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Graphite shafts in irons, the final frontier?

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By Trevor Gliwski

GolfWRX Contributor

Click here for more discussion in the “Clubmaking forum”

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.

Click here for more discussion in the “Clubmaking forum”

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.

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18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. WmTipton

    Oct 4, 2012 at 11:36 am

    I do a little club building on the side and while Im a rookie golfer I have definitely noticed that graphite shafts gain distance but at a cost of accuracy.
    The only graphite shaft Ive used that seemed to even touch the accuracy of my steel shafts was so stiff and rigid and heavy that it may as well have been steel.

    Im not bashing graphite, not in the least, but as a newer player I personally feel that my game needs the accuracy over distance for now.

    I was using graphite shafted Cobra driver I bought last year for driving and was losing half a dozen balls per round.
    I took the graphite out of the head and reshafted it with a low end ($5) Apollo steel shaft cut as stiff as possible and shortened to 42.5″ (the shaft itself) and the next two rounds I lost maybe one ball per round and kept almost every tee shot with it either dead down the fairway or in the first cut of rough.

    Im a beginner, but even I have seen the evidence that steel is more accurate over graphite, so I can understand why the pro’s stick to steel in their irons.

    • Wanda

      Nov 5, 2012 at 2:09 am

      You sure do know what you’re talking about. Man, this blog is just great! I can’t wait to read more of what you’ve got to say. I’m relaly happy that I came across this when I did because I was relaly starting to get bored with the whole blogging scene. You’ve turned me around, man!

  2. Robin Arthur

    Aug 14, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    Greetings –
    It’s great you folks are arguing camera attributes in an effort to get the real “picture”…but I think missing the point of Trevor’s comments which for the most part are accurate. Maybe the picture is perhaps an exaggeration of the bends, but I don’t think to any degree that makes them irrevelent. I remember a slo-mo shot of Michelson’s 5-iron in GDigest w/in the last year…and it showed an almost identical fwd. bend, maybe not quite as pronounced but eye-opening none the less.

    In a golf swing, given the offsets of center of gravities of the head, the offset axis of the shaft to the CG of the head, the tensile and centrifugal (and even centripetal) forces being applied to the shaft – all relate to the bending dynamics through out the swing and esp. at impact. The mechanical properties of each of the three components of the club system – shaft, head and grip obviously affect those bending dynamics as well.

    But that’s just part of the story. First a couple comments on the history of carbon fiber (graphite) shafts.

    While it’s true that the first graphite shafts were the rage because of increased distance but were quickly discounted because of dispersion; but also because of shaft-to-shaft consistency. The reasons for this are simple.

    1 – the designers at the time had zero idea of the influence on torsional resistance in their shaft designs and how it affected both longitudinal bending and twisting during the swing and at impact. Some of the first shafts were 6+ degrees of “torque” – although in classical engineering terms the way the golf industry uses that vernacular is incorrect…

    2 – manufacturing techniques were not up to par either. It’s a fact that most companies in those days and even into the early ’90s designed very stiff shafts and simply sanded them to a particular flex. Can you imagine trying to take an X-flex and manually sanding it consistently to say an S-flex, or weaker flex? Hardly an ideal manufacturing technique for process control.

    Now fast forward to the mid-’90s and the introduction of shafts like Loomis’ tour irons and even my LBPs irons (low balance points) into the Tour ranks. Again, there were two problems w/ these shafts….well actually three.

    1 – to get the shafts heavy enough, Mr. Loomis/his Tech. Director Jeff Meyer and myself had to make the walls of the shafts SO thick to get the weight up that the result was a composite structure that dampened SO much of the energy supplied by a Tour pro, that the feel/feedback was so unlike a steel shaft and even sometimes called “dead”. Great players in any sport rely lot on feel and feedback and if that’s minimized, or even eliminated, then consistent swings can be marginalized, as can one’s confidence in the equipment. This phenom added greatly to a common Pro statement and misnomer (and pounced upon and exaggerated by the steel folks) that , “I don’t know if my 7-iron is going 150 or 160 yards when I’m using graphite…”.

    2 – again, manufacturing techniques were still not there to produce a 100% consistent product. The designs weren’t like the old days (1 flex for all and sanded), but this new weight class requiring a lot more material patterns and their own unique mandrels (VERY thin in the lower/tip section) had its own set of challenges.

