More Options, More Distance.
Our annual review of the best clubs in the game…
You know why there are 111 products on this year’s Hot List? It’s an insanely high number, the most on the Hot List since we went to nine categories in 2010. The truth is, there’s just that much good stuff on the market now. Sure, equipment sales have been trending down. And industry research firm Golf Datatech suggests consumer enthusiasm for buying new clubs is flat at best. It almost seems as if golfers believe all the innovation that’s ever going to happen in the game has already happened. Not even close. Innovation in golf continues to intrigue us, and we should know. We’ve seen just about everything that’s out there, and we’ve never been more impressed. The goal of the Hot List is to review the panoply of new products that we think will make a difference in your game, clubs that show us possibilities that hadn’t existed. We’ve spent three months consulting scientists, industry insiders and players of all abilities to arrive at the game’s most meaningful clubs. That includes two weeks at The Wigwam resort in Litchfield Park, Arizona, site of our annual Hot List Summit. In all, we reviewed 307 clubs to find the 111 that matter most.
Innovation might be less outlandish than it used to be – square drivers, anyone? – but that’s the point. Exceptional improvements today begin with an attention to an aesthetic that appears almost classic. Club designers are no longer pursuing theoretically beneficial materials, manufacturing techniques or constructions without being sure they first do no harm to the club’s sound or feel.
Golf’s innovators are demonstrating a supreme unwillingness to accept what seems to be obvious. Because what seems to be obvious blinds us to what might be possible.
THE PARADIGM OF THE POSSIBLE
Designers are tapping into new concepts and even new kinds of research to make today’s clubs better. The Hot List products reveal an unrelenting passion for innovation, from the obvious (movable weights) to the obscure (progressive sole width on your irons). Why? Because you can’t make things better by doing them the same way they’ve always been done. For example, it’s why wind-tunnel testing is almost a prerequisite in designing today’s drivers. The incremental results are drivers that make your same old swing brand-new fast. It’s also why the bottom of the clubface is getting as hot as the centre. All those channels, slots and accordion-like features in the sole result in springier faces in the place where many of us make contact.
It’s why iron faces are starting to flex like drivers. No one ever thought that would be possible, until companies decided to see just how thin they could make a sheet of steel. The result is iron faces that behave at impact no different than drivers. It’s why wedge grooves are the largest and sharpest they’ve been since the rules rolled back their size. Engineers now calculate, to the individual groove, how long until a milling tool stops cutting the perfect edge. And it’s why we already have solutions to the ban on anchored putters a year before the rule takes effect. Counterbalanced, anyone?
All this innovation is reason enough for you to examine your gear. Get with a qualified clubfitter, and study our report. You don’t need all 111, but we’ll guarantee you this: The one you need is on this list. On the following pages you’ll find the best new Drivers, to get you started…
BIG BERTHA ALPHA 815
HOT: Want adjustability? It’s everywhere you look on this 460-cubic-centimetre head. You can move weights in the heel and toe to correct slices and hooks, tweak the loft to one of eight settings and flip a central weight to optimise your spin – all independent of one another. That means if the loft is correct but the spin isn’t, flipping the central weight could solve your problems. But that kind of freedom also requires saving weight. Callaway neatly does this by using eight materials, including a lighter, more flexible face and a composite crown. So it’s not only more adjustable than last year’s model, it’s lighter, too.
NOT: A $US100 trade-in offer for last year’s model expired in December.
COMMENTS: (L) The face doesn’t sound fast, but it feels it, and the results prove it. (M) It’s the ideal shape for a driver: big without looking it. (H) I felt I wasn’t good enough for this, but after flipping the weight, my ball flight was so consistent.
BIG BERTHA V SERIES
HOT: Making the ball go farther starts by making the driver go faster. That’s why the V Series is lighter and aerodynamically engineered. The overall weight is about 300 grams, or roughly 20 to 25 grams less than other Big Bertha drivers. Another cool part about this driver is how Callaway has softened the crown’s curves (like a bike racer’s helmet) to make the driver smoother through the air, especially late in the downswing as the clubhead is gaining speed.
NOT: If less weight is a priority for you, there are lighter options out there.
COMMENTS: (L) Well-struck shots fly slightly higher than I’d like, but it’s still a penetrating ball flight. I like the trajectory on thin shots. (M) Strong but silent. You could bomb it past your friends, and they’d have no idea. (H) It walks that line between aggressive and just the right sound and pitch.
HOT: When it comes to improving a driver’s aerodynamics, Callaway engineers make the case that the key piece of real estate is the first part of the crown. That’s why there’s a staggered step on top of the head. The goal is to reduce aerodynamic drag (the way air flows across the top of the clubhead) during the downswing and boost your swing speed. Throw in the lighter, more flexible face design found in the Alpha, and you have a driver that’s almost 20 grams lighter (and a lot cheaper!) than its big brother. Plus just as smart.
