The driver gets all the love, doesn’t it? If golf were a musical, it’d be Madonna, Whitney, Britney, and Mariah all rolled into one.
If it were a Brady, it’d be either Marcia or Tom. If it were a car, it’d be a Shelby Cobra 289.
The driver is the centerpiece of virtually every OEM launch gala. If your driver rocks, then your irons, wedges, and putters have a fighting chance.
That driver-centric focus translates to fitting. Rightly or wrongly, some golfers believe the driver shaft is 90% of the fitting equation, and the head is more or less along for the ride. Besides, an ultra-exotic, $400 after-market shaft packs a metric crap-ton of sex appeal, no matter what you think of the price.
If you want to play your best golf, optimizing your driver head/shaft combo is a must, but your irons deserve the same kind of love. We’ve profiled other shaft companies in the past, and today you’ll get an inside look at a 60-year-old Japanese manufacturer that offers everything from Tour-weight models to the lightest steel shafts on the market.
Say hello to Nippon.
The Spin-Launch Tango
The driver is a pretty simple club. “Hit it hard and hit it straight,” says Jon Pannone, owner of Spargo Golf, a top 100 fitter out of Cranston, Rhode Island. “The correct iron shaft has to perform in many different areas: flighting the ball, shaping the shot. If a player dials in his gaps and brings in dispersion, it will be a complete game-changer.”
Finding the right iron shaft can be like finding your way through a corn maze in the middle of a blizzard while tripping on LSD. If you hit the ball low and want to hit it higher, there’s a shaft for that. If you hit it high and want to hit it lower, there’s a shaft for that. Too much or too little spin? Yeah, there are shafts for that, too.
Virtually every shaft manufacturer has a full canvas of offerings, from lightweight to Tour weight, stiff in the tip, stiff in the butt, low launching or high spinning, to fit virtually any golfer. Traditional steel shaft companies are expanding the canvas by offering lightweight graphite iron shaft options: KBS has added the TGI and MAX lines over the past two years, and just this past summer True Temper acquired graphite shaft maker ACCRA.
Nippon, while it does offer graphite iron shafts, insists steel is the straw that stirs the drink.
“We have a company philosophy that people should stay with steel for life,” says Hiro Fukuda, Sales & Marketing Director for Nippon Shaft. “We have a product for any kind of player, any type of skill level. Our Zelos product plays and feels like a lightweight premium graphite shaft for a slower swing speed player, and we have our Modus for the higher swing speed player.”
Power and Light
Nippon has been making golf shafts since 1959 at its plant in Komagane, Japan, and has been exporting globally since 1965. It wasn’t until the release of the N.S. Pro 950GH in 1999, however, that Nippon became a player of note in the North American market.
“That really brought us to the forefront in the U.S.,” says Fukuda. “It was the first sub-100-gram constant weight steel shaft in the market. Around that time, we also started supporting the women’s tours around the globe and elevated our brand with professionals.”
Fukuda says Nippon realized it couldn’t live on lightweight steel alone, so in 2009 it introduced the heavier-weighted Modus lineup geared toward better players and the men’s tours.
“To be recognized as a comprehensive golf shaft company, we realized OEMs in the US – as well as Japan – do use heavier weighted products,” says Fukuda. “So yes, we needed to get into that 100- to 110-gram plus weight category that’s used on Tour to see more sales in the United States.”
Nippon’s first PGA Tournament was the 2009 John Deere Classic, and Modus has been in the bag for nearly 200 victories worldwide – 43 coming this year alone. At this year’s Open Championship at Royal Portrush, 48 players gamed Nippon, and while that should never determine what we mere mortals play, the Tour remains at the top of the pyramid of influence.
Nippon is a subsidiary of a company called NHK Spring, an 80-year-old, $6 billion conglomerate that makes, among other things, coil springs, leaf springs, torsion bars, and stabilizers for the auto industry.
“Golf shafts are essentially springs,” explains Fukuda. “The raw materials we use are essentially automotive-grade quality spring steel.”
