FT-5 from Callaway, the FT-i from Callaway, the TaylorMade SuperQuad, those three drivers – certainly the SuperQuad has been a very successful driver in the marketplace, that certainly contributed to its success this year. If you look at the FT-i and FT-5, both of those clubs have been enhanced for ’08 with updated versions and they use adjustability on them as well. So again, it’s a difficult dance we do. But what we’re trying to capture is a picture of the marketplace as someone goes to a store this spring, or even this month. I think what you can take some comfort in is go back and look at a club that made the Hot List a year ago that’s Gold. It’s a quality product. In many cases you might be able to get that product for a pretty good price too. We believe that a product that’s on our list is worthy of your consideration. Especially in the used market, we think you should use the Hot List from several years ago if you’re looking at some used clubs because that’s a good indication of the quality of those products.
56:40 – GolfWRX: That’s a great idea and the more we talk to you, the more we’re finding out about all that goes on behind the scenes, so this is great information. Have you guys thought about expanding the Hot List into an entire issue?
56:55 – Mike Johnson: What are you trying to kill us? (laughing)
57:02 – Mike Stachura: Yeah, it’s been discussed. I think from a timing standpoint, it really fits neatly into our February issue as far as scheduling goes. Not to be blunt, but at sixty pages, I don’t think it’s really going to get lost in the issue. It’s pretty much come to be known that the February issue is the big equipment issue in Golf Digest. I think we put other things in that issue for the four or five readers who aren’t interested in equipment. I don’t think the readers in general are underserved by having the Hot List enclosed within the February issue.
57:44 – Mike Johnson: I know people are passionate about golf equipment. Lord knows I’m happy they are, it keeps me gainfully employed. The readers of Golf Digest definitely want something other than equipment, junkies that they may be. At sixty pages, the Hot List is by far the biggest package the magazine produces each and every year. It’s gone up in pages every single year since we started. The very first year, I believe five years ago it was seventeen pages. The next year it was up in the forties and the year after that it was in the low fifties and the next year it was the high fifties and this year we hit sixty. So it does keep growing but I don’t think you’ll ever see it as a complete issue.
58:40 – GolfWRX: Continuing with that same theme, will we see it grow to include things like apparel, shafts, and accessories?
58:48 – Mike Johnson: You know, we’re constantly seeking ways to add additional elements to the Hot List that are of interest to readers. Whether that be in the February issue or in other issues throughout the year. In past years we’ve done Hot Lists in issues other than February’s on areas such as junior clubs, travel bags, golf bags, etc. Shafts have definitely been suggested. I cannot tell you how many times. There’s a high interest level in that. We have a high interest level in that. And we have been working on a way to hopefully be able to do that in the future. But we are never going to add a category to the Hot List without being able to put it through the same exhaustive process that we do with the current categories. So the short answer is yes we want to add some categories. Shafts are definitely among them. We’re just trying to figure out the best way to do it. And until we can figure out that way to do it, it’s going to have to sit off to the side a little bit.
59:52 – GolfWRX: Now before we go, we wanted to pick your brain a little bit on some of the new upcoming things that are coming out in the golf equipment world. We all know the big introduction by the USGA was the big adjustability ruling they proposed. What kind of effects did you guys see from that adjustability rule on this year’s Hot List?
1:00:17 – Mike Stachura: Nothing dramatic. The FT-i and FT-5 will have an adjustable element and that was certainly on our radar. I think other companies are moving that direction but didn’t really have products ready to go for this year’s Hot List. I know Nickent will have a new driver that’s adjustable. I believe TaylorMade will have one soon. I think it’s certainly going to be the most talked about thing at the PGA Merchandise Show coming up in a couple of weeks. I think a lot of people are trying to figure out what to do. What’s the most cost effective way? What’s the most efficient way? What’s the most functional way? It’s not as simple as let’s unscrew the head and have twelve shafts lying around that everybody’s going to buy. I don’t think it’s that simple. I think it is intriguing though. Certainly there have been some products that are out there. Versus has a driver that’s adjustable. Nakashima has a driver that’s adjustable. There are others, but nothing that really changed things as far as the Hot List was concerned.
1:01:34 – GolfWRX: Looking into the future, how do you guys see it effecting golf equipment?
