Why Are Golfers Limited to 14 Clubs?

Golfers can carry no more than 14 clubs in their golf bag under the rules

There is a limit on the number of golf clubs a golfer can carry in his or her bag during play. According to the Rules of Golf, that limit is 14. If you are playing a tournament round, a handicap round, or any other round during which you are following the rules, you cannot carry more than 14 golf clubs. But why?

In the current rule book, the 14-club limit appears in Rule 4.1b. The penalty for carrying more than 14 clubs? In match play, the penalty is loss of hole for each hole with excess clubs, but with a maximum of two lost holes. In stroke play, it is a 2-stroke penalty for each hole with excess clubs, with a maximum of four penalty strokes for the round.

How and when did the 14-club limit come about? And why the number 14? Let's go back into the history of the 14-club limit.

When and Why the Club Limit Happened

The 14-club limit was put into effect by the USGA on Jan. 1, 1938, and by the R&A on May 1, 1939. Before that, golfers could carry any number of clubs they liked. (And, of course, golfers today can carry fewer than 14 clubs, but not more.) Some golfers preferred playing with fewer clubs. For example, Chick Evans won the 1916 U.S. Open with a then-record score of 286 carrying only seven clubs: the equivalents of the 2- and 3-woods, 2-, 4-, 6- and 9-irons, plus the putter.

Lawson Little, who won the U.S. and British amateur championships back-to-back in 1934-35, carried as many 26 clubs. Some golfers carried even more.

Why would a golfer carry so many clubs? For one, they had caddies — the golfers weren't lugging those weighted-down bags themselves! The main reason for carrying so many was to make sure you had a club for every conceivable shot and situation you might face. But some other specific reasons varied a little depending on the time frame.

In the hickory-shafted era, which wound down in the 1930s, another reason for carrying excess clubs was to guard against breakage. Hickory golf shafts broke easier than do steel shafts.

Steel shafts were introduced in the mid-1920s and had taken over the game by the mid-1930s. But they didn't offer the golfer as much flexibility — literally or figuratively — in shot-shaping and shot selection as did hickory. So many golfers made up for that by adding more and more clubs to the bag.

Eventually, bags stuffed full of clubs became an issue the governing bodies felt they needed to deal with. By limiting the number of clubs, the USGA and R&A were forcing golfers to rely once again more on feel, intuition, creativity, and not rely so much on having the just-right club for every situation.

Why 14 Clubs Was Chosen as the Limit

Bobby Jones and Tony Torrance were influential in the decision to limit clubs, and in the choice of 14 clubs as the limit. Jones is, well, Bobby Jones — every golfer and golf fan knows that he was a giant in the game and understands why he would have influence.

But who was Tony Torrance? He was a Scottish golfer with a great Walker Cup record who was involved in the politics of golf in Great Britain as a member of various bodies and boards and organizations. He and Jones were friends, and Torrance, in 1938, became chairman of the R&A Rules Committee.

While neither Jones nor Torrance was officially involved in the 1936 Walker Cup, played at Pine Valley in New Jersey, they were both in attendance. And watching the golfers, they noticed that one of them, Albert Campbell on Team USA, had managed to stuff 32 clubs into his bag! His bag included seven niblicks, and even a few left-handed clubs just on the off-chance he needed to turn around to play a shot.

Jones and Torrance agreed that things were getting ridiculous and it was time for a club limit. But what should that limit be — what was the right number?

For the answer, they looked into their own golf bags. Jones' bag had 16 clubs, Torrance's bag had 12 clubs. They split the difference and agreed that a limit of 14 clubs was reasonable.

Each then took that number back to their respective governing bodies — the USGA in Jones' case, the R&A in Torrance's — and pitched it. And, within three years, both the USGA and R&A had adopted the 14-club limit.

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