In recent years, the traditional steel golf shaft has given way to graphite in metal woods, especially in drivers. Steel continues to dominate in iron sets, but some players opt for the benefits of graphite in their irons, too. The distinct advantages each material offers fuels a competition for shaft material in both types of clubs.
For centuries, golf shafts were made of wood. Steel shafts appeared about 1930 and they were such an improvement over their predecessor that within two years few club makers or players used hickory. Graphite hit the market as a replacement for steel in the mid-1980s and it also made inroads in the shaft market, but in 2010 the shafts on most golf clubs are made of steel.
The main advantages of steel are its stiffness, consistency and durability. The resistance of graphite shafts to torsional loads can’t match that of steel, which twists much less on off-center hits for better directional control. The characteristics of steel also vary less from shaft to shaft, making it more consistent in distance. Steel also stands up to wear better than graphite, which requires special care to avoid chipping and abrasion in the golf bag. On top of all that, steel shafts cost considerably less than graphite.
Graphite has one main advantage over steel--weight. Graphite shafts weigh as little as 60g, compared to 120g for standard steel shafts. Lighter shafts produce lighter clubs with more weight concentrated in their heads for more energy transfer to the ball. This produces higher swing speeds and greater distance. An added benefit to graphite is its inherent dampening of shock and vibration from impact with the ball and the ground. These forces produce discomfort and can contribute to wrist and elbow injuries.
Almost all drivers and most metal woods have shafts made from graphite. The lighter weight helps produce more distance and there is less of a downside to any loss of consistency in distance. The result of slight twisting of the club head because of lower torsional stiffness is also less significant on shots with these clubs.
Most iron sets continue to have steel shafts. On the shorter shots played with irons, more golfers benefit from the accuracy and control that steel offers than from the raw distance of graphite. Players who need more swing speed to get the ball airborne or need to limit stresses from impact sometimes use graphite shafts on their irons. These golfers are most often seniors and women.