Shaft Exchange

Which type of shaft is right for your game?

Whether you opt for steel or graphite shafts, make sure you get properly fitted by a reputable clubfitter. It’s the only way to ensure you get the best possible performance from your iron set.

In case you haven’t noticed, there has been a mini-renaissance occurring among the professional players on Tour. And no, it’s not the hybrid, as many players have finally succumbed to the versatility and advantage hybrids have over long irons. And no, it’s not lightweight metalwoods, or even clubs with flashy aesthetics. What I’m talking about is a slow shift toward more players adopting composite shafts in their irons.

I was recently asked by a colleague about whether or not we’ll see more top players opting for composite shafts over traditional steel shafts, much like Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker have done (both employ Aerotech SteelFiber shafts). I didn’t have an answer for that question right away, but it piqued my curiosity about the subject. As an editor, I had heard about the benefits of today’s latest iterations of composite iron shafts, and how they’re far more consistent and durable than they used to be. In fact, I’ve even heard claims that today’s composite shafts for irons can be fitted to act more rigid than steel–something I had never even thought possible until I did a little research on the subject. Turns out, you really can get a set of composite shafts that feel and perform like steel.

But the question is, why? Is it worth the time and effort to switch to composite shafts in your irons, when steel seems to perform so well? Where are the performance advantages or disadvantages in using graphite shafts in your irons? The benefits that come with composite shafts in your woods, even your hybrids, are obvious. They’re lighter, more flexible (maybe) and can be custom-fit to exact launch angles and spin rates. Simply put, composite shafts can really help you hit the ball a lot farther. And they feel better than steel. But in your irons, is that so important? Do we need more distance with our irons? And if so, how consistent are these shaft flex characteristics from one iron to the next?

As you can see, my list of questions continued to grow the more I thought about it. Like any self-respecting editor or writer would do next, the logical next step was to hit the phone and email contacts, and ask some experts about what they think of switching iron shafts from steel to composite. So I did that–and I got some feedback from both sides. Of the clubfitters, steel-shaft companies, graphite-shaft companies, teaching professionals and industry people I talked to, many extolled the virtues on either side of the argument–some praised using composite shafts; others argued against composite shafts. Generally, the arguments in favor of composite shafts pertained to the lighter weight of composite over steel; greater vibration dampening; and a more custom fit in terms of flex characteristics, launch and spin.

Arguments against composite shafts pertained to composite being more expensive, less durable, too flexy and less consistent than steel (in other words, it’s harder to have the same flex profile in a variety of graphite shafts than it is in steel shafts–a claim that even I know isn’t necessarily true).

My point is, I wasn’t getting a definitive answer on the subject. Most people do use steel shafts in their irons, and my initial gut guess is that it’s because they’re less expensive. But what if money was no object when it comes to golf equipment? (I confess, it sometimes isn’t when you’re a Golf Tips editor.) What’d be an interesting heads-up comparison of steel versus graphite?

That’s what I set out to discover. And like a few other reviews we’ve done here, I didn’t want to employ TrackMan or other launch-monitor data to do my test. Instead, I wanted a real-world, practical summary of steel versus graphite, so you the GT reader could both understand and interpret what it all means. So here’s what I did.

My current set of irons have Project X 6.0 steel shafts in them. I happen to like these shafts. They produce the ballflight I prefer, they feel great and they have a flex I’m comfortable with. I’ve tried several other steel shafts too, all of which I also liked. But it so happened that my set has Project X steel, so I stuck with that brand for the test. I figured the best comparison I could find would be to try the Project X graphite shafts in a set of irons that were virtually identical spec-wise to my steel-shafted set. I requested that my clubfitter use the same lengths and grips I have on my steel-shafted irons, and do the same on a new set of irons with the composite shafts (at the same 6.0 flex, at least based on what the model says).

Now, here’s where you’re hopefully going to learn something from my experience. I broke down my comparison into four categories, and did all I could to produce a fair assessment after playing four to five rounds of golf and hitting several hundred golf balls with both steel and composite-shafted irons.

When it comes to composite shafts, there’s no question they feel better than steel. The vibration dampening was a huge improvement over the steel shafts. It’s not as though the graphite felt overly mushy–I could still feel mis-hits, but flushed shots felt sublime. As for how the lightness of the shaft (the composite equivalent was about 30 grams lighter than the steel versions) felt in the iron head, there was a detectable difference in swing weight, but not enough for me to say I noticed a whole lot. I expected the clubhead to feel heavier and the shaft way lighter, but it didn’t. It still had a nice balance to it.

Summary: When it comes to feel, you can’t beat graphite. The Project X composite shafts felt just awesome.

Arguments against composite shafts pertained to composite being more expensive, less durable, too flexy and less consistent than steel (in other words, it’s harder to have the same flex profile in a variety of graphite shafts than it is in steel shafts–a claim that even I know isn’t necessarily true).

