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Graphite shafts in irons, the final frontier?
By Trevor Gliwski
Technology in golf has evolved at a frenetic pace in the past decade. Golf balls, driver heads and even groove designs have reached new heights and in most cases reached their governed limits.
Perhaps the last frontier of performance in golf is composite graphite shaft technology, particularly iron shafts. Golf is the last major sport that hasn’t opted for composites in a wholesale approach, choosing to hold on to the older, cheaper steel shafts. Of all the hockey sticks in the NHL, 100 percent of the players use composite graphite hockey sticks and the Tour De France contestants all ride composite graphite bicycles. Major league baseball cannot move to composite graphite because it would make all baseball parks obsolete. Professional golf tour usage of composite graphite reflects this shift in technology in terms of woods, but has a much lower percentage of usage in irons. According to the Darrell Survey 99 percent of woods played on the PGA Tour are composite graphite, while only 12 percent of graphite is played in irons.
Whenever the concept of why a professional or good amateur player isn’t playing graphite in their irons, the usual statement is that “steel is more consistent than graphite.” The most peculiar thing about that statement is that your driver and woods are statistically less consistent than irons in a natural way. The greater the distance from the target, the longer the shaft length and the wider the dispersion pattern. This is why the NBA awards three points from behind the three-point line and only two points for closer shots.
Chris Nolan, executive vice president of global operations for Matrix Shafts, said that not all graphite shafts are created equal, but when designed and manufactured properly, the composite materials available today provide superior structures when compared to steel in both dispersion and distance control. Daniel You, chief designer and engineer for Matrix Shafts, added that when comparing composites to steel, composite materials of equal weight to steel are up to six times stronger, allowing designers much greater latitude in their designs while providing superior overall structures. Additionally, the ability to cross-pollinate each shaft with varied materials such as in Matrix’s Inter-ply technology allows for structures that may have a similar design function while possessing a difference in feel alone. You also said that from a design standpoint, graphite allows him a significantly greater amount of possibilities for different overall weights, flex points, tip stiffness, balance points and torque.
TJ Shelton, director of the Rick Smith Golf Academy Fitting Center, hitting a 6 iron in the pictures below. On the left (red shirt), Shelton is hitting a leading brand’s steel shaft (stiff). On the right (blue shirt), he is hitting a matrix program 130 graphite shaft (stiff). Both shots were solid, the pictures are eye opening.
From a teaching standpoint, graphite allows for a much wider range of weight and profile playing characteristics. For these reasons, I have an overwhelmingly better ability to get my student’s equipment to a place where they not only hit it better immediately, but also help their golf swing dynamics to develop long term. One of the most common examples of how critical this is to my teaching is that many players who cast from the top of their swing and scoop at impact are able to retain wrist cock and create lag, in many cases, much easier when they swing a much lighter shaft. It is not unusual to see a player’s swing dynamics improve instantaneously. We quickly start to see an increased attack angle and lower dynamic loft as well as improved visual dynamics on video.
A great analogy of how weight affects dynamics in the golf swing is to compare it to bowling. If you grab a ball that is too heavy you will drop it behind you — too light and it might fly through the air. Most of us have a dynamic need for a certain weight that allows us to release at the proper point in the stroke. In bowling that weight is measured in pounds. In golf it’s measured in grams. Although having a club that is perfect for your dynamic needs does not guarantee a perfect swing, a club that is not in your wheel house of overall weight, swing weight and flex gives you almost no chance of anything good happening consistently.
Composite graphite has improved astronomically since it was first introduced to golf shafts in 1977. It was put in play for good players way too early. Yes, they immediately hit the ball farther, but because the stability wasn’t there dispersion patterns were enormous and as a result graphite shafts were quickly pegged as “inconsistent.” In 2012, graphite composite shaft technology is in a whole new league. In fact, the graphite composite used in the first space shuttle is not considered good enough for a K-mart club by today’s standards. It is crazy that the stigmatism of graphite continues to exist even after today’s extensive research. However, slowly but surely, much like persimmon woods going to metal, it will begin to disappear forever.
Trevor Gliwski is the Director of Instruction for The Rick Smith Golf Academy at Tiburon Golf Club in The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort Naples, Fla. He is a Matrix Shafts Advisory Board Member and the 2009 South West Florida Chapter Teacher of the Year.