The Loop

Did you know: The origins of the 14-club limit

April 07, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has hit a giant pause button on fans being able to watch golf on TV, and in some cases, even kept people off courses. But while we hunker down and hope for a speedy return to normalcy, we can also use this time as an opportunity to learn more about the game we love. Here’s our latest installment of “Did you know?”

How many times have you been on a course and wished you had an extra club in the bag to help you with a specific shot? Well, as most of us know, that’s not allowable under Rule 4 of the Rules of Golf, which states players are “limited to no more than 14 clubs and normally must not replace damaged or lost clubs.”

Which often leads golfers to ask, “OK, but why a limit and why 14?” As with most rules that involve equipment, advancing technology was one of the culprits.

For years players were content to go into battle armed with a relatively slim array of hickory-shafted weapons. That changed when the steel shaft was universally approved for use in 1929 (the USGA had approved its use earlier but it took some time for the R&A to get on board). Some golfers were torn, not sure they wanted to go to steel because they were unfamiliar with how those clubs would react, but not wanting to pass on potentially better equipment. The solution for many became to have a bag that incorporated both hickory and steel clubs, sending the number of sticks in the bag soaring.

Good news for players. Bad news for the caddies. Those poor bastards often ended up lugging two bags instead of one—and caddies back then weren’t making the kind of scratch they do now. Lawson Little was perhaps the most infamous offender, as the winner of the 1934 and 1935 U.S. and British Amateurs often had 30 clubs at his disposal. Some players went with a set of right-handed and left-handed clubs and a survey at the 1935 U.S. Open showed the average number of clubs in a contestant’s bag was 18.

At this point, the USGA and R&A had seen enough. Just as with today in which the governing bodies are fretting about the role of technology in the game, the rulesmakers back then were afraid that such a large number of clubs would make skill less prominent. Additionally, it provided an advantage for well-to-do golfers who had the wherewithal to purchase more clubs than their less-fortunate brethren.

In 1936 the USGA and R&A adopted the 14-club limit with it going into effect in 1938. It has been in effect since.

Oh, and why 14? No one really knows, although it has been surmised that most common set makeup at the time was four woods, nine irons and a putter. You don’t even need a calculator to know that’s 14 bats.