Golf is not rocket science, but modern golf clubs often are designed by scientists and engineers using space-age materials. Frank Thomas, the former director of technology for the United States Golf Association, writes that sticks of hickory used to be shaved and sanded by hand to produce the shafts for both irons and woods. In the 1920s, wood was replaced by steel. In the 1960s and 1970s, Thomas developed the first graphite shafts for Shakespeare Sporting Goods. The shafts were composed of lightweight graphite fibers, which were used by NASA and the aerospace industry. In the early days of graphite shafts, there were distinctive differences between graphite and steel irons. Today, the differences are relatively small.
You get more vibration and feedback from steel than graphite. If you hit a 5-iron off the toe or the heel of the clubface, you'll feel stronger vibrations from steel than from graphite in your hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders. Some golfers, especially better players, like the feedback, since it helps them pinpoint swing flaws. Higher-handicap golfers tend to prefer graphite, since they hit lots of bad irons during a round, and the vibration accumulation can begin to sting. Golfers of all abilities who suffer from arthritis can benefit from the gentler vibrations of graphite.
Weight and Distance
Graphite is up to 14 times lighter than steel. When graphite shafts came into vogue, golfers with slower swing speeds flocked to them, since the lighter-weight clubs could be swung faster, thus increasing clubhead speed and distance. However, technology has improved to the point where some steel shafts are as light as graphite shafts, lessening the distance gap with irons. Club technology guru Tom Wishon says using graphite shafts in your driver might get you another 6 to 12 yards of distance off the tee as well as a bit more distance with your irons.
Graphite is considerably more expensive than steel. In 1968, a pound of graphite cost $500 and a pound of steel cost 7 cents. The gap has closed, but the difference is still significant. As a result, a set of high-quality graphite irons tends to cost several hundred dollars more than a set of steel shafts. So you don't want to shell out the big bucks for graphite unless it clearly improves your game and/or gives you a better feel at impact, thereby increasing your enjoyment of the sport.
You'll have to test the feel and performance of both graphite and steel to determine the best shaft material for your irons. Whether you are a beginner golfer or an elite player who dreams of competing on the LPGA Tour, get fitted for clubs before you buy them. Club fitting used to be reserved for the pros, but now it's available for the masses. Club fitters at a golf shop or pro shop can evaluate your swing speed, ball flight and a number of other factors, including shaft material, to find the ideal irons for your game.
Jim Thomas has been a freelance writer since 1978. He wrote a book about professional golfers and has written magazine articles about sports, politics, legal issues, travel and business for national and Northwest publications. He received a Juris Doctor from Duke Law School and a Bachelor of Science in political science from Whitman College.