Fixing what ails golf. It’s a complex topic and everybody seems to have an opinion on how to rein in the issues that modern technology has created – especially for the elite professionals. Roll back the golf ball. Reduce driver size. Bring back persimmon. Lengthen courses. Narrow fairways. Grow rough. Ban armlocks. Banish green books. Shot clock. Bifurcate!
These are all big ideas that would require a complicated and expensive dance between golf’s governing bodies, manufacturers, architects, greenskeepers, professionals and consumers. There are no overnight fixes here, obviously, and certainly nothing that will please everyone.
But what if there was one thing that could literally be implemented immediately without involving years of research and development, course reconstruction or forcing people to buy new clubs and balls that conform to some established limiting standards? Every one of us could grab our current golf bags and become universally compliant before we reach the first tee.
Simple, right? Take four to six clubs out of every bag and – voilà – problem solved.
How? Well, the theory goes, by limiting the volume of technology in the bag you force golfers to become more creative and proficient at playing a greater variety of shots with the fewer clubs at their disposal. It would bring back feel and touch and accentuate the artistic skill of the players beyond the science they’ve dialed in on their TrackMans.
It’s a concept that has its endorsers.
“Is it time to reduce the max number of clubs from 14 to 10?” former Euro Tour pro and current broadcaster Ken Brown asked last summer on Twitter. “There is no downside to the game, reduces costs, more exercise with clubs being carried, less time to play AND more SHOTMAKING required!”
“Why don’t we think about playing with 10 clubs rather than 14? People have lost the ability to work the ball,” said Miguel Ángel Jiménez, who preferred the game of his youth when “there was more skill involved – more moving the ball and feeling things.”
Perhaps go even further than Jiménez suggests – at least at the elite level. Top pros would be better challenged with only eight clubs. The most dreaded thing that can happen to a professional golfer (aside from their ball resting in a sand-filled divot) is being “caught between clubs.” The horror. This answer apparently isn’t found in their yardage and green books or resolved with a plug-and-play solution developed with all the data at their beckoning. It somehow requires a finesse they’d prefer not to be asked about.
However, that’s really all golf should be asking. That’s how you separate the truly skilled artisans from the merely trained technicians.
Australian course designer and former European Tour player Michael Clayton recalls notorious golf eccentric Mac O’Grady’s novel setup when he finished third in the 1982 British PGA at Hillside in Southport, England, behind Tony Jacklin and Bernhard Langer.
“The American played the whole season with only eight clubs – driver, 3-wood, 3-, 5-, 7-, 9- and sand iron and a putter,” Clayton recalls. “He was 42nd on the money list, as a Monday qualifier, by season’s end. Once after demonstrating a 140-, 160- and 180-yard 7-iron, he simply said, ‘Why do you need 14 clubs?’”
That’s a good question. Why 14? A little background.
The USGA introduced the 14-club limit in 1938 and the R&A followed suit in 1939. The original penalty for exceeding the limit was disqualification, later reduced to two shots per hole or loss of hole in match play. In 1968, the penalty was capped at two holes (four strokes).
According to Global Golf Post colleague Alistair Tait, Bobby Jones may have had some influence in this. A story goes that while attending the 1936 Walker Cup at Pine Valley, Jones had a conversation with Scotland’s Tony Torrance, a former GB&I player and captain. A U.S. team member that year, Albert Campbell, reportedly carried 32 clubs (including seven 9-irons) in his matches, and most everyone (other than Campbell) agreed that seemed excessive. The number 14 was reputedly suggested as a compromise between Jones – who apparently carried 16 clubs when he won his 1930 slam – and Torrance, who used 12 clubs in his bag.
Bags with 20 to 25 clubs were quite common in the early 20th century as golfers transitioned from hickory to steel-shafted clubs, preferring to have as many options as possible. Reportedly, some players even hauled around both right- and left-handed clubs to be ready for any situation.
