There are many quirks and nuances about the game of golf, one of them being why we carry 14 clubs. How did we settle upon that number and why does it seem so random?
There are a few theories on why, in the late 1930s, the Rules of Golf stated: ‘The clubs used by a player during a round shall not exceed 14 and the clubs carried shall be restricted to that number.’
When Francis Ouimet won the iconic 1913 US Open he was carrying just seven clubs, by 1934 Lawson Little had 31 clubs in his bag when he won the British Amateur.
So what happened in between? In the 1920s players began to use steel-shafted clubs and pros would then bring both their hickory and steel sets to competitions which meant that, in some cases, caddies would have to lug about two bags. One player was said to have turned up to one event with 32 clubs which was made up of both left and right-handed clubs so that he could escape any trouble, a week that probably tipped the scales that things were getting a bit silly. The average number was said to be about 18.
Another story involves Scotty Campbell carrying 32 clubs in the 1936 Walker Cup matches which contained seven 9-irons. In the same match Bobby Jones and Scot Tony Torrance were said to have had a conversation, probably following on from Campbell’s make-up, and Jones explained that he carried 16 clubs during his Grand Slam of 1930 while Torrance replied that he would only use 12 – and so, supposedly, a compromise was met at 14.
With steel-shafted irons now more prominent George Nicoll put together the first set of numbered irons, 1-9, and, along with four woods and a putter, the bag was made up of 14 clubs which is where we are, 80-plus years later, today.
For many professionals that number still isn’t enough. There always seems to be a decision what to leave out between the 2-iron and 5-wood and, such are their skills and preciseness with the wedges, they would probably like to carry wedges in two-degree increments. Some, think Phil Mickelson back in the day and still now, would like to have room for two drivers - one to get the ball into play and one that might lend itself to opening up the shoulders a bit – and, if given the chance, they might even enjoy the luxury of two putters, one that is particularly suited to holing out and one for longer putts.
Before too long we would be back in the 1930s and caddies would be having hernias left, right and centre.
If we were to go the other way then things become a bit more interesting. Then the players would have to add a bit of flexibility to certain clubs and certain skill levels might be encouraged.
Robert Rock said this on his Instagram: “If we were to drop to 13 the 5-wood would be the first club to go, which would leave a big gap between my 3-wood and 4-iron, and if we then were only allowed to carry 12 clubs I would have to miss out on both my 5w/3i and my lob wedge and that would make it a very different game. If I only had a 56˚ wedge I probably wouldn't even attempt some shots but with more loft I'm OK and I'm not sure that's right. Today's short-game stars would prosper and there would be more emphasis on skill so I don't think it would be the worst move (in the professional game) if there was a limit to how much loft you could have in your wedges.”
Of course manufacturers would be able to rejig lofts on irons to get round such quandaries but, if you were to extend this to the amateur game, the benefits might be even more far reaching.
How many clubs do you now carry? The likelihood is that the majority of us use 14 because that’s what we’re allowed to do. Now, how many clubs do you not really like/trust and how many clubs very rarely get an outing?
For plenty of us at least two clubs could easily exit the bag stage left and nothing would change. There’s a big argument that fewer clubs would actually lead to lower scores rather than the other way round. Think of the scores at your local club when there is a three of five-club challenge.
Personally speaking I carry a fairway wood that might give me half a chance of reaching a couple of par 5s. The reality is that I can’t flight it properly and it generally puts me into a lot of trouble spots and, if I were to just be sensible and play the percentages, my scoring would improve. I also see it as some sort of ‘insurance’ off the tee when, again, being honest, the thought of teeing off on any hole without the comfort blanket of a massive head terrifies me. The fairway wood is a long club with a small head and that, generally, is a bad combination for a lot of us.
I also carry five wedges and yet I have no short game. I have a club that gets me out of bunkers, which is a must along with the driver and putter, but otherwise they all pretty much morph into one in terms of reliability. If I were to lose two of them it would make next to no difference and would improve my efforts in the long term, given that I would have much more of an idea of each of them do/carry.
Growing up, like nearly every junior, I don’t even know how many clubs that I carried but I definitely didn’t obsess about my perfect make-up. The only reason they left the bag was because I wore the grooves out.
There was a good story a few seasons back that Dustin Johnson’s longest iron to a par 4 was a 6-iron and that maybe happened just once. Pros will generally carry a 4 but won’t need it very often. Amateurs might carry a 4-iron but won’t be able to hit it and there’s every chance that the 5-iron will do just as good a job for distance and carry.
Just as we don’t need 10 balls in our bag we can make the bag a lot more manageable to carry with fewer clubs. Try it, you might like it.
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