Boo Weekley is one of three players this year to win with graphite shafts in his irons. (Halleran/Getty Images)
By Jonathan Wall, PGATOUR.COM Equipment Insider
Eleven years have passed since Rich Beem made equipment history at the 2002 PGA Championship, becoming the first and only player to claim one of golf's four major championships with a set of composite shafts (Aldila's Tour Gold) in his irons and wedges.
Beem didn't know it at the time, but his victory would end up being a rare one-off for composite iron shafts, also known as graphite shafts, on golf's biggest stage.
Over the past decade, graphite has become the material of choice on the PGA TOUR for shafts in drivers, fairway woods and hybrids, as pros have shifted away from steel and into lighter composites that increased swing speed and distance.
The same, however, can't be said for composite shafts in irons and wedges, which never really gained a following. Steel is still king on the PGA TOUR when it comes to iron shafts, but over the last few months, composite iron shafts have made some noise, with three players using them to win four PGA TOUR titles.
There's no question composite shafts have come a long way in the last several years. Gone are the questions about consistency and feel that kept many players from trying the shafts out in the first place. Today's shafts are not only better, they also come in a wide variety of weights and flexes that give pros numerous options.
The recent improvements have clearly worked, because a number of the top players in the world have started using composite shafts in their irons over the last few years — including Matt Kuchar and Boo Weekely, who both recorded victories with composite-shafted irons in the last few weeks.
Kuchar's been a composite trend-setter, using Aerotech's SteelFiber i95 Constant Weight shaft since 2008 — Brandt Snedeker also plays the same 95-gram SteelFiber shaft — to vault to fourth in the Official World Golf Rankings following his win at the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance.
Ranging in weight from 74 to 125 grams, Aerotech Golf's SteelFiber is a composite shaft with a unique twist. Unlike traditional composites shafts that are made up of graphite fibers and expoy resin, SteelFiber has a graphite core that's surrounded by an outer layer of steel fiber that eliminates distortion of the shaft during the swing.
"The early graphite iron shafts were made with inferior materials, processing and designs" said Aerotech Golf's president Chris Hilleary. "They started to gain traction at one point, but all of those pitfalls basically created a retreat of the use, and steel continued to dominate from there. That's when all of the shaft manufacturers started to concentrate on driver and fairway wood shafts. I saw this huge void in the market and started out to design a composite iron shaft that stronger players could embrace."
By adding steel fibers to the shaft, Aerotech was able to increase the weight of with 1/5 of the materials used in graphite, while also maintaining the playability and consistency of low torque steel.
Hilleary also noted the vibration dampening characteristics of the graphite core reduces the risk of injury and player fatigue during the round.
While the shaft won't be available until later this summer, Aldila's RIP graphite is made a big statement at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial when Boo Weekley used a set in his Cleveland 588 MB irons to hit 75 percent of his greens in regulation and claim his first PGA TOUR win since 2008.
"Boo used our 115-gram RIP shaft in his irons and if you saw they way he hit the ball that week, he had what may have been the best ball-striking week of the season," said John Oldenburg, Aldila's vice president of engineering and product development. "The big knock on graphite has been that it's inconsistent and you can't control the ball. Well all that's out the window now. We're at the point now where we don't feel like we're trying to catch up to steel; we feel we've surpassed steel."
The low-torque iron shaft, which will also be available in a 90-gram version, features a patented straightening technology that makes it two times structurally straighter than steel.
"Torque is very important in irons when you're trying to control the ball," said Oldenburg. "With this shaft you're also getting more true loft and lie than you would in any steel product."
With 18 weight, flex and torque combinations, UST's Recoil is another composite shaft making waves this season. Tim Clark recently switched to the shaft and finished T-7 at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. Jason Day also went with a UST Mamiya Recoil Proto (125-gram) in his TaylorMade RocketBladez Tour 1-iron at the HP Byron Nelson Championship and liked it so much, he had UST build him an entire set of RocketBladez Tour irons with Recoil shafts to test out at home.
"One of the drawbacks about graphite shafts in the past have been — especially when you get into the heavier weights — has been trying to duplicate feel," said Robb Schikner, UST Mamiya's vice president of sales and marketing. "When you get into those heavy weights that are closer to what you see in steel, the shaft gets really stiff around the hoop direction and doesn't ovalize."
Whereas a steel shaft would give and ovalize a bit during the swing, graphite iron shafts of the past had walls that were so thick, it decreased ovaling and the energy transfer within the shaft.
UST's Recoil shaft was designed with denser graphite fibers that allowed the R&D team to decrease the wall thickness. With 19 different, denser layers within the shaft, the company was able to create a design that, while lighter than most steel shafts, can be bumped all the way up to 125 grams for pros that prefer a weightier version.
Not only that, UST was able to use the Recoil design to create a shaft that, according to Schikner, was more "steel-like." Players were able to flight the ball like they could with their steel shafts and get trajectory control on everything from full shots to knockdowns and three-quarter swings.
The new design has UST bullish about the future, so much so that Schikner believes graphite could go from being the exception to the norm in iron sets on TOUR in the next 10 years.
"I think 10 years from now graphite [iron shafts] are going to be the norm," Schikner said. "You'll see graphite iron shafts out on TOUR on a consistent basis, rather than the exception that it's been."