There was a time – maybe until the mid-1980s or so – that a normal set of golf clubs consisting of 14 clubs had the following: a 1-wood (driver), 3-wood and a 5-wood; 2-iron through 9-iron, a pitching wedge, sand wedge and a putter. Among better players, it was not out of the ordinary to see a 1-iron thrown into the mix, usually replacing the 5-wood. Occasionally, you would see novelty clubs such as a 2-wood, a 6-wood, or a chipper in some-one’s bag, usually in place of the 2-iron.
Fast forward to 2017, and this set makeup is history. You would be hard pressed to find a golfer with the same make-up as his counterpart from 30 years ago. The first change occurred when Dave Pelz came up with the concept for the 60-degree wedge, known today as the lob wedge. Tom Kite, who worked with Pelz at the time, put the club into play in 1981, and other touring professionals eventually followed suit, even if not right away.
The next set change occurred in the early 1990s when Callaway Golf introduced multiple fairway woods consisting of the usual clubs along with the 7-wood, 9-wood, and 11-wood. LPGA Tour golfers were not hesitant to adopt these new clubs to replace their long irons, as they were easier to elevate and yet provided the same distance. In addition, their more forgiving properties allowed for better overall shot-making. Male professionals, on the other hand, largely elected to stay with their long irons, although these newer clubs did find their way into the bags of some male club golfers. The 7-wood (called the “Heaven-wood” by Callaway) became popular among the senior set, but a fair number of younger amateurs played the club, too.
At the time, it was somewhat prevalent among better players to snobbishly-proclaim that “real men” don’t use fairway woods, and most male golfers carried only a driver and 3-wood. Of course, a prominent golfer a few years later put what he described as an “old man’s club” in his bag, and seemed to relish the attention it brought. When Tiger Woods added that 5-wood to his arsenal, it signaled to his professional brethren that results, not appearances or macho behavior, were what counted.
TaylorMade Golf in 2003 introduced the next big change in golf, a change that has had a lasting effect on set makeup. The Rescue Mid Hybrid was the first hybrid golf club (a mix between an iron and fairway wood) that truly took off with mass sales that had staying power. Previous generations had hybrid precursors such as the Baffler and Ginty, but they were strictly novelty items, even though they were highly effective. Since TaylorMade by 2003 had the name recognition and credibility most golfers required in order to influence their purchases, the Rescue became a popular club among both professionals and amateurs in short order.
Senior professional golfer Dana Quigley in the mid-2000s was noted for having no iron higher than a 7-iron in his bag, and advised amateurs everywhere to follow his example. Although you don’t see many 2- and 3-irons in any amateurs’ bags these days, Quigley’s advice to dump the 4-, 5- and 6-iron has yet to take hold in wholesale fashion, but it’s common on today’s LPGA Tour for players to have a 5-iron as the lowest-numbered iron in their set. Some companies have introduced complete hybrid iron sets, but so far they haven’t gained widespread interest.
In contrast to the early 1980s, a set makeup today may consist of the driver, a 3- or 4-wood, 3-hybrid, 4- through 9-iron, a pitching wedge, gap wedge, sand wedge, lob wedge and a putter. That’s quite a difference. The gap wedge came into play when the standard pitching wedge loft, formerly at 50°, changed for many companies to 46°, or even lower, in some sets. Since the standards and wedge loft has held steady at about 56°, there became too much of a distance gap between the pitching and sand wedges. Thus, companies rushed to fill the void with a gap, or approach, wedge.
Things have certainly changed in set makeup these past 30 years, but there was a time when many golfers carried fewer clubs and had an entirely different composition when shafts were made out of hickory. Golfers a century ago may have carried anywhere from 6-10 clubs. Francis Ouimet won the 1913 U.S.Open with just seven clubs, and they can be seen in the famous picture of him with caddie Eddie Lowery walking down the fairway.
One of the reasons to carry so few clubs was the relatively high cost of each individual club. As steel shafts came into prevalence and made clubs more affordable, golfers continued to add clubs to their bag. Lawson Little won the 1934 and 1935 British and U.S. Amateur tournaments carrying anywhere between 26 and 31 clubs. Caddies everywhere were grateful when the USGA and R&A soon limited the number of clubs to 14.
The set makeup of tomorrow may consist of club designs yet to be invented, but if history is our guide, will surely one day differ from what we see today.