Who reads the Rules of Golf, just for fun? Who gives up four days to attend a PGA/USGA Rules of Golf Workshop – and a 100-question exam – to earn the right to work their way up from local events to USGA championships, so they will have the right answer at the right time? That would be USGA Rules Officials, the volunteers who work USGA championships and help competitors manage any situation they face. (Think you’ve got what it takes? Click here to learn more about becoming a volunteer Rules official.)
Here, we share the stories of five men and women, all USGA Members, who love golf enough to say they are thankful for the chance to be of service:
Hometown: Cockeysville, Md.
Rules Tenure: 11 years as Rules official
USGA Championships: “I have worked as a Rules official at more than 50 national championships and I was the starter at the U.S. Women’s Open for eight years.”
Handicap: “I have been as low as a 4, but I am now a 7.9.”
“I learned to play growing up in Illinois,” said Collins. “I owe so much to golf. Heck, I moved to Maryland for work and met my husband, Rick, at Pineridge Golf Course. I was a single and got matched up with three guys. Rick asked me to play the next week; we have been happily married for 25 years.”
A troubling decision in a club event forced Collins to learn more about the Rules.
“I was playing in a club championship when play was suspended because of a thunderstorm,” she said. “My opponent said, ‘We have to start over tomorrow.’ It bothered me because I was pretty sure she was wrong, but I realized that I didn’t have a leg to stand on if I didn’t absolutely know the Rule, so I signed up for a workshop.” (If she knew then what she knows now, she would have referenced Rule 6-8b – Procedure When Play Suspended by Committee)
Collins began volunteering at local events, which helped her connect with the role even more.
“You have to be part investigative reporter to get all the information, but you also have to let players know that you are here to help,” she said. “There is no place for ‘gotcha’ officials. Tensions can be high so we need to learn the situation and be calm. Then we make a ruling and, just as importantly, let a player know that I can call another official in for a second opinion.”
Still, Collins is confident in her ability to handle situations that arise.
“I am not a Rules geek by any stretch of the imagination and I think that helps,” said Collins. “It is like learning another language and we have to be translators to make sure competitors get the benefit of our knowledge and experience. Certification [officials must maintain a 92 on their exam to work U.S. Amateur and Open championships] lasts four years, but I go to workshops at least every other year and stay up with the Rules by constantly taking quizzes to remain confident.”
Collins says she is happy to have traveled the world in support of her position.
“The USGA has been my travel agent for the last 15 years,” she said. “Golf provided me many opportunities and I am happy to give back. I don’t get to work on my game as much as I used to, but I spend all summer watching incredibly great golf swings and that is a huge help.”
Hometown: Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
Rules Tenure: “I started working USGA championships in 2002.”
USGA Championships: “I usually do four or five every year, as well as USGA local and sectional qualifiers and a lot of local events.”
Handicap: "I am a very enthusiastic 14.4.”
Newmark’s parents were avid golfers and she remembers golf talk at the dinner table.
“I didn’t play back then because I think I didn’t want to compete with my mom,” she said. “But I always appreciated how important the Rules were to them.”
Fast-forward a few decades and the now-avid player would find out how important the Rules would become to her.
“I was playing in a four-day tournament at Orinda Country Club [outside San Francisco],” said Newmark. “I played well, but I messed up our eighth hole, a par 3. So after the round, I played seven, eight and nine and thought, OK, now this is what I will remember tomorrow. My husband, Kent, who also is a USGA Rules Official, was working in San Francisco. I picked him up after work. We went to dinner and I told him what happened. He didn’t say anything, but when we got home, he disappeared with a Rules book. He said, ‘Pat, I am sorry but you can’t do that.’ We checked with the Northern California Golf Association. Sure enough, I had to go to the club the next day and DQ myself.
“The Rules are not easy for everyone and every competitor wants to do the right thing, “she added. “Kent and I talk Rules all the time. I think we have a decisions book in just about every room in the house. We study together but don’t go to the same workshops. I am going to Atlanta this year and he is going to Tennessee. We go every year, because it is just so helpful – and so much fun. I want to be prepared.”
Hometown: Wellesley, Mass.
Rules Tenure: “Since 1996!”
USGA Championships: About 40
Handicap: “I once was a 9. It felt like I had died and gone to heaven when I got there, but now I play to a 14.”
