Why are golfers limited to 14 clubs?

Most golfers, especially those who play golf competitively, know that they are limited to carrying and using a maximum of 14 golf clubs, but few know why. In this short blog post, I'll explain when and why this ruling came into effect.

a club for every occasion

Prior to the introduction of the limit on golf clubs to 14, players were free to carry as many or as few golf clubs as they desired. To give you an idea of the disparency between how many clubs players used before the restrictions came into play, the 1913 US Open was won by Francis Ouimet with 7 clubs but the 1934 British Amateur was won by Lawson Little with an astonishing 31. I bet you can guess which player I’d rather have caddied for.

Newspaper cutting of Lawson Little with too many golf clubs prior to the 14 club limit kicking in.

the need for change

In 1922, steel-shafted golf clubs began to go on sale but weren’t proving to be particularly popular with professional golfers. Until this point, players used hickory clubs and were generally comfortable with them because they knew exactly where each shot with each club would land. The introduction of steel-shafted clubs brought with it the prospect of a longer and more consistent ball flight, however, players would have to invest a great deal of time and effort into getting used to them if they were to switch.

In 1924, Herbert C Lagerblade became the first player ever to use steel-shafted golf clubs during a US Open. Shortly after, other players began to follow suit, however, with no upper club limit in place and to give them the best of both worlds, players often carried both a set of hickory and a set of steel clubs in their bag.  On some occasions, caddies were even required to lug two golf bags to ensure they could carry all of the clubs the player needed. One field study at the US Open and Amateur discovered that the average number of clubs used by players was 18 – four more than the current limit.

At the 1935 US Open, things began to come to a head when one player turned up with 32 clubs in their bag, including a full set of both left and right-handed clubs. It was after this event that the USGA began to take a serious look at limiting the number of clubs players could carry and use. They had three main aims in mind:

  • Preserve the element of skill in the game of golf
  • Ensure a level playing field in terms of access to golf equipment (wealthy players could often afford to buy more clubs than those less well off)
  • Look after the welfare of the caddies who were regularly carrying bags weighing more than 15 kgs.

time to mix things up

Officially, the rules changed on September 1939, when the 13th edition of the rules of golf was published which included a limit on the number of clubs a player could carry within Rule 1, stating:

why 14 golf clubs?

In all honestly, no one really knows why the USGA decided on 14 clubs as the upper limit. USGA president John Jackson proposed 14 to the USGA Rules of Golf Committee back in 1936, two years before the rule came into effect. It’s suggested that 14 was perhaps chosen as the ideal number after a conversation between Bobby Jones and Tony Torrance at the 1936 Walker Cup about the number of clubs they each carried during their playing careers. Torrance stated that he carried only 12 clubs whereas Jones mentioned that he used 16 en route to his 1930 Grand Slam. Supposedly, they settled on 14 being a suitable limit as a compromise.

The limit of 14 clubs also seemed to suit the players using the now increasingly popular sets of steel-shafted irons. Prior to their introduction, players used hickory clubs which were almost always miss matching and not part of a set. Aside from the length and consistency steel-shafted clubs offered, another benefit was the fact they could be produced as part of a matching set. The first matching set was produced by George Nicoll of Leven (Scotland), with clubs numbered from 1-9. Matching steel sets of irons quickly caught on and almost all major manufacturers began to produce a matching set of 9 irons, numbered 1-9. Players would then often add an additional 4 clubs (woods) and a putter to their bags, taking their total to 14.

Vintage George Nicoll of Leven golf clubs (cira 1935).
Of course, a lot has changed since the introduction of the 14-club ruling back in 1939. Although the limit has remained the same for decades, the way we make up our bags varies from player to player, largely due to the introduction of hybrids, wedges and changes to iron sets (loft etc.). So, whilst we may know when and why the 14-club ruling was introduced, we’ll probably never know the exact reason the USGA settled on the number of 14 clubs, however, we can be sure that John Jackson had something to do with it.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. Let me know in the comments area below what you think of the 14 club rule. Should we be allowed to use more clubs, is the limit too high or are things just right as they are? Also, how many clubs do you carry in your bag? 

Andy

12 responses

  1. Great article Andy. I do wonder what difference there would be in my scores with say 10 or 20 clubs in the bag. What would your optimum number be Andy?
    PS love the new look site

    1. Thanks, mate. Put a lot of effort into the new design to ensure it was cleaner, faster and less cluttered. Wanted to clear out all of the old content and freshen things up, and creating a whole new site seemed the best way to do that.

      Regarding the above post – I’m not sure what the optimum number is to be completely honest. Whilst I’ve gone out and played rounds well with a half set, I really do like to have a full complement of clubs and do quite often use most of them. When playing your own course you can kind of get away with limiting yourself, however, when playing a new course that you’re not familiar with then having as many options as possible can’t be a bad thing. Thinking about it, 14 is quite a high amount of clubs and I could probably drop down to between 10 and 12 and still play fairly good golf.

      Because I use my trolley and cart bag, I never really need to worry about weight etc so until the rule changes, I’ll probably stick with 14!

      1. Until the rule changes? probably will not happen in our lifetime, if ever. Loved your article Andy! Much appreciated!

        1. Thanks so much for taking the time to read this post and leave a kind comment. I’m not sure the number of clubs rule will change as it’s such a fundamental golf rule, however, many didn’t expect to the see the golf ball technology rolled back, so who knows.

          Anyway, appreciate you stopping by and commenting – you’ve actually given me motivation to start producing some more posts, so thank you!

          Cheers,
          Andy

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a nice comment, Ron. It’s always really appreciated. I was curious as to how this ruling came about myself, hence I decided to research and post. For many of us, we’ve played golf for most of our lives and have just accepted the rules without really knowing how or why they were put in place. Interesting to hear that you’ve never carried anymore than 12. Is there a specific reason for this and which 12 clubs do you carry?

      Feel free to check out any of my other blog posts and stick around as I’ve got plenty more to come.

      Cheers,
      Andy

    1. Hello Bob. Thanks for taking the time to comment – really appreciated it. Interesting that you’re satisfied with 14 clubs, as am I. Quite a lot of others that I have spoken with have felt that 14 is too high, with many limiting themselves to 6/7 – presumably due to carrying their clubs.

      I did think it was an interesting topic to research and write about, and glad that you (and others) have found it worthwhile.

      Thanks,
      Andy

  2. This was all fine and good, But you are wedge limiting. I just think 15 is the new 14.
    The advent of hybrids, chippers and wedges give us a little more touch.
    Many players carry three wedges and would love having a fourth. Not me.
    64 – 60 – 58 – 56 – 52- 48 Pick any 3

    My bag D -3W – Util HybW – 5 HybW – 7 HybW (5 clubs)
    Irons 2 4 5 6 7 8 9 (7 clubs)
    Wedges. W – LW – Alien Wedge. (3 clubs)

    1. Yeah, but you are limited to 14 in competitions, therefore, if playing competitively, you have no choice but to stick to 14. I tend to carry 4 wedges (50, 54, 56 and 60). I rely on my short game a lot to it’s nice to have options there. Looks like you have a solid set up for your needs, though!

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