The choice of golf shaft is one of the most important equipment decisions a golfer can make. The shaft acts as the engine of your club, directly impacting distance, accuracy, and shot control. For decades, steel was the dominant shaft material, but graphite shafts have become increasingly popular over the last 30 years. So which one should you use? Let’s examine the key differences between graphite and steel shafts to help determine which is better suited for your swing.
The Great Shaft Debate: Graphite or Steel?
For many golfers, choosing between graphite and steel shafts elicits strong opinions. Steel shaft devotees point to the material’s responsiveness, consistency, and ability to promote control. Graphite supporters highlight the lightweight properties, smoother feel, and increased clubhead speed. The “steel vs graphite” debate has sparked heated disputes among golfers for years.
The truth is, there is no universally “correct” option. Both materials can perform exceptionally well when properly fit for a golfer’s swing type, tempo, and preferences. The choice comes down to finding the best match for your game based on several factors we will explore in this article.
Before comparing shaft materials, it helps to understand what golf shafts do and the key traits that impact performance. Before we get into everything about steel shafts, keep in mind that golfers used to play with wooden shafts. Old-school shafts were ash or apple, and hickory shafts quickly became popular.
According to BC Golf House, “Around 1820 clubmakers introduced hickory for making golf shafts.” This wood proved to be more durable than the previously used ash, apple, and beech wood. A four-foot-long piece of one-inch-square hickory was fastened in a lathe to begin the process of making a golf shaft.
The spinning rectangular piece soon transformed into a round spindle about 3/4 inch in diameter. Finally, the clubmaker tapered one end of the clubhead hosel to fit it.”
For a century, this type of shaft was used before clubmakers discovered the next great invention – steel iron shafts.
Did you know that steel golf shafts have been in use for nearly a century? While the original players used wooden shafts (which most of us can’t imagine playing with), the R&A legalized the switch in 1929.
“Around 1925, the steel shaft was introduced in the United States,” according to Golf College, “although blacksmiths had experimented with them since the late 1890’s.” After the Prince of Wales used steel-shafted clubs on the Old Course at St Andrews in 1929, the R&A finally legalized their use.”
Golfers discovered that switching from wooden to steel shafts improved accuracy, distance, and durability.
What Do Golf Shafts Do?
The golf shaft is the column that joins the clubhead to the grip end of the club. Its key functions include:
- Transmitting your power from the swing to the clubhead to produce distance.
- Influencing launch angle and spin to optimize trajectory.
- Allowing you to time and control the face angle through impact for solid strikes and accurate shots.
- Providing feedback and feel so you can consistently make solid contact.
- Matching the club’s stiffness to your swing speed for maximum energy transfer.
In short, the shaft is a crucial mediator between your swing and the results you see on the course.
Key Shaft Characteristics
The three most important shaft traits to understand are:
Weight – Measured in grams, shaft weight affects swing weight, feel, and stability. Lighter shafts tend to increase swing speed.
Flex – The shaft’s ability to bend during the swing. Flex ratings like Ladies, Regular, and Stiff indicate the bending level. Match flex to your swing speed.
Kickpoint – The part of the shaft that bends the most. Low kickpoint shafts bend nearer the tip for high launch. Mid and high kickpoints promote lower ball flight.
Once you have a grasp of these fundamentals, we can start examining how graphite and steel shafts different.
Shafts in Graphite
Now that you’ve a better understanding of steel shafts, let’s move on to graphite.
“In 1973, the graphite shaft was introduced, which provided more rigidity, lightness, and increased strength over steel shafts,” according to the same Golf College article. Modern graphite shafts are made with various materials to improve performance, such as boron to reduce twisting.”
While players were quick to switch from wooden to steel, the transition from steel to graphite took a little longer. Heck, I remember Tiger Woods swinging a steel-shafted driver and making it look easy in the early 2000s (he was also the longest hitter on the PGA Tour).
So, what prompted so many people to switch from steel to graphite shafts? Because there are numerous advantages, all of which make this difficult game a little less difficult.
The fact that graphite shafts were lighter than steel irons was the first reason they became popular. Steel shafts are frequently twice as heavy as graphite shafts. Swinging heavier weights faster is more difficult!
Switching to a lighter graphite shaft instantly added distance for many golfers due to a faster swing speed. Because the club is significantly lighter, swinging faster and increasing total distance is much easier (especially for high-handicap golfers).
The second advantage of a graphite shaft is that it produces a higher ball flight. This will assist with longer clubs and make it easier to hold the green more frequently.
Comparing Graphite and Steel
Graphite and steel vary in a number of ways that influence performance and feel. There are some key differences.
