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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mandell

Rub of the Green Rubbing the Wrong Way Today

One of the many definitions of the word “rub” is “an accident, good or bad”. In the rules of golf, a “rub of the green” occurs when a ball in motion is stopped or deflected by any outside agency. My favorite definition comes from Chick Evans, “rubs of the green remain to cause crazy bounces and cranky lies”. To a golf architect, that meaning is what should provide the inspiration to utilize every single land form of a site to its fullest extent in design. For me, the rub of the green means that the randomness of golf course design should rule the game and not be a hostage to acceptable golf course “conditioning”.

Unfortunately, the rub of the green is a thing of the past and its demise could be seen as the single-most reason why the game of golf costs as much as it does today. My earlier blogs centered on the fledgling golf course industry from the standpoint of real estate and the focus on aesthetics hurting the game’s economy. Many golf courses have been built solely to promote real estate and many golf holes have been built primarily with aesthetics in mind over all else. These two platforms have been major contributors to the expense of the game as we know it, but are not the only culprits. Golf course conditioning over the years has become so over-indulgent and expensive that the need to provide perfect playing conditions has contributed to the financial crunch as well. With such a need for these artificial conditions, heavy golf course maintenance budgets have forced the cost of golf ever higher for the end-user to the point that the game is out pricing itself. Pun intended, that is the “rub” of the game right there.

The term “Rub of the green” was a critical element of the spirit of the game in its early days that has slowly eroded away. The quirky golf courses of the past were characterized by random site features and land forms which were embraced as challenges by the golfer, not looked upon as unfair hazards as they are today. In the past, sand bunkers weren’t raked on a daily basis. They were (crazy as it sounds!) hazards to challenge the golfer. The golfer knew to stay out of the sand or suffer the consequences. Nowadays, the annual maintenance budget for sand bunkers supersedes that of the putting green at the majority of golf courses in the nation. We’ve become a nation of softies who need all adversity eliminated from our lives.

For me as a golf architect, the need for perfect conditions is not only a situation which is killing the economics of golf, but also stymies creativity. This was never what the game of golf was supposed to be about. Golf was intended to be pure sport and not a game with defined boundaries. The golfer stood against nature and challenged it, whatever the consequences. The game began simply with a person whacking an object from one point to another, dealing with the sand-exposed dunes created by animals burrowing out of the wind (sand bunkers), avoiding the long grasses (rough) and in the process seeking out the shorter ones (fairways) so as not to lose track of their object. At the end of the journey they sought to deposit their object in an animal hole, most likely created by a rabbit (the golf cup). Along the way, other natural (and sometimes man-made) objects were avoided. Wee burns (creeks), stone walls, even sheds or other structures were considered “rub of the green”. The whole essence of the game was founded upon the simple concept of dealing with nature to get from point A to point B.

So where did we go wrong? At some point in the history of golf architecture, we went from the player adapting to the field to adapting the field to the player. From there, we have continuously adapted the playing field more and more for the player to the point where many believe that a golf course cannot be built for less than $4 million when in fact it can be built for much less (provided we accept less than perfect conditions and embrace the “rub of the green” as the challenge it originally was meant to be for the golfer). Now we expect maintenance as a means to stress-free golf as well. Not only does the average golfer think that golf architects should design strictly to adapt to their game, they expect the golf course superintendent to maintain two-hundred emerald green acres of carpet and baby bottom smooth sand as well. But if the golfer does not start to accept lesser conditions, the golfer won’t afford to play this game much longer (most of them already can’t). Of course, the poor everyday golfer is simply exposed to perfect conditions each week watching the PGA Tour. Until the professional golfer accepts the randomness of great design and the “rub of the green”, it will be a challenge for those of us who want to return the game to its roots and make it affordable once again.

Tell me what ‘rub of the green” means to you. What elements of the golf course stand out to you as fun challenges? Do you think that perfect conditions are necessary for the enjoyment of your game? My next blog will focus on specific features of golf course design, construction, and maintenance which should be compromised to reduce the cost of golf and bring back the “rub” (and affordability).

In future blogs, I will focus on Washington D.C. golf courses, beginning with the history of the area so if you have any thoughts on that subject, please contact me with your input.

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