Meet the Niblick, an Early Form of Golf Club

Niblicks Were Used for Gouging Golf Balls Out of Tight Spaces

Four antique golf clubs including two niblicks
Second from left, a larger-headed niblick, circa 1910; far right, a snub-nosed niblick, circa 1890. Sarah Fabian-Baddiel/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Among the wooden-shafted historical golf clubs in use prior to the 20th Century, the "niblick," in its use, was most equivalent to a modern 9-iron or wedge.

That doesn't necessarily mean the niblick looked like a modern 9-iron or wedge, though. In fact, the farther back in time you go, the less like a modern short-iron/wedge the niblick appeared. But its use was always to gouge golf balls out of tight spaces.

There were three evolutionary stages of the niblick golf club, going from the oldest form to the last incarnation:

The Wood-Headed Niblick

The first golf clubs called niblicks had wood shafts and small, spooned, wood clubheads. ("Spooned" means that the face of the club was concave—literally, shaped like a spoon.) These were most common prior to the mid-1800s.

It is these niblicks that give the club its name. According to The Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms, "niblick" derives from Scottish Gaelic and is a diminutive form of "nib," meaning "nose." So niblick loosely translates to "short-nosed."

The wood-headed niblick was, literally, short-nosed: It was a small, snub-nosed, steeply lofted club (with that spooned face) that was designed to let the golfer swing down into ruts or depressions, or other tight lies.

And that was very important on those long-ago links courses where golf took root. Those links were public spaces; residents of towns would cross them to reach the water, or use them to go rabbit hunting or for other purposes. So finding one's golf ball stuck down in a rut or small hole or depression was not uncommon. This was true even if the golfer hit the fairway, because the "fairways" of the time were largely unmanicured.

The Small, Iron-Headed Niblick

This version of the niblick started becoming more common than the wood-headed version in the latter half of the 1800s. The clubheads were iron, rather than wood, but were still steeply lofted and still had some spooning in the clubface.

And the iron heads were also, like the wooden niblicks, very small for getting into tight spaces. The iron-headed niblicks were often used for, literally, digging the golf ball out of tracks or ruts in the fairway. Which explains why this version of the niblick was sometimes called a track iron or rut iron.

The Larger, Iron-Headed Niblick

Beginning in the later 1800s, niblicks started to more closely resemble - in appearance, not just use - today's 9-irons and wedges. The clubheads became larger and rounder (the snub-nosed look disappeared), the spooning was lessened and eventually, in some niblicks, also disappeared.

The blade on these niblicks was deeper (longer from top to bottom), and these niblicks were used more for playing from rough and the sand.

These latter niblicks remained in use until the old-style named clubs were replaced by the modern matched set (3-iron, 4-iron, etc.) in the 1930s. Many of the old niblicks remained in the bags of golfers for years to come, however, and it was also not uncommon for several more decades to hear golfers of that time referring to their newer wedges as niblicks.

Modern Golf Manufacturers Sometimes Still Use the Niblick Name

While those historical niblicks are long gone from golf, the name "niblick" still occasionally pops up in new golf clubs. Club manufacturers today sometimes bring back the name to use on a new wedge or chipper. Cleveland Golf, for example, has introduced chipper-type clubs and "short-iron hybrids" under the the Niblick name several times in the 2000 and 2010s.