Imagine a not-too-distant future. You're in the market for a new driver, and you head to a fitter to go through the paces and find the right one for you. You're working through heads and shafts, and nothing's quite clicking. You're exasperated; the fitter is befuddled.
Then the fitter's expression changes. He's excited. He reaches for a new shaft, and he's convinced you should be the first one to try it. It's made from spider silk.
John Oldenburg has seen it all in golf shafts. He worked for decades at Aldila, including in his final years as the company's head of engineering, before walking away from the industry for about 13 months. He did some consulting work, and he volunteered for the Red Cross. He wasn't planning on getting back into golf, but LA Golf Partners, which purchased Matrix Shafts and renamed it as LA Golf Shafts, gave him a call.
"It sounded different," said Oldenburg, who was installed as Chief Product Officer. "It sounded like something that really had a good chance of being successful in what is, right now, a not-too-attractive and overcrowded market."
LA Golf Partners is the brainchild of Reed Dickens, who wanted bring the same Marucci Sports business model which proved successful in baseball into the golf world. The company makes the number one bat in Major League Baseball, and they got there in part by offering small equity stakes in the company to players who would help them develop product they could sell to the masses.
"Find some of the best players in the sport at that time...and bring them in the fold as part of the company, as player-owners of the company -- not as staffers, not as ambassadors," Oldenburg said.
Oldenburg is tasked with developing shafts with LAGP player-owners, the first being Bryson DeChambeau. In the coming weeks, they'll begin working together on a driver shaft to fit DeChambeau's needs, and then they'll take that development story to golfers.
"Once we get that driver product done, we'll let the consumer know, our customers know, our partners know," he said. "We'll explain what we did with Bryson and why we did it, so the consumer will know if that shaft will fit them. It'll be the Bryson DeChambeau signature line."
Of course, few people would fit into DeChambeau's specs, but the line will be developed around his particular needs based on weighting, kickpoint and torque. Then that theme will carry through shafts to fit a wider range of players. It's an exciting prospect for the University of Illinois product.
"The opportunity to work with these players. The opportunity to not have my hands tied for a development standpoint by a cost structure dictated by OEM business," he said.
Most golf shaft companies are not only competing against their peers, but also themselves. They have to play in two sandboxes, selling aftermarket shafts to consumers and fitters while staking most of their business on building shafts suitable for OEM manufacturing. Oldenburg stymied much of his work at Matrix because of the bottom line.
"Always in the back of my mind I had to subdue some thoughts and ideas and possibly the use of certain materials because I knew I had to make that shaft for a price an OEM would be willing to pay," he said.
Oldenburg understood the skepticism of golfers who didn't believe they were getting the same shaft in their mass-produced driver as the one available from a fitter.
"One of the problems is the pricing differential between the two worlds," he said. "How does an OEM sell a driver at $499 with a shaft when the same shaft is being offered in the aftermarket world for $400? It raises questions about the authenticity of the product being sold to the OEM market. There's tradeoff and compromises made in that business to survive."
Fortunately for the consumer, OEMs are adapting and improving their product. Many are committing to using true aftermarket shafts throughout their products, easing golfers' concerns about what they're actually swinging. Also, the custom-fitting business is surging. The likes of Club Champion and True Spec Golf are rapidly expanding, drawing in business from golfers who want the most out of their investment.
There's enough demand out there for the LA Golf Shafts model -- including sourcing and manufacturing in the United States -- to work, and that means Oldenburg's creative juices are flowing.
"There was always some ideas you just said you can't do this because you can't make the shaft for this (OEM-acceptable) price," he said. "There's no way that we could mass produce this shaft to get into these types of programs. That's where we had to concentrate. Now, those constraints are gone. If I identify a material, however scare, however expensive, however difficult to use, it's still a viable material for me to create a product from. Now all those materials that were a little off limits, they're available."
And that brings us to spider fiber.
The frontier of shaft materials kind of stops at graphene at this point. It's conceptually the strongest material we know, even stronger than carbon nanotubes. However, the evolution of graphene as a helpful material in golf shafts is still some five years away.
"The problem with graphene is production," he said. "Getting enough of it made in a form that can be used by industry. It has the same issues nanotubes had. You can't just make something out of graphene. You have to implement graphene in a matrix of materials you're using."
Throwing some graphene in pre-preg resin materials isn't going to mean much for the consumer. But perhaps someday, Oldenburg will be able to make a 10-gram LA Golf Partners shaft with 1 degree of torque.
In the meantime, Oldenburg is always on the lookout for new materials, ones outside the realm of conventional golf thinking. When he was at Matrix, he stumbled on the developing use of protein-based fibers spun by worms and spiders. Scientists are advancing ways to synethetically create these proteins without needed a factory of spiders. It's just not commercially available yet.
Oldenburg did find a scientist who was using recombinating techniques to take spider DNA and put it into a goat so the goat would produce milk that could be spun into the spider fiber using the same proteins.
Unfortunately, mass production remains a problem.
"We talked to the guy who was doing it, and he said, 'I don't have enough goats!' The fibers he was making were fantastic, but he didn't have enough goats to commercially produce it. And that's where we are right now with some of these materials. They're just not enough goats yet."