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, would 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 weaker players. 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 could help you choose one over the other.
• Steel shafts are less expensive than graphite, so the same set of clubs will cost less with steel shafts than with graphite shafts.
• 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.
• 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 mis-hit shots.
The Most Important Point
The biggest and by far most important difference between steel and graphite shafts is this: graphite shafts are lighter than steel shafts. So clubs that have graphite shafts will be lighter than otherwise identical clubs that have steel shafts.
According to clubmaking and equipment guru Tom Wishon, the difference in weight between graphite shafts and steel shafts will translate, for most golfers, into an additional 2-4 mph of swing speed with graphite. And that could mean an extra 6-12 yards of distance with a graphite shaft, compared to a steel shaft.
That's why, in the everpresent quest for more yards, more and more golfers prefer graphite shafts.
What It All Means
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.
We'll quote Tom Wishon: "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 mis-hit shot, should go with graphite.
More on Steel and Graphite Shafts
You can learn much more about steel and graphite shafts in our Golf Shafts FAQ.