Golf products in the United States are affected significantly by what happens in Japanese golf – so much so that most recent trends in U.S. golf actually started in Japan.
Lighter, longer drivers. Mega-sized driver heads. Thin-faced drivers made of forged titanium. Wild-looking shafts such as TaylorMade’s Bubble Shaft. Irons with tungsten or other heavyweight materials embedded in the sole. All of these innovations started in Japan.
Japanese golfers can’t get enough technology. Japanese golf magazines are full of highly technical information. The notion that golf club manufacturers could woo consumers with technology was a concept developed and perfected in Japan.
Now, more than ever, high-tech Japanese golf companies are establishing U.S. operations and building manufacturing facilities in this country.
Bridgestone, with its Precept golf ball brand, has a long history in the United States, as do clubmakers Mizuno and Yonex. Nowhere in American golf, however, is the Japanese influence more visible today than it is in golf shafts.
Fujikura and Graphite Design, in particular, have emerged as the two new muscle boys of the U.S. graphite shaft industry. Both have gained substantial popularity among touring pros and manufacturers of premium clubs.
Fujikura’s U.S. plant opened in Vista, Calif., in 1995. After Fujikura helped TaylorMade develop its Bubble Shaft in Japan, the shaft maker decided to move here to work more closely with TaylorMade. Eventually it began to make shafts for other club manufacturers as well.
“These guys are terrific,” said Jesse Ortiz, co-chairman of Orlimar Golf Co. “The difficult thing for any graphite shaft company is to make shafts that perform the same from one shaft to another. Fujikura can do it time after time.”
Graphite Design is a name closely associated with Callaway, although several other golf club manufacturers offer Graphite Design shafts. It was Dick Helmstetter, Callaway’s senior executive vice president of research and development, who first suggested to executives of Graphite Design that they build a U.S. facility. The plant, located in San Diego and constructed under the supervision of Graphite Design president Keisuke Yagi, opened in 1998.
In just a few years, Fujikura and Graphite Design have become major factors in the top-end graphite shaft market in America.
Insiders say the reason is simple: Both companies are obsessed with quality. This quality comes at a price, with some of the Fujikura shafts, for example, retailing at $350 apiece.
Another trend has helped these shaft makers – the proliferation of custom programs at the largest U.S. club manufacturers. Anyone ordering a club from Ping Wrx, for example, has a large number of shafts to choose from, including Fujikura and Graphite Design.
“Our goal,” said Pete Sanchez, president and chief operating officer of Fujikura, “is to be the best, not the biggest. We have shafts for all clubs – borethroughs, non-borethroughs, larger diameters. There are Fujikura shafts from 35 grams to 115 grams.”
Fujikura received a gigantic boost in publicity in fall 2000 when Phil Mickelson won the Tour Championship and Mike Weir won the World Golf Championship event at Valderrama Golf Club in Spain, each using a Fujikura Speeder shaft.
Graphite Design is building equally impressive credentials. At this summer’s U.S. Open, more than 30 players used at least one Graphite Design shaft.
In conjunction with Titleist, Graphite Design has developed the new GAT shaft that combines steel and graphite.
Titleist was seeking a shaft that would attain a high-profile identity among consumers. Graphite Design wanted to develop a shaft that would combine the two materials.
So the two got together and produced the GAT iron shaft, which contains a steel filament material that is encased in resin along with high modulus graphite.
The GAT shaft is the newest multimaterial shaft and follows the GT iron shaft, which was a joint project of Adams and True Temper. While the GT shaft has a graphite tip epoxied into a steel body, the GAT shaft has, in the words of Titleist’s vice president of marketing, Chris McGinley, “graphite with steel filaments in the first 10 inches (of the tip), giving us a unique consistency and feel.”
The GAT is a constant-weight, taper-tip shaft for irons that is available in two weight variations – 95 grams and 115 grams.
“It has the type of trajectory we were seeking,” McGinley said. “It is a slightly flighted type of design, so that the short irons can easily be controlled (without a ballooning trajectory) and the long irons will get the ball up in the air more easily.”
According to Dan Brown, vice president of sales and tour relations for Graphite Design, “We went to the max in durability with the GAT shaft. This is a fantastic product, and there has been a lot of interest from touring pros.”
Emilee Klein, in fact, has been using GAT shafts in her Callaway irons on the LPGA. Consumers, though, will be able to buy the shaft only in Titleist irons. While Graphite Design maintains ownership of the name and patents, Titleist has obtained an exclusive sales agreement.
Currently, the GAT shaft is available on a custom basis from Titleist. When the company introduces new irons later this year, the GAT shaft is expected to become a standard offering.
The contemporary Japanese invasion includes more than just shaft makers. Kasco, with its VS Tour driver and K2K utility woods, is one of the most innovative companies in golf. Sonartec, the American arm of Japanese giant Royal Collection, is known for its extraordinary fairway woods.
At the recent British Open, David Duval and Bernhard Langer, who played in the last pairing of the final round, each carried a Sonartec fairway wood, although neither was paid to do so.
If there is a bond that unites all these Japanese manufacturers, it is their philosophy. They preach technology, and they feel that high-quality products will attract American golfers.