NOT: Extra-long shafts, like the 46-inch one here, don’t necessarily produce more distance for all golfers.
COMMENTS: (L) The matte-black finish looks stealthy, but the distance is loud, long and consistent. I prefer the bigger sweet spot of the XR model. (M) Sort of looks like moulded plastic, but all that melts away when you swing it. (H) It powers through the ball like the ball isn’t even there. Plenty of forgiveness, too.
HOT: The large face and oversize frame scream forgiveness, but it’s the internal-weight savings that achieve it. The face, crown and housing for the extremely intuitive eight-way adjustable hosel are selectively thinned. Much of that saved weight is pushed to the rear of the clubhead to give you greater stability on off-centre hits and help you launch the ball higher. A channel etched out of the face’s perimeter is designed to increase ball speed (aka distance) on off-centre strikes.
NOT: Unless you’re one of the Power Rangers, six stock colours is at least three too many.
COMMENTS: (L) I like the simple technology. Grab it off the rack, and you get a pretty good result. It launches the ball higher than it used to with a powerful flight. (M) I initially thought the bulky head would be distracting. But from takeaway through impact it was very comfortable. (H) Cobra did a nice job of making it less outlandish. There’s a bit of a hot sound, which is nice.
HOT: The designers at Cobra have listened to the debate about whether the centre of gravity in a driver should be located near the front or tucked in the back and decided to, well, let you decide. A 15-gram sole weight can be placed rearward if you prefer more carry distance, or forward for less spin and a hotter landing angle. The only thing easier to understand? Eight adjustable loft settings, which are marked as numbers, completing a package that is the definition of user-friendly.
NOT: Some golfers need more than 11.5 degrees of loft when the weight is flipped forward.
COMMENTS: (L) There’s a soft yet powerful feel at impact. (M) I really like the penetrating trajectory. If you enjoy the length without the noise, this is the driver for you. (H) I was hitting the ball too low, so I moved the weight towards the back, and the results were much better.
HOT: Just like the Vapor Speed and Pro models, the Flex has the stabilising sole cavity, the face-flex-enhancing sole channel and the 15 loft and face-angle settings. But it adds a second layer of adjustability that most other drivers don’t: It lets you tweak spin and launch angle without changing the loft setting. Why does that matter? Well, let’s say the 10.5-degree setting gives you a better launch angle, but you want less spin. The weight slug in the sole can move the centre of gravity more forward for less spin and to launch the ball lower. Same is true if the 9.5-degree setting gives you the right amount of spin but not enough height: Position the heavy end of the slug rearward for a higher ball flight.
NOT: Better players might be intrigued by the weight movement but not by a closed face-angle setting.
COMMENTS: (L) You feel like you can hit up on it as much as you want, and it won’t balloon. (M) The sound is a little muffled, but the ball flight is powerful. (H) The adjustment is easy, even for the golfer who doesn’t know a lot about fitting.
HOT: Nike’s strategy here seems counterintuitive: Stiffen the clubhead to make it more flexible. How is stiffer more flexible? The theory is, if you stabilise the rear half of the club, the front – especially the face – can flex more. Nike does this by changing the cavity in the sole. It now has parallel beams designed to concentrate the flexing to the front of the club without losing energy in the rear. Benefiting from that structure is the channel in the front of the sole. Running the width of the club, it varies slightly in dimension so your off-centre strikes are less awful. The Speed version’s larger shape is friendlier for most golfers. (Rory and Tiger use versions of the Pro and Speed, respectively.) Both models let you position any of its five lofts in neutral, closed or open.
NOT: We’d like a better selection of no-charge custom shafts.
COMMENTS: (L) My ball apexes fast and doesn’t move from there. (M) Best-sounding Nike driver I’ve hit in a long time, maybe ever. Crisp bullets. (H)
I like the bigger size of the Speed model. I felt in control of the club. The green lines on the face help me line up correctly.
G30/SF TEC/LS TEC
HOT: It’s easy to get caught up in the buzz over aerodynamics and “turbulators” (those shark fins on the crown designed to smooth out air flow over the clubhead during the swing). But the G30’s strength is a highly stable head with a large face. Its shape and internal weighting help off-centre hits launch with speed and distance similar to centre strikes. Two additional head designs answer the needs of better players (the lower-spinning LS Tec) and slicers (the lighter, heel-weighted SF Tec). They broaden the G30 family, but the lineage of maximum forgiveness is unchanged.
NOT: It would be nice if the sole weight could be adjusted by the golfer.
COMMENTS: (L) It’s a little longer from front to back than I like, but it’s dead straight on every swing. (M) The turbulators draw your eye to the ball. It has a springy, loud sound, but not in a way that’ll draw jokes from your mates. (H) Looks strong and menacing. Slightly high-pitched sound, but the face felt super-alive.
