I have written quite a bit about minimalist golf in its various forms. Each time, I feel like I have said what I wanted to say and will probably move on to something else. And then I realise from talking to other golfers and thinking more and about things that there is always more to say (at least for a golf obsessive like myself!) The question I want to look at is one that I heard recently ‘can you play golf with less clubs?’
Firstly, for the pedantic out there (once again, me basically!) I know this should be “fewer” not less, I am simply quoting the question that was asked. In fact, it wasn’t even asked to me, it was something that was part of a wider conversation on golf. I thought it was an interesting observation though, but it does tell us a lot about the state of golf and how it is sold to the masses.
You Can Play Golf with 1 Club
Before looking at the detail, the answer is, of course, yes, you can play golf with any number of clubs from 1 onward. It is still golf. If you take a putter to the practice green and hit a couple of balls, you are playing golf. In the grand scheme of things, it just doesn’t matter.
I do understand though that this isn’t really what the person was asking. They wanted to know if it is possible to use fewer clubs (see, I can’t help myself) and not be penalised. The answer here is also a yes, but it perhaps a little bit more nuanced than that.
To dig a little deeper, I had an interesting chat with a friend just yesterday. We played in a scramble together, something we try to do regularly because he is a great guy and we always enjoy our day. We didn’t play especially well, shooting four over which, in a scramble, is essentially terrible. We just couldn’t hit a green, in fact missing a couple (including the largest one on the course) from well under 100 yards. Such is life.
We ate together after the round and he was lamenting his iron play. As n older gent he has seen his handicap drift upwards from very low single figures to his current level of 14 or so. He has, inevitably, lost distance and his distance gaps, especially with his irons, have bled into each other meaning that his 5 iron and his 6 iron might only have a couple of yards of difference now.
It is All About Distance (Gaps)
He said, quite rightly, that he doesn’t know why he even tries to hit his five iron. It doesn’t get very high and he has a far better chance of a solid shot when he grips down on his four hybrid to take a little distance off. I went further and suggested that the best thing he could do for his game in the near future would be to get a six hybrid. His 4 hybrid would cover 4 and 5 iron distance and his 6 hybrid would be for 6 and 7 iron distance. I didn’t say it, but I was thinking that even the short irons could potentially be hybrids, heading towards a full hybrid set.
After his struggles during the round (although to be honest, he definitely played better than I did) he was quite interested in the idea of a higher lofted hybrid. He isn’t someone who tinkers with equipment and tends to stick with what he has got. I told him that there are plenty of players on the LPGA who don’t use longer irons at all and might only start their iron set at 6 for example. I also gave the example of Michelle Wie who was playing with an 11 wood instead of mid irons and pointed out that plenty of big hitters on the PGA tour now use higher lofted woods.
So what is the link between all this and the idea of a smaller number of clubs? Well, for my friend, he is pushing around dead weight in his cart because there are clubs that do nothing for his game except potentially make it worse. If he took his five iron out, it would actually improve his game as he would say himself.
Most of Us Don’t Need 14 Clubs
You might think that he is a particular case because he is an older golfer but it really is true for almost all golfers. I have a four iron in my set and I like hitting irons but it didn’t make it to the course with me yesterday and in fact rarely makes it to the course. The theoretical gap between my three hybrid and this four iron and the four iron and my five iron just doesn’t play out on the course. Most of us won’t have these gaps in real playing conditions. If your 3 goes 190, the 4 180 and the 5 170 r whatever, that sounds perfect in theory, but when you are on the course, this sort of clear cut gapping doesn’t exist.
I think most of us would be better served by actually having larger distance gaps between clubs. For me, this means going from three hybrid to five iron. I might have a twenty yard gap between them on paper but in reality, it doesn’t work like this. This is the key. Having this sort of gap actually helps me play better golf. I will actually be between clubs or hesitating far less often. The reality for even single digit golfers is not hitting an exact yardage. If you are hitting withing five yards of this number, you are doing fine. This is even more true as you move up the handicap range where strike becomes less and less consistent. As swing speed decreases, this is also true because club distances tend to get closer and closer because there isn’t enough clubhead speed to get the ball launching and create gaps.
This brings us back to another key point. Why do most of us have a full set at all? Essentially, this is dues to the way golf equipment is advertised and sold. Until relatively recently, an iron set would be 3-pitching wedge. Over the last few years, we have found more examples of 4-pw or even 5-pw. This seems like a good thing. Finally, an acknowledgment that most golfers don’t need those longer irons, at least not all of them.
Long Irons=Dead Weight?
Unfortunately, even this isn’t entirely true. You will now be encouraged to replace those pesky ‘hard to hit’ long irons with hybrids, fairway woods or hollow bodied driving irons. Again, this is a good thing, but you should be able to replace these irons with one or two options, not on a one for one basis. I understand the argument that different types of clubs or good for different types of shots but this doesn’t really apply to most of us either. If you choose (as I sometimes to) to have a lofted fairway, a hybrid and a long iron going more or less the same distance, that is great but it is a choice linked to pleasure rather than any perceived necessity to “cover all the basis” in terms of shot selection.
This also doesn’t actually deal with the rest of the bag either. Even if you manage to buy your irons 6-pw, and fill in with say a hybrid and a fairway, do you really need 6 to wedge? Once again, the answer could be probably not. What might be ideal is a six iron, perhaps a seven and a half iron and a nine iron followed by a couple of wedges. This is going to be a very tough purchase unless you go through a boutique club builder who will tweak everything to your exact needs and desires (at a cost)
So the next step is to look at the half set, perhaps getting 6,8,wedge or whatever. You can certainly find this in new clubs…..it is known as the starter set! It is very pointedly sold as the thing that you get when you take up the game only to be traded in for a ‘better’ full set in a year or two when you really ‘get serious about the game’.
As I type this, I realise that it is coming across as something of a rant. This isn’t meant to be the case at all. I have spent many pleasurable rounds with well over 14 clubs in the bag outside of competition as I weighed the benefits and pleasure of one club over another. This is an absolute joy and not to be ignored but it isn’t the situation of most golfers. Remove the complete addicts like myself from the equation and what most people want is something that lets them do the job.
You Can and You Should Play Golf with a Lighter Bag
So back to our somewhat ungrammatical ‘can you play golf with less clubs?’ Hopefully you can see that the answer is not only yes you can but also maybe yes, you should. There is a tidal wave of advertising that is going to push for the full fourteen clubs in the bag. Manufacturers would clearly refer to sell 14 clubs. I understand this and don’t believe that the big names of the game are out to swindle the average golfer and are only interested in money. These companies often employ passionate golfers who want to create great products.
Ultimately though, the day when you can purchase your new full set of 7-10 clubs fitting the gaps that you want fitting isn’t for today. Until then, the best bet for most of us might be to get a little bit creative with the second hand market. Buy an older set of irons and leave half at home. Get a fairway and a hybrid to fill out the longer section of the bag and then complete it with a couple of wedges. I remain convinced that this is both an economical way to play the game as well as a better way to take a little bit of the frustration out of the time on the course.