September 12, 2020

The Nippon Zelos Story: Steel For Life Lite

Nippon Zelos Story: Steel For Life Lite Key Takeaways

  • Lightweight steel can match lightweight graphite virtually gram for gram
  • Nippon Zelos is the lightest constant-weight steel shaft in golf – light like graphite but plays like steel
  • Proprietary steel and unique heat treatment makes Zelos both light and durable

Since its inception in 1959, the Nippon Shaft mantra has been Steel For Life. In 1999, Nippon added “light” to the steel equation with the 950 GH. It was the industry’s very first sub 100-gram constant-weight steel shaft. Since then, Nippon has released more light hits than Air Supply. That light quest culminated in 2013 with the Nippon Zelos line – the lightest steel shafts you can buy.

The very existence of Zelos poses many questions. The first is obvious: If you want to go that light, why not just go graphite? But the deeper you dig, the more interesting the questions become. How will steel shafts in the 68- to 84-gram range feel and perform? How would they perform differently from a premium lightweight graphite shaft? And how the heck can you make a steel shaft that light that will actually stand up to repeated ball striking?

All fair questions. And we laid them right on Nippon’s doorstep. We think you’ll find the answers interesting.

Nippon Zelos

Nippon: The Anti-Heavy Metal

The Nippon 950 GH was a true game-changer for Nippon when it arrived. As mentioned, it was the lightest constant-weight shaft on the market at the time, ranging from 104 grams in X-Flex to 94.5 grams in R-Flex. The 950 was so successful that it prompted Nippon to go lighter still with the 850 GH (87 grams in R-flex, 91 grams in X-flex) and ultimately the 750 GH (79 grams R-flex, 83 grams S-flex).

“Even though it’s a lightweight product, it doesn’t play like a lightweight shaft at all,” says Hiro Fukuda, Sales and Marketing Director for Nippon Shaft. “It’s quite firm feeling, actually.”

It’s relatively easy to make a steel shaft lighter – simply make the wall thinner. There is, however, a limit. If you go too light and too thin, you have durability issues and that’s what happened with the 750. So, Nippon added graphite filaments – wrapped and glued to the butt end – to give the shaft the needed strength.

“We needed something to provide a little more durability in the grip section,” says Fukuda. “It’s primary purpose is for additional hoop strength since it’s such a light, thin-walled product.

Nippon Zelos

Since the 750-850-950 releases, Nippon has sold more than 40 million units. Not one to sit still, the company sees changing demographics as new opportunities. To wit, an awful lot of original 950 players are now 20 years older. And as one survives more circuits around the sun, there’s something to be said for lighter.

Hence, Steel For Life, and the Zelos line.

Light My Fire

In Greek mythology, Zelos was the son of the Titan Pallas and his wife, the Oceanid nymph Styx. He was the lesser deity of dedication and rivalry. His brothers, in case you were wondering, were Kratos (strength), Bia (force) and Nike (victory). The English word “zeal” is derived from his name.

One might say Nippon’s zeal to develop even lighter steel shafts led to Zelos.

See, there was a point. And, yes, there will be a quiz later.

“Even though the 750 and 850 are lightweight, they’re a pretty firm product,” says Fukuda. “They don’t play like a premium lightweight graphite shaft. They’re quite stout shafts for those weights so that led to the NS Pro Zelos series.”

Nippon Zelos

The trick with Zelos was to create a shaft light enough to make a performance difference but also strong enough to be durable. So Nippon needed an entirely new material. To do that, it leveraged its golf know-how with the steel expertise of its parent company and the metallurgy magic of its steel supplier.

The result: NZNS60.

“The bottleneck for us to develop a product lighter and softer than 750 was the steel material itself,” says Fukuda. “It took about five years to develop a new formulation based on automotive spring-quality steel. NZNS60 gave us the durability and tensile strength we needed.”

The first Nippon Zelos product, the Zelos 7 (74 grams R-flex, 77.5 grams S-flex), was lighter than the 750 GH with Wrap Tech by a good five grams.

“And it didn’t require that extra wrap of material at the top section to provide durability [like the 750],” says Fukuda. “The material by itself was inherently strong enough.”

Blinded By The Light

As mentioned earlier, Nippon Shaft was established in 1959. Its plant was originally a heat-treatment facility for its parent company, NHK Spring – the largest automotive spring supplier in the world.

