Steel golf shafts have been common since around the 1930s, while graphite shafts – made from carbon fiber – entered the scene in the 1970s. A wide range of clubs is available within each category. Golfers should check out both steel and graphite shafts to determine which material works best for their games.
The most important difference between graphite and steel shafts is their relative weight. The typical graphite shaft is significantly lighter than its steel counterpart, which should translate into faster swing speeds. According to Tom Wishon, technical adviser to Golf Digest and PGA.com, a typical steel driver shaft weighs between 115 and 125 grams (4 to 4.4 ounces), while a graphite driver shaft generally weighs 65 to 70 grams (2.3 to 2.5 ounces). There are, however, lightweight steel shafts available that weigh less than the heaviest graphite shafts.
All else being equal, the increased club head speed generated by a lighter graphite shaft will translate into greater distance on your shots. If you switch from a driver with a steel shaft to one with a graphite shaft, you may increase the distance of your drives by dozen yards. A Golf Digest experiment using a robot that hit two 5-irons differing only in shaft material demonstrated that the iron with the graphite shaft averaged 4 to 5 extra yards of distance. However, the steel-shafted club’s performance was more consistent, meaning there was less variation in distance when hitting multiple shots with the steel-shafted club.
Graphite shafts absorb vibrations better than steel shafts. If you’re golfing on a cold day, or you have sensitive hands, that’s a definite plus. However, some golfers prefer the feedback they receive from a steel-shafted club, particularly pros or low-handicap golfers who can tell the difference between the feel of a ball that hits the club’s sweet spot and one that’s slightly mishit.
Steel costs less to manufacture than graphite, so steel-shafted clubs will cost less than their graphite counterparts.
Players with high swing speeds, who already generate sufficient distance, may prefer the consistency of steel. Nevertheless, plenty of powerful PGA Tour pros use graphite shafts, particularly for their drivers. Average players on a budget may need to purchase steel clubs, but weekend golfers looking for extra distance are often better served by graphite shafts, particularly in their woods.