October 5, 2004 By James Achenbach
All golfers want to know more about shafts. To provide insight into shaft selection and performance, Golfweek talked with several knowledgeable individuals in the golf industry. Many of their comments are included in this examination of steel and graphite shafts. The question-and-answer format also includes general reflections on the evolution of the modern golf shaft.
The highlights: Most men historically have used shafts that are too stiff; clubs that “feel good” almost always have shafts with more torque; the 60-year-old Dynamic Gold shaft still is the most popular iron shaft on the PGA Tour; and the Rifle iron shaft is halfway to a Grand Slam this year.
-What are the primary considerations when buying a custom shaft for a driver?
Be cautious. Experiment with different-size heads and different shafts.
“It can make a huge difference, changing heads and changing shafts,” says Brad Storman, a PGA member who is director of sales and marketing for shaft maker Penley Sports.
Storman’s advice for high-ball hitters: Use a smaller driver head and a stiffer shaft. “Smaller heads produce a lower launch angle,” he says.
Conversely, low-ball hitters shoulder consider a larger driver head with a more flexible shaft. “Remember that a deeper face will produce less spin,” Storman says, “so you may need more loft to achieve the right trajectory.”
-Why do shafts have different tip diameters?
It all relates to feel. Common tip diameters for drivers are .335 and .350, and that 15 thousandths of an inch seems to make a monumental difference for PGA Tour players.
For example, all TaylorMade drivers on the PGA Tour have .335 tips. The players demand it. Yet the company’s consumer drivers have the larger .350 tips.
The smaller the tip, the more the feel. Touring pros can take advantage of this because they repeatedly hit the sweet spot. Amateurs produce more off-center hits and thus can benefit from the increased stability of the .350 tip.
-Other than tip diameter, what factors make some golf shafts feel better than others?
No. 1 is torque (twisting). No. 2 is flex (bending). Shafts with higher torque and more flex feel better to most golfers. There is a famous story about players who reshafted early Eye irons from Ping. These revolutionary cavity-back irons came with one shaft choice only, an extremely stiff steel shaft, causing some golfers to switch to softer shafts. Invariably they were unable to improve the trajectory, dispersion or distance of their iron shots. There was one improvement, though, that they all seemed to notice: “The irons feel a lot better.”
Says Kim Braly, director of research and development for Royal Precision, “I was working with Raymond Floyd, and he likes a shaft with a little more torque. He likes the feel. We worked with low-torque shafts that he hit just as well or better, but it always got back to the feel thing.”
-Should golfers pay attention to torque numbers?
This is a contentious issue. Some experts, such as Ping CEO John Solheim and A.J. Tech founder Al Jackson, have been longtime proponents of low-torque shafts (torque lower than 3).
“If you hit the ball on the face, torque matters,” says Jackson, whose A.J. Tech shafts now are being manufactured by Apache Matrix Composites under Jackson’s supervision. “I just can’t understand why anybody wouldn’t want a low-torque shaft. Steel has a low torque, and nobody complains.”
Pete Sanchez, president and chief operating officer of Fujikura Composites, confirms that several tour players are using Fuji driver shafts with 4.5 to 5 degrees of torque. Golfweek research turned up Jerry Kelly, Jeff Sluman and Stuart Appleby in this group. Sanchez says new materials and shaft designs have made it possible to develop a high-torque, high-stability shaft.
To the notion that high torque is the friend of the slow swinger, Aldila’s Steve Gandolfo says, “Someone with a slow swing speed will want something higher in torque to help square the face at impact.”
Penley’s Storman adds that handsy players should use shafts with a low amount of torque.
-What should everyone know about shaft flex?
There is no industry standard for flex.
One manufacturer’s R shaft could be another manufacturer’s S shaft. Comparing shafts from different companies is hopeless.
Most male golfers use shafts that are too stiff, although women face a different dilemma. Most clubs designed for women are outfitted with shafts that are too whippy.
Says Royal Precison’s Braly: “Shafts have been so stiff that most men, until the last few years, never really flexed a shaft in their lives. They were just holding on.”
-How does a golfer find the proper shaft?
Try different shafts. Ask a qualified golf instructor for help.
Do not compare today’s flexes with those of even a few years ago. Says Braly, “When you talk about OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), golf shafts are a lot weaker than they were 10 years ago. Our 5.5 is now categorized as a stiff. It used to be a regular.
“I would say shafts are now a flex and a half weaker. It makes sense. Now people can get the ball in the air easier.”
Adds Steve Zunich, director of sales and marketing for shaft maker AccuFlex: “I think the OEMs are very intelligent. They have learned that many golfers have a macho thing going. It happens all the time, even with senior players. They say, ‘Oh, I need a stiff shaft.’ Well, no, they don’t. So the manufacturer takes a shaft that is really an R and puts an S on it.”
-Question: Should a player be concerned about flex point?
A golfer probably should be more concerned about tip stiffness. Anyone seeking a higher trajectory should use a shaft with a softer tip.
The Aldila NV shaft is a good example of this. A huge hit among touring pros, the NV has become very popular among everyday golfers. Most amateurs, though, will achieve better feel and a higher trajectory with Aldila’s NVS shaft because it features a softer tip. The NV is green, while the NVS is orange. Harrison Sports has two top-selling Striper shafts, and it is important to know the difference between the two. The Striper Tour is firmer through the tip section, while the Striper J has a softer, more active tip.
The flex point of a shaft occurs in a region near the center of the shaft. This entire region is no more than 6 inches long, and all flex points can be found there.
Technically speaking, a low flex point will produce a higher shot and a high flex point will result in a lower shot.