    And –

    3 – the steel folks, esp. TT, absolutely jumped onto these difficulties that were soon solved, and made a PR campaign to protect their steel turf. (One should know, or remember….that the manufacturing of steel shafts is no more consistent than that of some companiies’ graphite shafts – the steel folks SORT their shafts to obtain consistent tolerances and ALSO make them over-length then tip/butt trim to achieve final lengths and closer tight butt freqs…it’s not magic or an inherently better process…).

    And finally a word about the designs themselves and proper fitting.

    While it’s true to a degree what Trevor said about finding the right flex and weight. That’s a bit limiting and narrow in scope in that it doesn’t address the nature of graphite shafts and their deign possibilities as Chris and Daniel of Matrix pointed out (although the “superior structure” comment is a bit PR based…).

    What I mean is that when one looks at a shaft design, it’s not the flex and torque that the manufacturers report – a lot of that, esp. the torque values, can def. be an effort in mktg. fairy tales. And we all know one company’s s-flex can be NO WHERE near another company’s s-flex. <>.

    What IS important is how the stiffness, weight and yes torsional resistance is DISTRIBUTED along the axis of the shaft and how THAT distribution affects swing A vs. swing B. While the bowling ball example takes into effect TOTAL weight, the center of gravity of all balls are in the same place. NOT so the “system” of shaft, head and grip. So it’s important for a club fitter, coach, club pro etc. to get to know and understand the differences between a finite number of shafts/brands as there’s just way to many to understand all. <>. That now bridges the gap between art, and science to a much higher degree.

    Finally three more points:

    1 – It is definitely true that graphite irons are coming back strongly, have a LOT more design potentials, and we’ll see more on the PGA Tour to compliment Chris Hillary’s AeroTech designs. I guarantee it. i personally have 2 VERY unique designs that I’m keeping close to the vest that are Tour ready in both design and manufacturing consistency (But am doing so in anticipation of some financial backing to get my products and message of truth out on tour the right way).

    2 – expect another barrage of steel PR (more than likely dubious) that will try to put down any major intrusion on their monopoly. I wish them luck nd myself and a couple other Kats will be swinging back…

    3 – Carbon fibers from the earliest shuttle designs more applicable to the golf products sold today at Targets? Not true. I should know. I helped design and build a lot of those structures…

    R

    Robin D. Arthur
    Pres./CEO
    Arthur Xtreme Engineering

    Home of the XCalibers and the…
    TRUTH

  3. Walden

    Jul 14, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    Aerotech Steelfiber. I don’t care what your rolling shutter speed says.

    Pros are actually moving to fiber (Kuchar, Mahan are the most prominent). I think it’s interesting to at least test out.

    Good article.

  4. J.J.

    Jul 11, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    I think if you look at history the pros are always the last to use game improving technologies. It takes people willing to take a risk at succesively higher levels of the game to turn the mindset of the elite player. This was born out with steel shafts, solid-core balls, metal wood heads, graphite in the woods, long putters and oversize putter grips. I would hope that the upcoming generations of pros will be used to the idea of technological changes being worth trying because they will have grown up with the attitude that it’s okay to try them. I can’t imagine to many more revolutionary advances in steel but both the present and future of graphite seem pretty exciting to me.

  5. Adrian

    Jul 8, 2012 at 2:41 am

    That is a rolling shutter problem at with those pix plain and simple because the shaft in no way kicks that violently….not even a womens flex. Had you been further away those pix would not have looked like that. The shaft droops but no one’s shaft contorts like that…..they even have analysed Jamie Sadlowski’s shaft under the force of his swing on youtube and showed that his shaft was not flexing like that at all.

    The point is though that graphite shafts are being produced that are of better quality than steel….but is the current cost of those shaft appealing at the moment….probably not. Sure Matrix Program shafts are great, but they are also 90 bucks a shaft.

    Now when the prices come down I’m sure there will be a mass exodus from steel to graphite but remember not everyone owned a microwave when they were 800 bucks but now that they are 60 everyone has one…It just takes time to catch on.

  6. Rod

    Jul 2, 2012 at 9:57 am

    Blah, blah blah blah, I know more than you….

    Come on, the pictures nor the equipment that took them is the issue here.

    If the graphite was Superior, don’t you think we would see more of it in the PGA?

