Flex Appeal: An interview with shaft guru Robin Arthur

Life has a funny way of throwing people together. I was recently surfing the web, researching a new shaft for my driver. I sent off a few emails to shaft companies and OEM component companies asking for some advice. To my surprise, they all answered and had useful suggestions. But the response that captured my attention most was from Arthur Xtreme Engineering, a company that designs, tests and markets the Xcaliber brand of golf shafts. I received an email from Robin Arthur asking me a bunch of questions. Turns out he’s the CEO and President, so I was nice getting some VIP treatment!

I did a bit of Googling on Robin and, to my surprise, a ton of stuff came up. He’s a bit of a rockstar in the world of golf shafts, known in golfing circles as the King of the Lightweight Shaft, as his Grafalloy Prolite shafts are tagged as the “winningest ultralite shaft in Tour history,” according to multiple sources.

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He’s now his own boss at Arthur Xtreme Engineering and XCaliber Shafts (King Arthur, remember!) and some of his YouTube videos, like this one, make compelling viewing. But don’t let this self-styled, West Virginian fool you. He’s a smart guy with degrees in engineering, applied science and business from Yale.

I recently caught up with Robin in his office in San Diego. A scheduled 30-minute interview turned into a fascinating two-hour journey covering grounds on all sorts of interesting and educational topics. I have tensile strength, modularity, fiber and resin content coming out of my ears. It’s hard not to feel the sense of enthusiasm with “King Arthur.”

Mark Donaghy: What’s your background, Robin?

Robin Arthur: After college I spent my early years working in the aerospace industry, joining General Dynamics in 1982. I was involved in many, many programs designing and manufacturing aerospace composite structures. The evolution of graphite and epoxy materials were critical keys. They led to advancements in reducing weight while maintaining strength, opening doors to next generation design and manufacturing techniques. And I was at the forefront of all that.

MD: It’s a big transition from rockets to golf shafts. So how did that come about?

RA: Well, not really. I saw the opportunity to bring my knowledge and experience into another industry, one that was crying out for it. At that time I had just started playing golf and I was obsessed by the game. I was headhunted for a role in Grafalloy, a relatively unknown company in California, to breathe some life into it with innovative R&D and manufacturing. Graphite shafts had really just taken off, so you could say I was in the right place at the right time.

MD: When starting out in the industry, what did you think you could bring to the game of golf that was different, and do you feel you accomplished that?

RA: When I first started in the golf industry, I met a lot of people and asked a lot of questions. I spoke with all the major OEMs and saw what was available in the market and the claims that some of the existing shaft companies were making. I quickly began to realize that there was huge opportunity to improve on what was out there. Both manufacturing and design processes were archaic and resulted in shaft inconsistencies. I knew with my materials, science and engineering background, and experience in the aerospace industry, I could develop something lighter and more consistent, but I had to put some fundamental processes in place first and that took a few years. I’ve always seen myself as an “imagineer” — seeing the art of the possible — and I am constantly challenging both myself and the industry with new concepts. A lot of the stuff I’ve come up with has never made it to market, but I think my lightweight designs have held their own in the industry and then some.

MD: Why lightweight shafts?

RA: Lightweight shafts were originally targeted at the Asian, senior and ladies markets. They allowed more speed to be generated and the dampening properties of graphite meant they were easier on the joints. I tested some of these shafts, and although really whippy, I thought once the guys on the senior tour got hold of them, they would take off. The problem was getting something to play in the No. 1 head on all Tours – The Great Big Bertha. It was a great, titanium head concept….except the distribution of mass wasn’t….ummm….optimal. What some of the shaft companies were doing was sanding down an X-flex shaft to an R-flex, sometimes all the way to an L-flex, taking off 20g of weight and making it almost impossible to do it consistently. Some OEMs were using lighter weight grips (The Bubble) and altering the distribution of mass in the clubhead. Remember the Great Big Bertha? The pros were still putting the ball in orbit with four and five degrees of loft. The problem Callaway was having with the Great Big Bertha was the mass distribution of properties (weight, etc.) of that head design. This was complicated by the distribution of stiffness along the length of the shaft that existing shaft companies used. It took a while to get it right, but when I did, things really took off.

MD: With all your successes at Grafalloy, what keeps you going?

RA: I love golf and I love helping people, be it a tour professional, a club maker or the regular guy on the street. I get a kick out of helping someone get the right shaft to match their game, making it a lot more enjoyable. I really enjoy getting feedback that a shaft has made a big difference. So the pursuit of designing and manufacturing the best shafts available on the market always drives me. Also, being able to offer that at a realistic price is a fundamental cornerstone to my philosophy.

But here’s the real bottom line. I grew up as an athlete and performed at a high level. Every day I worked on becoming a better athlete, every single day. I take this same approach of continuous improvement to my shaft designs, marketing approaches and even pricing. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning!