After competing in amateur golf, O’Donnell decided to support the game through volunteering as a Rules official.
“My husband, Tom, used to be a caddie as a kid. I soon learned there was a limit to his knowledge, so I made the Rules of Golf my mission,” she said. “I know that my [Rules exam score of] 92 lasts for four years, but I go to a workshop every year. If I were playing in tournaments, I would practice. And this is the practice I need for being an official. It is the intellectual exercise that keeps me sharp.”
O’Donnell says it’s also not merely a matter of being book smart.
“Being a Rules official is more art than science,” she said. “The most important part of the equation is to enjoy working with the players. It is so important to let them know that the Rules of Golf are there to protect the players. This isn’t like hockey or basketball, where fouls are committed on every play and where players sometimes are trying to get away with things. In golf, the art is putting yourself in their positions and helping them get on their way without compromising their games. If an official doesn’t enjoy that interaction, they won’t last long.”
O’Connell says she never loses sight of where avid players find their love for the game.
“I have six grandchildren, from 8 to 14. Some of them can outdrive me, but I am not going to threaten them with a Rules infraction if they do,” she said with a laugh. “This game is meant to be fun and, as they get older, I can share with them how to handle any situation on the golf course.”
Hometown: Great Falls, Va.
Rules Tenure: “I began working USGA events in 1996, when I was appointed to the Regional Affairs Committee.”
USGA Championships: 60
Grover Walker, an account executive with Bobby Jones Sportswear, was a tennis player until 1975, when he tried golf for the first time at a business sales meeting. In 1992, golf photographer Robert Walker invited his brother, Grover, to the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. It didn’t take long for Grover to see the action through a different lens than his brother.
“I saw these guys walking with the groups and Robert said, ‘You are so anal-retentive, you’d be perfect for that.’”
By 1998, Walker was working the U.S. Senior Open at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.
“I didn’t get to make any rulings,” he said. “I got to work the U.S. Open at Southern Hills Country Club in 2001. I pride myself on having a good bedside manner, but my job is not to be their best friend or get to know them, it’s to help them make the best decision.
“I remember the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional, when Graeme McDowell, Peter Uihlein and Louis Oosthuizen were playing together. Two of their drives landed in the same spot, the balls were touching, so they asked for a ruling. It’s Rule 22, one ball is marked, but can’t be cleaned, to allow another player to hit his ball without impediment. They knew the basics, but just wanted me to clarify. I would say that players, especially the professionals, should either go to a Rules workshop every two years or send their caddie. Knowing the Rules could save them a stroke – and make them more money.”
Walker says he works hard at his craft, attending workshops every year for the last 23 years.
“Working as a Rules official is like being in a fraternity,” said Walker. “It is just a great group of people, all dedicated to the game as it should be played. I could be going over something for the millionth time, but this one time it was explained in a fresh way and it just clicks. Sometimes we learn even more in the evening, when we are all sharing situations that we have experienced.”
Hometown: South Haven, Mich.
Rules Tenure: 18 years as Rules official
USGA Championships: “I have worked more than 50 national championships.”
Since he played golf at Western Michigan University, Bryan Lewis was often relied upon to serve as a de facto Rules official when playing with his friends after college. Then the self-proclaimed “lowly public golfer from Southwest Michigan” won a Golf Digest “Killer Golf Quiz” contest that earned him the right to attend a weekend of swing instruction – and a Rules presentation – with other contest winners. He met Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director of Rules and Competitions, who encouraged Lewis to further his Rules education and get involved with the Golf Association of Michigan.
“I couldn’t believe how much fun it was,” said Lewis. “I had a young family but also had the chance to work local events. As our sons got older, I could work more USGA championships. My wife, Carol, was very supportive because it gave me opportunities I would never otherwise have. I never would have gotten to see Pebble Beach or Oakmont or meet these remarkable people.”
Lewis, an information systems analyst with Whirlpool Corp., especially likes to focus on the Junior championships, for a variety of reasons.
“It is a special treat to get to know Jordan Spieth when he was just Jordan,” said Lewis. “And the same with the other talented competitors. So we get a chance to make a difference in young people’s lives, by teaching them the Rules as well as how to act. We don’t think twice about correcting behavioral issues, either. That is what makes golf so special. There is no working with kids’ behavior in team sports.”
David Chmiel is manager of Members content for the USGA. Please contact him at email@example.com.