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 Shafts: The engine of the golf club

By Frank Thomas

 

A lot of people get very concerned about what make and model of club they should be using. But perhaps the most important piece of equipment is that oft-overlooked bit between the grip and the head -- the shaft. The shaft is the only way energy can be transferred from the golfer to the business end of the club, the clubhead.

During impact, the shaft is unnecessary -- its only use is to get the clubhead into the proper position, traveling on the right path and at the required speed just before impact. Remember that impact, when the club and the ball are actually in contact, only lasts for approximately 450 millionths of a second. When the shaft decides to react to a mis-hit the ball is long gone, so it plays no part in reducing an error, contrary to what is sometimes believed.

 The shaft used to be a stick of hickory that was turned in a lathe, shaved and sanded down by hand. This allowed shafts to be custom-made exactly how the golfer or the club maker wanted them. Through trial and error, the best shaft-makers became very adept at producing high-performance hickory shafts. With the advent of steel shafts (approved by the USGA in 1924 and eventually approved by the R&A seven years later), mass production took over and the days of modifying custom shafts were over. The good news is that quality control is so good nowadays that there aren’t many bad shafts any more, but there are hundreds of different varieties.

And there is still room for some innovation. Shaft manufacturers have tried everything. They’ve moved the flex point higher to produce a lower ball flight. They’ve moved it lower to produce a higher ball flight. They’ve even turned the shaft upside down, with the most flexible part of the shaft under the grip, and the least flexible section down near the head.

Inevitably, there has been a lot of experimentation with different materials for shafts besides steel. Before I joined the USGA, I worked as Chief Design Engineer for the Shakespeare Sporting Goods Company from 1966 to 1974, where I developed the first graphite shaft. One company had started producing shafts made up of a thin steel tube wrapped with a layer of fiberglass, but in the early 1960s, Shakespeare became the first company to introduce a complete fiber glass shaft. These shafts were really strong, but too heavy, and they didn’t have good torsional properties. Steel remained as the old standby while manufacturers continued to innovate. Along came aluminum shafts that were much lighter -- this was supposed to be a revolution in golf, the hottest new thing. Suffice to say, aluminum shafts only lasted a few years.

Union Carbide had been providing graphite fibers -- 50 of them bundled together make up a strand the size of a human hair -- for use by NASA, which had started to use graphite in the space industry, and for use in pressure vessels, and structural sections of aircraft. Union Carbide wanted to introduce graphite to a consumer market, and considering its strength and lightness -- it’s 14 times stronger than steel of the same weight -- golf club shafts seemed like a good bet. So they approached me, and Shakespeare, as I was developing new techniques to filament-wind golf shafts using fiberglass. They asked if graphite fibers could be a substituted for the glass fibers. Material properties had to be researched, but the application was eventually successful. The technique was to wrap epoxy impregnated bundles of fibers onto a thin steel rod. This was in turn wrapped with a cellophane sheath and then hung in an oven to cure and set. When the epoxy set the central steel rod (mandrel) was withdrawn, leaving a hollow shaft made of graphite fibers and epoxy.

The first graphite shafts -- circa 1968 -- were tested by players like Don January and Gary Player, and they officially debuted at the 1970 PGA Merchandise Show. Due to some technicalities regarding time between disclosure and filing, the patent wasn’t granted, which means that now anyone is free to make graphite shafts.

What are the benefits of graphite? It’s much lighter than steel -- the shaft is just over two ounces, about half the weight of a steel shaft. That means it may be possible to swing the club a little faster with the same energy, and thus one may be able to gain about five yards of distance on average. There are other claims for graphite -- that it allows you to "feel" the clubhead more, for example, or that it is easier on your joints, reducing the risk of golfers’ elbow -- which may or may not be true. The only downside is that it’s still expensive. In 1968 the costs were $500 for a pound of graphite, compared to 30 cents for fiberglass and 7 cents for steel. Titanium was tried as a substitute for steel and graphite about 10 years ago but never took hold. It weighed more than the graphite but less than steel but was also very expensive.

Is graphite the end of the line as far as shaft material is concerned? It might be. Other hybrids were used mixing graphite with Kevlar, boron, or steel fibers, but I believe no other material offers the combination of lightness and strength that graphite has.

Is this the end of the line in shaft innovation? No, but we don’t expect much is in the wings where the weight- (or even cost) to-benefit ratio will be worth the effort.

Today, most every good fishing rod is made of graphite, as are plenty of tennis rackets and a lot of golf club shafts. I would like to think that eventually, when the price comes down enough, practically all golf clubs will have graphite shafts.