NHK Spring has a long partnership with its supplier – Nisshin Steel – and that partnership has been critical in Nippon’s development of its lightweight shafts, starting with the 950GH and its lighter-weight brothers.
“The newest products we’ve developed, the Zelos products, are the lightest steel shafts on the market,” says Fukuda. “We had to develop a new material with Nisshin Steel to create a shaft that’s durable enough and flexible enough while maintaining good feel. It’s not an off-the-shelf material; it’s a unique, bespoke material for us.”
Light shafts generally offer false hope because they tend to feel good, but making one that’s stable enough to control dispersion tends to be a bit of a trick not everyone can pull off.
“Not only do you need high-grade raw materials with enough tensile strength, heat treatment is also very important,” says Fukuda. “NHK Spring has quite a bit of expertise with their spring technology, and we’ve taken quite a bit of their know-how and applied it into our manufacturing.”
The Straight Scoop
Did you know not all shafts are perfectly straight? If you have a set where feel and performance are inconsistent from iron to iron, it might be you. But then again, it might not.
“There are over 25 to 30 steps to manufacturing a shaft, and we have about 20 in-process quality checkpoints,” says Fukuda. “I’ve heard fitters say if they’re building a club with some of our competitors’ products, they need to sort through a bunch to come up with a consistent set of irons. With us, they can pick any one shaft, irrelevant of the manufacturing year or the time, and it’ll match up perfectly with others.”
Nippon’s proprietary materials and multi-step heat treatment processes allow it to make shafts with variable wall thicknesses, what it calls Multi-Shape Adjustment Technology.
The different shafts in the Modus lineup, for instance, feature different wall thicknesses in different parts of the shaft, which relates to varying levels of stiffness. The Tour 105 is the lightest shaft in the line and is relatively soft in the butt and midsection, but firm in the tip. The Tour 120 is also firm in the tip, but considerably softer in the mid-section compared to the other shafts in the line. The Tour 125 and Modus Wedge shafts are stiff in both the butt and tip, while the Tour 130 features a stiffer mid-section.
“A common comment I hear from players is it’s not necessarily the flexibility of our product, but it’s the general softness and good feel of our product,” says Fukuda.
Nippon categorizes its shafts based on driver swing speed and 6-iron distance. For example, the ultra-light, high launching, and high spinning Zelos line – weighing in at 60-, 70- or 80-grams – is aimed at golfers with a driver swing speed in the 60- to 80-MPH and who hit their 6-iron anywhere from 100 to 135 yards. The N.S. Pro line – ranging in weight from 70- to 110-grams – is for 80- to 100-MPH driver swing speeds and 6-iron distances ranging from 130 to 165.
The Tour-weight Modus line is a low- to mid-spin and launch, and is for higher swing speed players – 100- to 120-MPH with the driver – who hit their 6-irons 160 to 195.
Nippon also offers the Regio series – graphite shafts for your metal woods that match the bend profiles of the Modus line.
“Our philosophy is if you’re a fan of the Modus products, and if you like their feel and how they release and unload, we have corresponding driver and fairway shafts,” says Fukuda. “It takes that same sweet feel from irons through the driver.”
KBS has taken a leadership position by offering custom colors and limited-edition shafts. Nippon has offered special editions of its shafts in the past, including a matte-black version of the Modus Tour 105. Fukuda says Nippon could offer other Modus products with the same finish, but doesn’t have any plans on the table at this time.
While nearly all OEMs offer Nippon shafts as either a no-upcharge or slight upcharge option, Srixon is one of the few that offers Nippon as stock in its Z-series irons.
What’s YOUR Shaft?
It’s a given every shaft manufacturer will tell you it has a shaft to fit every golfer. That doesn’t mean, however, that every golfer will find his or her best fit from a single company. While a KBS Tour 105 and a Nippon Modus 105 might be similar in weight, an individual golfer may have very different results with each – that’s why we have launch monitors and fitters.
So GolfSpies, we’d love to hear about your iron shaft fitting results. Do you have a preferred iron shaft? What shafts have you gamed, and what has worked best for you? And if you’re getting on in years, have you tried lighter weight shafts and what results have you seen?