"There's Always Something New To Learn"

It takes a special skill set and drive to become a proficient USGA Rules official

By Daniel Hubbard
January 25, 2011

Clyde Luther has worked more than 115 USGA championships as a Rules official. (John Mummert/USGA)

 

In 2010, the Rules of Golf received an unusual amount of attention. Several on-course incidents at professional tournaments involving high-profile players such as Dustin Johnson, Juli Inkster and Ian Poulter made national headlines and spawned ongoing discussion and debate among players, fans and commentators.

While these Rules incidents involved professional players, they were no more important to the player involved than the thousands of on-course Rules situations that arise over the course of a year in other formal golf competitions. In each case, the decision can affect the outcome of the competition as well as the future success of a player – one who has often invested significant time and effort in pursuing the path of golf success.

With the exception of Local Rules and Conditions of Competition, all on-course rulings in the U.S. are drawn from the Rules of Golf – the regulatory foundation of competitive golf and indeed of all play. The USGA, in conjunction with The R&A in St. Andrews, Scotland, writes, interprets and maintains the Rules in order to uphold the tradition and integrity of the game. The two organizations are joint authors and owners of two well-known publications: The Rules of Golf and Decisions on the Rules of Golf. The latest version of the Rules of Golf went into effect Jan. 1, 2008, with the next revision scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2012.

In USGA championship play, the Rules of Golf are administered by a team of on-site officials, most of whom are highly-trained volunteers who have served the game for years. The configuration of officials varies depending on the size of the championship field, but typically one official – known as a referee – accompanies each playing group on the course. Referees are supported by two roving officials and a pace of play official. The on-course team works in concert with scoring officials in the clubhouse, and the entire operation is overseen by one or more senior officials who also act as roving officials to help render rulings if needed.

USGA.org caught up with four volunteer Rules of Golf officials to learn a bit more about the special skills required to do their job well, as well as the challenges and benefits they experience from officiating. (Click here for Rules official photo gallery) 

It’s hard to get to a more senior position in the world of golf officiating than Clyde Luther. At 81, the former United Airlines pilot from Burke, Va., has worked at more than 115 USGA championships, beginning with the U.S. Junior Amateur in 1982. “Education and on-course experience are the keys to being a good Rules official,” says Luther, who estimates that he has attended more than 50 USGA/PGA of America Rules of Golf workshops as either a student or instructor. “There is always something new to learn.”

Gail Rogers agrees. Like Luther, Rogers is a veteran Rules official, having worked dozens of USGA championships since 1992. As the former director of education for the Northern California Golf Association, she was responsible for supervising Rules education efforts for the organization’s 200 volunteers. Now a member of the Association’s Board of Directors, she chairs the Education Committee. “Officiating is a big responsibility and strong knowledge of the Rules of Golf is absolutely critical,” she says. “Your rulings can impact the future success of a player who has worked very hard to be in a position to succeed.”

Like all Rules officials, Sarah Haas takes her education responsibilities quite seriously. A member of the USGA’s Women’s Committee and director of junior golf programs at Crab Orchard Golf Club in her hometown of Carterville, Ill., she keeps extra copies of the Decisions of the Rules of Golf on hand for reference purposes. “I’ve even got one in my car,” she says with a laugh. “I check on specific decisions in my spare time because when you are in the middle of officiating a championship there’s no time to do so. There are intricacies involved and you need to know what you are talking about.”

Most USGA Rules of Golf officials attend at least one Rules workshop a year (often more) to stay current with both general knowledge and recent rulings. They travel frequently, often working long hours to complete their officiating duties. A variety of challenges go with the job, and each official weighed in on one underlying aspect of the task.

“Having a high level of confidence is one of them,” says Luther. “You’ve got to be sure of your abilities and unafraid to convey what you know regarding a rule to a player or caddie. I had to tell Tiger Woods at one of his last amateur championships that he was going to incur a penalty because his ball was lying directly on top of a marked hazard line defined as an environmentally sensitive area, which meant he was required to take relief in the form of a one-stroke penalty. It was not the answer he wanted to hear and I remember the look he gave me. But I knew I was right and I had the confidence to handle the situation correctly.”

“Weather!” chimes in John Reis, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Golf Association and a volunteer at more than 45 USGA championships. “At the 1994 U.S. Junior Amateur the Rules volunteers were enlisted to squeegee greens and pump out flooded bunkers. I had no idea that was part of the job description. When it’s raining sideways at 30 miles an hour you wonder what the heck you are doing out there, but somehow you get through it.”

“Demeanor and clarity,” says Haas. “As an official you have to establish a good rapport with players while at the same time being very precise when explaining a rule or a player’s options to them. There are often younger players and international players at championships who are not well versed in the rules or have a language barrier that prevents them from fully understanding what’s going on. It’s your responsibility as an official to have an open dialog and to be extremely clear in your communications, so player and caddie both know the implications of their choices in a given situation.”

“Officiating is also a balancing act,” adds Rogers. “I call it visible invisibility. You want to be visible and helpful to players and caddies when they need your assistance, but invisible to them at most other times during their round. You don’t want players feeling like you are in their back pocket. You need to evaluate and base your actions on what player needs may or may not be at any given moment.”

While challenges are part of any job – and perhaps there are more of them when officiating an important championship – these Rules officials agree that the benefits are many.

“Without a doubt, the friendships I’ve formed have been the best part of volunteering as a Rules official,” says Reis. “We all check our egos at the front gate, work together as a team to produce a professionally-run championship, and we have a lot of fun along the way. These are my best friends out here on the course with me.”

Luther agrees. “The camaraderie between officials helps form a team that communicates well with each other and ultimately produces a well-run championship,” he says.

Haas finds special satisfaction in helping young golfers. “When I spend time helping junior players to understand the Rules, whether it’s at my club or at the local high school where I coach, I really feel like I am making them better players. We do situational teaching to help players understand that the Rules aren’t just there to penalize. By knowing them you can save strokes and elevate your overall game. And when I see that knowledge reflected in a young player at a USGA championship – whether it’s somebody I taught or not – it’s pretty gratifying.”

For Rogers, the opportunity to be up close in a competition interacting with great players is both exciting and rewarding. “I love what I do and tell others that the satisfaction I get from volunteering in this manner is tremendous. I encourage anyone with interest in officiating to go for it! Start at the local or state level, work hard, and you’ll be surprised at how far you can go.”

“And don’t forget the courses,” says Haas. “We get to work at some of the most beautiful and challenging golf courses in the country. It’s hard not to stand out there at the end of a long day and realize how fortunate you are.”

Fortunate, indeed, as are the players and all the others who benefit from the enthusiasm and dedication shown by this special group of USGA volunteers.

Daniel Hubbard is the USGA’s manager of communications. E-mail questions or comments to dhubbard@usga.org. 

 

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