STICKS & STONES
Baran ponders the consequences if word got around that the "engines" of some of those new $500 drivers are "shi." Shut your mouth! We're just talkin' 'bout shafts.
So how do the shafts in those off-the-rack sticks stack up in terms of quality and "fit" for your swing? We won't pass judgment on any particular brands, but here's how shafts tend to make their way into clubs. OEMs buy in volume, so although shaft manufacturers do sit down with the OEMs to develop shafts for specific clubheads, the strategy is to target the presumed largest demographic: mid- to high-handicapper, slicer, low-ball hitter. This results in standard shafts in most OEM products that have mid to low kickpoints to get the ball up, and high torque ("twistability") to get the clubface closed.
According to Baran, when his customers try out the end-product of all of this "research," he commonly hears the newest models described as "whippy." "Despite what the marketing slogans say," he adds.
The good news is that all of this has begun to change. UST broke the mold with its yellow and purple Proforce. And when OEMs saw how many people were replacing their factory-issued shafts with better quality, they started approaching UST. But it took a gutsy company like that to charge into the after-market market and force the issue. Now most OEMs offer high-quality shafts as custom options at nominal costs
Chad Hall, Senior Marketing Manager of Product Development & Tour Operations at True Temper Sports, the world's largest shaft manufacturer with 60 percent of the world's market share, says 99 percent of True Temper's designs are developed in-house. "We make proprietary designs for each manufacturer, as well as sell them our top-branded parts, such as Dynamic Gold and Grafalloy Blue." Both shaft manufacturers and OEMs are realizing that golfers are getting more sophisticated, and they recognize that the quality of the shaft is a significant contributing factor to the appeal of a club.
So how can you, the avid golfer who probably needs something a tad bit stiffer and less torque-y than generally assumed by OEMs, go about getting decent shafts without getting the shaft? "The best way to find the right shaft is to experiment with different shafts in 'real-world' environments," recommends Hall, who recommends a driving range tied to a pro shop, or an experienced, reputable clubfitter.
As one such clubfitter, Scot Baran stresses the importance of research. "An awful lot of 'sheep' come in asking about the new Aldila Green and the $250 US Fujikura Speeder, both of which are specifically and solely for Tour players," chuckles Baran. He warns that the processes might take some time, and money: "Be very prepared to try three shafts before you find the right one."
Chad Hall notes that True Temper has a unique shaft-fitting system called Shaft Lab. "Shaft Lab measures the bending of the shaft in the golf swing," explains Hall. "And each player has a unique profile - as individual as a fingerprint." To find the nearest Shaft Lab location to you, go to shaftlab.com.
Rules of thumb
If you suspect that what your game needs is shafts that fit your swing rather than yet another VW-sized moon-rock-coated driver head, here are some starting points for the research you'll need to do to before you get all your clubs re-shafted.
There are five basic specs for shafts: material, frequency, flex, kickpoint, and length/weight. Let's take them one at a time.
Material: Essentially the choice is between steel and graphite. According to Chad Hall at True Temper, both types have evolved in recent years. "Manufacturing processes haven't changed much," says Hall, "but materials and designs have come a long way. Higher modulus composites have allowed [graphite] shafts to be created in the sub-50 gram range." Lightweight steel, a central focus of True Temper, has led to the creation of the "lightest steel shafts in the history of golf" - the TX-90. And lighter shafts generally increase swing speed (but see below).
With respect to graphite shafts, most are still laid up by hand, where thin layers of graphite are rolled one at a time over the previous layer. Far more consistent in quality - and more expensive - are filament-wound graphite shafts, some of which can cost as much by themselves as most people are willing to pay for a titanium driver.
Steel shafts are both more consistent and less expensive. Unless you suffer from arthritis or have an extremely slow swing-speed, steel is best for irons (where you want accuracy over distance), whereas graphite is often, but not always, preferred for woods.
Inconsistency in graphite shaft manufacturing can lead to pronounced variations in shaft frequency, defined as the number of times a shaft will vibrate over a certain period of time (measured in cpm, or cycles per minute). Take any shaft and rotate it, measuring the stiffness throughout. When you graph the measurements, a perfect shaft would produce a straight line. But since nothing's perfect, the line produced by most shafts will be a sine wave with more or less widely vacillating curves.
Frequency determines the shaft flex, with which so many golfers have recently become obsessed. Getting your clubs "frequency balanced" refers to fixing the frequency of each club in evenly-spaced increments. Ideally, the frequencies of the shafts in your irons will increase in increments of four cpm as you move through the set from 2-iron to PW.
X, S, R, A, and L flex shafts should, in a perfect world, differ by 10 cpm, with stiffer flexes having higher cpm. But in case you haven't noticed, it's far from a perfect world, and each shaft manufacturer has different standards of determining frequency from one flex to the next. Add this to the inconsistencies inherent in graphite manufacturing, and you discover that the above-listed flex labels are often completely meaningless.
The golf component company Golfworks golfworks.com recently reported testing of the shafts in their 2002 component catalogue. They found that there was a 48 cpm range (234-282 cpm) within the shafts labeled "R flex." In other words, some of those R-flex shafts were the equivalent of A-flex, while others were S-flex, and even X-flex. Moral: Do not trust the labels - TEST THOSE SHAFTS.
Finally, kickpoint. Generally speaking, lower kickpoints result in higher ball-flight, while higher kickpoints result in lower, more boring ball flights. Scot Baran recommends the former for slower swingers, the latter for faster swingers. For those massive deep-faced drivers that twist around the shaft more due to their sheer size, Baran recommends shafts with less torque. But again, don't trust the silvery-tongued marketers, because when they say "low-torque" they might just mean something like "in comparison to al dente pasta."
Length and weight are inextricably correlated, because the longer the shaft, the heavier the shaft. The "right" combination of specs depends completely on the clubhead and each player's individual set-up, swing and preferences. It is utterly and completely impossible for anyone other than an experienced clubfitter who is familiar with these things to know what's right for you.
No matter what the infomercials or OEMs say.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management. The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. All contact information, directions and prices should be confirmed directly with the golf course or resort before making reservations and/or travel plans.