The disparity was wide as equipment evolved. Francis Ouimet only used seven clubs when he won the U.S. Open in 1913. Lawson Little, however, lugged around 31 clubs when he won the 1935 British Amateur. According to a survey at the 1935 U.S. Open, the average number of clubs in a contestant’s bag was 18.
In 1926, Scottish clubmaker George Nicoll introduced the first matched set of irons – numbered 1 to 9 – and in short order the rest of the manufacturers followed suit and replaced all the old mashies and niblicks and spoons with numbered sets. Things escalated, as they do, and by 1934 PGA of America president George Jacobus sent a letter to the USGA saying his group would support legislation to restrict the number of clubs allowed.
Golf’s officials agreed enough was enough – but what was enough? They mandated 14, and here we are.
Early on, however, people already were concerned that 14 was still too many. Robert Harris, the 1925 British Amateur champion and a three-time Walker Cupper, was a former member of the R&A’s Rules of Golf Committee. In his 1953 book, Sixty Years of Golf, Harris wrote: “It is now apparent that 14 is too many – these debates with caddies regarding digits, when the player is afraid of the shot, are slowing up the game.”
Even worse, all those clubs take some of the artistry and imagination out of the game. Today’s elite golfers are so dialed into what they can do with their equipment, that they carry four wedges of varying lofts so that the club can do most of the work for them.
Take away all those wedges and you return touch by reducing precision – something more akin to the imagination and adaptability once displayed by the disparate likes of Seve Ballesteros, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino.
This really isn’t all that revolutionary. Like most beginner golfers, I was first released on the course with a set of clubs limited to the odd numbers – 3-, 5-, 7- and 9-iron and 1-, 3- and 5-wood – as well as a putter and pitching wedge. That was it, nine clubs. And that was enough (actually more than enough since I couldn’t hit the driver anyway and basically carried it around as decoration).
… the club limit really isn’t about the mid- and high-handicappers. It should be about the elite golfers – the touring professionals. They are the ones who should be challenged by using feel and artistry and not just be allowed to paint by the numbers.
Would my mid-handicap game suffer appreciably if I could only carry nine or so clubs today? Doubtful. I could live with a driver, 3-wood, hybrid, sand wedge, pitching wedge, putter and just a 9-, 7- and 5-iron. Modern 3-woods carry so far, I’d probably bench the driver again and stick an 8- or 6-iron in there.
Frankly, those are the only clubs most of us use consistently anyway.
But the club limit really isn’t about the mid- and high-handicappers. It should be about the elite golfers – the touring professionals. They are the ones who should be challenged by using feel and artistry and not just be allowed to paint by the numbers.
Manufacturers would adapt and still profit. Clubmakers still could chase technological limits to find ways to help fill in the gaps and people would still keep tinkering and buying new clubs to find the right formula that works for them. Another byproduct might be that the ball would devolve naturally, without forcing an arbitrary rollback. More half-shots probably would require a ball that spins more, and adding more spin would make it harder to hit straight.
While this is a change that conceivably could be implemented overnight, golf never moves that quickly. Perhaps a slow withdrawal would work, reducing the limit by one each year until they find the sweet spot (10? Nine? Eight?) that seems to alleviate some of the issues technology currently presents.
“Many have suggested reducing the number of clubs in an effort to make the game more interesting and more challenging – things not always comparable,” said Clayton. “Manufacturers might rather agree to rolling back the ball for better players than being limited to selling sets of (fewer) clubs.
“It would clearly ask for a wider imagination as presumably players would tweak the irons to have two clubs cover for three in the middle, drop some of their four wedges and maybe combine the driver and 3-wood into a single club.
“None of it would solve the real problem which is the ball flying too far, and until the administration follows through on their rhetoric the game will remain completely out of scale at the top level.”
Maybe it’s not enough. But perhaps a cost-free effort is worth trying to see if it helps before going down more expensive avenues.
Top: Rory McIlroy’s bag at the 2021 Masters. Photo: Kevin C. Cox, Getty Images
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