1:01:42 – Mike Johnson: You know clearly as the limits are approached on golf club design manufacturers are going to turn to adjustability as a means of differentiation. I mean it’s the bone that the USGA threw to the manufacturers and the manufacturers are going to gnaw on it a little bit. We’ve heard a lot of talk about plans for adjustability in 2008 as Mike alluded to Callaway, possibly Nickent and TaylorMade, and possibly some others. But honestly we have yet to hear anything in this area that really wow’s us. There’s some interesting stuff but it’s not, you know, making my socks roll up and down. That said, we feel it’s a tremendous fitting tool right now. Things like OptiFit from Callaway, SelectFit from TaylorMade, anything that helps the consumer get a better fit on their clubs, we’re all in on and we think is fantastic. But when it comes to commercial clubs, there are some concerns. First when you’re talking about shaft insertion systems, you know, to create the ability to have a shaft insertion system you’re going to need to take weight away and put into this port of some sort. Well as everyone who reads your board knows weight is everything to a golf club designer. They’re looking for ways to save weight not put weight back into the club. So if they have to take 6 to 8 grams and put into some sort attachment system, that’s a valuable 6 to 8 grams that they could have used some where else. Also if you’ve been properly fit for a golf club, why do you want to change it? I mean I don’t get that. I know people are talking about, “Well on a windy day you might want to do…” Okay, but I know the guys up at the course I play at and they are pretty avid golfers I don’t think they are going for the wench to snap out into their low flight shaft if the wind tops 15 mph. And finally right now it’s not universal. The plans we’ve seen you’re not able to take a shaft that goes into club A and put it in club B. You know, that is going to be a problem for consumers and an expensive one. Like most innovations in golf it is going to take some time to get it down and get it right. But certainly there is no doubt in our mind that it will be a big part of club design going forward.
1:04:22 – Mike Stachura: I agree, there’s so real exciting potential in this area and I think most of the potential in my opinion is on the front side in terms of getting the right club in a player’s hand. The more consistent the player is the more he may be able to take advantage of some of these adjustability issues. I think the more inconsistent a player is the more important it is that he get it right on the fitting end. That is where adjustability really shines for me, I don’t want that inconsistent guy making changes that he’s not informed about first of all or even capable of understanding. Give him a club that if he knows if he makes the same move he’s going to get the same predictable result. That’s what having good fit does on the front side. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to get in the right club. I think it also, one of the secret benefits of this whole adjustability fascination, it really puts a premium on getting in touch with a good club fitter. I hope that restores some of the luster to club fitters, because those guys can make a huge difference in your game if you get someone who knows what he’s doing.
1:05:42 – GolfWRX: Right, I know a lot of people are wondering exactly how this is going to end up working out in the golf marketplace, so interesting to hear your take on it. Now how big of a difference do you see technology wise between the 2007 Hot List winners and the 2008 Hot List winners?
1:06:03 – Mike Stachura: You know, we’re not in the era any more of quantum leaps, there’s no question about that I think the biggest gain and what I find most appealing about this year’s class of products is their ability to create opportunities for every player to get a product specific to their needs. If you look at a SeeMore putter that’s got seven different shaft length options, that is where the technology is moving, that’s not space age stuff. I think fitting systems, Ping is working on a new computerized system we’re going to see in a couple of weeks that really enhances what has been the traditional leader in fitting. Those sorts of efforts, to say, “Hey, Joe Golfer I have a way of telling you this is the exact right setup for you.” That’s what we’re seeing, that’s the major difference that we’re seeing that’s the trend of the newest products are going.
1:07:10 – GolfWRX: Perfect, now since this is GolfWRX, we can’t let you guys leave without finding out what clubs are in your bag.
1:07:18 – Mike Johnson: Well seriously it’s just about something new every time we play. I mean, if it wasn’t we probably wouldn’t be doing our job would we? I know you’re not going to let us off the hook that easy. I can honestly say my counter part Mike Stachura really does play with something different every single time he tees up, I mean he’s amazing. Best round of golf he ever shot, he went out with 14 different clubs from 14 different manufacturers, graphite shafts, steel shafts, flexes ranging from Senior to X and he shot the best round of golf he’s ever had. But I will give you this cause I do know people are kind of interested in what we play. When I was getting ready for my club championship this year, I did decide I needed to at least play with something a couple of weeks in a row to have some consistency. I used a set of Callaway’s X Tour irons which I still believe is one of the best set of irons ever made for players with single digit handicaps. Sadly, it is no longer in their line but I also used Never Compromise GM2 exchange blade putter, a Bobby Jones Player Series driver, a Ping G10 4 wood a draw version, I put in the bag specifically to hit a tee shot on a dog leg left par four, a TaylorMade Burner hybrid that I pretty much wore out during those two weeks, and my wedges were a Vokey 54 degree Spin Milled, a Cleveland CG-12 58 degree, and a Cobra Trusty Rusty wedge that had been in my bag for twenty-eight years. It’s been the one constant in my bag. The grooves are pretty much shot, and just in the last couple of months I took it out of the bag for good and if any of the people on your board want to know why, go to the Editor’s Letter in the February issue of Golf Digest and it’s all in there.
