Golf IQ

Can playing with just five clubs make you better? Here’s what I learned

Playing with fewer clubs might actually help you get out of a rut—if you approach it the right way


The other day I pulled nine clubs out of my golf bag and stuffed them in my trunk. Thanks to a sore back and some general frustration with my game, I wanted to play with just five. I needed a break from carrying a full bag, and getting in and out of a cart was actually worse (“You could also not play,” my wife suggested, which I assumed was a joke). Plus, I had the sense I was starting to take golf too seriously and this might help me lighten up.

Did it work? Yes. But also, no. Let me explain.

The five-club experiment

The original plan was to play with just three clubs since that would be far more restrictive and require greater creativity. But I went with five for two reasons: one, my driver has been erratic of late and I wanted the opportunity to work on it. Also, my regular golf group plays a modest four-ball Nassau that I didn’t want to disrupt. Was I already compromising the “just go out there and have fun” edict I was purporting to follow? Of course. Is my relationship with golf complicated? Exceptionally.

Anyway, the five clubs I chose: driver, 6-iron, 9-iron, 56-degree wedge, putter. In that arrangement, the biggest gap by far was the 70 or so yards between my driver and 6-iron, but that really wasn’t the hardest part. More on that in a bit.

Where it helped

Early in my round it was apparent how the limitations of my bag could oddly play to my advantage. The first hole of my club is a beefy par 4. Even with a good drive I’m usually left with more than 200 yards in, but with only a 6-iron in my bag, I was absolved of the delusion I could get home. Instead I smoothed an approach to 35 yards short of the green, pitched to 10 feet, and lipped out a par putt.

Most of the front nine played out in similar fashion. My ball-striking is a wildcard even with access to all of my clubs, but my short game keeps me competitive, so I was content to deliver balls to strategic sports short of greens, and take my chances from there. The fun was in trying to solve a new puzzle — choking down on 6-irons, bumping 9-irons, or trying to muscle 5 extra yards out of a sand wedge. If I was faring worse on the scorecard, it wasn’t by much, and the benefits were apparent. In mindfulness practices, they call this “beginner’s mind,” in which you approach an endeavor with fresh eyes and without preconceived expectations. For someone who plays a decent amount of golf at the same course, this was an opportunity to play the game from a different perspective. If you find yourself stuck in a similar rut, I recommend it.

And yet …

Where it hurt

There is a reason golf is played with 14 clubs. Ask tour players about the regrettable tendencies of their pro-am partners, and many cite that they don’t take enough club. The mid-handicapper often confuses the ability to hit a 6-iron 165 yards with the ability to do so consistently, which I’d say is pretty stupid if I wasn’t guilty of the same thing. Now take nine clubs out of your bag, and your room for error is pared even more. If I am capable of manufacturing a decent score with a limited set, it’s contingent on me hitting each of those five clubs well every time, which in my decades of playing golf has happened precisely … never. The strain builds, and suddenly this innocuous experiment of playing with fewer clubs had me gripping a 9-iron too tight and trying to fly it 140 yards over a bunker. Spoiler alert: I wound up in the bunker. In this case, I didn’t take enough club because I didn’t have enough clubs.

Lesson learned: Frame success differently

The mistake of my experiment was not in setting a goal, but perhaps making it unrealistic. I had a target score that wasn’t so far removed from my normal range, and I was trying to compete in a match at roughly the same level (my playing partners allotted me one extra stroke a side). Now factor in a stiff back, and I made things too hard for myself … which led to frustration … which was supposedly the thing I was trying to avoid.

Testing yourself is good for your golf, and so is trying to breathe life into your routine. It’s when the two pursuits aren’t aligned that things get sideways. I am going to play with five clubs again soon, but next time it will be without a hard target, or a goal of trying to figure out my swing. In hindsight, the fewer clubs in your bag, the fewer thoughts should be in your head as well.