The Meaning of 'Rub of the Green' in Golf

Golf course worker setting the pin on green.

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"Rub of the green" was a phrase that appeared in the Rules of Golf, until it didn't. The phrase was removed from the game's official rules in the update to the rules that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2019.

Even when the phrase did appear in the rule book, it was often misunderstood. Now that it is no longer used by the USGA or the R&A, nobody has to bother trying to understand it.

But we'll explain what it meant anyway. What it boiled down to is this: You can think of the expression "rub of the green" as being the way that the Rules of Golf said, "those are the breaks."

Definition of 'Rub of the Green' That Was In the Rules

This was the official definition of "rub of the green" as it appeared in the rule book, as written by the USGA and R&A, prior to the new rules issued for 2019:

"A 'rub of the green' occurs when a ball in motion is accidentally deflected or stopped by any outside agency (see Rule 19-1)."

'Rub of the Green' Appeared Only In Rule 19-1 Prior to 2019

Rule 19-1 was mentioned in the official rule book definition of rub of the green, so here is the bulk of that rule (which includes exceptions):

19-1. By Outside Agency
If a player’s ball in motion is accidentally deflected or stopped by any outside agency, it is a rub of the green, there is no penalty and the ball must be played as it lies, except:

a. If a player’s ball in motion after a stroke other than on the putting green comes to rest in or on any moving or animate outside agency, the ball must through the green or in a hazard be dropped, or on the putting green be placed, as near as possible to the spot directly under the place where the ball came to rest in or on the outside agency, but not nearer the hole, and
b. If a player’s ball in motion after a stroke on the putting green is deflected or stopped by, or comes to rest in or on, any moving or animate outside agency, except a worm, insect or the like, the stroke is canceled. The ball must be replaced and replayed. If the ball is not immediately recoverable, another ball may be substituted.

Note that a ball in motion being accidentally stopped or deflected is not what the current Rule 19 covers; rather, it's a situation addressed in the current Rule 11.1a. The ruling itself is unchanged, but the language was updated. And part of that updating and simplifying process was the removal of the phrase "rub of the green."

'Rub of the Green' Was a Figurative Shrug

If a golf ball is accidentally deflected or stopped by an outside agency (spectator, ball washer, yardage sign, etc.), it was called "rub of the green" and the ball was played where it came to rest. No penalty was assessed.

Although the expression is gone from the rule book, it will take a while for golfers to completely stop using the term in our vernacular. So anytime you see or hear "rub of the green," imagine a rules official shrugging his shoulders and saying, "Hey, whaddya gonna do?"

A "rub of the green" can be a good thing or a bad thing. Imagine you hit a ball on the perfect line, right at the hole. But the ball takes a hard bounce off the green, slams into the flagstick and careens right into that pond on the left side of the green. That is terrible luck. It's also an example of rub of the green.

But a rub of the green can provide a good break, too. Imagine you hit a terrible shot, way offline, but before the golf ball flies into the lake or over the out-of-bounds fence, it hits something and bounces back into play. Maybe even back into the fairway! Rub of the green.