Whither The Rake Tom Coyne

Whither the Rake

In, out or off the course entirely, it’s time to take your place in the debate

My mother came from outside people. Her father was an outsider. His father was an outsider. And neither of them would have let my dad set foot on their front porches if they knew his kin were insiders of the most dedicated kind. 

We were raised agnostic on the matter and never brought it up at Thanksgiving. And it worked, for a while. Then the yard signs sprouted up, and the websites and tweets pushed folks deeper into their corners. It was clear that if ever I were to fit into a foursome again, I had to pick a team, so I went searching for a dispassionate answer to which both sides might lend an ear. I’m not sure I found it, but I did learn that when it comes to where to leave the bunker rake, people don’t like hearing that they’re wrong.

I used to take sides on things. There was a time when I’d leap into the mosh pits, firing off takes on trucker caps and ball-marker size and white belts and Peter Kostis. The bruises from those days are still dark. But with the rake debate pulling me back into those swirling waters, I wanted history on my side. So I reached out to the Golf Heritage Society, and past president Melvin B. Lucas Jr. provided the long view:

The first find of rakes placed on a golf course was in 1932 at Oak Ridge CC, in Tuckahoe, New York, where bunker rakes were placed at each sand bunker for members’ use. They sank a 2-inch galvanized pipe 4 feet long into the ground at the back of each bunker for a standard wooden bunker rake used by the greenskeepers. This was a convenient method for the greenskeepers to be able to mow the green, then rake the bunkers. Those days, almost all mowing was pedestrian pushed, and then one would place a mower on a two-wheel carriage to walk to the next green and continue without the encumberment of an awkward rake.

In 1934, Merrill Maisack, golf architect/golf pro, designed a folding rake to be placed in the golf bag for caddies to use.

In 1956, the leave-in-trap rake, the Trap Groomer, was designed and sold by Clinton Kent Bradley in New Jersey. Bradley was a one-time greenskeeper turned inventor and salesman to greenskeepers.

Clinton Kent Bradley: a name we never spoke in our house, and now I knew why. He’d given us the tool, but hadn’t left the wisdom to use it consistently, responsibly. The deeper I dug, the higher the stakes climbed.

The outside-the-bunker crowd seemed to have the numbers, but that didn’t mean they had the truth (whether there is a difference—murky waters, indeed). They spoke of fairness and the too-penal nature of the game. They demanded unobstructed golf, then called for rake convenience in the same breath. Their ideal rake was both far away and nearby, invisible yet at the ready. They wanted it all, it seemed, and they nearly convinced me we could have it.

I found their position bolstered by a friend whose insights I trust more than most, golf scribe Michael Bamberger: “The rabbis have been debating this for years, and there is no settled law,” he explained.

“To this reporter-caddie-duffer, outside makes more sense. Rub of the green, a legitimate aspect of the game, is likely to be more impactful, and in happier circumstances, with the rake outside the trap. When the rake is placed in the bunker and the ball is leaning on it, rules debates follow. That’s not why we’re there. I vote for out.”

’Twas decided. And then it wasn’t, as voices from abroad flooded my inbox, challenging my America-centric view. Scottish and Irish golfers called for rakes to not only be placed within bunkers, but to be left in their deepest sandy center. Doing so, they claimed, allowed a ball easier access to the middle of the trap versus being stopped too close to an edge. It was a perspective born of lives lived among revetted-face pot bunkers, and I understood the point even as I noted its subtext: We Yanks wanted our rakes kept at a distance, both physically and psychologically, as if bunkers and bad things need not exist. Team Europe, however, was resigned to the inevitability of life’s bunkers; they grab everyone at some point, and if you are headed for a pothole, you might as well hope for its softest spot. American optimism vs. European pragmatism. It was compelling sociology, but not the tidy upshot I was after.

We could all play it where it lies, and leave our rakes at home.

I found no real consistency among the superintendents I queried (in-the-bunker favored mowers; outside was better for bunker grooming), but they shared a conviction I had not considered: Bunker rakes are a blight. Wasteful, costly, ugly. They should be rounded up and sold off as kindling.

It wasn’t the only alternative rake option I’d encountered. The upright rake holder, for example, is still in play at some courses in the British Isles, but I found it pulled your eyes away from the golf course and pointed them toward what looked like a string of undressed scarecrows. In Idaho I’d found a course where rakes hid in tubes drilled 5 feet deep into the earth, which I thought might be the scheme to settle this kerfuffle—until a caddie confessed that water and fertilizer collected at the bottom of the chute, turning rake handles into the wrong end of a toilet wand. I’d seen caddies travel with homemade two-piece rakes clipped to their belts (this was at the toilet-rake course—no surprise), and elsewhere I’d been asked to leave rake handles propped out of the bunker, a non-solution sure to aggravate both the mowers and the groomers. And what about the rake-on-the-cart alternative, you ask? I say that if there is a golf course in hell, it will be carts only and a bunker rake will be riding shotgun. 

Compromise again proved elusive, until an exchange with architect Tom Doak brought me around to the idea of a door No. 3.

Doak told me that he did not miss rakes when we went without them during the deep pandemic days of 2020. I agreed. A kick and a shuffle did a fair job of leveling my mess, and, as Doak explained, “Bunkers had more strategic value when you were actually afraid of getting a bad lie.” Fair point.

“The need for bunker rakes began with the prevalence of stroke-play competition,” he said, “when the guys playing later in the day had to deal with worse bunker conditions and rightfully said that was unfair. But if you’re playing in a match, your opponent is just as likely to get screwed in a footprint as you are, so it’s entirely fair whatever the conditions of the bunker at that moment. Golf would be better off in many ways if match play were the dominant form. Unfortunately, what’s best for TV and the pro tour ruined it for the rest of us.”

That proclamation knocked me off my horse. Maybe my simmering resentment toward pro-tour golf—something I dared not talk about in polite company—was OK to discuss, and perhaps rakes were the nudge I needed. But for the whims and preferences of roughly .01% of golfers, the rest of us might not have to suffer stroke play and boring greens and interminable rules and Nike shirts and distance debates and dirty-money disputes. We could all go play a match, play it where it lies and leave our rakes at home.

Could that possibly be the answer? Could we just stop? Stop raking, stop quibbling, stop taking sides? I suppose. But what else would we do? So much time for other things. The courses would be packed, and the state of the bunkers…don’t get me started.  

Header photo by Christian Hafer