There’s a famous painting of King Charles I of England learning about the Irish Rebellion of 1641 while playing a round of golf at the Links of Leith in Scotland. As the King reads the news, an unidentified playing partner stands to his right, the universal look of “would you hit already?” on his face. To the King’s left stands a young valet—the term “caddie” wasn’t yet in use—holding the royal clubs. Six of them.
Depictions of golf over the next two centuries similarly show players great and small being trailed by apple-cheeked boys and grizzled older men carrying a collection of mashies, niblicks, spoons, brassies, and putters. But never more than eight or nine of them, tops.
So how did Lawson Little come to win the U.S. and British Amateurs of 1934 and ’35 with nearly 30 clubs in his bag? And why are we allowed only 14 clubs today? Put some of the blame on Little for the latter. As to what prompted the equipment explosion—it was a change in the Rules reacting to a change in technology.
For generations, shafts were made of wood, with hickory the preferred variety. In 1924, the USGA approved the use of steel, an action seconded by the R&A in 1929. While in many ways superior to hickory—stronger, lighter, more consistent—steel took some getting used to. In particular, better players felt that steel inhibited their ability to work the ball and create a variety of shots with one club. So to handle any possible situation, they began carrying more and more clubs.
Who? All of them. Even the great Bobby Jones.
“Bob had a pretty darn good set of clubs, about 25 of them,” says Sidney L. Matthew, a Jones historian and author of The Life and Times of Bobby Jones. “He used to carry a bunch. So did [Walter] Hagen.”
“The highest recorded total was in 1935 when a player showed up with 32 clubs,” says Rand Jerris, the USGA’s Senior Managing Director of Public Services and an expert on the early game. “He had a full set of left- and right-handed clubs in the same bag. His feeling was, ‘If my ball comes to rest against a tree, why should I be disadvantaged?’ It was around this time everyone decided things were out of control.”
Little’s amateur streak certainly fanned the flames, and the first grumbling was heard in late ’34 when the USGA received a letter from George Jacobus, president of the PGA of America, asking if the ruling bodies were planning to restrict the number of clubs allowed and saying that the PGA would back such a notion. “The PGA was worried about taking challenge away from the game,” says Jerris.
But without knowing it, the industry had already hit upon a possible solution. As the steel shaft came onto the scene, so did another new equipment idea, the matched set. “Before the mid 1920s, everyone carried a mismatched set without any consistency,” Jerris explains. “Then George Nicoll of Leven, Scotland, introduced the first matched set of irons, numbered one to nine, in 1926. By the end of the decade, all the major manufacturers were making numbered sets of nine irons.”
During the 1935 U.S. Open and Amateur, when surveys of the fields found the average number of clubs in use was more than 18, the talk got serious, with the USGA noting three concerns: 1) “de-skilling” the game (“they actually used that term, de-skilling,” says Jerris); 2) inequality between wealthy golfers, who could afford many clubs, and average players who couldn’t; and 3) caddies, who were having to carry bags that weighed in excess of 35 pounds.
At the end of 1936 the USGA and R&A announced a 14-club limit to take effect in 1938. So why 14? No one knows, but Jerris believes the acceptance of the matched set of nine irons, along with a putter and the accepted four woods, set the standard. More than 75 years later, it still does.