My Callaway golf bag houses 14 clubs, 2 dozen balls, three sweaters, a rain suit, an umbrella, 8 old golf gloves, a swing weight, 500 tees, a ball marker, 10 old scorecards, 7 broken pencils, a can of insect repellent, a ball retriever, 2 empty sunscreen tubes, band-aids, a rule book, roll of toilet paper and a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.
After slapping around a bucket of balls on the range, there is only one thought on my mind when I step onto the first tee for a “yuge” match: Do I have 14 clubs?
The 14 club limit rule has been around since 1936 and I like it. First, I don’t ever remember playing a round and using all 14 clubs, even when I shoot in the 90s. My three least used irons are 4, 6 and 8. My most used weapon is the putter, which had its highest recorded use in one pathetic round of 44 putts. I remember quitting the game that day and crying like a baby, while forking out a ton of money on lost side bets! Second, golfers always copy what the pros do on TV, and the latest trend is to carry four wedges, even though the average hacker (Tim Geary immediately comes to mind) can’t get out of the bunker in one clean swing. Don’t even begin a conversation with someone carrying four wedges, because you know they’re a Phil Mickelson wanna-be, and probably can’t break 88 on their best day!
According to the deadly little booklet called The Rules of Golf,” which is 128 brain-numbing pages filled with batty commandments and blatant contradictions, which taken as a whole, are not relevant to the game of golf most people actually play, you will incur 2 penalty strokes for each hole on which you had too many clubs, to a maximum of 4 penalty strokes per round.
Several years ago I was involved in a controversy involving a competitor having 15 clubs in his bag during a major fourball match. The opposing team had just whipped my partner and me 4-3. While walking back to the clubhouse we all discovered the competitor inadvertently had 15 clubs in his bag. I was thinking “hallelujah” we get a rematch or forfeit. No one at the club, including the pro, knew the ruling and it took close to 24 hours to get the correct decision. The correct ruling is that since the match was completed, there is no penalty to assess to the violator and the score is final. If the violation was known during the match play, then the penalty is to forfeit a maximum of two holes per round.
During the 1935 U.S. Open and Amateur, a survey of the players found the average number of clubs in use was more than 18, so the USGA changed the rule to maximum number to 14. No one knows for sure why 14 was chosen as the limit but the theory is that a set of nine irons, along with a putter and the accepted four woods (at the time) set the standard.
So the mystery of golf is does having more than 14 clubs in your bag make you better? It sure helped Bobby Jones, who was the dominant player in the 1920s. Bobby Jones sometimes had 25 clubs in his bag while being credited with being the only player to win the Grand Slam in a single season, which in 1930, included the U.S. Open, British Open, U.S. Amateur and British Amateur. Walter Hagen also used to carry more than 14 clubs while competing.
As you start to fill the 14 spaces in your bag, some choices are easy. You need the putter and driver and 4 and 5 metal fairway woods. At a minimum you should carry a set of irons that runs from 4 through PW. Toss in the sand wedge and 52 degree wedge and you are ready to play. You can’t build a house without the right tools, and you can’t play good golf without the right clubs in your bag.
The late great Arnold Palmer said it best, “The ideal set of clubs is one that leaves you with the right club in your hands for the highest percentage of shots throughout the round.”
(Tom Gorman, a Boston-based golf writer, should clean out his golf bag someday since he has no room for another club.)