Shaft Month: Graphite gains momentum in irons

Brandt Snedeker has been playing - and winning - with Aerotech's graphite iron shafts.

Brandt Snedeker has been playing - and winning - with Aerotech's graphite iron shafts.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Manufacturers of graphite iron shafts, citing exceptional feel and improved performance, are conspicuously bullish as they head into a new season.

Shaftmaker UST Mamiya showed up at last month’s Demo Day before the PGA Merchandise Show with 40 irons. That was it – 40 UST Recoil graphite shafts attached to a variety of 6-iron heads from major club manufacturers.

The point: UST is placing major emphasis this year on its new Recoil shaft for irons. The company believes it already has proved itself in the metalwood and hybrid arenas, and irons represent the last battleground between graphite and steel.

UST is focusing on better players – touring pros and low-handicap amateurs – and several other shaftmakers are doing the same. Fujikura and Aldila, for example, actively will promote their graphite iron shafts on the PGA Tour and other worldwide tours.

All these graphite shaft manufacturers are trying to duplicate the success of Aerotech, a small shaftmaker in Bellingham, Wash. With Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker using Aerotech’s SteelFiber graphite shafts, the company has been able to claim a No. 1 finish on the money list (Kuchar in 2010), a Players Championship victory (Kuchar in 2012) and Tour Championship and FedEx Cup titles (Snedeker in 2012). Already in 2013, Tim Clark has used Aerotech shafts to finish second at the Sony Open, and John Cook won the Champions Tour’s Mitsubishi Electric Championship in his first outing with SteelFiber shafts in his irons.

Two decades ago the graphite movement grinded to a halt. Graphite, made of tiny carbon fibers and epoxy resin, had not yet reached the quality or consistency of today. Steel was a better choice for the world’s best players.

Today’s graphite shafts, sometimes called composite shafts, are much improved. They are manufactured in a large variety of weights, flexes and bending characteristics.

UST offers 18 combinations of weight, flex and torque in its Recoil shaft.

“We’ve been able to loosen up the torque and put feel back in the shaft, and still keep the flex profile relatively stiff,” said Mike Guerrette, UST vice president of product research and tour development.

The Recoil secret is that the shaft mimics the dynamic patterns of steel but at lighter weights, Guerrette said.

The weight range of the Recoil shaft, available in several models, varies from 92 to 125 grams. That range reflects graphite’s ability to be lighter than many of the popular steel iron shafts on Tour. Steel models such as Dynamic Gold, Project X, KBS Tour and Nippon Modus3 Tour 130 weigh about 130 grams apiece, and Rifle is at 140 grams.

“We finally got the graphite shaft to oval like steel,” Guerrette said. “So the shaft produces the flight trajectory and spin characteristics we want, and it also has a fantastic feel.”

Fujikura’s MCI shaft, like Aerotech’s SteelFiber shaft, is a combination of metal and graphite. Aldila, for its RIP iron shaft, has expanded its torque-lowering RIP design platform from woods to irons.

“MCI has the balance (point) down in the lower end of the shaft,” Dave Schnider, Fujikura president and chief operating officer, said of the 65-gram to 124-gram shafts. “That way there is no feel issue. Nobody is going to say the shaft feels too light, which has been a common complaint about graphite iron shafts.”

John Oldenburg, Aldila’s vice president of engineering and product development, talks a lot about “consistency, straightness and controlling torque” in the RIP, which will be available to consumers

in 90- and 135-gram versions.

When Aldila purchased Victory Archery in late 2010, it inherited a proprietary straightening technique that has helped tremendously in the development of the RIP iron shaft.

Mitsubishi Rayon and Matrix make graphite iron shafts that are used by a variety of skilled players.

Mitsubishi driver shafts totaled 15 victories on the 2012 PGA Tour, and the company is widely known for its metalwood shafts. But irons are part of the picture as well.

“We’re on the threshold of a real breakthrough in iron shafts,” said Mark Gunther, Mitsubishi’s director of sales, who confirmed Mitsubishi is also making Loomis graphite iron shafts.

Loomis Golf has returned to the PGA Tour, where it will attempt to duplicate the Loomis success from the early 1990s. Back then, Greg Norman, Davis Love III and dozens of touring pros used Loomis graphite shafts in their irons.

Loomis Golf had a presence at this week’s Waste Management Phoenix Open with tour reps on site, and shafts are expected to be available for consumers by August.

The company is led by Jeff Meyer, formerly a shaft engineer for Titleist, and Gary Loomis, widely known for designing fishing rods and golf shafts.

Matrix executive vice president Chris Elson, noting the success Matrix has had in supplying club manufacturers with stock shafts, said, “There is so much we can do with graphite. In response to the USGA and its groove rule (reducing spin), we’ve been perfecting a shaft that would give the player back what the USGA took away.”

The unique Nunchuk xi graphite iron shaft – with one weight and one flex for all golfers, regardless of swing speed – was released at last month’s PGA Merchandise Show. Like the Nunchuk wood shaft, it is stiff in the tip and butt sections while being more flexible in the midsection.

True Temper dominates the steel-shaft marketplace and rules the PGA Tour. At the Farmers Insurance Open, 128 of 156 players had True Temper steel shafts in their irons. Still, True Temper makes graphite iron shafts. The company’s Project X graphite iron shafts have a loyal following.

The following for all graphite shafts would be increased, of course, with another major-championship victory by a player using graphite iron shafts. It has been 11 years since Rich Beem won the 2002 PGA Championship with graphite in his irons.

“My guess is that if we had this conversation 20 years from now,” said Elson of Matrix, “we would see a PGA Tour field with more graphite than steel in the irons. Steel is great, but graphite, in my opinion, is greater.”

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