HOT: It has been more than a decade since TaylorMade started the adjustable-driver craze. But the R15’s 12-setting hosel and two sliding weights in the sole are supporting the company’s recent desire to decrease spin via a low-forward centre of gravity. The company’s goal is to increase the launch angle – because that’s what most golfers need – while limiting spin. That’s why nearly 75 per cent of the R15’s mass is in the front of the clubhead. The sole track is designed to do more than house two 12.5-gram weights. It’s closer to the face than 2013’s SLDR to give more oomph on your mis-hits, particularly shots hit low on the face. In all, the R15 is smarter and more forgiving.
NOT: With 1,836 possible configurations, how different is position 937 from position 938?
COMMENTS: (L) This is a clean, muscular-looking club. The ball flight was mid to high and seemed to stay up forever. (M) Powerful block-of-granite feel all over the face. Ball flight was easy to tweak. (H) I went from mediocre to stunning shots just by changing the weights.
HOT: There’s a welcome consistency to the look of Titleist drivers and their 16-way adjustable hosel. But the 915 series breaks new ground by installing a channel in the sole. The depth and length of the channel aren’t designed just to help the face flex at impact (for more ball speed). It also helps shots launch with less spin. Both the crown and face have been strategically thinned to save weight and improve what happens when you don’t find the centre of the face. Extra help without losing the classic shape Titleist is known for is a refreshing development.
NOT: It’s time the adjustability included user-controlled weight movement.
COMMENTS: (L) For a Titleist, it was slightly louder, but not in a bad way. When I flushed it, the face let me know. More important, I felt like I was in control of the club the entire time. (M) Sharp, clean, and the alignment aid adds a bit of class. Has a powerful titanium pop to it. (H) Just felt like I had really good control. A cathartic and home-run sound.
HOT: Almost all companies have explored driver adjustability, and a few have pursued ultralight weight. Wilson is the rare one to emphasise both. The club’s weight (268 grams) is less than that of six golf balls, and the driver’s balance point is designed to make it easier for the club to move faster with the same swing. Each loft can be adjusted six ways, including three draw settings. Finally, the driver features a variable-thickness face for more consistent off-centre-hit performance.
NOT: Few shaft options for better players.
COMMENTS: (L) Shots came out more powerful than you thought they would based on the sound. My shot was still rising two-thirds of the way out. (M) When you hit it on the screws, it has that unique combination of firm but soft, and the draw adjustment works. Subtle sound, but the distance was there. (H) You notice the light feel right away. Easy to make an inside move.
HOT: While others have focused on ways to make the sole more flexible through slots or channels, Bridgestone believes thinning the crown is better. A series of internal ridges in the front of the crown are designed to produce an accordion-like effect, yielding more ball speed off the face and a higher launch angle.
NOT: Charging $US16 a pop for extra movable weights is like a country club charging members for tees.
COMMENTS: (L) Good-looking club that sets up square. A tremendous thud, and you see the ball jump off the face. (M) It has a muted metal sound.
(H) I hit five shots, and although the one mis-hit got penalised, the other four were super straight.
HOT: The beauty of adjustability and movable weights is the freedom to set up a club however you want. The problem is that manufacturers often limit how you can do it. Mizuno gives you more freedom than most by letting you position its movable weights in the heel or toe and front, middle and back locations. That way you can tweak direction, trajectory and spin to optimise your distance. The adjustable hosel completes the package with eight settings across five lofts.
NOT: More and heavier weights would have a greater impact.
COMMENTS: (L) I like how it sits. It looks ready. The adjustability definitely changes the ball flight. (M) I like the old-school driver-like sound of it – a solid thud. There’s so much adjustability, you might need to be a Mensa member to get everything out of it. (H) Good, almost muted, soft persimmon sound. The weight through impact was solid. Might be a hair less forgiving.
HOT: There are two ways you can produce more distance: Make the face more flexible, and make the golfer swing the club faster. These Srixon drivers accomplish the first by using a cupface that wraps around the perimeter. But it’s the second part that’s more interesting. Both the standard Z545 and smaller Z745 are designed with a higher-balance-point shaft and a slightly heavier head. The shaft with a higher balance point is intended to make it easier to swing the club faster, and more mass in the head delivers more energy to the ball.
NOT: The 545 would be better if both sole weights were movable.
COMMENTS: (L) Clean look. Sounded harsher than it felt. Don’t be too aggressive, and it will work for you. (M) This thing is sexy – Cindy Crawford without the mole. Very cushion-y feel. (H) The ball didn’t feel hot off the face, but when it was in the air, it was the opposite – hot, high and right where I expected it.
(L) Low-Handicapper | (M) Middle-Handicapper | (H) High-Handicapper