SI Vault
 
The Ruling Class
John Garrity
June 23, 1997
Working the Open is the ultimate assignment for golf's rules gurus
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
June 23, 1997

The Ruling Class

Working the Open is the ultimate assignment for golf's rules gurus

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

"He could have dropped way over here," says Dudley, drawing an arrow in ink and planting an X for buried treasure. "He would have had a much easier shot." Instead, Jones made a triple-bogey 7.

Spaeth leans back with the air of a man who has just completed a good meal. "The rules are a fun, intellectual thing," he says.

But they're dull. They're arcane. The rules book is a mildewed pamphlet crammed with legalese and hypotheticals.

"There are no hypothetical cases here," Spaeth says, his eyes wide with mock indignation. "Every case is real."

This case, for example: In the first round Steve Stricker wants to rub the grip of one of his clubs with sandpaper. His walking official, Jim Patton, suggests that he not do so because 4-2 prohibits changing the playing characteristics of a club. (Strangely, Rule 14-3 permits a player to apply tape or gauze to a grip to improve control. "I've written a 14-page essay on that topic because the rule doesn't make much sense," says Spaeth. "I'm waiting to see what grade I get from the chairman of the rules committee.") Sandpaper is also a no-no for smoothing burrs and cuts on a golf ball. However, it's perfectly all right to use fingernail clippers to snip off bits of dangling balata (Rule 5-2).

Another Thursday case: Jeff Maggert hits into a water hazard right of the 10th green. As Maggert prepares to drop, it's clear that the new ball might roll down the bank and into the water. For economy's sake he has his caddie stand at water's edge to field the ball. Normally it's a two-stroke penalty when a caddie stops a dropped ball before it comes to rest, but Maggert relies on decision 20-2c/4, which says that no penalty is incurred "once the ball has rolled to a position from which the player would be required to re-drop under Rule 20-2c." In this instance the rules official, Joe King, simply tells the caddie to "be careful."

Both cases, it should be noted, are decided instantly. Unlike the PGA Tour, which pays a handful of full-time officials to patrol its fairways, the USGA staffs the U.S. Open with close to 75 volunteer officials. Every group has at least one walking official, and if that official needs help he can radio an experienced rover like Tom Meeks, the USGA director of rules and competitions, or Ben Nelson, the PGA Tour tournament director. The volunteers at Congressional include a sugar-beet farmer (Jim House of Brawley, Calif.), a journalist (Gary Galyean, editor of iGolf), a two-time U.S. Women's Amateur champion (Carol Semple Thompson) and the secretary of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (Michael Bonallack). All have attended at least one four-day USGA rules workshop and have passed a tough, 3½-hour examination. The Americans, in addition, have to be USGA committee members with rules experience at USGA events. "This is like going to graduate school," says Steve Foehl, a volunteer official and executive director of the New Jersey State Golf Association.

For the most part a rules gig is as uneventful as a stint behind the information desk at a suburban mall. This player asks for help when his ball comes to rest on a nest of television cables. Another wants to be sure that the bit of bent grass he's about to repair is a ball crater and not a spike mark. Spectators, spotting the belt radio and earpiece, ask for the score of the Orioles-Braves game. "Usually the stickiest thing you get is, 'Where did the ball cross the margin of a lateral water hazard?' " says House, a veteran of three Senior Opens. "The player always thinks it happened up by the green."

But then you have those times when the rule book bears down on players like last Saturday's thunderstorm. That happened in the '94 Open at Oakmont, where Ernie Els got final-round relief from a television tower that was, in fact, movable. The erroneous decision, by USGA vice president and rules committee chairman Trey Holland, helped Els avoid a big number and win the championship. Since Holland is one of the game's top rules men, the Oakmont incident reminded his minions that the rules can befuddle anyone. "Your blood pressure goes up whenever a player does this," says Galyean, making the universal beckoning gesture with his right index finger.

Spectators can add to the anxiety. Galyean was a walking official at Shinnecock in '95 when a player planted his approach shot in a grandstand. When Galyean reached the scene, a wild-eyed galleryite jumped up and screamed, "O.K., ref, what's the ruling? Make the call!"

Continue Story
1 2 3 4