We have launched Shaft University to examine the rarely straightforward world of golf shafts. It’s as good a place to start as any given the copious amounts of misinformation surrounding shafts. The lack of real information often leaves consumers perplexed and thinking a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering might be a prerequisite to understanding basic shaft design. It’s not – and it shouldn’t be. Some of the confusion is born from the reality that brands can benefit when specific facts remain clandestine, but more importantly, there’s a large body of information which has historically been characterized by the absence of uniform agreement on basic measurements, specs, and terminology. The result is a growing body of puzzled consumers who often perpetuate false information for no reason other than the lack of conflicting information doesn’t challenge anyone to think differently. In the absence of information, people will create their own truth.
Another complicating factor is the physical structure of a golf shaft. Regardless of how much (or little) technology went into materials, design, or construction, once the paint is applied, everything pretty much looks the same. A $500 shaft doesn’t appear any different than a $50 one. It’s a challenging topic, rife with potential discussion points where ultimately the number of questions might outnumber concrete answers, but the goal is to move the conversation forward and provide a solid template of understanding for you, the everyday golfer.
Fujikura is an ideal partner because Fujikura knows shafts and has established itself as a category leader. Its rich history is filled with pioneering technologies and built on a dedication to a continual process of innovation. Moreover, it understands and promotes the idea that a more educated consumer is ultimately a benefit for the entire golf industry.
Fujikura Rubber LTD started in Japan in the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that it diversified and began exploring basic sheet wrapped graphite shafts. As has been well documented, 1971-1974 marked Japan’s “Second Post-War Golf Boom” which was fueled by golf tournaments broadcast during the late 1960s and the burgeoning Dankai Generation (Japan’s Baby Boomers). Fujikura, like other Japanese brands, saw a business opportunity and worked to capitalize on the growing demand of what would become Japan’s most important leisure activity.
In the early-mid 1990s, Fujikura arrived in the United States primarily to support the signature burnt orange TI Bubble shaft it manufactured for TaylorMade. At this time, shaft companies made product exclusively for club OEMs. There was no division between made for stock shafts and higher-quality aftermarket shafts. They were one and the same. Aldila, True Temper, Graphite Design, Mitsubishi, Fujikura; every shaft company worked directly for the OEMs which provided consistent revenue but to a degree, stifled innovation.
In 1997, Fujikura launched Triax, a key technology of the original Speeder shaft series. Triax was inspired by the Department of Defense satellites which used similar geometry to provide enhanced stability. Fujikura leveraged the concept to reduce shaft deformation and ovalling (loss of shape) during the swing. Shortly after that, every shaft company had its own tech story built on shaft stability. It’s not that Triax was some magic elixir, but by being first to market, Fujikura pushed the shaft design conversation forward. It also formed the basis for mutually beneficial relationships with aerospace companies which are still intact today. Moreover, Triax gave Fujikura a bona fide differentiator it could leverage to attract more affluent clientele.
Some companies have a knack for impeccable timing, and in the early 2000s, the Vista Pro series gave Fujikura its first multiple weight, multiple flex aftermarket shaft line. Justin Leonard who would finish his career with 12 PGA Tour victories (including the 1997 British Open and 1998 Players Championship) and a relatively famous putt at the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline, was the de facto Fujikura brand ambassador through much of the early 2000s, playing the Vista Pro shafts in various configurations.
In 2005, Fujikura added several strands of woven material (at 0/90 degrees) to form the basis for the 5-axis Rombax technology – a shaft which would go on to win at every level of professional golf. Seven years later, in 2012, the Fujikura Blur shaft became the first shaft to utilize TeXtreme spread tow carbon fabric. It’s the same material Cobra used in the construction of the crown on the King LTD (2016) driver to set a new standard for low-spin, high MOI heads. The Fujikura Speeder Evo Blue (2014) was the first shaft to use Toray T1100G prepreg materials, and this year, Fujikura’s Ventus shaft features full-length Pitch 70 Ton Carbon Fiber, which is 150% stiffer than T1100.
It’s not that Fujikura uses materials or design philosophies which have never been replicated or implemented by other brands. TeXtreme isn’t a propriety material, and neither is Pitch 70. In this regard, it’s best to think of it more like recipe ingredients. Fujikura may have been the first to stock the cupboard, but it’s the creative and innovative application of the materials which continues to place Fujikura at the forefront of the shaft technology dialogue.
Forging new territory isn’t taking the path of least resistance, but wherever the finish line, someone has to get there first.
There isn’t a single facet of shaft design or production which occurs outside the confines of Fujikura’s control. Simply, from farm to table, it owns the entire process, save for producing the native prepreg and carbon fiber sheets. Everything else is taken care of in-house. In the Haramachi, Japan facility, the R&D prototyping area sits alongside manufacturing, which makes going from concept to production significantly more efficient. Additionally, the proprietary design software used by Fujikura was developed internally to best fit its needs.
Then there’s ENSO. To date, there are three ENSO systems in existence, two of which are owned by Fujikura (one in Japan and one in the United States). The other belongs to PING. Fujikura started using ENSO in 2008 and started fully integrating it into daily practice in 2013.
The challenge in explaining ENSO and what it can do is the risk of diluting the full measure of its capabilities. Caveats aside, ENSO is a camera-based system (the system uses nine 3D motion capture cameras which record at 1000 frames/second) which measures in excruciatingly fine detail the behavior of seven strategically placed sensors (four on the shaft, three on the clubhead). Three cameras are dedicated to each element of the swing, allowing Fujikura engineers to pick apart and examine the relationship between any number of variables to better understand how specific shaft characteristics might alter performance given a particular set of swing characteristics.
