When purchasing and using golf clubs, every golfer, no matter their skill level, must decide whether to use graphite or steel shafts. They both have their pros and cons but understanding what is best for you may make all the difference in your game.
So, which is better: the graphite or steel shaft?
Graphite is better because it’s lighter in weight and more flexible giving golfers added yardage when fit correctly. Steel is better because of its durability, feel, and inexpensive cost. These contrasting benefits complement each other making most golf club sets a mix of both shafts.
To learn about the makeup and terminology of the shaft, the shaft’s evolution, the pros and cons of steel and graphite iron shafts, and advice on finding your next set of golf clubs, we encourage you to keep reading.
Shaft Makeup and Terminology in Golf
The golf shaft is one of the most important things to consider when purchasing or using a set of clubs. When fit correctly, the proper shaft will significantly enhance one’s playing ability which leads to more fun and enjoyment on the golf course.
The first step is to understand the different design elements of the shaft and their definitions.
Golf Shaft Flex Explained
This is the most important aspect to get correct when choosing a set of clubs. A shaft with too much flexibility will feel very whippy and shots will be harder to control.
A shaft with too little flexibility will feel like swinging the trunk of a giant redwood tree. Shafts come in five common types of flexibilities and each is determined by the swing speed of the golfer.
Here are the swing speeds for each level of flexibility, according to golf.com:
- Extra-Stiff (X-flex): Designed for golfers with very fast golf swing speeds, with respect to the club used:
- Driver: >105 mph
- 3-Wood: >101 mph
- 3-Iron: >97 mph
- 6-Iron: >92 mph
- Stiff (S-flex): Designed for golfers with a high swing speed:
- Driver: 97-104 mph
- 3-Wood: 93-97 mph
- 3-Hybrid: 90-96 mph
- 6-Iron: 84-91 mph
- Regular (R-flex): Designed for golfers with average swing speeds:
- Driver: 84-96 mph
- 3-Wood: 84-93 mph
- 4-Hybrid: 80-90 mph
- 6-Iron: 75-83 mph
- Senior (M-flex): Designed for golfers with slower swing speeds:
- Driver: 72-83 mph
- 3-Wood: 70-80 mph
- 4-Hybrid: 68-78 mph
- 6-Iron: 65-75 mph
- Ladies (L-flex): Women more often than not have the slowest swing speeds so there are golf shafts developed just for them.
- Driver: <72 mph
- 3-Wood: <70 mph
- 4-Hybrid: <68 mph
- 6-Iron: <65 mph
The Weight of Your Clubs Matter in Golf
Finding the correct weight is important but not as much as getting the flexibility correct. Most drivers weigh between 40 and 85 grams. The weight of a shaft affects the trajectory of the golf ball off the clubface.
A Guide to Kick Point in Golf
Every shaft bends as the club is swung and the kick point defines the location of the shaft’s maximum flex point.
The location of the kick point (either High, Mid, or Low) is important to consider as it affects the trajectory of the ball as it is hit.
High Kick Point
This kick point produces a lower trajectory as the max bend point is near the grip end of the shaft. This is ideal for golfers with very fast swing speeds.
Mid Kick Point
A medium-high trajectory is produced and is useful for your average to fast swing speeds.
Low Kick Point
Low kick points offer the highest trajectory and are ideal for golfers with the slowest swing speeds that need assistance getting the ball in the air. The maximum bend point is closer to the head of the club.
Torque Plays an Important Role in Golf
Golf shafts not only bend, but they also twist due to the weight of the clubhead during the swing.
High-torque golf shafts are ideal for slower swing speeds while low-torque shafts fit faster swing speeds and golfers looking for more control in their shots.
The Length of Your Clubs
The length of a club is determined by the golfer’s hip height and one way to think of a golf shaft in terms of its length is to compare it to a catapult.
The longer the arm of the catapult, the further the object with travel, following the simple physics of a lever system.
This is why golf shafts get shorter in length as you move from the driver down to the lob wedge.
Shaft Type: Graphite vs Steel
The modern golf club comes with two types of shafts: steel and graphite. The main differences between the two, despite the material makeup, are weight and vibrational feedback.
To further understand the difference between these two types of shaft, let’s examine the pros and cons of each material.
Graphite Shafts in Golf
Graphite is a naturally-occurring form of carbon and is found in metamorphic and igneous rock.
It is extremely soft and splits easily under light pressure along fibrous lines but is very resistant to heat and is used in a wide range of products like graphite iron shafts.
Pros of Graphite Shafts
- Graphite shafts are significantly lighter and allow golfers to produce faster swing speeds resulting in greater distance on shots.
- Graphite vibrates less on mishit shots, a common occurrence for beginning and intermediate golfers.
Cons of Graphite Shafts
- Graphite is less rigid and holds greater flexibility making it important to have the correct graphite shaft flexibility based on an individual’s swing speed.
- Given the properties of graphite, it is less durable and can splinter much easier.
- Graphite is much more expensive than steel, costing up to 20% more for iron sets.
