Big news in equipment in 2008 will be interchangeable shafts

January 21, 2008

Orlando — The 2008 PGA Merchandise Show begins this week in Orlando, and there will be big news from the equipment industry. This is the year that you, Joe Average Golfer, get shafted.

Last summer the USGA announced a rules change that allowed golf clubs to be adjustable in areas other than weight, so the story from the show this week will be interchangeable shafts.

In short, a number of manufacturers are coming to the marketplace (or will shortly) with shafts that you can pop in and out of your driver in less than 30 seconds, using a small tool, about as easy as changing blades in a shaver. These drivers will have exactly the same feel and performance of a traditional glued-and-assembled model. Even in tournament play, players will be able to pop in a different shaft before hitting the course, though changes will not be allowed mid-round. TaylorMade even expects some of its PGA Tour players to use adjustable-shaft models in tournaments this year.

“I think it’s going to be the start of a significant trend,” said Tom Stites, Nike’s clubmaking specialist. “Is it going to be as radical and revolutionary as anything we’ve seen in the last 20 years? I don’t know yet. It’s exciting and it has potential. We’re selling hope in this industry, so we need excitement.”

The excitement will be coming from all directions. TaylorMade, Callaway, Nike, Ping, Nickent and Titleist, among others, are either bringing out adjustable clubs soon or are expected to come out with them later this year. Most are already using some form of this technology for club-fitting.

Give the USGA credit for being ahead of the curve. The rule change allowed companies to perfect and break out this new technology this year. Dick Rugge, the USGA’s technical expert, sees it as a sort of giveback to both the manufacturers and the average golfer.

“We have a responsibility to keep looking at rules, and we’ve been doing that with clubhead sizes, moment of inertia, coefficient of restitution, and we’ve been closing some doors on the manufacturers,” Rugge said. “We have a responsibility to open doors as well. We got to thinking about it, and a Tour player goes into an equipment van at a tournament and gets his shaft changed in five minutes and costs him nothing. For the rest of us mere mortals, we don’t have a place to do that, and if we did, it would cost a fortune. The pros effectively have adjustable clubs.”

Titleist’s Brett Porath said: “It’s a way for the USGA to provide an opportunity for the average person to try all these clubs like the pros do.”

Golfers will be able to easily try out a number of exotic (and frequently high-priced) shafts until they find the right fit. If a hotter new shaft comes out next month, it will be easy to test drive.

Players will also be able to change shafts to fit playing conditions. Shafts designed to produce lower ball flight would help on windy days, and shafts that offer higher ball flight and more carry would make sense on wet days. Golfers could choose a shorter shaft, which would help with accuracy, when facing a tight, tree-lined layout.

TaylorMade’s entry will be available in April. The $1,000 package, known at company headquarters as Tour Van in a Box, will include a driver head and three different shafts. The shafts, by Fujikura, Mitsubishi and Matrix, will have different weights (55, 65 and 75 grams) and are designed to produce different ball-flight trajectories.

“It’s shaft du jour,” said TaylorMade’s Sean Toulon. “It’s a little difficult to tell which one is going to be the hot shaft. Golfers see Steve Stricker or Sergio Garcia playing something, and they want to play it, too. This idea of monkeying around with shafts is pretty cool. When you’re driving it not so great, it’s typically the driver’s fault, not yours. Well, if you’re using a 75-gram shaft and you’ve got a 55-gram shaft at home that you can put in the club in 20 seconds, why not give it a shot?”

Golfers are suddenly going to face a lot of choices, which is a good thing. Nickent will offer the 4DX Evolver driver with two shafts from UST that have different ball flight characteristics, as well as an assortment of other popular shafts that can be easily locked in with a torque wrench.

Callaway will offer interchangeable shafts, too, with its I-Mix system, which will be unveiled at this week’s merchandise show.

“The trick in the engineering was to get the fitting clubs to perform just like glued or assembled golf clubs,” Callaway’s Jeff Colton said. “It was no small feat to do that.”

Callaway’s system, which comes from its Opti-Fit clubfitting technology, features a special tip assembly that goes into a keyed hosel in the clubhead, which is secured with a screw. “Shafts may become like putters are now,” Colton said. “It’s not unimaginable to think about seeing a stack of shafts in the garage, just like a stack of old putters like you might have there now.”

The options will grow as more companies get into adjustable clubs. For example, Puku Golf, a small New Zealand company, has already been offering an adjustable putter in which length can be altered by up to four inches and loft and lie can be changed without bending metal.

It seems likely that adjustable clubs will find a following, but how big a following is unclear. There are pros and cons. The pros? Average golfers will have more customization options than ever — a veritable buffet of technology.

The cons? The technology doesn’t come cheap — exotic shafts can cost several hundred dollars. The shafts will be interchangeable, but each company’s interlocking system is likely to be proprietary, so a shaft included in a TaylorMade package won’t fit into a Callaway head, and vice versa. Clubhead sales could be hurt if golfers simply buy a new shaft instead of a whole new driver. Retailers and club pros may be forced to stock a much bigger inventory of shafts.

“If you asked people in the industry whether we’re all going to sell more clubs or fewer clubs because of this, nobody can answer that,” said Toulon. “We’re going to enter the fray and see what consumers say. How widespread their excitement will be, we don’t know.”

Let the shafting begin.