the process

The players (and celebrity golf geeks) behind this year's Hot List

February 07, 2023

When we expanded the Hot List panel of player testers by 50 percent this year—the largest growth since Year 2—it wasn’t because we wanted something different. In reality, we were after more of the same. The foundation for how we evaluate the newest golf clubs in the market during the Hot List Summit rests on what our players tell us is happening when they hit those clubs. Why? How clubs resonate with real golfers is vitally more important to us than any robot test or computer readout. For this year’s Hot List, our players hit more than 37,000 shots, and a Golf Digest editor stood by for each one to record the player’s reaction and assessments about how each club is or is not improving on what’s already available. Our panel is how we get at the difference between equipment with adequate innovation and clubs that are exceptional. To achieve this requires enthusiastic objectivity and a relentless pursuit of what is truly better. Players expressing joy when they try a golf club is the essence of what propels companies to continue to innovate at a rate that would have been unimaginable when we started the Hot List in 2004.

To get opinions informed by real numbers, seven years ago we expanded our player evaluations to include launch monitors at every station. This year we had both Foresight GCQuads and the Rapsodo MLM2 Pro with every player. In a typical session, a player might hit 15 or more clubs, and although they give ratings in our questions about Look/Sound/Feel and Performance, it’s the free-response portions of their interviews that drive our evaluations. For instance, when we hear a player say, “I’m convinced that when you go to heaven, this is the club they’ll pass out,” we know we’re dealing with something exceptional—different than when we hear, “Profoundly unsettling. Looks like its missing components.”

Our players take the responsibility seriously, whether it’s Ricky Brown (above, top photo), a plus-4-handicapper, mulling the shape of a new iron in his 14th year on our panel, or Erika Larkin (above, bottom left), director of instruction at the Stable at Creighton Farms, in her third Hot List, putting a new club through the paces in the bunker in our wedge evaluations. Both, like all their Hot List colleagues, are committed to the hard work required to find out what clubs need to be on your short list this year.



Former NFL star Danny Woodhead (left) and actor Michael Peña (standing).

We invited two celebrity golf geeks to the Hot List; they fit in just as you would expect.

Being a Hot List tester is not a normal skill set, not even for an enthusiastic golfer. Discerning shades of excellence among 10, 15, 20 or more clubs in a category, elucidating those thoughts and characteristics quickly and then doing it again in a different category is as exhausting mentally as it is physically.

When we decided to embed a couple of outsiders into this year’s Hot List testing sessions, we knew we had to tap into a special breed of human. Former NFL star Danny Woodhead and celebrated actor Michael Peña, avid golfers and longtime Hot List readers, were up to the task. They came away with an appreciation for the Hot List’s intensity and a kid-in-the-candy-store enthusiasm for how good the best new clubs are.

“It’s like being able to see the hit movie before anyone else except you can’t talk about it,” says Peña, star of the Marvel “Ant-Man” movies. “That’s what the Hot List Summit is. It has that sense of secrecy, just like Marvel movies. There’s a mystique and feeling that if you told anyone anything about it, you might be wiped out of existence.”

No mere posers, Woodhead, a plus3-handicap and Peña, a 4-handicap, grinded out the four days of testing like veterans, weaving their way through more than 180 clubs each in nine categories, hitting balls all the way to sundown on most days. Woodhead said his football background was an asset, though he put it at a cross between twoa-days in the preseason and going across the middle on third down. “You have to love golf to do it,” says Woodhead, who advanced out of U.S. Open local qualifying last year. “If you don’t, I don’t know what you’re doing here because you’re gonna be hitting a lot of balls and spending a lot of time on the range. But it’s a lot of fun.”

That’s perhaps the best indication that Peña and Woodhead got what being a Hot List tester is all about.

“This is awesome, and I would love to come back next year,” said Peña, who could play anywhere and do anything he wants in golf, including play and nearly win the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

To learn more about Peña and Woodhead’s experience at the 2023 Hot List summit, watch Season 2 of “Surviving the Hot List” on Golf Digest. —MS