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Taking some clubs out of the bag might be the answer to your biggest golf questions

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1954: General view of Dutch Harrison's golf bag along with many other golf bags are shown circa 1954. (Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images
Photo by Hy Peskin/Getty Images

The nine yard-length paces from the sprinkler head back to my golf ball meant I had 181 yards to the front of the green. My brain processed the number and robotically spit out that it was a stock 6-iron—the standard 180-yard shot. One problem: I didn’t have a 6-iron.

It was about 2,000 yards away, lying in the trunk of my rental car with a handful of others in the Castle Stuart parking lot, unaware of what it had done to be punished and put away. 

My friends and I were in the thick of a 12-round Scottish golf trip—my first—and the firm, fast, world-class golf lit my imagination on fire in a way that I had never experienced in America. The game was more bocce ball than lawn darts, and I knew I’d never see it the same way again.

Castle Stuart was our ninth round, and I arrived itching for an even stronger drug. So I played a half-set of clubs—a hipster, throwback endeavor that I had never been brave enough to try. But on these golf courses, where a 100-yard shot means 10 different things to 10 different people, it was finally time. I went with odd-numbered irons, one wedge, a driver and a putter. 

Without my 6-iron, I suddenly had to rethink that 181-yard shot. I grabbed the 5, shut my robot golf brain off and flipped on the creative side. Rarely had I been more excited for an otherwise run-of-the-mill shot. 

This is not a new idea. The 14-club-maximum rule went into effect in 1938, and, apart from professionals—some of whom were carrying up to 30 clubs at the time—the general golfing populace was surely already making it work with far fewer. 

The first time I saw someone do it was in 2017, while playing Kingston Heath in Melbourne, Australia. I must protect his identity—that’s a different essay—but I can divulge that he was moonlighting at the time as a DJ known as Party Panther.

“Golfers make two kinds of errors,” Party Panther explained. “Decision errors and action errors. There’s nothing you can do about action errors; sometimes you just make a bad swing. But there’s no excuse for decision errors like picking the wrong club. So why not just remove a ton of that decision making?”

Now, let me get out in front of one thing: If you’re a great player for whom terms like “gapping” and “dispersion patterns” actually mean something, leaving half of your irons in the trunk does not mean better golf. If the game, to you, is something to be optimized and beaten, I encourage you to skip ahead and enjoy some of the other excellent features in this magazine.

If you’re still here, I suspect you might be a mentally deranged faux-shot-maker like me. For us weirdos, please know that a half-set can help you enjoy the game even more.

I get it. A half-set conjures tons of questions, mostly focused on the how: How can I execute this shot if the yardage doesn’t compute? How can I enjoy myself in all these awkward situations? But I believe it’s more interesting to look at all the potential answers a half-set brings.  

Take minimalism. It’s so hot right now. We breathlessly celebrate the architects who move the least amount of earth and create as natural of a playing field as possible. We talk about wind and rain and bad bounces being integral parts of what makes golf a beautiful, unsolvable puzzle. The question that the half-set asks is whether we actually believe any of that stuff.

If less is more when it comes to golf, then why would you want to show up to the test armed with the answers to as many questions as possible? Put another way: The point, as eye-rolly as it might sound, is to enjoy the process of hitting golf shots instead of hitting numbers. 

For someone of my mediocre skill level, this is a blessing and a curse. I’m good enough to visualize carving all sorts of dramatic, thrilling shots, but rarely skilled enough to actually execute them. It’s led to an inordinate amount of double bogeys and trashed scorecards. But I’m a hopeless romantic: I still believe there is far more joy in drawing up and occasionally pulling off those shots than clicking back to robot mode and entering some numbers into the GHIN app.

Beyond the visceral thrill that comes with sending a 5- or 7-iron to do a 6-iron’s job, there is a level of engagement I can’t reach when playing a full-set round. Inevitably, those rounds include a three- to four-hole stretch where I check out mentally. Could be boredom, fatigue, real life barging into my swing thoughts or maybe even self-sabotage, but it’s a completely helpless feeling I know many golfers get. It’s an autopilot, HAL 9000, “I’m afraid I can’t hit that shot, D.J.” type of golf, and it’s what turns 75 into 81. 

The situation is almost always the same: My range finder tells me a shot is 160 yards. Without thinking, I grab my 160-yard club, and it’s not until I watch the ball plug in the front bunker that I realize I gave zero thought to the wind, the elevation, the lie or any other factor. After I make double, I typically like to wipe the next driver off the planet, make a few more frustrated decisions, then limp home to discuss my mediocre round over a mediocre beer.

These rolling blackouts rarely come into play with a half-set.

Knowing I have too much club forces me to think about how much to take off, which forces me to think about the wind, the elevation, the lie, etc. The result is a flood of good questions: What is the shot? What is the shape? Where is it landing? Where is it stopping? Commitment leads to positive golf swings, and I never hit more-committed shots than when I’m playing with half the clubs.

For the still skeptical, there is also the problem of why one would “waste” a round with an experiment like this. I would argue that the opposite is true, particularly at courses you’ve never played. Golf courses—especially the most fun ones in the world—are designed for playing golf. They challenge you to find creative solutions to every question. 

That 5-iron from 181 worked out, by the way. Middle of the green. Ended up with my lowest—and most memorable—round of the trip.