The biggest benefit of graphite over steel is weight. Graphite shafts are much lighter. In theory, a light club can be swung faster than a heavy one. In most instances, a club that is swung fast has more clubhead speed, hence, more speed at impact equates to more distance. However, the steel’s extra weight allows for greater control of the club throughout the swing. But, because graphite is so much lighter, it’s easy to move the club out of position, which can lead to poor shots. Where ball speed and distance are a priority (with drivers, fairway woods, and hybrids) – graphite has the edge. But with irons and wedges, it comes down to personal preference and feel. Putters are almost always fitted with a steel shaft since the different bend configurations can only be produced with steel.
The two shaft types also feel differently in the golfer’s hands when the club impacts the ball. Graphite tends to have a softer, more dampened feel, while steel feels very solid and tends to vibrate more, giving the golfer better feedback as to where the ball struck the club head. The steel-shafted club imparts more vibrations up the shaft to a player’s hands. Skilled players often desire this feedback. A skilled player can often tell what they may have done wrong or right by the feel of the swing and impact; more so than a beginner. Graphite shafts are less rigid than steel shafts and tend to have more whip and flexibility. Though this can be an advantage for a player with a well-grooved swing, it also can exaggerate the problems of a poor swing and may affect accuracy.
Mishit shots are apt to leave one’s hands stinging due to the vibrations imparted through the steel shaft. The heavier weight will slightly reduce swing speed, resulting in a difference of up to 4 miles per hour that translates into a loss of about 10 yards. Steel-shafted clubs are more likely to irritate chronic hand, arm or shoulder problems than a graphite club, due to the weight and rigidity. Graphite-shafted clubs are particularly beneficial to players with slow swing tempos. Most golfers can realize an increase of at least 5 yards for each club. Graphite shafts are easier to swing for someone who has hand, arm or shoulder problems. Vibrations are muffled on mishits and less painful. Graphite shafts are less rigid than steel shafts and tend to have more whip and flexibility. Though this can be an advantage for a player with a well-grooved swing, it also can exaggerate the problems of a poor swing and may affect accuracy.
Some manufacturers are now trying to combine the best of both types. Some modern shaft offerings combine graphite and steel properties. Proprietary Metal Composite irons (MCI) combine steel and graphite materials to produce the rigidity of steel and the vibration-avoidance of graphite. Bi-Matrix shafts are primarily graphite with steel tips. Steel Fiber shafts combine a steel fiber wrapping intertwined with graphite.
The choice is based largely upon what feels best for you and the skill level you have in your game plus your natural swing characteristics. It is no longer true that steel shafts are more durable than graphite shafts. Graphite sgafts tend to be more expensive, but the cost should be a minor consideration. Every player has a different swing and different needs. Generally, most drivers and metal woods have graphite shafts because they are much longer clubs. A 45 inch steel-shafted club would be too heavy for most golfers to swing properly. However, if you have a slower swing speed, you might want to consider going graphite throughout your set to help get the ball in the air easier and increase your distance. If you are stronger and have a quicker tempo or faster swing, consider steel to help improve your consistency and accuracy.