A Creative Solution to Golf’s Distance Question

The 50 Percent Solution—don’t just limit the distance of clubs, limit the number of them

So it seems we’re finally going to get some answers from the USGA and R&A on the distance question. After decades of dithering, withering, and slithering, the two ruling bodies have suddenly become veritable sword-rattlers, promising serious action in the near future.

Much of their recent chatter has focused on the notion of curtailing the shaft length of the driver. Meanwhile, they’ve asked for feedback. Here’s mine: Don’t simply limit the length of clubs, limit the number of them. Cut the maximum number of weapons a golfer may carry from 14 to seven. And not just for the pros, for all of us.

golf distance
Illustration by Michael Witte

Sound outlandish? Believe me, it’s no more outlandish than asking ball manufacturers to spend millions of dollars creating a product that’s inferior to the one they already make. I learned that from bitter experience. About 40 years ago, when I was editor of GOLF Magazine, I wrote a column in support of Jack Nicklaus’s idea of throttling back the golf ball. I made what I thought was a cogent case. The day the column appeared, our publisher got a call from the CEO of Titleist informing him that, because of my views, he was cancelling its $2 million advertising schedule.

For the sake of non-argument, let’s leave the ball alone and cut back the clubs. That shouldn’t frighten the equipment makers. After all, I’m not suggesting they stop producing 7-hybrids or 4-irons or 62-degree wedges. The fact that we’d carry only seven clubs doesn’t mean we’d own only seven. Quite the contrary, I would think each of us would want to have in our garage, car trunk, or locker a complete arsenal— even more than 14—from which to assemble our desired seven. Keep in mind also that set makeup would vary not only from player to player based upon strength and skill, but from day to day according to the challenge of the course and the playing conditions.

The seven-club set would be a bonanza for manufacturers in that they’d be able to create all-new products to sell us. I’m talking about genuine hybrids— drivers that may be played with confidence from the fairway and putters that can double as chippers. There would also be an imperative to develop new shafts— whippier ones. Why? Because whippy shafts allow us to play a greater variety of shots.

Consider the observations of British historian Robert Harris, writing of the transition from hickory to steel shafts in the 1930s (when there was no limit on the number of clubs that could be carried): “It was soon realized by players that the rigid steel shaft could not be made to work to the same degree as hickory with its torsion qualities…the soullessness of metal took the finesse out of the game [and] forced the set up to 20 and even 25 clubs being carried by some players in a quest for results which before were obtainable from five or six shafts of hickory.”

Harris, then a honcho at the R&A, was a key proponent of the 1938 decision to limit the number of clubs to 14. For just as the steel shaft had diminished playing skill, so—even more so—had the glut of specialized implements. (It had reached the idiotic extreme that right- handed players were packing the odd left-handed club, just in case.) The swift and sure response of the ruling bodies was to cut back on the number of clubs. I say let’s do it again, let’s escape the current of soullessness of bomb and gouge.

While a seven-club set might not totally address the distance dilemma on the PGA Tour, it would go a long way (no pun intended) and certainly would make tournament golf way more fun to watch. Think about it. Most pros would likely carry a driving club, five irons/wedges, and a putter. So Bryson DeChambeau would still be able to blast his colossal drives, but since his next longest club likely would be a 5-iron, he’d have to hit the hell out of it to reach a 600-yard par five—either that or punch a driver off the deck—and wouldn’t that be fun to watch!

Just imagine the artistry the pros would show us if they were called upon to use the full measure of their athletic talent rather than lean on an assortment of crutches. I’m thinking about what we all saw at Augusta last year, Jon Rahm skipping a ball across the 16th-hole pond for a practice-round ace, or Bubba Watson’s Wednesday whimsey this year at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, hitting the green at the 167-yard 16th with a flick-wristed driver. These guys have jaw-dropping talent—we just don’t get to see it as often as we should.

And most of them would welcome the chance to show off. Years ago, I approached the PGA Tour with an idea for a Silly Season event—a 72-hole stroke-play competition in which the players would be restricted to eight clubs in the first round, six in the second, four in the third, and two in the last. Before making my pitch, I sounded out players on the idea. More than 90 percent of them loved it, with their most frequent comments, 1) “The cream will rise to the top” and 2) “The winning score won’t be that much higher.” The Tour decided against it, but I still think it would be great entertainment, especially that two-club Sunday.

Now I can hear you saying, “Fine, let the pros play with seven clubs but we mere mortals should be able to keep our full 14 if for no other reason than to make up for our lack of talent.”

Nae, nae, I say. First of all, that would mean bifurcation, and who wants that if we can easily avoid it. Besides, the average male amateur’s swing speed is about 93 miles per hour, meaning he hits a drive of 240 and a wedge of 113, a gap of just 127 yards. Imprecise ball strikers that we are, do we really need 10 different clubs to calibrate and navigate those 127 yards? No, we don’t.

Besides, there’s good reason to believe we’ll become better players without them. Surely there have been occasions when you’ve slung a bag with half a dozen clubs over your shoulder and gone out for a few holes? You played pretty well, didn’t you? There were reasons for that.

When you’re caught between an 8-iron and a 6, the right choice is usually clear, and even when it’s not, you don’t have the same “tweener” doubts as when you’re between an 8 and a 7. You either take the 6 and make a slower, smoother swing that’s an improvement on your standard lurch, or go at the 8 with gusto. Either way, you’re fully committed to the club and shot, and when that happens, good things result.

With only five shotmaking clubs in your bag, you learn how to make shots—how to add distance to a shorter club and take something off the longer one, spin the ball left and right, get it to rise faster or stay closer to the ground. The same happens around the green, where you develop a variety of chips, pitches, and sand shots by learning to manipulate one or two clubs instead of robot-swinging at five or six of them. Why was Seve Ballesteros perhaps the greatest shotmaker ever? He learned to play the game with just one club, a 3-iron.

You’ll also improve because with only five clubs between the driver and putter you’ll be able to focus your practice on those five, getting to know and feel them as you never have. In the process you’ll become a smarter golfer, better able to manage your swing, your game, and the course. All of which will imbue you with a sense of satisfaction and confidence you’ve never known.

Look, I realize this idea is a non-starter. The USGA and R&A will dismiss it summarily as too non-traditional (despite the fact that there has never been a tradition regarding club count; the game was played for a couple of centuries with just an armful of clubs before we exploded into the two-dozen-plus era, and now it’s 14). But I do believe the rulemakers feel a duty to preserve the health, integrity, and appeal of the game. So I simply would ask them to consider this:

If golf were played with seven clubs…

  • It would be simpler to learn, less bewildering and intimidating to new players. The “beginner set” would be everyone’s set.
  • It would be less expensive. Getting oneself equipped with a standard set would cost less. About half as much.
  • Play would move more quickly because decisions about which club to hit would come more easily.
  • Carrying one’s bag would be less physically taxing, so more people would do it, a positive both for personal health and fitness and for the global environment, as fewer motorized carts would be needed.
  • The distance issue would die out—no further yardage would need to be added to courses. Courses would save on maintenance expenses, further reducing the cost of the game.
  • Professional tournament golf would become much more compelling to watch.
  • The rest of us would become more creative, imaginative, self-reliant, and knowledgeable golfers.
  • We would all continue to play under one set of rules. Is there any other idea that will do all those things?

What do you think of George Peper’s solution to the distance debate?

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