• Alistair Tait

Why do we carry 14 clubs?


Interesting question from Ken Brown on Twitter a few days ago. The five-time Ryder Cupper turned brilliant TV commentator asked:

“Is it time to reduce the max number clubs from 14 to 10? There is no downside to the game, reduces costs, more exercise with clubs being carried, less time to play AND more SHOTMAKING required! In the past majors have been won using as many as 31 clubs and as few as 7.”

Why are we only allowed to carry a maximum of 14 clubs anyway? It’s a good question, one that’s seldom asked.

The USGA instituted the 14-club rule in 1938. The R&A got on board in 1939. Why 14? Why not 12, or 13, or 15, or 16? No one really knows why the two bodies settled on 14.

Bobby Jones might have had an influence. He had a conversation with Scotland’s Tony Torrance, a five-time Walker Cupper and captain of the 1932 Great Britain & Ireland side, during the 1936 Walker Cup at Pine Valley about the number of clubs players should be allowed to carry. The conversation no doubt cropped up because U.S Walker Cup player Scotty Campbell carried 32 clubs in that match, a set that included seven 9-irons. He could obviously use them because he won both his matches as the U.S. whitewashed the visitors 9-0.

Torrance told Jones he only carried 12 clubs, while Jones said he was carrying 16 in 1930, the year he won the Grand Slam (or Impregnable Quadrilateral) and retired from competitive golf. Supposedly they compromised on 14.

Campbell wasn’t the only player to favour an excessive number of clubs.

Lawson Little reportedly carried up to 31 clubs when he won back-to-back Amateur Championships and U.S. Amateur titles in 1934 and 1935.

A member of the 1936 U.S. Curtis Cup team which played at Gleneagles told reporters:

“I carry 23 clubs and, gee, I need them all.”

Robert Harris, author of Sixty Years of Golf, had an important conversation in 1936 with USGA president John Jackson. Harris was then chairman of the R&A’s Golf Ball Sub-Committee of the Rules of Golf Committee.

Harris, who won the 1925 Amateur Championship and played on three GB&I Walker Cup teams, had long opined there should be a limit on the number of clubs players should be allowed to carry. Following his conversation with Harris, Jackson proposed to the USGA’s Rules of Golf Committee that 14 clubs should be the maximum. The 14-club rule came into effect in the United States two years later. The R&A followed suit the next year.

Why 14? Harris writes in Sixty Years of Golf that 14 was arrived at

“without the why and wherefore of only 14 clubs being questioned or debated.”

Harris wrote Sixty Years of Golf in 1953. He had changed his mind by then. He 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.”

So, what clubs would you ditch if, say, the rules changed to just 10 instead of 14? Brown would go for one less, as per a subsequent tweet:

“Nine is plenty. Putter, SW, PW, 8, 6, 4, H3, 3W, D (with loft). Carried in a pencil bag with six tees, four balls and a pencil.”

I carried just seven clubs – driver, 3 iron, 5 iron, 7 iron, 9 iron, wedge and putter – when I started playing. Seems to me I had as much fun then as I do with my current 14, most of which I can’t use anyway.

As for the professional game, many of the top men could probably get away just three – driver, wedge and putter. They hit the ball so far they seem to be going into every green with their most lofted irons anyway.

The late Seve Ballesteros would have supported Brown’s nine is plenty suggestion. He’d hate the current trend of players carrying four wedges. Indeed, he was a strong supporter of limiting the loft on clubs to 56 degrees. He was a wizard with a normal sand wedge but his advantage around the greens was redundant because of the advent of the 60-degree wedge. He’d no doubt vote for a limit of just one wedge per player.

Just 10 clubs? Or nine? Fine by me.

© 2020 by ALISTAIR TAIT GOLF

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