1:09:26 – Mike Stachura: I guess I have to scratch my head because it does change every time I play. We played the Golf Digest Editor’s Championship at Sebonack Golf Club in Long Island. It was 33 degrees with 25 mph winds. I think the wind chill was about 8 degrees. Another thing we didn’t mention but you didn’t know is any club that ends up in an Editor’s bag as a permanent fixture, that’s paid for by the editor. Certainly we try a lot of new products, and because it’s our job. But let me run down what was in my bag at the Editor’s Championship here at Golf Digest. I lost in a playoff but I won’t bore you with the birdies and bogies. I had a Callaway FT-5 driver with the Aldila NV shaft. I had an Adams Insight 3 wood, that would be the BTY. I had a Ping G10 5 wood non-draw version. I don’t need help in that area. The irons are the X-20 Tour with the 85 gram Aldila NV iron shafts. Wedges are the Ping Tour W 50 and 56, and the putter was the new Odyssey White Hot Tour.
1:11:15 – GolfWRX: Excellent, got it. We really appreciate you taking the time and giving us your side of the story. I know not a lot of people know how much work goes into making the Hot List. And will have a little more appreciation for what you guys go through in trying to make it.
1:11:35 – Mike Stachura: Thanks for letting us ramble on. I appreciate you giving us the opportunity to get out there and let know what try to do. By all means we’re always looking for ways to improve our process and we take suggestions from readers, we take suggestions from manufacturers, and we certainly want to take suggestions form the high quality group that visits your website too. Those are the people who are really fired up about this stuff and that’s what we like. The passion is what keeps us in business.
1:12:18 – GolfWRX: Perfect, thanks again for all your time and information and we’ll talk to you guys really soon.
Peter Malnati WITB 2021 (May)
Driver: Titleist TSi3 (9 degrees) (A1 hosel setting, SureFit weight H2)
Shaft: Fujikura Ventus Blue 6 X
3-wood: Titleist TSi3 (15 degrees)
Shaft: Graphite Design Tour AD IZ 7 X
Hybrid: Titleist 818 H2 (19 degrees)
Shaft: Graphite Design Tour AD DI 85 X
Utility: Titleist U500 (4, 23 degrees)
Shaft: True Temper AMT X100
Irons: Titleist T100 (5-9)
Shafts: True Temper AMT X100
Wedges: Titleist Vokey SM8 (45-10F, 52-12F, 56-12D, 62-08M)
Shafts: True Temper Tour AMT (45, 52), True Temper Tour Issue S400 (56, 62)
Putter: Scotty Cameron Studio Select Fastback 1.5
Ball: Titleist Pro V1x
Phil Mickelson WITB 2021 (May – Wells Fargo Championship)
Driver: Callaway Mavrik Sub Zero (8 degrees)
Shaft: Fujikura Ventus Black 6 X (@47.5 inches)
2-wood: TaylorMade “Original One” Mini Driver
Shaft: Fujikura Ventus Black 7 X
4-wood: Callaway Mavrik Sub Zero (16.5 degrees)
Shaft: Fujikura Ventus Blue 8 X
Irons: Callaway X-Forged UT (16), Callaway X21 UT Proto (19 degrees @20.5, 25), Callaway Apex MB ‘21 (small groove) (6-PW)
Shafts: (16) MCA MMT 105 TX (4-PW) KBS Tour V 125 S+
**(Callaway X-Forged 16 degree driving iron also in the bag and could be rotated in)**
Putter: Odyssey Milled Blade “Phil Mickelson”
Grip: SuperStroke Pistol GT Tour
Ball: Callaway Chrome Soft X w/Triple Track
A closer look at Bryson DeChambeau’s low-lofted fairway wood
Editor’s note: We filed this piece for PGATour.com’s Equipment Report.
This week’s Wells Fargo Championship is Bryson DeChambeau’s first start since the Masters. DeChambeau, who’s won twice this season, is always experimenting, so it should be no surprise that he was seen on the range this week with a unique club built specifically to handle the tremendous swing speed he creates.
The new club is a custom Cobra RadSpeed Big Tour Proto B fairway wood. The ‘B’ stands for Bryson. It only has 10.5 degrees of loft – the same amount as some players’ drivers — with a fixed long hosel. The standard RadSpeed features an adjustable hosel to change the lie and loft.
The original Cobra Baffler was built in the 1980s as one of golf’s first utility clubs. The rails were designed to help the head glide through the turf.
On Dechambeau’s club, the signature Cobra Baffler railed sole has been modified to have the rails towards the front of the head, closer to the face. The club also has an adjustable weight in the sole.
“We started with a custom head and I added small rails via welding after the fact,” said Cobra tour manager Ben Schomin. “(The club) worked OK before rails and much better after thanks to improved strike consistency with the rails.”
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Driver: Titleist TSi3 (9 degrees) (A1 hosel setting, SureFit weight H2) Shaft: Fujikura Ventus Blue 6 X 3-wood: Titleist TSi3 (15...
Phil Mickelson WITB 2021 (May – Wells Fargo Championship)
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