'Rub of the Green' in Golf Rules

Ball washer on a golf course is an outside agency
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You can think of the expression "rub of the green" as being the way that the Rules of Golf say, "those are the breaks."

Definition of 'Rub of the Green' in the Rules

This is the official definition of "rub of the green" as it appears in the rule book, as written by the USGA and R&A:

"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' in Rule 19-1

Rule 19-1 is mentioned in the official rule book definition, 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.

Be sure to read the full Rule 19-1 and the Decisions on Rule 19-1, which are available on usga.org and randa.org.

A Figurative Shrug

If a golf ball is accidentally deflected or stopped by an outside agency (spectator, ball washer, yardage sign, etc.), it is called "rub of the green" and the ball is played where it comes to rest (note the exceptions mentioned in the rule above, however).

No penalty is assessed.

Anytime you see "rub of the green," imagine a rules official shrugging his shoulders and saying, "Hey, whaddya gonna do?"

But 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.