- Graphite shafts are lighter than steel. They generally range from 50-80 grams compared to 90-130g for steel.
- The lighter weight allows graphite shafts to smooth out timing inconsistencies in the swing. They also permit easier clubhead acceleration to generate faster swing speeds.
- Steel provides more mass in the shaft which can lead to better consistency and stability through the swing. The heavier weight provides more feedback and feel at impact as well.
- Graphite shafts have greater flex and bend more easily through the swing than steel. They tend to exhibit a smoother, more constant amount of bend.
- Steel is stiffer and has less flex. The shaft feels firmer and backbone-like during the swing. The stiffness promotes excellent energy transfer and responsiveness.
- Lower swing speed players benefit from the smooth flexibility of graphite. Faster swingers tend to prefer the rigid stability of steel.
Feel and Feedback
- Graphite dampens vibrations better, providing a more cushioned, muted feel at impact. Less flex recoil results in a buttery smooth sensation.
- The rigidity of steel transmits more vibration into the hands for enhanced feedback and feel. You get a sense of where exactly on the face you contacted the ball.
- Golfers seeking maximum feedback to refine their ball-striking may favor steel. Those wanting a softer, gentler feel often prefer graphite.
Distance and Control
- Lighter graphite shafts permit easier acceleration, generating faster clubhead speed for added distance, especially in drivers.
- The consistency and stability of steel provides outstanding control over shot shape and trajectory. Slower swing speed players can benefit from the precision of steel.
- Aggressive swingers who prioritize maximum distance tend to favor graphite. Golfers wanting to emphasize consistency and control lean towards steel.
- Graphite shafts are more expensive, roughly $50-$100 extra per club over steel shafts. The manufacturing process is more complex.
- Steel options offer very durable performance at a lower cost. This makes steel ideal for golfers on tighter budgets.
The cost factor should not be the primary deciding point. Focus instead on which shaft matches your needs.
Shafts Made of Several Materials
While most golfers should use graphite shafts for a variety of reasons, multi-material shafts are a new option. For a truly customized shaft, these use multiple materials/composite materials. With these, you get the best of both worlds because the majority of the shaft is steel and the tip is graphite.
You get the control of steel and the distance of graphite with a partly steel, partly graphite shaft. They also have vibration-reducing technology built in to avoid any unwanted vibrations. It’s truly a win-win situation, and I can see it becoming more popular in the future for low-handicap golfers.
Who Should Use Graphite vs. Steel
Determining the best shaft material aligns closely with factors like your skill level, age swing speed, and any physical limitations.
Beginning golfers may find lightweight graphite shafts beneficial, allowing them to swing faster as they develop their skills. The smooth flex eases timing as beginners learn efficient swing mechanics. Graphite provides an easier initiation into the game.
Slow Swing Speeds
Golfers with slower swing velocities under 90 mph driver clubhead speed usually achieve the best results from flexible, light graphite shafts. The lighter weight and smoother flex help naturally accelerate their swing for added distance without sacrificing control.
Golfers with Physical Limitations
Older golfers or those with back, joint, or muscular restrictions should strongly consider graphite. The lightness reduces strain on the body while swinging. The smooth flex won’t aggravate physical limitations the way stiff steel may.
Low Handicappers and Skilled Players
Stronger and more skilled players tend to benefit from the precise consistency and feedback of steel shafts. The stability allows experts to shape demanding shots. High swing speeds above 100 mph are too much for most graphite shafts.
Choosing the Best Shaft: Graphite or Steel?
Now that you’ve gathered all of this knowledge, let’s talk about how to make sure your shafts are preparing you for success.
Irons vs. Woods
For starters, consider shafts for your woods, irons, and wedges. It’s not uncommon for them to be of varying weights and possibly manufactured by different companies. The flex of the shaft, on the other hand, rarely changes.
Here’s an example of my bag setup to show how the shaft weight varies depending on the club.
In my woods, irons, and wedges, I use graphite golf shafts, steel shaft irons, and steel shaft wedges.
- 70 g for the driver; 80 g for the three woods
- Hybrid: 90 g
- Utility iron: 90 g
- 5-GW: 115 g (steel shaft)
- SW and LW: 120 g (steel shaft)
Your driver should be the lightest club in your bag, weighing in at 45-75 grams depending on your skill level and swing speed. Fairway woods are typically slightly heavier than irons (as you can see, my 3-wood is 10 grams heavier).
Choosing your wood shafts is easier than choosing your iron shafts because almost every golfer uses graphite shafts. With irons, however, you must decide whether graphite, steel, or a multi-material shaft is best for you.