How any club flexes is, in my opinion, the most important performance variable. With composite shafts in my irons, I noticed that how my steel 6.0 shafts flexed vs. my composite 6.0 shafts wasn’t quite the same. The graphite models felt more "flexy," and whether they actually were or not isn’t my point. The reduction in weight sure made it feel that way, and it changed how I swung. I noticed this more in my longer irons, as it seemed I hit better shots when I slowed down and let the clubhead catch up. In the rough, or with shots that required some extra oomph, I ended up pulling a lot of shots left–a big no-no in my golf-shot repertoire. I’m not saying that graphite necessarily has to flex more than steel. The quick fix is to consider a stiffer version of graphite than you have in your steel shafts (that is, if you want composite shafts to flex like your steel ones). Maybe you’ll benefit from more flex, maybe not. Just don’t do what I did and expect an S-flex in steel to match an S-flex in graphite. It’s just not an apples-to-apples comparison, in my opinion.

Summary: I prefer the way steel flexes. I also feel more confident hitting shots harder and/or from the rough with a steel shaft than doing so with a composite one. It seemed that the graphite shafts needed more time in my swing to load and unload–something that’s easier to accomplish when you have a big, wide swing arc (like that of a wood or driver). However, and this is a big one, had I had a stiffer set of graphite shafts, none of the above might have applied.

While I had some control issues swinging harder (faster) with the composite shafts I tried, I didn’t feel as though I gained a huge boost in distance. Maybe this is because I scaled back on my swing speed due to the more flexible shaft, but even with short irons, it’s not as though I tacked on noticeable distance gains over my steel set. Another reason for this is, I hit the ball higher with composite shafts. I spun it more too, both of which negated an increase in distance. Had I been fitted properly for these shafts, I bet I could have increased my total distance by several yards. And even though the claim may true that the Project X graphite shafts have a more penetrating ballflight, that would be only when compared to other graphite shafts. But for me, the steel Project X clearly produced shots that bore through the air more efficiently.

Summary: If you get fitted properly, there’s no doubt in my mind that graphite shafts can help you increase your iron-shot distances. Or if distance isn’t what you want, composite shafts can help you hit the ball higher and with more spin–something to be desired for certain types of players.

Question is, did I like the composite shafts, even though they clearly weren’t fit for me and I had a few troubles? I’ll go out on a limb here and say, as a matter of fact, I did like the graphite shafts. And if time and money weren’t an issue, I might even consider them in my next set. The myth about graphite not being consistent and durable isn’t true. The shafts I tried all felt and performed according to how they should. Also, with some of the best players in the world using composite shafts (it’s even more common on the Champions and LPGA Tours), I don’t see the trend of more players using graphite shafts in their irons going away.


Project X Steel Shafts
(Tested in 4-PW irons)
Flex: 6.0
Weight: 120g
Properties: Designed to produce a penetrating ballflight with the optimal trajectory for more distance and control.

Project X Graphite Shafts
(Tested in 4-PW irons)
Flex: 6.0
Weight: 91-93g
Properties: Designed to produce a boring trajectory, the reinforced tip section helps maintain a standard swing weight.

Here are my only gripes. Composite shafts are, in fact, a lot more expensive than steel. This means that adding graphite shafts to your next order of irons can add several hundred dollars to the price of a set of irons. So, if you do decide to hunker down the extra cash for composite, don’t even think of picking up a set off the rack at your local golf shop. Get fitted properly, and make sure the composite shafts you choose are suited for your game and your golf swing. And while the amount of flex is important, how it flexes and when it flexes is equally important. Don’t ignore flex points, torque and the shaft’s ability to load at the top of your swing and unload at impact. I know the same arguments can be made for steel shafts–but it’s especially critical with composites. Don’t do an apples-to-oranges comparison either. An S-flex steel shaft and an S-flex graphite shaft are likely nowhere near the same.

So, will I make the switch and play the all-composite set? No. They weren’t the right shafts for me. But I have to say, I liked how the longer irons felt, and it made the transition to my hybrids, woods and driver that much easier. So, I’m considering dropping the steel in my 4-5 irons and opting for composite shafts that resemble my hybrids. (I’ll get stiffer shafts in them, by the way.) The key is to have an open mind. There’s no need to have either steel or composite–you can have both. There are some better players out there who prefer the flex and spin that come with composite in their wedges–it’s really a matter of personal preference and deciding what type of shafts suit you best.

The moral of the story? There’s no wrong or right answer–yet, at least. Steel is a great option, and so is graphite if that’s what you’re looking for. As for some of the myths about composite shafts being inferior to steel–I don’t believe those misconceptions hold up anymore. Composite shafts in irons can, in fact, be advantageous, as long as they fit you and your style of play.

Steel vs. composite? It’s up to you to decide. Just know that composite shafts are the real deal now, and steel shafts have never been better. Sure, it makes the buying process a little more complicated, but hey, have fun trying and testing new shafts. You might learn something. I sure did.

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