Its origins are ambiguous, it’s a nightmare when you’re toting a Sunday bag. Would golf be better with fewer clubs? Our From the Clubhouse team discussed it on our most recent podcast
Why 14? Why not 10, or 20? The maximum number of clubs we’re allowed to have in the bag has been fixed since 1939 – but no one seems to exactly know why that figure was chosen.
There is so much in golf that’s standard because of a quirk of fate. We have 18 holes because the Old Course in St Andrews was shortened from 22.
The diameter of the hole is not by design – it’s because that was the size of the first ‘hole cutter’ used at Royal Musselburgh in 1829. It gradually became the norm.
It might be a similar story for the clubs you can carry under the Rules of Golf. In his excellent book, The Rules of the Green, Kenneth Chapman revealed the switch from hickory shafted clubs to steel led to players carrying huge numbers as they tried to replicate the workability they’d had with timber.
He recounts Lawson Little, the twice Amateur and US Amateur Champion, carrying up to 31 clubs when triumphing at Prestwick and Royal Lytham in 1934 and 1935.
This was too much for Robert Harris, the golf ball sub-committee chair on the R&A Rules of Golf Committee. He proposed limiting the number to 14 and this was adopted by the USGA in 1938 and the R&A in 1939.
Even then, Chapman reported, 14 golf clubs seemed a random number with Harris – in his book Sixty Years of Golf – admitting it had been achieved “without the why and wherefore of only fourteen clubs being questioned or debated”.
Harris still wasn’t satisfied! “It is now apparent,” he wrote in his 1953 publication, “that fourteen is too many – these debates with caddies regarding digits, when the player is afraid of the shot, are slowing up the game.”
You can only imagine what he’d make of today’s player-caddie chats.
There is nothing to stop you playing with fewer than 14 golf clubs. You could simply carry a putter if you so wished, but the penalties are stiff for starting with more than 14 or having more than that during a round.
In stroke play, it’s two penalty strokes for each hole where a breach happened – up to a maximum of four – and, in match play, the score is revised by deducting holes up to maximum of two.
Should we be restricted to 14 golf clubs?
But could we go lower as Harris suggested? Should the maximum limit be fewer than 14 clubs?
I carry 13, but still have clubs in the bag I hardly ever use – a 3-wood and a 52-degree wedge come instantly to mind.
I recently played in a hickory event where I only utilised eight; a driver, a brassie, a 1-iron (it turns out not only God can hit it, so can I), a 3-iron, a mashie, a mashie niblick, a niblick, and a putter.
Without my precision modern lofts, I was expecting disaster but actually found I played pretty nicely. I put that down to a couple of reasons.
The first was my expectations changed. It didn’t matter so much how the shot shaped as long as it advanced. I didn’t try to force it. The longest club I had was a pretty straight-faced brassie, which went 180 yards if I hit it very cleanly. I clearly wasn’t taking that off the deck.
And so I got into a nice rhythm, because I didn’t feel like I had to try and get my 5-iron 185 onto a green. A shot that brings me disaster probably a third of the time with my modern clubs was taken out of my game.
Now, you could argue, that’s just down to better course management and no amount of clubs should make any difference to that equation.
But the clarity of thought it brought was instructive. How many of us post decent scores in two club or three club and putter events because we don’t try to play shots that are beyond our capabilities?
“Anyone who’s spent any time with golf psychologists or performance coaches will tell you they all say go and play golf with a half set,” said my colleague Tom Irwin on the podcast.
“If you’re someone who’s spending a lot of time grinding on a range through winter, and you’re trying to groove a particular action, what happens is you tend to go onto the course and play driving range. You don’t play golf.
“One of the ways of picking away the layers of that is to go out with a half set, or three or four clubs, and it forces you to hit different shapes and forces you to hit the same club different distances.
“It brings back some of the artistry and that works for me. I just feel like I’m having more fun if I leave half my clubs in the boot of my car.
“First of all, my bag is lighter and that’s definitely a thing – so I feel lighter on my feet – and I feel like I’m out there just for the joy of it. I’m much more concerned about the shot than I am about the score.
“I think it moves your brain from being totally focused on results and more focused on execution.”
The debate can go wider. If you wanted to avoid a ball rollback, but still desired to make the professional game more interesting, could you limit the number of clubs the pros could use?
Would club golfers be better served playing competitions as if they were more like a two club and putter, rather than carrying four wedges and chunking another greenside chip because they’re decelerating with too much loft in their hands?
Should we go back to the days of Lawson Little and, at the risk of breaking our trolleys or separating the shoulders of our caddies, have a club for every situation you might ever find out on the course?
Or is 14 golf clubs the sweet spot? I’m considering playing a few rounds with fewer clubs (probably not for handicap though!) and seeing what effects it has on my scoring. I’ll bring you the results of my very unscientific experiment in another piece.
Do you use every club in your bag, or would the game be better if the number of clubs was limited to, say 10? Why only 14 clubs? Let me know your views on 14 golf clubs with a tweet.
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