Is Shaft Quality Measured by Shaft Price?


I realize I am a little long in the tooth in the golf equipment industry.  After all, I first started in clubmaking and club repair back when the first commercially marketed graphite shafts came on the market in 1972.  One of the things I remember asking when I touched my first graphite shaft back then was, “gee I wonder if golfers will pay $20 for a shaft, that’s an awful lot of money for a shaft?!”

Suffice to say in the mid 2000s when I opened a component company catalog to see a shaft selling for (cough) $300 FOR ONE SHAFT, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing!  You’re kidding, right?  $300??  For ONE shaft??  Call my reaction naive as not much later I became aware that shafts selling for as much as $1000 each were being offered to golfers in Japan!

Interestingly, this all unfolded in the golf industry at the same time I was really getting to the point in our research that I truly began to understand the PERFORMANCE ELEMENTS of a golf shaft.  There are FIVE design elements in a shaft, any shaft, that combine to determine how it will perform for a golfer. 

  • Shaft Overall Stiffness (AKA known as the flex)
  • Shaft Bend Profile (how that stiffness is distributed and changed over the length of the shaft.  I.E. things like “tip stiff,” “tip flexible”, “butt stiff,” “butt flexible,” and so on in many variations)
  • Shaft Weight
  • Shaft Torsional Stiffness (AKA known as shaft torque or the shaft’s resistance to twisting)
  • Shaft Weight Distribution (AKA known as the shaft’s balance point – I.E. “tip heavy, “butt heavy,” “mid balance,” and so on also in many variations)

That’s it.  Those are THE 5 things that determine how any shaft will play, feel, and perform for any golfer.
Also during the mid 2000s, I began to compile a very detailed data base of hundreds and hundreds of shaft models which included measurements of these performance elements of each shaft.  I’ll never forget when I compared the data measurements of one of the industry’s $300 shafts with a shaft that sold for $20 and saw that ALL of the 5 performance element measurements of the two shafts were so close to being identical that the differences were insignificant.  Then I found other shafts in the data base selling for $25, $30, $40, $50 that also displayed the same measurements.

I went to my personal shaft guru, a composites engineer with tons of experience designing and producing graphite shafts that have been used to win countless PGA Tour events to ask him this now so obvious question. His answer?  Tom, if it looks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, and if it acts like a duck, it is a duck.” 

Then came the next obvious task which was to ask a bunch of veteran clubmakers if they had ever put two shafts of the same measurements but different costs into any golfers’ clubs and noted the feedback as to whether they were different in performance or not. Overall the answers from those who had done this were akin to my shaft guru’s analogy to the duck.  However, I did like the answer I got back from one clubmaker.  “Up until I removed the tape covering the name of the two shafts, the golfer was sure they were the same in terms of performance.  But once I removed the tape he was sure the $300 shaft performed better.”

The typical explanation offered by the companies that sell shafts priced at these stratospheric levels is that they use much more expensive raw materials and the methods of manufacture employed to make the pricey shafts is far more costly.  A large part of the rebuttal to that defense lies in the simple fact explained earlier; there are many less expensive shafts with the overall stiffness, bend profile, weight, torque and balance point so close to those specs of the high dollar shafts that golfers can’t tell the difference in a blind test.  

On the other hand if you dig a little it’s not difficult to come up with some interesting points that could make you question the explanation of more expensive materials and a costlier method of production.  Having been in the component clubmaking supply industry since 1980 I am well aware of the profit margins the component companies make when selling shafts made by the many brand name shaft manufacturing companies.  Prior to dawn of the expensive shaft era the suggested selling price for brand name shafts allowed component companies an average profit from 25% to 33%.  For the high dollar shafts the profit margins now average double the what the component companies pay the shaft companies for the shafts. 

Here’s another interesting one.  All of these high dollar shafts seem to be made only for use in drivers and woods.  There really are virtually no iron shafts that sell for that much.  Why would that be?  As a shaft designer with a lot of experience in shaft production I can assure you there is nothing more technically complicated in the design of a wood shaft than in an iron shaft.  They’re both still the sum of their overall stiffness + bend profile + weight + torque + balance point, made from the same raw composite materials.  Yet there are virtually no iron shafts that sell for $200 or $300, let alone even $100 per shaft, while the list of >$200 shafts for woods would take several pages to compile. 

Do you suppose the shaft makers think that it’s far easier to convince a golfer to spend $300 on only one or two shafts for their driver and fairways while it is far more difficult to convince the golfer to buy 6, 7 or 8 shafts of that price for their irons?  So is this a case of the shaft makers simply establishing their prices on the basis of what they can fool the market into spending. And since they are making SO MUCH MORE PROFIT per shaft, they can toss the component companies a little more of a bone to win their support by sharing some of that increased profit and greatly increasing what the component companies can make on these shafts? 

I do know this.  My critical stance of very high priced shafts has not gone unnoticed and has definitely made me the target for offensive salvos not just from the shaft makers but from a few clubmakers too.  My belief that the shaft makers are ripping off the golfers is not very popular in various corridors of the custom clubmaking industry. 

When the shaft industry discovered that my Shaft Bend Profile program could be used to find similar shafts that cost less money to the high dollar shafts, many of the expensive shaft makers refused to provide me with their shafts to measure to put into the data base of the program.  And this program was born simply to provide comparative data on the actual specs of shafts to counter the fact that the shaft industry has never once supported the adoption of standards for measuring the specs of the products they make. 

I mean, how responsible is it to sell shafts for as much as 5 times what they are really worth while not providing a gram of empirical comparative spec data on any of the shafts to at least try to help the golfers make better decisions on what shaft might fit them better?  And then to shut down the most extensive repository of comparable spec data in the golf equipment industry? 

I’m sorry but I have always been a person who believed it was wrong to rip off people to make more money simply because it was possible.  There are way too many corporations in too many industries that do that already.  When I see this happen in the industry I respect and love, I’m going to say something about it, even if I do get a bloody nose in the process.