Every morning for the past few weeks officials of the United States Golf Association have gathered in a shed on the spacious grounds of their headquarters in Far Hills, N.J. Inside stands the monster, an ugly metallic giant with what appears to be a black-shafted golf club protruding from its stomach. While one official adjusts a few dials, another places a ball on a tee. Then everyone stands back, a switch is flicked and the monster groans and swings into action. The club is taken back—a nice relaxed backswing with full extension of the club—then forward. The ball shoots out the door of the shed and off into a meadow where red flags mark off the distances. The officials watch the ball land, then record the result in their notebooks. Another ball is teed up, and again the monster lashes at it with his black club. Another beauty. The monster is on his way to a good round.
The shaft of the club that the USGA's testing machine is swinging is made of graphite, a substance that is lighter and stronger than steel and, when combined with a heavier club head, can provide greater distance than the conventional shaft. Too much distance, perhaps. That is what the USGA wants to find out. At Far Hills the graphite shaft is on trial for its life.
One of the functions of the USGA is to inspect and rule on new equipment in order to make certain nothing is marketed that alters the basic character of the game. Invent a ball that will travel 400 yards and it will undoubtedly lead to lower scores. But the USGA feels, and rightly so, that improvement should come from the player, not from gadgetry.
"We feel that distance must be stabilized," says Frank Hannigan, assistant director of the USGA. "So far we've concentrated on the ball, but that doesn't mean we do not have the right to rule against other technical developments. It's a very delicate decision."
Meanwhile, at the Atlanta Classic last week there were several dozen black-shafted drivers in the hands of touring pros. Perhaps the foremost advocate of graphite is Gay Brewer, who began using it about a year ago.
"It felt just fine and I didn't have to make any changes in my swing," says Brewer. "I started driving really well right off. I used to have to fade the ball to be accurate, but with graphite I find I. can hit it nice and high and work it, fade it right or draw it left. The ball seems to shoot off the club head with a lot of overspin. It doesn't carry any farther than with steel, but on a firm course I seem to be getting yards more roll."
Brewer's improved tournament results have been as dramatic as the change in the trajectory of his shots. Ten weeks after switching to graphite he won the Canadian Open, his first official tour victory in five years. Later in the fall he won the $65,000 first prize at the Japanese Masters. This year he is 14th on the money list with winnings of almost $60,000.
While Brewer claims to be hitting his tee shots higher with graphite, Jim Colbert switched away from steel so that he could achieve a lower trajectory. "The extra overspin can help keep the ball low," says Colbert. "I haven't changed my swing at all and the club has done everything I've expected it to." Using graphite, Colbert won the Greater Jacksonville Open in March and is currently 18th on the money list with $49,000.
But not everyone who has tried graphite is pleased with it. "I was raised on hickory, and graphite felt terrible, just like hickory," reports Bob Charles, the lefthander from New Zealand, of his brief experiment with graphite. "I certainly didn't get any extra distance."
"It offers nothing for me," says Billy Casper. "It is too touchy a club, too inaccurate. When I tried it everything squirted out low to the right. The last time I used a graphite driver my foot slipped and I tore a disk in my back. I've decided not to try it again."
Lee Trevino, golf's newest and happiest millionaire, says, "I didn't like it. It felt dead. Anyway, I figure I can hit the ball just as far with my steel shafts."
And Jim Jamieson is also a dissenter, noting, "I tried it two rounds at the Masters to get a little extra distance on the par-5 holes, but just a slight mistake can make it go way wrong. I just couldn't feel confident with it on the tight holes."
None of this discourages Jim Flood, a former stockbroker who is founder, president and part owner of Aldila Inc. of San Diego, the company that is making the graphite shaft.
"Some guys take a couple of swings, knock both shots to the right and say they don't like it," says Flood. "But it may take a while to find the correct club. I think Casper tried shafts that were much too whippy. He's having problems with his weight and is swinging poorly, so you've got to temper his remarks."
Flood heard of the graphite fiber substance about a year ago and logically reasoned that it could be molded into golf club shafts. He rounded up a small group of investors, including Glen Campbell and Andy Williams, and Aldila was in business.
Anyone leafing through his old high school physics book will be reminded that the force with which a stationary object (i.e., a golf ball) can be hit is the product of the weight of the object doing the hitting (i.e., the club head) and its velocity on impact. As for graphite itself, it is a black lustrous carbon that is mined in various parts of the country. However, the graphite used in the club shafts as well as in such products as pencils, paint pigments and foundry facings is artificially produced from petroleum coke.
"By using graphite the overall weight of a driver is reduced from 13½ ounces to 12 ounces, and thus it can be swung faster," says Flood. "Since graphite is so strong, we can also shift weight from the shaft into the club head, providing more mass at impact. With graphite the club head can weigh up to 180% more than the shaft. With steel the club head can weigh only about 45% more. A light shaft and a heavy club head also provide a golfer with another important advantage: a terrific sense of feel."
Some pros who have tried graphite point out that it is more difficult to control a shot because of the club's high torque factor, the twisting and rotation of the club head during the swing. "It's like hickory in that regard," says Bert Yancey. "Bobby Jones was such a great player with hickory because his hand action, rhythm and timing were so delicate that he could minimize the effects of torque. Steel shafts have almost no torque. Now with graphite we are back to swinging a rock on a string.
Flood insists that the torque created by graphite is something special; that far from promoting wildness it actually improves accuracy. It does so through a process of recovery, or self-correction on impact. "If the recovery rate from the effect of torque was less than steel it would be wild," he says. But he claims this is not the case. "It recovers 100% faster than steel. We eliminate torque from the shafts that go into irons because torque reduces the backspin you need with irons, but in fairway woods and the driver you want torque."
Believers are putting their money where Jim Flood's mouth is. Aldila produced its first prototypes in April of 1972, and Flood took a quiverful of his black beauties out on the pro tour. By last December there were 10 touring pros, including Brewer, Gene Littler and Phil Rodgers, swinging black-shafted drivers. Currently, says Flood, 70 touring pros are using graphite shafts—primarily in drivers.
Graphite is making its mark among amateur golfers, too. Despite a wholesale price of $75 per shaft—up to $160 retail when installed—Aldila is shipping out 2,000 a day to equipment manufacturers all over the country, and to Japan as well.
"I'm amazed at the total lack of sales resistance to the price," says Joe Black, head pro at the 3,000-member Brookhaven Country Club in Dallas, which has primarily a middle-income membership. "Everyone is so pleased with the things that I can hardly keep up with the demand."
But back in Far Hills, N.J. the monster is swinging away. The USGA is testing a number of new model golf balls as well, so it will be some time before there are findings as to how much length the graphite shaft is adding to tee shots—and if that much is too much. "The other day we got a call from a man in Pennsylvania," says Frank Hannigan. "He had a chance to buy an abandoned graphite mine and he wondered what we were planning to do. I told him he'd better hold off a while."