It doesn’t take much mental wandering to consider the future possibilities of ENSO – and whatever ideas you’ll come up with by the end of this article, it’s likely Fujikura has already batted it around, picked it apart, and come up with something better. Beyond the R&D conversation, ENSO has (and will continue to have) a significant impact on how efficiently and accurately a player can be fit. Consider what it might look like for a fitter to record a swing (or several) and run it through an ENSO database which would produce a match accompanied by a confidence interval. Based on your swing characteristics, the Ventus 6X is a 98% match. Leaving cost out of the conversation (since we’re just spit-balling here), could ENSO help engineers create a personalized shaft for a given player based only on that players’ swing fingerprint?
There’s no guarantee this will happen any time soon, but the point is that it could – and that Fujikura is working on and thinking about these possibilities every day.
In terms of production, Fujikura cuts and rolls every shaft in house, by hand. And the majority of the people doing the work have been with Fujikura for several decades, not several months. Some elements of the shaft production process are automated (heat transferred labels, curing, cellophane wrap application) but every Fujikura shaft, and nearly every other shaft on the market other than TPT is made by hand.
Fujikura isn’t a follower. It doesn’t sit idly by waiting to import other brands’ R&D or design specs. They are plenty of shaft companies which do because from a cost perspective, taking the wait and see approach often makes more sense. The resulting products are generic and less tailored, but in a portion of the industry were differences are often minute, consumers are often none the wiser.
What you won’t hear from Fujikura are whiz-bang marketing terms or loud and ostentatious performance claims. To a degree, it’s a comfort Fujikura has earned by working its way to the top of the industry where it doesn’t need to take excessive risks or play more aggressively to try and establish a foothold or sufficient market presence.
There are any number of ways to assess the overall well-being of a brand, but if a company is getting passing marks on professional tours and reeling in the cash at retail, it’s reasonable to assume things are going well. Citing statistics from the 2018 season (excluding 2018-19 wraparound events) Fujikura and Mitsubishi Chemical basically spilt 44% of the tour market down the middle (22.6% Mitsubishi – 21.4% Fujikura). Historically, Fujikura and Mitsubishi are 1 and 1a in terms of tour usage with the brands flip-flopping the top two positions frequently. The next closest competitor is at 15% with the remaining 41% or so split amongst the rest of the pack. Perhaps most importantly, players aren’t paid to play Fujikura shafts. It doesn’t offer any pay-for-play contracts or performance-based incentives. It’s $0 if you miss the cut and $0 if you win. That’s typical across the shaft industry, though challenger brands such as LA Shafts (formerly Matrix) are exploring new models (fractional ownership) to gain a foothold on tour.
In the retail sphere, Fujikura is inarguably the most dominant brand accounting for 42% of all aftermarket wood shafts. This includes all driver, fairway wood, and hybrid/driving iron shafts sold via aftermarket custom fittings or OEM upgrades. Fujikura has a global network of 600+ charter dealers, but it’s how Fujikura consistently works to take care of and communicate with its dealers which sets it apart – and above – its competitors.
Nick Sherburne, a co-founder of Club Champion, says that as vendors go, “Fujikura is so hands-on and supportive…They’re constantly asking what they can do to be helpful, and this is a tremendous asset to our fitters.” From the consumer perspective, golfers are more likely to trust recommendations if they believe the fitter knows what he’s talking about. In turn, fitters are more likely to discuss brands for which they’re the most knowledgeable. For all the nuance involved in fittings, sometimes it’s an elementary difference which matters the most.
Brian Gott (Gott Golf) is a nationally renowned clubfitter in Denver, CO and relies nearly exclusively on Fujikura for his matrix of shaft options. “There’s no one better when it comes to customer service and the quality control if phenomenal. The performance is certainly there, and they have a shaft to fit every player and price point,” says Gott.
Founder and CEO of Cool Clubs, Mark Timms, concurs with Gott and Sherburne. “Fujikura really kind of started it all,” he said. The “it” is the concept of a dealer network and providing fitters with a full suite of aftermarket products at various weights, flexes, bend profiles and price points.
But the bottom line is still performance. In the fitting world, Timms says, “We don’t really get golfers coming in asking for a certain brand or shaft model – what they want is performance.” To that end, Fujikura has never disappointed Timms – in fact, he’s personally bagged a Fujikura driver shaft for the better part of two decades – and it’s not as though he’s short on access.
People are the gatekeepers to the culture of any organization, and while Fujikura doesn’t have a monopoly on passionate employees, it does appear to be the type of place people go – and stay. President and COO David Schnider has been at Fujikura for 19 years. Alex Dee, Vice President – 21 years. Jeremy Butler, Director of Sales – 15 years. Chad Embrey, Sales Manager – 18 years.
Stability in key leadership positions allows for organic growth and development according to a shared vision. Consistent behavior from key players breeds trust, which is the foundation of successful leadership. When the organizational anchors stay the same year after year, companies are better positioned to engage in critical conversations while remaining committed to a shared vision.
Part of Fujikura’s culture is that it’s an aspirational brand. “What we do for a living showcases who we are as people,” says Austin Tudor, Fujikura’s Product Marketing Manager. In this sense, it’s more than a paycheck. There’s no better example of this than Pat McCoy, Fujikura’s Director of Tour Operation. Pat has spent two decades working with the best players in the world, taking in feedback and serving as a liaison between Fujikura and PGA Tour players. The knowledge bank he’s developed in why other tour reps often use Pat as a sounding board, and while anyone with a couple hundred thousand dollars could theoretically start a shaft company, no amount of capital investment could replace McCoy’s experience.