-What about measuring the frequency?
Frequency matching of golf clubs was invented by Dr. Joe Braly, father of Kim Braly. Historically, this was determined by clamping a shaft at the butt, hanging a weight from the tip and measuring the vibration frequency.
In the last two years, the procedure has been changing.
Now shafts often are measured at different points, including the tip, butt and center section. The resulting profile appears as a curved line that is called an EI curve, or a bend curve.
Despite such scientific expertise, all golfers should beware of relying strictly on frequency readings. Because of new manufacturing techniques, frequencies can be misleading. For example, some new shafts play much stiffer than their frequency readings might indicate. All golfers are advised to base their shaft choices more on personal testing and less on frequency numbers.
-How does a golfer choose between graphite and steel, particularly in irons?
Answer: Although graphite dominates the driver category worldwide, steel has made a remarkable comeback in fairway woods, especially among touring professionals and skilled amateurs.
Noted instructor Drew Pierson of Wilmington, N.C., is an outspoken advocate of heavier steel shafts. He believes they produce better balance in a golf club, and he says low handicap golfers will achieve improved accuracy without losing distance.
Because of its shock-absorbing ability, graphite is well-suited to irons. However, almost all players on the PGA Tour still use steel in their irons.
“I would argue strongly that everybody would benefit from steel shafts in irons,” says True Temper vice president of engineering Graeme Horwood. “With irons, the idea is to hit the ball a specific distance. To do that, you need consistency. You need shafts that are perfectly matched across the set. Simply put, it is very difficult to make two shafts that are the same with graphite.”
To which Penley’s Storman responds, “I am far more optimistic about graphite iron shafts than ever before. Graphite can do more things than steel. You can design graphite to do whatever you want. With the old graphite iron shafts, you couldn’t work the ball. But that has changed. It wouldn’t surprise me to see tour players slowly switching to graphite.”
-Why has the legendary True Temper Dynamic Gold shaft, invented in the 1940s, remained the most popular iron shaft on the PGA Tour?
Answer: “This is the ultimate shaft in achieving very tight tolerances for weight and wall thickness,” Horwood says. “I think consistency is the most important characteristic, and this is the ultimate.”
Many amateur golfers, though, may have trouble achieving a high trajectory with the strong Dynamic Gold shafts. True Temper’s softer-tipped Dynalite Gold shaft, once used by Nick Price on the PGA Tour, might be a better choice.
-What iron shafts were used by the winners of the first two major championships this year?
Answer: Rifle shafts from Royal Precision. Phil Mickelson played the Project X version in his Titleist irons (”Good for people who hit the ball high,” Braly says), while Retief Goosen used Rifle Flighted shafts in his TaylorMade irons (the long irons have a softer tip, the short irons have a firmer tip).
-Why does Dynamic Gold have a visible step pattern in the shaft, whereas the Rifle is a constant taper shaft without steps?
Answer: These two shafts reflect different design philosophies. Says Braly, “We do this because it dissipates the energy better.” True Temper’s Horwood says simply, “The Dynamic Gold is all about consistency.”
-Why the recent surge in lightweight steel shafts?
Answer: New alloys have made this possible. True Temper’s TX-90 has been a big success, and other lightweights have followed. Royal Precision and Nippon have helped rejuvenate a worldwide interest in steel shafts.
-Are shafts regulated under the Rules of Golf?
Answer: Not in the way they perform. So far the rules committees of the U.S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, have exhibited no hint of even discussing the dynamics of golf shafts.
Golf shafts cannot intentionally be bent. Early in his golf career, Ping’s Karsten Solheim made a golf shaft that was angled near the butt end. This quickly was deemed to be a violation of the rules, although TaylorMade’s straight but bulging Bubble Shaft sailed through the approval process.
-Which shaft manufacturer has best predicted future developments in the game?
Answer: Although it has plenty of competition, UST deserves to be recognized for its clairvoyance. UST initiated the tip-stiff trend with its Proforce shaft; today there is an abundance of tip-stiff shafts. UST anticipated the hybrid club revolution with its iROD shaft for hybrids. And it showed no hesitation in aggressively promoting its Harmon Tour Design line of counterbalanced shafts (more weight in the butt to change the balance and lower the swingweight).
-Why have Japanese graphite shaft manufacturers become so dominant?
Answer: “Because in general the Japanese are brilliant at making things,” says Richard Helmstetter, head of research and development at Callaway Golf.
Graphite Design and Fujikura are the best-known Japanese shaft manufacturers in the United States. Says Robb Schikner, vice president of research and development for Graphite Design, of his company’s popular YS line: “After several years, the YS-6 is still the single-most popular shaft in drivers on the PGA Tour. Why? It’s not only the design of the shaft. It’s the manufacturing processes and the equipment – the Japanese attention to detail is really amazing.”
Fujikura, on the other hand, was used in more woods than any other shaft manufacturer at both the Masters and U.S. Open.
-What is spine alignment in golf shafts?
Answer: In 1999, the USGA approved spine alignment. Almost all golf shafts have a spine, which is a seam or a position to which the shaft wants to rotate. If the spine is aligned in the same neutral position in all clubs, there should be more consistent results from club to club.
SST Pure, the leader in this field, has aligned almost 1 million clubs. The company has a network of dealers and a van that follows the PGA Tour, where some 200 players have had their clubs aligned.
Another company, Advanced Shaft Dynamics, uses a somewhat different alignment method and recently signed Vijay Singh as a spokesman.
“People still disagree on the importance of this process,” says Penley’s Storman. “If you ask me, most golfers would be better off spending their money on lessons.”