Good players have been playing the same heavy steel shafts forever. True Temper X-100, S-300, S-400 and Project X dominate worldwide men’s professional tours. Kim Braley’s first post-Royal Precision design, the KB Tour from Femco, earned a following over the last few years. Dynamic Gold, original Rifle, Project X (PX) and now KB Tour sum up the choices for the last fifty years. The steel shaft market isn’t exactly dynamic.
If you are playing one of the “usual suspects” – there is a possibility that new shafts from Shimada, Nippon, and Femco will give you better distance control and less dispersion. Radar launch monitors provide a new way to analyze the performance of golf shafts.
Radar is a new frontier in shaft fitting. Instead of looking at the ball and guessing the cause of the result, we now get two “pictures” of the shaft just before and just after impact. These “radar tracings” are unique and more reliable than numbers in revealing shaft performance with a player’s unique swing motion.
My case study is Kaz Hoffman. Kaz is one of the guys who win money in skins games around San Francisco. He arrived with a complaint: “I’m not getting the accuracy I deserve from my ball striking. I think that my shafts are too loose.”
He was playing PX 6.0 – the “new version” – bright chrome from True Temper. When you think that a PX 6.0 is too loose, that’s a pretty strong expression of self-confidence.
We tested his own irons against everything in the shop- all the usual suspects. His own irons showed the longest distance and highest ball speed. Normally, that would have ended the fitting. But with new indoor radar, we were able to look “under the covers”.
Kaz’ results prove that launch ballistics alone can be misleading. The new Flightscope software revealed invisible differences in the performance of each shaft. The radar tracings showed that the most consistent shaft was the X-100 Tour. The X-100 Tour also produced the most consistent backspin – a key performance indicator.
After a follow-up trip to the range there was no doubt. The X-100 Tours were in the bag. They might have been one yard shorter, but they were much more consistent. This was my first experience following a contrary opinion from radar and coming up with a winner.
This is important. If we accepted the opinion of the launch monitor alone, we would have stuck with the old set. Finding fastest ball speed and longest carry distance is not the best way to choose your iron shafts. Just the opposite. When a player swings fastest, it is normally because the shaft is too stiff. Too much shaft makes a player work too hard. The radar can help you pick out the shaft that is the most consistent. That’s what you really want to know for iron shafts.
With a new way to detect and measure performance, it made sense to have a close look at the new Shimada “Pro” shaft. True Temper versus Shimada has a “David and Goliath” flavor. Shimada has just ten production employees.
Shimada has a cult-like following in Japan. Until now, they have not exported. The European distributor who handles Vega irons from the Kyoei foundry forged a relationship with Shimada. They designed a completely new shaft to compete with the True Temper X-100. The new Shimada “Pro” model is a 123 gram parallel tip blank. One flex. Trimming the parallel tip section permits “flighting” shafts. Flighting controls trajectory. Helping a player control ball flight is the essence of clubfitting.
True Temper products are designed for factory assembly. In a factory installing a four iron shaft in a three iron, or vice versa – “hardstepping” or “softstepping” is the only tweaking option. Peter Lord, Professional Golf Europe’s equipment designer, saw the opening for a “tunable” Tour-grade iron shaft.
Imagine a shaft profile that tapers gradually from the butt to the last ten inches where it becomes a tube. That last ten inches is the “parallel tip section” (PTS). From the butt to the beginning of the PTS, the shaft is stiff and stable, thanks to taper and diameter. The parallel tip section is the weak point. Who wants ten inches of structurally unstable steel at the business end of their shaft? The more your trim from the tip, the stiffer the flex, the lower the ball flight and the straighter the shot. At least that’s the theory.
My idea was to test the limits of tip trimming to get the straightest shot. Could we eliminate most of the parallel tip section?
Kaz chose the Vega VB-02 for the Shimada test club. With identical heads, the only difference was the shaft. We tipped the shaft 2” on advice from the Peter Lord. One more trip to the range for the most important feedback. Kaz chose Shimada over the X-100. He felt that Shimana “held the line better” – suggesting less sidespin. How much farther could we trim the PTS?
To calibrate feel and ball flight, we then built a Shimada test set – three Bridgestone J-36 heads set up with Shimada shafts – tipped 2”, 3” and 4”. Kaz chose the 4” tip trim. For readers who are not clubmakers, a 4” tip trim for a six iron is extreme. Curiously, the Shimada tipped 4” matched the butt frequency (CPM) reading of the X-100 Tour.
