Lighten Up Already

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It aint heavy; its my driver shaft.
 
And these days, it can feel as close as a brother, mostly because its not very heavy at all. Ten years ago, the mainstream golf community would have snickered at the idea of a graphite shaft weighing in at 55 or 65 grams and waited for it to snap like a twig. Today, such weights are commonplace, and stable shafts of 40 grams are often seen in the Japanese market.
 
Why is light right? Of course, no golf development means anything in a turf-free vacuum. Light is only as good as what itwell, illuminates.
 
The key benefit in using lighter weight shafts is that they provide more options for the location and distribution of the weight in the [club] head, said Kevin Egelhoff, a senior design engineer at Aldila, whose NV shaft has been ripping it up lately in the market, especially in that 65-gram category. Head manufacturers can add additional weight or move the weight to strategic locations in their head, allowing them to obtain optimum performance benefits for players of all skill levels.
 
All this without adding the overall weight of the club, which is important from a design point of view.
 
Nowadays, could anyone imagine a 460 cc head with an 85-to-95 gram shaft as a standard offering in an OEM Club? said Robb Schikner, vice president of research and development for Graphite Design International. By decreasing the weight of the shaft, more weight can be placed in the head, which helps the golfer to increase club head speed.
 
But too much ' or in this case, too little ' of a good thing can be a problem.
 
The thing is that many players cant control a shaft that is superlight said Chad Hall, director of marketing for True Temper Sports, whose graphite shaft company Grafalloy makes the Blue, ProLaunch, and other popular models. They will actually lose distance because they start to hit the ball all over the face and dont effectively transfer the energy created in their swing to the ball. We say play the lightest shaft you can control. For some that may be a standard weight shaft; for others that may be a superlight shaft.
 
That might explain why some tour pros, masters of control, have stuck with the 100-gram-plus shafts theyre used to. But most of them have traded in at least 10 or 20 grams in an effort to move the head faster. (The typical tour player driver shaft weight is now between 70 and 90 grams).
 
So lightness can help all kinds of players, but like so many things in golf, you have to fit carefully to avoid a costly control tradeoff. Major shaft companies are working hard to lighten things up, but with proper fitting in mind.
 
How did it get this far? How did we attain this unbearable lightness of swinging?
 
Evolution, in both materials and designs, said Schikner. Golf is like other industries, in which the ultimate goal is to improve upon existing products. Graphite golf shafts have benefited from advances in materials driven by the aerospace industry, where the requirements are very stringent. The quality improves, the strength of the materials increase, and this allows shaft designers to take these materials and construct a better product. Also, better test methods have been developed for graphite golf shafts that allow us to better understand the relationship between design and durability.
 
Manufacturers have been working as much with process as with content. Most graphite shafts are made by wrapping specially prepared sheets of carbon fibers around a mandrel, then curing the long, narrow tube into a firm but flexible machine. Those sheets are usually made of carbon fibers impregnated with an epoxy-based resin (sticky stuff) ' known in the industry as prepreg. Wrappers place the sheets of prepreg at various angles depending on the shaft designers intent ' where the shaft should bend, how much, soft tip, hard tip, how much twisting (torque), etc.
 
That resin in which the carbon fibers reside has weight. (The fibers do too, but in general they are very light.) If you can reduce the weight of the resin while maintaining its flexibility and other properties, the whole unit becomes lighter.
 
Aldila's new proprietary resin system enables us to use higher carbon fiber content in the prepreg material while using lower amounts of resin to build lighter weight but very durable shafts said Egelhoff. Aldila also has a new laminating technology on its NVs that cuts grams.
 
And thats just the .350 soft tip of the iceberg. The future of graphite shafts involves not just weight, but very fine adjustments in feel. Already, proprietary technologies such as that used in Grafalloys Micro-Mesh tips keep the shaft from torquing too much, while avoiding that harsh or boardy feeling (thats how True Tempers Hall puts it) sometimes found in tip-stiff models. Modern big-head drivers need torsional stiffness in the tip, but no one wants that two-by-four feel up the ol forearms.
 
Beyond that, theres the long term, which involves a word thats popping up in many industries: Nanotechnology. Essentially, its design at the molecular level. At that invisible echelon, changes can me made out of all proportion to the size of the playing pieces. They may be tiny molecules, but rearranging them can yield big results.
 
Grafalloys Comp NT shaft, now a prototype, employs nanotechnology, but the advances are so promising that Hall doesnt want to give anything away yet. Aldila is working with some OEM clubmakers on shafts with something called Single-Wall Carbon Nanotube resin. Its lighter and stronger than traditional epoxy resin, and early tests show it working well in tip-stiff shafts, but without that harshness recently discussed.
 
If youre looking for a little light on this subject, the word on the prepreg is to look to the PGA Tour in early 2006. As usual, that will be the proving ground for the future of graphite. And as soon as the shaft companies can get these things to market, you can bet they will, competition being what it is.
 
Which should lighten your step come next season.
 
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