2005: Business - Lightweight battle

Jean-Francois Remesy’s June victory at the French Open might have gone largely unnoticed in the United States, but not at graphite shaftmaker Aldila Inc.

Remesy’s victory was the first achieved using Aldila’s new NV iron shafts, and the company quickly hailed it as evidence that the world’s best golfers might become receptive to using graphite-shafted irons. The thinking at Aldila and other graphite shaftmakers is that if they can garner broader acceptance on the major tours, they can begin to shift more of the consumer iron market from steel to graphite.

“It’s the next real frontier in our industry,” says Pete Sanchez, president of Fujikura Composites.

Their optimism is fueled by the fact that metalwood sales have been booming this year – including a 35.3 percent increase in units sold at retail in June, according to Golf Datatech – and much of that is being driven by hybrid clubs that are replacing long irons. (The research firm combines hybrid and metalwood sales.) According to Mike Rossi, Aldila’s vice president of sales and marketing, roughly 80 percent of hybrids are sold with graphite shafts. It’s a trend he reasons could lead more golfers, particularly better players, to try graphite in all of their irons.

Not so fast, says Chad Hall, marketing director at True Temper, which makes about 70 percent of the steel shafts used in irons globally. He points to National Golf Foundation figures indicating steel-shafted iron shipments to retail were up 11.7 percent in 2003 and 16.7 percent in 2004, while graphite was flat.

And club manufacturers remain dubious. Pat Loftus, Ping’s vice president of sales and marketing, says graphite accounts for about 30 percent of his company’s iron sales, “and we’re not forecasting anything significantly different next year.”

The steel-graphite debate is not new. Lightweight graphite has long been characterized as a product best suited for players with slow swing speeds, but it has suffered from the perception that it doesn’t provide the feedback and consistent ball flight of steel, hindering acceptance among better players.

“This market is driven by what people see being used out on Tour, and most of them are using steel,” says Robb Schikner, vice president of research and development at Graphite Design. While Schikner has a stake in growing graphite’s share, he points out that at a typical PGA Tour event, there are only about five graphite-shafted sets in play, and maybe twice that number on the Champions Tour. And Chris McGinley of Titleist, which generally gears its irons toward better players, notes that less than 5 percent of his brand’s sets are sold with graphite.

“Until we see more graphite irons being put into play by the Tour, top club pros and amateurs, this number will probably stay the same,” he writes in an e-mail.

Gidge Moody, TaylorMade’s global director of product marketing, notes that shaftmaker G. Loomis made inroads on the Tour in the 1990s with graphite iron shafts weighing about 100 grams – heavier than standard graphite, but still less than steel.

“Tour players were definitely playing graphite and open to it,” Moody says. But, he adds, “The manufacturing processes that were in place did not allow for consistency in the irons.”

So graphite’s first big opportunity to penetrate the Tour was lost.

Gene Simpson, vice president of operations at United Sports Technologies, says graphite makers have erred in trying to bulk up graphite shafts to make the weight more comparable to the steel shafts Tour players favor. The effect, he says, has been to “dull the feel because you have so many wraps.”

“We’ve actually been taking high-tech materials and downgrading them to meet the specs of steel,” Simpson says.

Adds Sanchez: “For the average player, graphite is the best product. It’s convincing the lower-handicappers that’s the challenge.”

Graeme Horwood isn’t buying this argument. Horwood, vice president of engineering and research and development at True Temper, says he used to oversee comparison tests between steel and graphite shafts, but stopped long ago because the numbers consistently favored steel. He emphasizes that he doesn’t have a dog in this fight; True Temper also markets graphite shafts.

Hall, his colleague, sums up the findings: “When you compare the distance control, trajectory control and dispersion control of steel vs. graphite, there really can be no comparison between the two.”

Aside from performance questions, a more fundamental issue is price. The gap between the price of sets of irons shafted with steel or graphite has narrowed in recent years, but graphite sets usually are at least $100 to $200 more expensive. For premium graphite, that gap could widen considerably. Rossi, for instance, says the retail price of a single NV Iron shaft is $50, about five to six times more than a steel shaft.

While graphite marketers are trying to move in on True Temper’s turf, the Memphis, Tenn., manufacturer is countering with lighter steel shafts, such as the Dynamic Gold SL, which is slightly more than 100 grams, or 20 percent less than its standard Dynamic Gold. In Japan, Hall notes that the company also markets the M80 shaft, which is slightly more than 80 grams, and is considering bringing it to the United States.

Similarly, Ray Lucas, vice president of sales and marketing at Royal Precision, which also sells steel and graphite shafts, says his company is launching a new, 80-gram steel shaft called Precision MicroLite.

Aldila’s Rossi argues that these light steel shafts have their own performance issues. Specifically, thinning out the shaft walls and increasing the diameter to maintain stiffness can lead to a harsh feel at impact. Horwood acknowledges this has been an issue, but says True Temper has addressed the vibration characteristics of newer, lightweight steel shafts.

These products and other offerings, he says, have helped steel “re-establish itself with better performance in irons.” Graphite marketers no doubt would argue that point, but acknowledge they still have to surmount perceptions about the performance of their iron shafts.

“Sometimes,” says UST’s Simpson, “that’s the hardest thing to overcome.”

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