    • Naomi

      Nov 5, 2012 at 2:43 am

      I saw a guy at the range hitting what sodnued like a fantastic driver, so I had my nephew run over and ask (I was doing some chipping practice) what he was using and it was a machspeed driver I HAD TO HAVE IT. This video is what made me actually buy BOTH the machspeed and dymo drivers at the same time shortly after viewing last week. Keep it up, as this is the ONLY video on youtube providing any substantial information regarding both clubs and how they truly sound w/o any marketing crap! A+

  7. JS

    Jul 1, 2012 at 8:41 am

    BAM! Now what fellas? Oops, we had no clue what we were talking about with the camera and Trevor did. *crickets*

  8. Trevor Gliwski

    Jun 28, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    Just wanted to clarify a few things regarding the photos: Rolling Shutter effect because of the lag can be minimized in a few ways. Since not all Rolling shutters are created equal, it is important to use a camera such as the Exilim EX-F1 Pro as I have done since it employs “parrallel readout” of the CMOS chip, negating the effect. To further enhance the quality of the image, you can shoot the image in portrait or landscape depending on whether your camera has a horizontal shutter if it is vertically scanned so as to offset the imaging problems. This does not completely negate the artifact but if impact frames are what you are looking for, it will clean up the shot dramatically, even with a entry level camera. Also of note should be that even if the images I included in the article had not been shot using both, please remember that the rolling effect is linear and non bi-direction. This means that even if you do not use these technologies or techniques, the skewed image should have a bowing which is either constant or chopped. Never should any part of the image “fall behind” such as in the steel photo. The pronounce “S-curve”, which is a well known term in golf (along with droop) is a stability problem of the shaft, not the camera.

    The larger point of the article is that as better players continue to move toward graphite in the irons (%200 increase in the last 10 years), the unjustifiable stigma of playing graphite will disappear, just as it did with hybrids. Also, as a side note, the truly serious player that is completely dedicated to every aspect of their game doesn’t see cost as the deciding factor. It’s the reason why many of us had a multi-thousand dollar sound system in college and ate “Top Ramen” every night. We want the best. It’s certainly not enjoyable to shell out more money for performance, but even those increased costs in golf are worth it if your aim is to strive towards greatness.

    • Chris Downing

      Aug 18, 2013 at 2:02 am

      I came across this thread looking for some evidence that graphite is a valid option – and nothing much seems to have happened and another year passes. It is truly amazing that since graphite was almost completely dominant on the Seiors Tour a few years ago that steel has managedto roll back the clock. There’s no steel or wood left in the Tennis Tour, Badmington, Squash, Hockey – but good old conservative golf hangs on in there.

      One of the big issues has become availability. Just try to find a good deal on graphite shafted clubs. And then try to take advantage of the correct technology for your swing – the right shafts from hundreds that are available – well you will offered two max on a set of irons – and chances are they will be special order – then when you trade them (something the other sports don’t do much of) they will be difficultto sell on. So we compromise and settle for what is easy for the suppliers and manufacturers – steel in stepped/rifle x regular/stiff.

  9. Cody

    Jun 28, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    I have wanted to play graphite iron shafts for a while. But the problem was and still is that it is difficult to find the stiff enough for me.

  10. Rod

    Jun 28, 2012 at 11:34 am

    Graphite shafts are an option but this reminds me of the wedge BS. Buy new gear because you want to and not because the geniuses are leveraging insecurity and doubt.
    If there was a clear advantage, wouldn’t the pros all be using graphite?

  11. Frank

    Jun 28, 2012 at 10:22 am

    I guess none of you guys took physics in college, cause that is exactly what happens when you hit a golf ball. Things like the harrison shot maker were created to minimize shaft deformation at impact. Do your homework before you jump to conclusions.

    • Setieyani

      Nov 3, 2012 at 1:17 pm

      J-U-N-KPinemeadow, Acquity, Walter Hagen, Nextt, Intech, etc are all junk.It’s in your absolute best ieretnst to do what you can to get your hands on some name brand product. If you’re looking for something under $500 for a full set, then your best bet will be. You can at least go here to purchase something that’s a few years old, but the quality is 100x better than Pinemeadow. Name one golfer on any pro tour who plays Pinemeadow clubs (or any of the others mentioned above? (There aren’t any.)

  12. poser

    Jun 28, 2012 at 9:43 am

    Have to agree with Michael I’m amazed someone at this level of teaching has no idea that the images are caused by rolling shutter speed. The shaft isn’t really flexing like that at impact. Not knowing something so simple seems to discredit anything else in the article….

  13. Michael

    Jun 28, 2012 at 4:19 am

    While I agree with a lot of statements in the article, the stuff with the pictures is just wrong. Pictures like that have to do with shutter speed and – if it’s taken from a video – frames per second. You need high speed video equipment with somewhere around 10.000 fps to really see, what a shaft does during a golf swing and at impact. And it’s way less, than what you would think.

    Regards,
    Michael

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