Much has been written over the years about the history of golf and the equipment used to play the game. The last eighty years have witnessed the evolving of golf clubs into highly technical instruments. Prior to this period, a wooden shaft was lashed onto either a wooden block with a flat side or a rough forged piece of iron.
The major disadvantage of wood, i.e. hickory, was inconsistency. Because it was a natural product no two shafts were the same, thickness, flexibility, and torque all varied between any two shafts. It was necessary to sort through many shafts to attempt to find similar properties to construct a set of clubs. Beginning in the 1920’s and continuing to the present, the process of drawing a small ball of steel into a hollow shaft was developed and continually improved. The steel shaft was lighter in weight and was much more consistent in characteristics from one shaft to another. The whippiness of the hickory shaft was replaced by a much less flexible shaft. As the process evolved, the wall thickness of the shaft could be varied up or down the shaft which not only controlled the flexibility of the shaft i.e. more or less but also determined the flex point or that point on the shaft where the flex took place. These same developments also enabled manufacturers to reduce and control the amount of torque or twist in a shaft. The result is that today, a steel shaft is a scientifically designed instrument.
Beginning in the 1950’s manufacturers decided that many of the same developments used in making the steel shaft could be adapted to an aluminum shaft with the further advantage that it was much lighter. This shaft had many real advantages for the majority of golfers. However because technological development is largely driven by the ability of elite players and it appeared that the aluminum shaft could not be made stiff enough to satisfy this small segment of the market, development work on the aluminum shaft stalled. Within a few years aluminum shafts virtually disappeared.
The graphite shaft first appeared on the scene in the early 1970’s. As with the aluminum shaft, light weight was the initial appeal. The total weight of the club could be reduced while the relative weight of the club head could be increased resulting in a club which is easier to swing and has more weight in hitting area. Early versions suffered from inconsistent flex and brittleness causing a lot of breakage. Within a few years techniques improved and by the mid 80’s shafts could be fabricated which controlled all the properties which club makers wanted. Unlike the aluminum shaft graphite was embraced by high quality players and the science of building shafts with specific characteristics suited to different swing patterns and speeds.
Because the graphite shaft weighs approximately half that of a steel shaft (50-80GMS verses 120-130GMS) it presents many opportunities to the golf club manufacturers. The shaft reduces the overall weight of the club which makes it easier to swing and easier to control. The shaft can be lengthened without increasing the weight of the club which creates a larger arc, resulting in greater swing speed at impact with the real possibility to hit the ball further. There are also hidden benefits to graphite shafts. A ball hit off the sweet spot of the club head using a steel shaft produces a jarring sensation in the club head which travels up the shaft, into the hands, and up through the arms and shoulders. The graphite shaft has a dampening effect which absorbs the shock and transfers softness to the body. Although low handicap players may use the jar to adjust the swing, most players, women and seniors in particular much prefer its absence. The light weight of the graphite shaft enabled club makers to produce larger heads with much bigger faces. This produces a subconscious benefit for the player. Psychologically, the player looks at the big head and thinks that you can’t miss the ball with that big head. The result is that the player relaxes and because of that makes a better swing which will produce better results. It would be fair to say that in the latter part of the 20th century graphite shafts have enabled more people to enjoy better golf.
Multi-material shafts, a combination of steel and graphite are a recent development. They attempt to combine the best features of materials, the softness and whip of graphite with the stiff control of steel. Titanium shafts give you all the positive playing characteristics of steel construction in a material which is considerably lighter than steel.
Nanofuse shafts represent a process which fuses nanocrystalline alloy with carbon fiber composite. This according to the manufacturers will give you all the best features of both steel and graphite with none of the disadvantages of either.
Golf shafts will continue to evolve. New materials and new manufacturing techniques will continue to refine the shafts used to make clubs. The one constant in this process is that golfers will always be the beneficiaries.