Probable Origins of "Rub of the Green" in Golf

The term "rub of the green" is defined in the Rules of Golf as the accidental deflection of a ball in motion by an outside agency. Despite this clarity, many argue that the term is more general, meaning "bad luck." Thus, they might say, a ball that ends up in a hazard is a rub of the green. Despite this general belief, there is no authority for the proposition that "rub" in any context has a connection with luck, good or bad.

Where did it come from? The game of bowls has the probable answer.

The Game of Bowls. (Also lawn bowling, boules, bocce, bolla.)
There is evidence that this game has been in existence since Roman times, and some evidence beyond. It is played on a flat area of ground (green) and involves rolling or throwing balls (bowls) to a target ball (the jack) on the other side of the green, the object being get as close as possible to the jack. Some types of bowls are weighted asymmetrically (biased) so they will curve when thrown, more severely so when slowing down. The game is believed to have come to Great Britain’s greens with the Normans, though there is no evidence of it. The oldest known bowls green in the UK is in Southampton and dates from 1299, still exists today. The similarity between bowls and golf, particularly in the rules and terminology should not go unnoticed by the serious student of either game. (More on the similarity between the rules will follow.)

Webster’s 1913* revised, unabridged dictionary defines "rub" as follows:
1. The act of rubbing; friction.
2. That which rubs; that which tends to hinder or obstruct motion or progress; hindrance; obstruction, an impediment; especially, a difficulty or obstruction hard to overcome; a pinch.
    Every rub is smoothed on our way. --Shak.
    To sleep, perchance to dream; ay, there's the rub.--Shak.
    Upon this rub, the English ambassadors thought fit to demur.--Hayward.
    One knows not, certainly, what other rubs might have been ordained for us by a wise Providence. --W. Besant.

3. Inequality of surface, as of the ground in the game of bowls; unevenness.

The Oxford English Dictionary (1931)* defines rub more specifically in the context of bowls:

An obstacle or impediment by which a bowl is hindered in, or diverted from its proper course; also the fact of the bowl meeting with such impediment.

The Universal Dictionary of the English Language (Colliers, 1897)* provides a very interesting look at the meaning of the term in those times with specific reference to bowls:

3. To incline or turn in towards the jack.
4. Inequality of the ground which hinders the motion of the bowl.

The term "green" also causes some confusion to the modern student of the rules because in golf it has more than one meaning. However, it is clear that the "green" referred to in "rub of the green" means more than just the putting surface. The green in bowls was the entire playing area. The term "through the green" in golf expresses the same idea, with some limitation.

The OED defines green:

A piece of grassy land used for some particular purpose, as bleaching green, bowling green. In golf the putting ground, sometimes the whole links or field.

Conclusion. The origin of the term "rub of the green" seems clear. The natural and expected curving of the bowl toward the jack is a rub. A bowl that is deflected by the uneven ground of the green is called a rub of the green. Adaptation of this concept to golf was natural because of the similarities in playing a ball to a target over a green. (See below.)

The idea that rub means bad luck simply has no support in the definition or early uses of the term. (Even Shakespeare's famous "…aye there's the rub…" does not mean bad luck; Hamlet was musing about whether he would dream if he "slept" permanently (i.e. died). But death, though appearing like sleep, was the "rub" [i.e. obstruction, impediment] to dreaming.) The sources make it clear that "rub" means to impede, interfere, obstruct. Such action may be bad luck, but the term does not mean that.

Rules of Bowls and the origins of the Rules of Golf.

This is not intended to be a jot for jot analysis of the two games, but only a cursory comparison of some aspects, including the rules.

Most interestingly, just as golf was banned by earlier Kings so that his vassals would spend their time at archery practice, Henry VIII took an interest in the sport but felt obliged to restrict it to "the wealthy or well to do". In fact in 1541 he passed an Act which forbade artificers, servants, apprentices etc., playing at any time other than Christmas after bowyers, fletchers, stringers and arrowhead makers had complained of lost trade. Anyone caught playing bowls was fined 40 shillings for every day the game was played. It was a different story for the wealthy although Henry VIII not only required a fee of 100 pounds for anyone wishing to keep a green for private play but forbade anyone to play beyond his own garden or orchard. But the rules are the most interesting comparison. Here are the rules of bowls with comments suggesting parallels with the rules of golf.