I keep wondering: “Does flex matter?” One conclusion is certain: Some shafts are very playable at high CPM readings and the Shimada is one of those. Shaft fitting is not finding a linear relationship between swing speed and shaft flex.
Very few clubfitters recommend shafts that are outside of “normal” parameters. We challenged preconceived limits. Kaz chose much stiffer shafts based on feel and ball flight. Human observation confirmed radar-based recommendations. For the last several years, the trend in shaft fitting has been to go softer. The pendulum is swinging back.
The complete Golf Lab Shimada test set now includes identical Bridgestone J-36 forged six iron heads set up from 5.0 to 10.0 on the PCS Equalizer. The most important parameters are feel and ball flight. You can’t measure those. The test set illustrates a change in clubfitting methodology. We are choosing the best shaft with the help of radar tracings. We are confirming test results with outdoor testing. We then “fine tune” for precise frequency – still a useful indicator of shaft flex.
The only way to describe how rare it is for a good player to choose a shaft other than the usual suspects is to say it never happens. If the golf world ever discovered a really good replacement for True Temper Products – low-index amateurs would be singing in the streets.
The Saga Continues
The rare outcome with Shimada made me think we should have a closer look at the KB Tours. If this story is getting a little convoluted, that’s exactly what I was thinking as it was playing out. Just call it a “comprehensive test”.
The KB Tour shafts did not come out well in the first round of testing. I checked with Gavin Robertson, ACCRA company founder and principal Tour Rep. I told him we were looking for the world’s most stable shaft. Gavin concluded that Kaz overpowered the “Stiff” flex KB Tours. Gavin suggested that we try the KB Tour in “X” Flex. If we wanted to take it to the limit, he suggested hardstepping the “X” and tipping ¼”. So we did both.
Along the way, I re-discovered a little-remembered fact about the KB Tour line. They come in “parallel” and “taper” versions. Rather than break a set of KB Tour tapers, I took a parallel and tipped it what I thought was an appropriate amount. As a rule of thumb, you can usually expect to tip a standard parallel blank half an inch for the three iron and take another half inch for each subsequent iron. I overlooked an important difference in the specifications. Despite their common name, the two versions of the KB Tour are very different shafts. The taper tip version has a 6 inch PTS. The parallel version has a 10 inch PTS. Now you know that the PTS is the weak point. That could have been why the original KB Tour test bombed.
Most experienced KB Tour clubfitters stick with the more stable taper tip version.
Radar analysis shines in comparing the performance of golf clubs through several testing sessions. Hitting balls at a range might be useful to determine feel and ball flight but the human brain is not capable of remembering what happened to every shot. The software remembers every shot. It draws a circle around the “grouping” of each test club. It keeps track of sessions. Software ranks performance against ten parameters. We make much better fitting decisions with radar. Accurate data, well organized and presented in a form that is intuitively understandable to the player is the key to understanding shaft performance.
It is not uncommon for good players to extend their fittings to ten sessions and more. Try to keep track of that by memory.
We learned our most important lesson with the KB Tour “X” – hardstepped and tipped ¼”. It produced the tightest grouping – but it was about five yards short of all of the other test clubs. During the fitting, I saw Kaz “working harder” with that shaft. The radar helped us understand exactly what was happening. Kaz swung the stiffer club faster. The club was “talking to him”. It was saying: “If you want me to work right, hit me harder”.
“Harder” was not better. We found Kaz’ breaking point. The shaft forced him beyond his ability to stay on balance and strike the ball squarely. We backed off to the KB Tour “X”. We skipped the tip trimming and hardstepping. “Swing easy, hit hard.” Art overcomes science in clubfitting.
For readers who understand CPM to reference flex, the Shimada six iron CPM was 331 with a five inch clamp and no grip.
There were a couple of factors that swung the ultimate choice in favor of the KB Tour and away from the Shimada. Kaz is thinking professional tours. The KB Tour is a very common shaft on tour all tours. That is not true of Shimada. In a toss-up situation, you have to go with the option that is easier to maintain.
(To be continued. . .)
The next big question is iron head design. I’ll start the discussion of that subject next.
Shaft testing follow-up will include the latest Nippon “Modus3” that has already come up a winner. The most heralded shaft of 2011 – the new KB “C-Tour” – Kim Braley’s next version of his classic Project X arrived in early May. Not coincidentally, it comes in the original brushed finish. We’re also going to want to look at the Matrix Program series. Matrix is committed to getting one of their graphite models on Tour to give Tour Players an alternative to Aerotech.
There’s a lot of interesting change in what has been a very stodgy corner of the golf equipment industry.
Leith Anderson, the Golf Equipment Chronicles