Golf Digest Hotlist

How Does the Golf Digest Hot List REALLY Work?

How do you figure out what the best products are in golf?

Here at Breaking Eighty, it’s just a few people’s very subjective opinions of what’s good, great, and worth skipping.

Here, we only look at a few dozen products a year – so creating an (arguably) definitive list of the best new products in golf? That sounds, well, hard.

But each year that’s the challenge that sits in front of Golf Digest when they create their Hot List.

If you’re a golfer, undoubtedly you’ve heard of the Hot List before. It’s where the Golf Digest rating team looks at literally every single new golf club and golf ball, and figures out what’s worth sticking in your bag this year.

But the process? It’s insane.

This year they tested and considered 248 different products, of which 131 made the Hot List.

If you’re like me, you’ll flip through the pages of the Hot List issue each year, find a few things that look interesting, and if you’re in the market, maybe go pick something up.

It’s a casual thing.

But the work that goes into creating the list, is anything but casual.

Recently I had a chance to sit down and talk to Mike Johnson and Mike Stachura. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of “The Mikes”, but they’re the ones crazy enough to tackle creating this list each and every year.

Mike Johnson and Mike Stachura of the Golf Digest Hot List
Mike Stachura and Mike Johnson are the guys behind the entire Hot List process.

And the process?

Well, let’s just say I’m not sure I’d want their job.

How the Hot List Process Starts

Every product submitted for the Hot List is evaluated by 4 criteria: performance, look/sound/feel, innovation, and demand.

They breakdown to:

  • Performance (45%)
  • Look/Sound/Feel (20%)
  • Innovation (30%)
  • Demand (5%)

The raters directly influence the first two, the retail panel helps decide the demand score, and a panel of Ph.D. scientists help with the innovation aspect of it.

4 categories, seems pretty simple right?

Not so much.

According to the Mikes, their Scientific team reviews thousands of pages of white paper documents, and meets with the mechanical engineering teams from each manufacturer to really dig into the technology side of things, that well, the average person simply wouldn’t know anything about.

The retail team has a similar process in working with retailers to assess the actual demand for the new products.

Is There a Conflict of Interest When Working With Club Manufacturers?

In talking with them, I was surprised by just how closely they work with each of the individual equipment companies.

The process for reviewing starts about 8 months before the list comes out when companies begin submitting their latest products for inclusion.

And then in September they have their in-depth 4 day testing period where the raters come in.

“We look at every product in the marketplace for the first half of the upcoming year. Some products are on a 2 year cycle, but as long as the product has maintained it’s full retail price it’s in the running for consideration. About a 1/4 of the products on this year’s list, we’re also on it last year.”

But that’s also why you might not see popular clubs like the Ping G410 irons in there – they’ve been permanently discounted from their list price.

It’s easy to wonder if there’s a conflict of interest, because of this close relationship – not to mention many of these companies advertise on Golf Digest.

But there are processes in place to ensure this doesn’t happen.

For one, “it’s a huge misconception, that we’re flooded with free golf equipment. To our company’s credit, they have a rule that anything that goes in your golf bag, you pay for full boat. If necessary, they will reimburse us – but we’re absolutely not allowed to take anything from an equipment company,” Johnson told me.

“If we’re going out to dinner with a company after a meeting, it doesn’t matter if it’s only one of us, and ten of them: we grab that check. We’re very blessed to work for first Conde Nast, and now Discovery, that they feel this way.”

In the early years, as you might imagine, the equipment companies weren’t excited about the idea of actually rating equipment.

“We’ve actually lost more advertising over the years, than we’ve gained because of the Hot List. Early on, we probably lost close to $15 million in advertising revenue. The industry simply wasn’t used to people rating their equipment. We reviewed it, but didn’t rate it,” says Stachura.

As time has gone on, the Hot List has helped change and define the industry for the better, directly because of the relationship between the Hot List team and the manufacturers.

“We really brought the industry in. We got them involved and said how we can we make this better? That’s why we’ve added more panelists, added a fitter to the process, use launch monitors, added different categories to our process, started using only one golf ball with our club reviewing – this is all in direct feedback from the industry, and it’s why the list and process is so respected today.”

How to Become a Golf Digest Hot List Rater

I’m willing to bet at some point while reading the Hot List issue you said to yourself, “man, I’d love to do that!”

I mean, how cool would it be to get super early access to all of the newest equipment in the game?

Well, the joke on their team is “it’s easier to play in the Ryder Cup than it is to become a Hot List rater.”

And honestly, after hearing about what it entails? I’m not sure I’d be up to the task.

Of 25 million golfers in the world, only 20 are selected to be Hot List panelists each year.

And it’s not like you just throw your name in a hat, and wait to hear back.

“It’s easier to play in the Ryder Cup than it is to become a Hot List rater.”

“It’s a very unique skillset you need to have in order to be a panelist. You have to be able to withstand 4 days of grueling work in 100+ degree weather, both physically and mentally. You need to have a repeatable swing, discern differences between clubs, and most importantly articulate those differences.” Johnson said.

While there are a range in skill levels of the raters from plus handicaps to well into double digits, there certainly aren’t that many 20 handicaps in the world that can do all that is listed above.

If you think you do fall into that camp, then as part of the application you’ll have to review two different clubs, and send in a video of you doing so.

You’ll also need to submit a video of your swing, get a recommendation from your club pro, and be able to withstand long work days.

And if 20 out of 25 million odds didn’t seem tough enough? There are generally only 3-4 new panelists a year.

“It’s really hard to find the right people for this job, so we tend to hold onto people year after year when we can. We have at least 5 or 6 people who have been around for 7-10 years.”

Once you’re there, there is one editor for every 2 testers. So there’s always someone right there who you can get clarifications from or ask questions to.

“What are you excited about?”

So for the guys who have literally seen everything, the natural question to ask would be “what are you excited about?”

“The stuff Callaway has done with AI is interesting, and compared to 5 years ago where the hottest spot on the driver may have been the size of a dime, now it’s the size of a quarter. And the space around that which is off center is hotter now as well.

I like seeing technology that is making players better given where they are with golf.

I’m always excited about innovation, because it keeps showing how much farther we can go,” says Johnson.

Stachura says, “I stay excited because of how important this is within the industry. It truly has an impact on golf, and it has an impact on a personal level with golfers making purchase decisions.”

I’m always excited about innovation, because it keeps showing how much farther we can go,” says Johnson.

Funny Stories Over the Years

As you can tell, there’s a lot that goes into the Hot List each year – certainly more than I ever realized.

But amidst all the rigorous testing and long hours, there were bound to be some interesting stories.

“One manufacturer was so angry they referred to us as an amateur and a debutante. I wanted to say, I think you mean dilettante, but it didn’t seem like the right time to correct him in that moment.”

Johnson’s favorite story, came at the expense of his counterpart:

“Mike [Stachura] finding his phone is still the greatest accomplishment in the history of man kind. We had a meeting in Tucson, and had to get back to Phoenix.

We had a late dinner, and I start driving back home, and a couple hours later in the middle of the night we switch seats, and Mike drives us the rest of the way home.

He get’s to Phoenix, and goes ‘Where’s my phone?’ Oh no, I know exactly where it is. I’m going back for it!

Literally at 3am I get a text from him saying, Found it!

It was on the ground on the side of the road, and when he finally made it back to Phoenix around 5am, he was still able to get on the teebox at 8am.

So next time you find yourself reading the Hot List, and thinking about how you wish you could be one of their raters?

Just remember how much work actually goes into it, and maybe be thankful that you aren’t the one putting in the long hours!

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