What's so special about 14?
21 MAR 2016
Rule 4-4a of the Rules of Golf: The player must not start a stipulated round with more than fourteen clubs. He is limited to the clubs thus selected for that round, except that if he started with fewer than fourteen clubs, he may add any number, provided his total number does not exceed fourteen.
The Rules of Golf usually seem straightforward. Everybody knows that the maximum number of clubs you can have during a round is fourteen.
Except why 14? Why not 13 or 15 or 22?
Back in the days when Jock and Archie would smack a few gutties around the links of Scotland, the number of clubs a player could carry was not governed by any rules. Golf clubs in those days were in somewhat short supply since Golf Town had not been invented yet and most clubs were hand crafted by the owners themselves.
Golf was played mostly on the ground then, owing to the fact that gutties, which were made of a hard rubber like substance, were not very aerodynamic. Playing the ball low also kept it out of the ever present wind. Those early clubs were designed to smack the ball so it rolled as far as possible. Players only needed one club to whack it for distance and then perhaps one or two more for shots around the greens.
Bunkers were to be avoided since the wedge hadn’t been invented yet and the only way out was to chip sideways or backwards. Golf bags too were pretty rudimentary and were only designed to hold a handful of clubs.
A typical set of clubs in the mid to late 1800’s consisted of a couple of wooden headed clubs: usually a brassie (2 wood) and a spoon (5 wood); and several iron clubs: a cleek (2 iron), mashie (5 iron) and a niblick (9 iron). Players also carried a jigger, which was ideal for a bump-and-run shots; and a putter.
By the time Old Tom Morris was winning Open Championships, good players were filling in their sets with mid-mashies (3 iron), spade mashies (6 iron), mashie niblicks (7 iron) and pitching niblicks (8 iron). Drivers and baffies (7 wood) were added too. What was once a walk in the park for caddies like Wee Angus, who could double bag it twice a day, was turning into hard work. There was no end of cleeks, mashies and spoons that could be stuffed inside his leather carry bag.
In 1898, a golfer in Cleveland named Coburn Haskell designed and patented the first wound rubber ball. It consisted of a hard rubber core, miles of wound elastic and a cover, made out of balata, which was a rubber-like sap from the balata tree in Central and South America. The Haskell ball went much further than the guttie and the balata cover allowed for patterns that made the ball more aerodynamic.
It’s not known if Haskell was the first to advertise that his ball delivered “an extra 10 yards” but the Haskell ball did require more clubs because players found that the soft cover meant they could put lots of spin on the ball. Higher lofted irons were needed.
As golf grew in popularity, particularly in North America, clubs began to be mass produced and a standard set took shape. It typically consisted of four woods and nine irons plus a putter. By the 1930’s the Spalding Company was mass producing golf clubs and putting numbers on them instead of names.
That’s not to say that everybody used 14 clubs. A short set or Sunday bag consisted of just seven clubs (two woods, three irons, a wedge and a putter) and was often what country club members would use on Sundays for what was supposed to be a more casual round. When Francis Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open, he only had seven clubs in his bag.
Professional golfers however were going in the opposite direction. With no limits on club quantities, they were filling in sets with half irons, extra wedges and as many woods as their golf bags would hold. Lawson Little, a World Golf Hall of Fame member, who won the 1936 Canadian Open and the 1940 U.S. Open, would regularly have as many as 26 clubs in his bag including seven wedges. Pity his poor caddie!
In 1938, the USGA and the R&A decided to take pity on caddies and enacted the 14 club rule. There’s still no hard evidence that there was anything particular about the number 14 but it did correspond to the typical set carried by most players. And ever since, all players have abided by that number.
Well, almost. In 2001, Ian Woosnam was one shot out of the lead heading into the final round of the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. He nailed his opening tee shot with a 5-iron on the 206-yard par-3 and almost holed it. A tap in birdie had him tied for the lead with David Duval.
At least until he arrived at the second tee and asked for driver. That’s when Woosie’s caddie noticed there were two drivers in the bag. The volatile Welshman muttered something unintelligible, grabbed the offending extra club and tossed it into some bushes. A two stroke penalty moved him out of the lead and that was it. He shot 71 and finished third.
And the caddy, Myles Byrne? Woosnam didn’t fire him immediately. After all, it’s always the player’s responsibility to ensure his equipment conforms to the rules. The pair had been testing both drivers on the range and forgot to remove one before the first tee. If the opening tee shot had required a driver, they would have noticed the extra club and taken it out before a shot was struck but the 5-iron selection caused them to overlook the two drivers.
A couple of weeks later at the Scandinavian Masters, Byrne showed up late and hungover and that was the final straw. Woosie sacked him on the spot!
Rule 4-4 stipulates that the penalty for carrying an extra club is two strokes per hole to a maximum of four strokes in medal play; and loss of hole to a maximum of two holes in match play.
Of course, in friendly rounds, players often have more than 14 clubs. My rule is you can have as many clubs as you want but if you have more than 14, you have to carry them.
Peter Mumford is the editor of Fairways Magazine and a lifelong Toronto Maple Leaf fan. Like the hockey team, his golf game is in a rebuilding phase. Follow him on Twitter @FairwaysMag