Steel vs. Graphite Golf Shafts: What's Right For Your Game?

Comparing golf club shafts and their differences

Silhouette of golfer against the sun
Is a steel or graphite shaft the best fit your clubs and your game?. Chris Ryan/Caiaimage/Getty Image

Should you go with steel shafts or graphite shafts in your golf clubs? What are the differences between the two types of shaft materials? Is one type of shaft better for your game than the other?

These are questions that many newcomers to golf - and even many golfers who have played for years - have in mind when they go shopping for a new set of clubs.

In the "old days," the general feeling was that recreational golfers, mid- and high-handicappers, should use graphite, while the better players, low-handicappers, should stick with steel.

That's not necessarily true anymore, however. If PGA Tour golfers are using graphite shafts, that puts the lie to the idea that graphite is only for mid- and high-handicap golfers. All the way back in 2004, Tiger Woods switched from a steel shaft to a graphite shaft in his driver (most pros made that switch even earlier).

As with every type of golf equipment, the key is to try out both kinds and determine which type best fits your swing. But there are differences between steel and graphite that can help you choose one over the other.

Steel Shafts Cost Less Than Graphite

Generally speaking, steel shafts are less expensive than graphite shafts, so the same set of clubs will cost less with steel shafts than with graphite shafts. In a set of irons, that price difference is often around $100. Of course, that has to do with your bank account, not with what's best for your golf game.

Durability? Don't Worry About It

Steel shafts were once considered much more durable than graphite.

That's not so much the case anymore. Quality graphite shafts will last as long as you do so long as they are not chipped, cracked, or the laminate-seal is not peeling. Steel shafts will last forever so long as they are not bent, rusted or pitted.

    Vibrations More Noticeable in Steel; Feedback Less Obvious in Graphite

    Graphite shafts transmit fewer vibrations up the shaft to the golfer's hands than do steel shafts. This might be good or bad, depending on your skill level and your desire. You might want that added feedback that steel shafts offer - or you might be tired of your hands stinging so much on mishit shots.

    Golf equipment designer Tom Wishon, founder of Tom Wishon Golf Technology, explains:

    "Steel and graphite shafts are totally different in the manner in which they transfer the vibrations from impact up to the hands, which in turn affects the feel of the shot. Simply stated, some golfers prefer the more crisp, sharper feel of hitting the ball with steel shafts, while some prefer the softer, more dampened feel of graphite."

    Biggest Difference and Key Factor in Choosing: Weight

    The biggest and by far most important difference between steel and graphite shafts is this: Graphite shafts are lighter than steel shafts, in some cases significantly so. (Note: The lightest steel shafts weigh less than the heaviest graphite shafts, but generally speaking, graphite is usually the lighter option by a significant amount.) So clubs that have graphite shafts will be lighter than otherwise identical clubs that have steel shafts.

    "The big reason graphite shafts became popular is their ability to offer stiffness and durability suited to the most powerful swings while being very light in weight," Wishon said.

    "Remember, the shaft's weight is the number one factor that controls the total weight of the entire golf club," Wishon said. "Lighter total weight equals the potential to increase the golfer's swing speed, which equals the potential to increase the distance of the shot."

    Just how much difference in total weight are we talking? According to Wishon, using the average weight of steel shafts on the market today and the average weight of graphite shafts on the market today, drivers that are otherwise identical except for their shafts will be almost two ounces lighter with a graphite shaft vs. a steel shaft. Doesn't sound like much, but it produces results

    Tthat lighter weight, Wishon said, "can mean as much as 2-4 mph more swing speed for the golfer, which in turn translates to about 6-12 yards more distance."

    That's why, in the ever-present quest for more yards, more and more golfers prefer graphite shafts.

    So What's the Bottom Line in Steel vs. Graphite Comparisons?

    You probably want more yards, too. So it's obvious: You should choose graphite shafts, right? Probably, but not necessarily.

    As we said, the majority of golfers these days are going to graphite, at least in their woods, but steel shafts maintain a very strong presence in golf, especially among low-handicappers and scratch players.

    In many cases, those are golfers who don't need the extra boost of swing speed that graphite shafts can provide. Players who prefer steel shafts often make that choice because their heavier weight provides the golfer with a feeling of more control over the clubhead during the swing. And these are players who can analyze and benefit from the added feedback (more vibrations traveling up the shaft) that steel provides.

    Says Wishon: "Some golfers who are very strong physically, and/or who are quick to very quick with their swing tempo, need to have a little heavier total weight to help them gain a little more control over their swing." And that means steel shafts.

    To sum up, we'll quote Mr. Wishon again, bottom-lining it:

    "If gaining more distance is a primary goal for the golfer, they should definitely be fit with the proper graphite shaft design in their woods and irons to match their swing. On the other hand, if distance is not the main focus for the golfer because they already have a high swing speed, if they like the feel of steel and their swing tempo matches a little better to the higher total weight steel shafts bring to the clubs, then steel is the better option."

    And we'll add that anyone who is not physically strong, or has physical problems in their hands, forearms or shoulders that are exacerbated by the bad vibes of a mishit shot, should go with graphite.