- Graphite is less sustainable as broken graphite shafts cannot be recycled or reused.
Steel Shafts in Golf
Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon and the most important engineering material used today. From cars to appliances to bridges and buildings, you can find it everywhere in our society.
Amazingly, steel can be recycled over and over again without losing its principal properties.
Pros of Steel Shafts
- Steel is heavier so golfers with faster swing speeds have more control over the club during the swing.
- Steel provides a better feel for advanced golfers who are more sensitive to the subtle vibrations that communicate whether a shot is good or bad.
- Steel shafts are less expensive making them more economical.
- Steel is highly durable and sustainable, never losing its principle properties no matter how many times it is recycled.
Cons of Steel Shafts
- Because they are heavier, golfers with slower swing speeds (seniors, juniors, and women) may struggle to generate quicker swings. The weight of steel can produce swings that are up to 4 mph slower resulting in a loss of approximately 10 yards per shot.
- Steel produces greater vibrations on mishit shots which can painfully ting the hands, wrists, and arms of beginner and intermediate golfers.
Evolution of the Golf Shaft
Steel and graphite shafts are relatively new concepts to golf, given the game has been around for over 400 years.
Early forms of the game saw golfers use self-manufactured clubs made of whatever wood they had access to, most often sourced from ash, apple, or beech trees.
Thanks to the import of American hickory to Scotland in the 1820s, golf club makers began using this more durable wood that was less susceptible to breaking and provided greater flexibility and torque.
Today, there are many regional hickory golf societies that host tournaments exclusively featuring these antique clubs.
The first steel shaft golf club appeared in 1914 but was initially banned by golf’s governing bodies. However, the United States Golf Association (USGA) reversed course and approved the first steel shaft in 1924.
Golfers were slow to adopt steel shaft clubs opting to continue using hickory.
However, as golf grew in popularity across the United States, sports equipment manufacturers began mass-producing steel shafts, making a once expensive commodity more abundant and affordable.
This manufacturing boom increased access to the game for many people that could not afford the cost of a set of clubs.
The first graphite shaft was developed in 1968 but didn’t gain traction until 1874 when Wilson Golf Company became the first well-known manufacturer to produce graphite shaft clubs.
Since then, golfers have been on a quest to balance the use of steel and graphite iron shafts across their set of clubs.
Optimal Mix of Steel and Graphite Shafts in a Set of Clubs
The answer to this question is going to be different for every golfer but there are several tried and true options for new and beginning golfers.
The first option is for every club in the set to have graphite golf shafts. Keeping in mind what was discussed earlier, this is a great option for beginners and established golfers with slower swing speeds, i.e. women, seniors, and young junior golfers.
Graphite offers better flexibility, lighter weight, and less vibration on mishits.
The second option is to have steel golf shafts in every club. This is something any golfer can do but they would be among a rare crowd.
Since the introduction of the graphite shaft, most woods and practically all drivers come with a graphite shaft.
Touching on an earlier point, the faster the golf club is swung the farther the ball will travel. Since drivers and woods are the longest hitting clubs in the bag and a swing speed decrease of 4 mph results in a loss of about 10 yards in total distance, it doesn’t make much sense to have a heavier shaft in these clubs.
This leads to the third option, a mixed bag. If you walk up and down any driving range in the world, more often than not you will find that irons and wedges have steel golf shafts while drivers, woods, and hybrids have graphite shafts.
This combination provides the best of both worlds. Drivers and fairway woods are hit less than irons during the course of a round making the issue of durability for graphite shafts less important.
Additionally, because steel shafts offer more control, better feel, and more durability, they are generally preferred for irons and wedges, the clubs most often hit during a round of golf.
Finding the Perfect Golf Clubs for You
If you are new to golf, your best bet is to get a simple, low-cost set of clubs that fits your profile (i.e. senior, woman, man, etc.) using the information provided above.
However, as you progress in the game and begin to play regularly, you may want to get fit for a set of clubs. The best way to do this is to locate and talk to your local PGA Professional.
The process of getting fit for a set of clubs is pretty easy and doesn’t take much time. The golf professional will note a few body measurements like hip height and hand size.
Then they will ask you to hit a few shots to warm up taking note of your swing tendencies.
Using their experience, observation, and a club-fitting cart (a cart with different interchangeable shafts and club heads), they will piece together a custom club until the right combination is found that maximizes distance and accuracy.
Many professionals now utilize swing videos and radar technology that provide precise statistics, like swing speed, shot trajectory, golf ball spin rate, and torque, that make the fitting process much easier.
This type of technology generally makes club fittings more expensive but some professionals will offer deals like free or discounted fittings if you purchase clubs from them.
When it comes to determining whether you should use steel or graphite shafts, the best advice is to do some research and shop around. If you decide to get fit for your next set of clubs, be sure to find a PGA Professional that makes you feel comfortable and is someone you can trust.
A new set of clubs is a big investment and you owe it to yourself to make a smart, educated decision that will provide you with hours and hours of enjoyment on the golf course.