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Located along Jamaica Bay on the south shore of Long Island, the Inwood Country Club has seen many golf trends come and go in its 121-year history. Designed by Herbert Strong and site of the 1921 PGA Championship won by Walter Hagen and the 1923 U.S. Open won by Bobby Jones, Inwood invokes a sense of old-world tradition and timelessness. The golf course occupies a lowland setting, with exposure to the bay on our perimeter holes and more of a parkland feel on the inland holes.

For the past 18 years, under the direction of consulting architect Brian Slawnik from Renaissance Golf Design, Inwood has been restoring its historic course. This has involved major tree removal, expanding greens and fairways to their original sizes, and removing some modern course features like ball washers and asphalt cart paths. This year, after experiencing two years without rakes due to the pandemic, Inwood has decided to go rakeless permanently. Golfers now smooth out their bunker disturbances with a quick sweep of the foot. To us, removing rakes was a logical continuation of our efforts to bring back a style of golf at Inwood that is more natural and less artificial.

Our Green Committee had many practical and philosophical reasons for deciding that the course should go rakeless. However, the overriding reason was that we came to believe over the past two years that golf without rakes is just more fun. Who likes raking a bunker? Member Melanie Begun said “It’s nice not having to go find a rake, hit your shot, rake and then find the right spot to put the rake back. It saves so much time.” How much time? We think rounds at Inwood are about 10-15 minutes shorter without rakes.

Additionally, we found it’s not just the golf experience that benefits. Not having rakes has been beneficial to the maintenance budget. First, we are able to eliminate the cost of providing rakes. Inwood put out approximately 400 rakes for its 110 bunkers. At $50 for a quality rake, normal repair and replacement can add up to thousands of dollars each year. In addition, the staff no longer spends time moving and then replacing rakes while raking bunkers or mowing around them. Kevin Stanya, Inwood’s superintendent of 15 years, said that “When you have hundreds of rakes on the golf course and you’re raking bunkers daily plus mowing multiple times per week, all that stopping and starting to move rakes around adds up. Over a 34-week season, going rakeless translates into thousands of times someone doesn’t have to stop what they’re doing to move a rake and then stop again to replace it. That ends up creating many hours we can spend on more productive work.” We also consulted with a USGA agronomist to get their input on the plan to go rakeless permanently and they felt that there were a lot of potential advantages.

From an aesthetic point of view, we have endeavored to present a more natural, old-school look and feel at Inwood. This includes fescue grasses that blow in the breeze, sandy waste areas, and bunkers that are not overly manicured so they fit with the natural wetlands surrounding the course. The committee felt that having 400 rakes placed over the golf course was not in keeping with the goal of a more natural and traditional presentation.

Then there is the philosophical question: Are rakes necessarily good for golf? The history of rakes is relatively short in relation to the game. It wasn’t until the early 1950s that rakes were regularly placed around golf courses throughout the United States. It was controversial at the time as there was a segment of the golf world that thought rakes were not in the spirit of the game. However, the fashion at the time was to strive for uniform and perfect playing conditions in the bunkers and rakes were seen as integral to both of those goals. But times have changed, with golfers of all stripes now looking for a more authentic, natural golf experience – getting back to golf’s roots, so to speak.

As you can imagine, the decision to go rakeless provoked lively debate among our committee, the golf staff and several of our members. Concerns mostly followed the line of thought that it’s not fair to someone playing later in the day to have a greater risk of playing from an unraked disturbance than someone playing earlier in the day. In other words, everyone should have similar playing conditions throughout the day. When the committee sought counsel from Brian Slawnik on this issue, he responded that “Golf is not inherently fair, and no two players are ever playing an identical golf course. Weather changes throughout the day and play affects the course in various ways. Expecting a consistent lie after an errant shot devalues the well-placed one.” If we can accept that hitting a shot from an unrepaired divot in the fairway is part of golf, then having to deal with an unlucky lie in a bunker is certainly consistent with the spirit of the game.

From a practical point of view, the committee found that instances of someone’s ball actually landing in an unraked footprint are almost nonexistent – perhaps once in 25 rounds. In fact, the risk doesn’t seem to be much greater without rakes than it was when there were rakes. As every golfer knows, rakes being available doesn’t mean they always get used or that they are used properly. A quick swish of the feet is probably more likely to occur than the raking routine. “I bet most golfers will do a better job with their feet than they will with a rake,” added Slawnik, “and those who won’t kick out their footprints probably shouldn’t be trusted with a rake anyway!”

The response from the membership to going rakeless has been mostly favorable. Kyle Higgins, Inwood’s head professional, said “Most members would agree that not having rakes has had little to no effect on their score. The select few that might not agree are generally our lower-handicap and tournament players that struggle more with the idea of catching an unlucky break. Overall, I think, with time and experience, the benefits of no rakes combined with the minimal impact on their games will outweigh any concerns.” In addition, some of our members feel the look of a “foot-swished” bunker is not in keeping with a country club aesthetic. Having caddies carrying rakes in the future is being discussed. Even though caddies are only involved in approximately 20% of the rounds, it could be a possible compromise to address everyone’s concerns.

As a longtime supporter of tournament play in our area, we have been diligent about reaching out to local organizations to understand their perspective on the matter. Inwood member Adam Russell, who also serves as the Rules and Competition vice chairman of the Metropolitan Golf Association (MGA) on Long Island, said that “From both a member play and tournament perspective, we believe this is the better way to play golf at our course. We are not trying to make the game more difficult; we’re simply trying to get back to the roots of why golf is so special.” If an organization is concerned about the lack of rakes on the course for a tournament, there are feasible solutions to accommodate a particular event.

In the end, the committee agreed with noted architect Jim Urbina that going rakeless brings back the sense of adventure and unpredictability that is so essential to the game of golf and perhaps has been lost over time. As Jeff Schulman, Inwood’s historian, said: “One reason the ancient Scots fell in love with the game is that they thought it accurately reflected the unfairness of life.” When all else fails, we can ponder what Bobby Jones would have thought about going rakeless, as the course was when he won the U.S. Open here. We’re pretty sure he’d agree with the decision.

Daniel Friedman has been the green committee chairman of Inwood Country Club for the past 18 years and a member for 36 years.