The May 2011 issue of Golf Digest has hit the shelves at your local news stand, and it’s one of the most anticipated of the year. The Hot List issues are always in high demand, and the Golf Ball Hot List is no exception. Every year the editors at Golf Digest get together and test golf balls. Lots and lots of golf balls. Using a combination of machine testing and real life play testers, they find the best golf balls and hand out their gold medal picks in the magazine. Here’s a behind the scenes look at how the process works.
This year I was fortunate enough to take part in Golf Digest’s Hot List golf ball testing at Reunion Resort in Orlando Florida just after the 2011 PGA Merchandise Show. Golf Digest enlisted the services of about 20 testers with handicaps ranging from +1 to 10 or so. After a brief warmup on the driving range we broke up into pairs, each with a Golf Digest editor in tow. Each golf cart of two players is followed by a cart with an editor that observes, takes notes and asks questions of the players in an effort to gather as much information as possible. My friend Lindsay and I went out first on the Arnold Palmer Legacy course with editor Michael Johnson, who is Senior Editor of equipment for GolfWorld.
In order to make the testing as objective as possible, all the golf balls being tested were disguised using black markers. All the markings on the cover of all golf balls were blacked out so as to be almost indistinguishable from each other, and they all had numbers painted on to tell them apart. Obviously we were not told what brand or model golf ball we were hitting, which is mostly done to avoid subjective results from testers who may have a brand preference or may be influenced by manufacturer marketing efforts. For example, most low handicap players would not give a low-cost distance ball a fair shake over a “players” ball with high spin and soft cover, but this way every player gives every ball a chance to be a winner.
Because human golfers don’t have the ability to create a perfect impact condition every time, Golf Digest uses robot testing to get data for driver hits with each golf ball. The use of a robot provides consistent contact, spin rates and ball speeds. While feel is a very important factor in golf ball performance, for the purpose of the golf ball hot list the human testers don’t hit tee shots during the ball testing for the reason I just stated, and also so that we don’t run out of golf balls via wayward drives! Instead, we proceed past the tee box and down the fairway to hit iron and wedge shots on every hole.
For the first three holes we were assigned two different golf balls to test. We each received 3 of each ball for a total of 12 golf balls between the two of us. Starting at about 160 yards in the fairway, we alternated hitting iron shots to the green. I found the best method was to hit all three of one brand to get a better idea of the feel and ball flight. I hit all three of mine, followed by Lindsay hitting 3, and back to me until all the balls were on or around the green. All I knew about the golf balls was that they were white and round. I had no idea what brand, model or type of golf ball I was hitting. Our editor Mike was watching and taking notes as we hit iron shots, observing the ball flight and listening to our comments about the feel, ball flight and overall impressions. Once we arrived at the green we collected our assigned golf balls and proceeded to hit chips and putts for a little while and then moved on to the next hole. We played 3 holes from the fairway in, varying the distance of our approach shots on each hole from 200 yards to inside 80 yards. The distance we hit from didn’t matter so much, but the goal was to hit mid iron, short iron and wedge shots with each golf ball.
After playing three holes with two different golf balls and hitting 60+ shots from irons to wedges, chips and putts with each ball, we gave Mike our final comments on the balls and rated them from 1 to 5 on playability, feel, spin and overall performance. We then moved on to the next 3 hole stretch and were assigned two new golf balls to test. We continued switching every three holes until we finished 18 holes. In all, each player tested 12 different golf balls, hitting somewhere between 300 and 400 shots. We repeated this process the next day also, and I figure I hit close to 1000 golf balls in the two days, between warm ups on the range and testing. I preferred hit a few more chips and putts around the greens to get a better idea of a ball’s overall performance.
The Golf Digest editors had quite a large task in testing all these golf balls. It must have taken a lot of time to mark every single ball, organize them into bunches and then collect the data from each play tester. Compiling all that data into metrics and information readers can use to make informed decisions isn’t easy. Having been a part of the testing, I can say with confidence that the golf balls that earned Golf Digest’s gold medals are the real deal. The testing methods used are about as thorough as you can be to test the vast number of golf balls they had in a reasonable amount of time.
I learned a lot from the ball testing. I had a chance to hit some golf balls I never would have given a second look to before, and I also learned that golf ball technology has started to blur the line between your cheap, durable golf balls and the soft, spinny player’s golf ball. We are starting to see cheaper golf balls that spin, and spin balls that go a mile. Gone are the days of delicate, wound balata covered balls that felt like marshmallows, but these days there is a good chance that if you keep it in play, you can play 36 holes with the same ball. In the past, you had basically two choices – A balata ball that lasted 9 holes, or a surlyn covered rock that didn’t offer any spin or feel. Today, with multi-layer construction and advanced manufacturing techniques it is possible to be fit for a golf ball that does it all. My current golf ball of choice has a perfect blend of feel, spin, distance and durability, and I could never get that in a ball 10 years ago.
Swing by your local news stand or book store and pick up the 2011 Golf Digest Golf Ball Hot List issue and see what golf ball is right for you. With several companies now performing ball fitting, it’s even easier to get the right formula for your game. With all the different models and brands available, it’s nice to have a comparison test like the one Golf Digest performs to give us some way of narrowing down the field!
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