USGA Rules of Golf Associates must remain focused on the task at hand, no matter how much they may be distracted by the caller’s predicament.
“We recently got a call from Arizona,” said Travis Lesser, who has fielded calls and e-mails from golfers for the USGA for more than two years. “The player’s ball had come to rest in the stomach cavity of a dead squirrel. Unfortunately, since the squirrel carcass was a loose impediment, they had to play the ball as it lies.”
Lesser also has a copy of an e-mailed cell phone photo tacked to the wall, featuring an alligator basking by a pond. The shadow of the golfer/photographer is cast across the image, making it clear that it wouldn’t have been prudent to move any closer to the pictured gator in order to play a shot. What are my options, the player wondered. He was allowed, under Decision 1-4/10, to take relief from a dangerous situation.
USGA Rules of Golf Associates fielded 13,989 inquiries on the Rules of Golf in calendar year 2010, according to Lesser, the keeper of the database. Well over half of them (7,839) were phone calls, while the vast majority of the rest (6,097) were sent in via e-mail. A handful of letters and faxes rounded out the total, which varies widely by the season.
“June seems to be the busiest month,” said Shannon Rouillard, who is just finishing her first year as a Rules associate. “People are playing a lot of golf and watching a lot of golf at that time of year. Often, people just call with an inquiry about a ruling they saw; they just want to know how a Rule was interpreted or why a Rule is what it is. But real Rules questions always take precedence over made-up scenarios.”
“The number of calls has everything to do with whether a prominent event is being televised,” said David Staebler, director of Rules education for the USGA. “And if there is a situation like the Dustin Johnson ruling [at the 2010 PGA Championship] or Brian Davis [at the Verizon Heritage], people call to express their frustration with the Rule or to ask for an explanation on the ruling.”
Rouillard estimated that more than 100 e-mails are received over a typical summer weekend, “and the phone rings off the hook as well,” she said. “It’s quite a juggling act, but it’s good to know that when you’re answering an e-mail, you’re solving a problem for someone.”
Rouillard came to the position from an 8½-year stint as the women’s golf coach at the University of Oregon. She took some time out last fall to compete in the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur, where she qualified for match play before bowing out. Lesser worked as an assistant golf professional for three years at Philadelphia Country Club. He developed an interest in golf administration, and pursued it as a tournament director with the International Junior Golf Tour, which is based on Hilton Head Island, S.C., before landing the job with the USGA.
“The Rules of Golf Associate is a two-year position with the USGA,” said Staebler. “We advertise it with state and regional associations. We’re looking for someone with more than the typical golfer’s knowledge of the Rules. Often it’s someone who is involved in the game already and is looking for the next move in their career.”
Staebler points out that the USGA website has a Rules FAQ page that gives a good overview of the most commonly asked questions (http://www.usga.org/RulesFAQ/rules.asp). That doesn’t keep the calls and e-mails from flying in, though.
“The questions are everywhere,” said Staebler. “Relief situations, drops, unplayable lies... questions over what a player is entitled to under the Rules and what they aren’t. We also get a fair number of calls about equipment. Sometimes someone has gotten a ruling already and they think, that can’t be right. They don’t like the answer, so they call us.”
In many cases, the USGA Rules staff is trying to rid a player of an incorrect perception of a Rule, or even whether a Rule exists.
“I got a call from someone who wanted me to clarify what ‘inside the leather’ means,” said Rouillard. “Or someone will want us to give the definition of a ‘gimme.’ Neither term exists under the Rules of Golf. We also had someone who wanted to penalize their friend for hitting a wood out of a bunker, because they were sure that the only club you could use in a bunker is a wedge.”
“There are so many misconceptions out there,” said Lesser. “A golfer will hear a commentator say something on TV or read something in a magazine that’s not accurate, and they will run with it. There are a lot of self-proclaimed experts out there.”
Rouillard agreed. “Often a person will have an idea of what a particular Rule is, but it’s not quite correct. Well, they tell all their friends – who believe it, too – and the spiral begins.”
That’s not to say that the Associates – or the Rules themselves – have every answer.
“Sometimes we’ll have a situation where the Rules don’t direct you to any particular place,” said Rouillard. “When that happens, we will take a stab at it, but then we’ll talk about it as a group.”
Rouillard made a discovery about herself as she fielded the inquiries.
“I didn’t realize how much of a people person I was until I took this job,” she said. “I realized that I enjoyed answering a phone call much more than an e-mail. A lot of times, people just want someone to listen to them, whether you agree with them or not. And if they don’t agree with us, we encourage them to write to the Rules of Golf Committee.”
The Associates also take their share of calls and e-mails from self-described Rules gurus, people “who live to stump Golf House if they can,” said Staebler with a chuckle. “Then we get the PGA professionals, whose members have just come off the course. They will call and say, ‘Here’s what they told me, and here’s what I told them.’ They are trying to do the right thing, and they’re looking for backup. The most entertaining are the cell phone calls from the golf course, when someone is asking a question while someone else is barking in the background. Those are hilarious.”
Staebler admits that to some extent, the Rules are a moving target. They are amended every four years, with the next iteration to become effective Jan. 1, 2012.
“The Rules are not static,” he said. “They evolve over time. For example, before 2008, you were not permitted to lift your ball from a bunker or a water hazard to identify it, and if you played a wrong ball from a bunker or a water hazard, there was no penalty. But that changed, so that now if you play the wrong ball – no matter where – you incur a penalty, with one minor exception.”
“That involves a ball that is moving in water in a water hazard. And if you hear about that one happening, I want to know about it.”
Cue the callers.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.