Shaft Month: Q&A with Chris Hilleary, Aerotech president

Chris Hilleary is owner and president of Aerotech Golf.
Chris Hilleary is owner and president of Aerotech Golf. ( Courtesy of Aerotech )

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Chris Hilleary is owner and president of Aerotech Golf, maker of composite SteelFiber golf shafts. These shafts are composed of separate layers of carbon fiber (graphite) and steel fiber. Hilleary, an engineer, ran Aerotech’s golf division before he bought the division nearly eight years ago.

For Shaft Month, he talked with Golfweek's James Achenbach and shared his thoughts on the evolution of composite shafts and their impact on the marketplace.

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As the story goes, you bought Aerotech Golf on your own without help from any investors.

Hilleary: Yes, I leveraged everything I own. I refinanced our house. I refinanced some property we own. I made it happen without investors.

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Aerotech is located in Bellingham, Washington?

Hilleary: It’s close to Seattle. It’s a wonderful part of the world. It’s where we want to raise our kids. In today’s world, you don’t necessarily have to be next door to Carlsbad (California, home of several major golf equipment companies).

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Are we about to witness the dawning of the age of graphite iron shafts?

Hilleary: I would call it the age of composite iron shafts. Some touring pros are slowly moving away from steel iron shafts. What they get with our SteelFiber shaft is a combination of graphite and steel. The most important element of a graphite shaft, or a composite shaft, is vibration dampening.

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Explain how that works.

Hilleary: Carbon fiber (graphite) is held together with epoxy resin. Think of that epoxy resin as a Jell-O that never cures. The vibration, as it moves up the shaft, gets caught up in that Jell-O. What this does is reduce a player’s risk of injury, reduce the aggravation of existing or old injuries and reduce fatigue. Players can practice more, and they can play more rounds. It will extend their careers.

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Tell us the story of PGA Tour player Matt Kuchar and the SteelFiber shaft.

Hilleary: His dad (Peter Kuchar) was playing a set of irons with our shafts. Matt, like a lot of young golfers, had this image of graphite shafts for old men. Then one day he tried his dad’s irons. He liked the shafts, so he contacted us. As fate would have it, pretty much the same thing happened with Brandt Snedeker (who just won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am). He saw Matt playing them and made fun of him. Finally he tried them and also made the switch.

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So Kuchar and Snedeker both are using 95-gram SteelFiber shafts?

Hilleary: Absolutely. This is lighter than traditional steel iron shafts, but they found they have the same accuracy and control with maybe a little more distance.

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Why do you make so many different shaft weights? The SteelFiber shaft goes from 70 grams to 125 grams.

Hilleary: SteelFiber shafts are for everybody. We make lighter weights with softer flexes so that all golfers can find the proper shaft. In grams, the SteelFiber weight increments are 125, 110, 95, 80 and 70.

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Before you bought the golf division, Aerotech made components for several different sports. Has this continued?

Hilleary: We made a fishing rod component. I’ve been asked to make many other things, but I’ve turned them down. My belief is this: Anything else would just distract us from what we do well. We’re a golf shaft manufacturer.

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Would you talk about shaft torque for a minute.

Hilleary: Torque is the resistance to twisting in a golf shaft. For a long time, people always thought: The lower (the torque) the better. That’s not really the case. Torque needs to be appropriate for the player. The shaft gets a boardy feeling if you’re not loading it up. Stronger players prefer lower torque because they’re able to load it up. But keep in mind that you tend to lose the ability to work the ball with a stiffer shaft. In addition, torque is really important to feel. Generally speaking, more torque means a softer feel.

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We’re hearing a lot about graphite shafts in wedges these days. Do you have a tip for our readers?

Hilleary: A lot of times, our clubfitters will go one step heavier in the wedges. If a golfer uses our 80-gram SteelFiber shaft, he might go to the 95-gram shaft for his wedges. A lot of partial shots are played with those wedges, and some people feel more comfortable with additional weight.

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We understand that John Cook won the first time out (Mitsubishi Electric Championship in January) after putting your shafts in his irons.

Hilleary: If they (touring pros) keep coming, I’ll keep building them (SteelFiber shafts). readers: We value your input and welcome your comments, but please be respectful in this forum.