What should we do with our bunker rakes?
That’s the question I get more than any other when I visit a golf course. For some reason – perhaps out of an errant notion that their placement will have an impact on course ratings – members and committee-persons often ask me if their rakes should go in the bunker, outside, or what.
Folks think I’m kidding when I tell them what I really think: that the best place to keep rakes during play is way outside the bunker, like in the maintenance barn. The crew should use them in the morning, I say, and then put them away for the day.
Let’s start with a basic if overlooked aspect of the issue. Study the Rules of Golf carefully as issued by the R&A and USGA in January 2019 and you will only find fleeting reference to a “rake,” and then only in terms that prohibit you from using it to touch or test the sand before playing out of a bunker. That’s it. There’s no reference to it as an object used to prepare or repair the sand. Bunker rakes have no status as objects required for grooming bunkers. Their status is entirely subsumed under the general category of a movable obstruction.
Because their use as grooming tools is entirely conventional and has no standing as a requirement of the playing field, they could be done away with without violating the spirit or terms of the Rules.
Rakes are a relatively modern adaptation in the game’s evolution. They are also in blatant conflict with one of the undeniably clear determinations of the Rules: that bunkers are a hazard and ought to be treated as such. They are an obstacle, a matter of presumed or imminent penalty, and thus one of the many threatening aspects of a layout’s design.
History of the bunker rake
Having made something of a study of the matter, I have found that bunkers are a 20th century advent. In one famous photograph of The Old Course at St. Andrews, Hell Bunker, the fairway hazard on the 14th hole, is shown with two golfers and three caddies standing in it and a third player observing from above. There is no evidence of a rake, or anything close to grooming having gone on. To say the least, the floor of the bunker is scruffy. In other words: a real hazard.
In every photo I have seen of Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen or Glenna Collet Vare contesting championships in the 1920s, rakes are not in evidence. Perhaps the bunkers were raked before the start of play, but they are not being raked once play is underway for the day.
We know that by the 1920s rakes were widely deployed as part of a greenkeeper's arsenal. The turf and superintendent trade magazines of the day carried pages of ads for such implements, so presumably they were bought and used, though apparently not left out on the course.
We know bunker preparation has long been an element of everyday course maintenance. The most notorious example could be found at Oakmont Country Club, where standard practice included deployment of massive rakes with 5-inch long teeth spaced 2-inches apart that created furrows in the sand bunkers. The practice was discontinued in 1950, though it made a fleeting, if modest revival at The PGA Tour’s Memorial Tournament in 2006-2008. At the insistence of course co-designer and overseer, Jack Nicklaus, players confronted light furrowing perpendicular to the line of recovery. The result was a modest increase in difficulty for fairway bunker recovery but only marginally more difficult greenside recovery.
How rake placement impacts play, conditions
Ah, but where to place those rakes? That’s where the debate ensues.
On the PGA Tour, placement is a simple matter: “Outside to avoid rulings in a hazard,” said one PGA Tour official who asked not to be named. The point, simply, is to avoid time-consuming decisions in which a free drop or placement would be allowed.
At the elite level, placement of rakes can occur with more precision than in regular, everyday public play because of more predictable patterns of play and the expectation that, once done cleaning up, Tour caddies can be relied upon to put rakes back where they belong.
In his role as chief championship officer for the PGA of America, Kerry Haigh’s responsibilities include overseeing course setup for the PGA Championship, Ryder Cup, Senior PGA Championship, Women’s PGA Championship and PGA Grand Slam of Golf. As he put it, “for all of our championships, we have the rakes outside the bunkers, in a flat area on the non-play side of the course that will least likely affect the golf ball. Usually four-to-six feet outside of the bunkers in line with where the ball is being hit from.”
At Papago Golf Course, a popular municipal facility in Phoenix, general manager Daryl Crawford concurs with outside placement of bunker rakes. For one thing, he says, it makes it easy for approaching golfers to pick up the rakes when they head into a bunker. Papago has large bunkers, and if rakes were placed in them, there would be a lot of walking around in the sand as golfers searched for rakes, entailing more disturbance of the hazard that would have to be raked – and likely would not be.
Ideally, with rakes placed outside bunkers, greenkeepers generally start them in the morning on the low side, astride entry into the hazard. But by the end of the day, they will be scattered everywhere, since golfers often leave rakes where they exit a bunker, and too often it’s on the high side, which can also mean atop the hazard on the green side.
That often means rakes end up hidden in long grass, hard to find and thus left unused.
Placing rakes outside bunkers can be a nuisance to maintenance workers who have to dismount mowing equipment to move the rakes. That can be time-consuming. And occasionally, maintenance regimens might dictate rake placement inside the bunker to accommodate an application of growth regulators to the turfgrass immediately around the bunker.
Design of the golf course might also determine rake positioning. The desire not to influence ball roll seems to dictate rake position on links courses in Scotland - inside the bunker.
At the Tiger Woods-designed Bluejack National in Montgomery, Texas, north of Houston, superintendent Eric Bauer has virtually no rough at all – everything is cut down to a low-mow fast track, including the entrance to bunkers. In such a setting, there’s no place to hide rakes and their placement would impede ground roll. His solution is to place the rakes in bunkers, on the low side, and trust his members and caddies to rake from their ball position back out to the low point again.
That’s also the look in Minnesota at Rochester Golf & Country Club, where the A.W. Tillinghast design sports hardwood rakes manufactured by a supplier of classic wooden course accessories, Cheesebrough, based in Freeport, Michigan. Superintendent Nicholas Folk says that the implements are hard to spot in the grass but are easy to see and look very traditional when placed in the bunkers.
One good compromise can be seen at Campbell River Golf & Country Club in British Columbia. There, the implement of choice is a long, aluminum-handle rake with a curved end that allows the rake head to sit in sand while the handle rests outside of it, on the ground.
Trust technology to come up with a solution to the surface rake. How about creating a subterranean chamber with a pop-up lid to hide the rake? That’s what Bighorn Country Club in Palm Desert, Calif., has across its 36-hole facility. Of course, you are now creating a hard surface area fronting each bunker that’s about 20 times the size of an irrigation head. And as a number of superintendents from across the country pointed out, you’re asking golfers to open up a literal black box of underground space that (in other regions) has been known to contain snakes, spiders and other unknown wildlife.
Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill., 50 miles west of downtown Chicago, tried that scheme out as way of hiding its rakes but gave up after a few years because the chamber kept getting filled with water. They now use a rake made from stainless steel rolling wire and don’t worry about their placement.
And again, there’s the option of doing away with rakes altogether during a round. The beauty there is you can do it without worrying about violating the rules of golf or incurring claims of undue “bifurcation” – creating two sets of rules.
I can see it now. A PGA Tour event in which the rakes are pulled off the course and players asked to find bunkers as real hazards. It would be exciting to watch. Real skill would be required in recovery from less than smoothly manicured lies. Real etiquette, too, since players would be responsible for minimizing foot traffic as they entered and exited a bunker. Woe betide the vindictive colleague taking out his or her frustrations on the field by kicking up a storm in a bunker.
Want to make golf more exciting while restoring traditional values? Pull the rakes out and lock them up.
Has the placement of a rake ever been a detriment to your lie? Let us know in the comments!