Finally, remember to inspect your wedge shafts. It’s not unusual for your wedges to be the heaviest shafts in your bag. When switching clubs, a heavier wedge shaft makes it easier to flight shots down and take off distance.
How to Choose the Right Shaft
Choosing the optimal shaft involves more than just material. Getting the right fit for your game requires assessing needs, testing clubs, and dialing in specifics like weight, flex, and design.
Know Your Swing Speed
Having a recent driver swing speed measurement is crucial to selecting suitable shaft flex and construction. A pro can measure your speed, or use a launch monitor or golf simulator.
Consider Your Skill Level
Higher handicappers normally need maximum forgiveness and playability from clubs. Low handicap golfers prioritize consistency, feedback and shot-shaping ability. Match the shaft accordingly.
Get Fitted by a Pro
The best way to identify ideal shafts is to get a professional club fitting. Fitters can analyze your swing and recommend the optimal model and flex based on real data.
Test Different Shafts
If possible, try hitting different shaft options at a fitting to feel the performance differences firsthand. Notice sound, feel, distance, and shot tendencies to select the best match.
The Bottom Line: It’s About Finding the Right Fit
The graphite versus steel debate need not be so polarized. Either material can provide fantastic performance when properly matched to a golfer’s swing qualities and abilities. Focus less on material itself and more on finding the optimum weight, flex, and design for your game. With the right fit, both graphite and steel shafts can be game-changers and lower scores.
The key is not stubbornly sticking to preferences, but keeping an open mind. Golfers should be willing to test both shaft types with an unbiased approach based on performance and feel. A great shaft fitting will enable you to make an informed, data-driven decision for your equipment. Achieving the best fit is what matters most for golfing success and enjoyment, regardless of material. With the right shafts, you can maximize both the power in your swing and the potential in your game.
Thankfully, golf manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to make this difficult game a little easier with better shafts. When it comes to swinging the right shaft for your golf game, you have more options than ever before.
Graphite shafts will benefit the majority of recreational golfers.
Don’t use the wrong golf shaft any longer. It’s time to abandon the stigma associated with graphite and instead use shafts that make golf easier. Don’t forget that some of the world’s best players with insanely fast swing speeds prefer graphite as well.
If you’re still trying to decide between using graphite or steel shafts in your golf clubs, take it from Andrew Tursky, a senior equipment editor at Golf.com: “I’d go as far as saying that over half of golfers would have a better time on the course and improve their performance by switching to graphite shafts.” Companies that make composite shafts have really stepped up their game. They’ve developed iron shafts that give you the same accuracy as steel while also giving you more distance, speed, and a better feel.
Almost every golfer should use graphite shafts in their driver and fairway wood. But don’t forget that shafts come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with flex, weight, shaft length, and tip flex all playing a role. If you’re a serious golfer, it’s sometimes worth it to get a professional fitting or at least try out different shafts with a launch monitor.
Do you have any more questions about the best shafts for your game? Continue reading to learn more about selecting the best golf shafts.
It’s best to use shafts that are appropriate for your skill level and swing speed. Some players benefit greatly from using graphite shafts, while others require steel shafts.
Yes, graphite shafts can make a significant difference in your game. Switching from steel to graphite iron shafts can help you increase distance, hit it higher, and swing faster. While graphite shafts are more expensive, they are an excellent investment in your game.
Professional golfers typically use graphite shafts only in their driver, fairway woods, hybrids, and possibly some utility irons. Composite shafts aid in the use of difficult-to-hit clubs such as long irons, which even the best players in the world struggle with at times.
These players typically use heavier graphite shafts that are also much stiffer than those used by the majority of golfers. The majority of PGA Tour and LIV golfers use X-stiff or even TX (a Tour Stiff shaft).
Steel shafts provide more feedback, so most PGA Tour players use them in their wedges and irons.
It is determined by your swing speed, current clubs, trajectory, and other factors. The majority of golfers would benefit from using graphite shafts because they are lighter, easier to hit, and produce a higher ball flight. Graphite shafts were less accurate in the past, but as technology has advanced, you’re not sacrificing much now.
There is no set time to switch; for example, if you are 60 years old, you should get graphite iron shafts. Instead, it’s about keeping track of your swing, score, and, ultimately, golf goals.
Some players can swing steel shafts for the rest of their lives, whereas others prefer graphite from a young age. When it comes to choosing the right shaft, there is a lot of personal preference, so do what is best for your game and no one else’s.
Yes, for certain types of players, a graphite iron shaft should increase distance, sometimes significantly. Because graphite shafts are lighter than steel shafts, golfers can hit them much further.
Graphite irons are frequently half the weight of steel golf clubs. Lighter shafts allow you to swing faster, resulting in more club head speed and thus more total distance.
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