“The material supplier we use is actually one of the largest spring steel suppliers in the world, as well,” says Fukuda. “Through continuous development with them, we came up with the formulation for Zelos to provide that extra tensile strength and durability.”

Nippon’s expertise in heat treatment helped NZNS60 cross the goal line. Proper heat treatment is more than just simple heating and cooling. Done right, it can re-align the molecular bones of a material and get you to that Holy Grail of light enough and strong enough. And having a background in automotive spring technology is a huge plus, as Fukuda says golf shafts are, essentially, springs.

“Imagine an engine valve spring. It has to be very durable to maintain RPMs in the engine but it also has to be soft enough to still be a spring,” he says. “That’s where our shafts are somewhat unique. The outside of our product is very firm but the core is soft enough to provide extra spring and to provide that slight dampening feature that you can feel in some of our products.

“We get feedback from players that our products just feel softer. There’s something about Nippon Shaft products and I think that goes back to the material and the heat treatment.”

He Ain’t Heavy…

How light is too light? A good fitter will tell you that if your swing is aggressive, you’ll have to be more fluid and have a better tempo. Otherwise lag will suffer, you’ll struggle with an early release and casting, and tend to hit the ball thin.

“For some people, their swing might become too unwieldy,” Fukuda explains. “There’s an ideal weight for every player and not everyone will benefit from a lightweight product. But most amateurs I see do play a heavy product and I think they could benefit from something slightly lighter or even drastically lighter like our Zelos 6 or Zelos 7.”

The obvious Nippon Zelos targets are seniors, juniors and women but it’s not so much about gender as it is about swing speed. “It’s basic physics,” says Fukuda. “You can swing a lighter object quicker than you can a heavier object.”

And just as ego can play a role in playing the wrong flex, it can also keep a golfer from embracing the potential benefits of going lighter.

“Ego is definitely part of a golfer’s mentality,” says Fukuda. “But I think most golfers, once they see a performance difference or improvement, will be more than willing to try it and maybe accept the fact some of the products they’ve been playing are a little bit too much for them.”

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Steel And Glass

So now that you’re maybe thinking about light, what’s the difference between lightweight steel and graphite?

Well, first, there’s a definite dampening feature with graphite.  A steel shaft will feel a little firmer across the board but they’ll also provide the feedback better players might be looking for.

“Nippon Zelos shafts are fuller-flexing, similar to premium graphite iron shafts,” says Fukuda. “There’s no distinct flex point or kick point so they’ll be similar feel-wise in terms of swing feel. But the major difference will be in feel at impact.”

Nippon Zelos

If you like graphite for vibration dampening – perhaps due to arthritis or an injury – then steel isn’t an option. However, Fukuda does say he hears from golfers and fitters alike that Nippon shafts up and down the line are the softest-feeling steel shafts going.

“We’ve had players on Tour give that feedback,” he says. “We’ve actually had players who were using shafts with Sensicore inserts inside that don’t play with Sensicore anymore now that they’ve switched to our product.”

And if steel really is your thing and if you find yourself pining for 1997, Nippon is still selling steel hybrid and fairway wood shafts.

“Those were developed several years ago when hybrids actually came with steel shafts,” says Fukuda. “They’re still popular, more in Japan and Asia than here in the United States.”

Nippon Zelos

You can’t find a hybrid that doesn’t have a graphite shaft these days. However, a lightweight steel shaft could make for a smoother weight transition from your irons to your hybrids.

“Some amateurs mis-categorize their hybrids as fairway wood replacements instead of irons replacements,” says Fukuda. “That’s where steel may benefit some players in their longer utility irons or their hybrids.”

Maybe Jimmy Walker was on to something.

Zelos: Less Filling or Tastes Great?

One last question: How light can a steel shaft realistically get?

“The Nippon Zelos 6, at 68.5 grams, may not be our low limit in terms of weight,” says Fukuda. “I’ve seen other lightweight products we’ve made but it comes to the point of whether those products are commercially viable.”

Father Time, as E. Tont Woods has told us, is undefeated. If you’re in your sixth or seventh decade, there’s an attraction to light, as long as it’s the right light. Juniors and beginning women golfers may also benefit from light. The only way to know, of course, is to give them a try and to consult with a fitter, if doable.

The good news is that there are more stock offerings in the player’s distance, game improvement and super game improvement categories with lighter stocks shafts. Again, it’s that physics thing.

So, what say you, dear readers? Have you tried lighter shafts? Do you find a difference between lightweight steel and lightweight graphite?