Charles II, his brother James, Duke of York, and the Duke of Buckingham, drew up what is purported to be the first set of Laws of the Game in 1670, pre-dating the Leith Code by more than seventy years. They are listed in the pavilion of the Southampton Old Bowling Green as such:

The game to consist of five or seven points as may be agreed upon by the party engaged. Four or six bowlers constitute a set.

1. The party who has the highest die shall lead the Jack, keeping his foot upon the trig, [the "teeing ground"] which must be placed at least one yard from the verge of the green.
[Order of play by lot.]

2. Whoever shall once throw the Jack off the green, shall lose the leading of the Jack to their opponents, and shall be obliged to follow the Jack so led by their opponents, or adverse party.

3. At the commencement of every end, the trig shall be places where the Jack was taken up, or three strides wide of it in any direction before the Jack be thrown, provided by so doing the cast be not less than thirty yards.
[Teeing ground within a distance of the last hole played.]

4. If the Jack be bowled off the green, there shall be a fresh cast, and the same party again lead.

5. If a bowl, whilst running, be stopped by the adverse party, it shall be laid close behind the Jack.
[Ball hitting opponent provides a penalty.]

6. If any bowler do take up the Jack before the cast or casts won be granted, he shall lose the cast to the adverse party.
[Holing out of turn, loss of honour]

7. If any bowler who lieth all, i.e. who is nearest the Jack, do take up the Jack or cause the same to be taken up before his opponent hath thrown the last bowl, his side shall lose the cast and the lead shall begin again.
[Holing out of turn].

8. If any bowler who lieth all do take up the Jack or cause the same to be taken up before his own partner hath thrown his last bowl, he shall lose the benefit of that bowl.

9. If any bowl do lie between the Jack and the bowl that is to be measured, or the Jack leaneth upon the bowl, or the bowl upon the Jack, it shall be lawful to bolster the bowl or Jack, and to take away the bowl which hindered the measuring, provided it doth not prejudice the adverse party in so doing. If it shall appear to the spectators (being no bettors), the adverse party was prejudiced thereby, although the bowl did not win, yet the benefit thereof shall be lost.
[Marking the ball to measure.]

10. If in measuring it shall appear that the bowl or Jack was removed, or made worse by the measurer, the cast so measured shall be allowed to the adverse party.

11. If any bowler bowl out of turn, his bowl may be stopped by the adverse party, but not by him who delivered the same.

12. If any bowl be stopped while running, or touched by its own party, it shall be taken away.
[Ball striking player loses hole.]

13. If any bowler deliver his bowl or bowls not touching the trig with his foot, it shall be lawful for the adverse party to stop the same whilst running and make him bowl it again; but it shall not be lawful for him that bowls it to stop it.
[Teeing outside the teeing ground requires replay.]

14. If any bowler who lieth all do take up a bowl or bowls before the adverse party hath granted him, the cast shall be lost, and the Jack shall be thrown again.

15. No cast shall be measured before all bowls are bowled.

16. If he that is to throw the last bowl do take up the trig, or cause it to be taken up, supposing the game to be won, or that he shall do some hurt, the same bowls shall not be bowled that cast or end, for the trig once taken up shall not be set again.

17. If any running bowl be stopped, or touched by a spectator, not being a bettor, whether it be to the benefit or hindrance of the caster, the same bowl shall take its chance and lie.
[Rub of the green.]

18. If a bowl be moved out of its place by the party that bowled the same at any time before the cast be ended, the same shall be cleared away by the adverse party.

19. Keep your temper! and remember he who plays at bowls must take Rubbers.
[Sometimes called a rub; two out of three to win; today we refer to the "rubber game" as the deciding game when both opponents have one apiece.]

Whether all these seeming connections are coincidences or wishful thinking can be left for a more in-depth study. But the similarities are interesting in themselves.

* Older versions of sources used because of proximity to origins.

2002 Richard G. Groff

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