MD: What’s next with Xcaliber?

RA: Since leaving Grafalloy, I’ve been involved in several projects. I’ve worked with shaft companies like Royal Precision, Wishon Golf, and Golfworks, and served as a consultant to smaller OEMs. I also took a bit of a hiatus to follow some personal ambitions. But I’m now energized to really get going again with Xcaliber. For a few years I was running a one-man show, doing the R&D, the manufacturing, sales and marketing all by myself. But I’ve turned a corner. I have a whole new line-up of shafts coming out for 2017, and I’m excited. In fact, I’m just back after some extensive player testing all over the U.S., and with Gene Parente at Golf Labs. The results look awesome! So I’m ready to start scaling up. I’ve invested a lot of resources in new management and marketing, and I want to set up channels not just in the U.S., but also Europe and Asia. And I want to take that to the world with a reasonably priced product. Watch out for me in Orlando at the PGA Merchandise show. I’ll be the guy with the big smile on his face!

MD: What do you see as the next shaft developments over the next 10-20 years?

RA: The (golf) head guys have so many restrictions these days that it’s hard to see any major developments there in the near future. The only real way to improve is with the shaft. Luckily the launch monitors are getting so good these days that measuring shaft performance has become a lot more scientific. This is great because it allows me to give the golfing community objective differences in shaft designs. When this info is combined with subjective feedback from extensive player testing, which is just as important as in-lab testing, I can feel confident putting my name on an Xcaliber golf shaft. That’s because I know it’s the best, high-performance shaft I can make for a particular golfer.

I’m always experimenting with new, exotic materials no one has ever heard of before and continuing to blend existing materials such as steel, fibreglass and graphite epoxy in innovative ways. So lighter, stronger shafts will continue to grow in popularity. Also geometry will be a major development but I can’t say too much about that for now. Watch this space!

MD: Where do you get your inspiration?

RA: I already described myself as an imagineer. Technically I’m pretty good across the board, but I’m more of a concepts guy. My latest project came from watching a Zorro movie. When Antonio Banderas cracked his bull whip, it got me thinking about the angular acceleration of the lower portion a shaft, and immediately I was off developing a new concept. I also get ideas from the questions I ask. But like they say, genius is only 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. It’s funny…I’m constantly doing the perspiration part. Maybe someday I’ll get a glimpse of that genius thing.

MD: Over the years, have you worked on any special projects with any high-profile golfers?

RA: I’ve been lucky to have worked with a bunch of PGA Tour players, and of course, players of all abilities. I’ve learned from them all. But one of the biggest highlights in my career was working with Gary Player at Augusta. Mr. Player was in his early 60s and could still hit the snot out of his driver. He had heard about the Prolite shaft and asked me to get him a couple for his Bridgestone heads. He wanted to do a head-to-head comparison with his current gamer, and at the start he was skeptical. It came down to four shots, two with his current set up and two with the Prolite. He asked Peter Brooks, the CFO of Grafalloy at the time, to head down to the fairway to measure and mark the shots. Mr. Player hit his first two shots about 250 yards down the fairway and then indicated he was going to try my Prolite. I watched as his first drive sailed over Pete’s head! After Peter walked to the longer mark, Mr. Player’s second shot sailed over his head again! I wish I could have videoed Gary’s expression…and my smile. He leaned over to me afterwards and whispered, “Robin, I think you may be onto something big here with this shaft. I’ll take ‘em.” They weren’t even for sale!

MD: What sort of golfer are you?

RA: I’d love to tell you I was a scratch golfer, but the truth is that these days I play off about a 10 index. At one point I played to about 4, but right now all my energy is going into developing the business. Twelve- to 14-hour days mean I don’t get to play as often as I like, maybe only two or three times per month. It’s around the greens where I suffer. But I test a bunch of clubs. I’m a “testaholic,” and I can hit a ball well enough to know the difference. I then pass along those shafts I think are good enough to my testing teams who help me either continue the design process or say, “We’ve got it!”

MD: What clubs/shafts do you currently game?

RA: As you might expect, all my clubs have Xcaliber shafts in them, but because I am continuously testing clubs my bag is never the same. I do always carry a Maltby Tricept 58-degree with one of my Spin Wedge shafts in it. I’m getting 2000 rpm more spin with setup because of whip action in the shaft. I love that club! I can stop it on a dime. But I’m forever testing new heads with new shaft combinations so I’m usually grabbing what’s near, or what’s in test and heading out.

MD: Thanks, Robin. My brain hurts. Can I go now?

RA: Yes, go forth, newly appointed Sir Knight. The battle rages, so spread the word.

Have shaft questions for Arthur? He can be contacted at robin@xcalibershafts.com.