Open Season for Rules

By AGA Executive Director Ed Gowan

One of the privileges of knowing the rules and serving on a USGA committee is to take a busman’s holiday working a US Open as a member of the rules committee. Barbara Douglas, chairman of the USGA Women’s Committee, Robin Farran and I had the privilege this year at Pebble Beach. In a few weeks Lorraine Thies will join us for the US Women’s Open at famed Oakmont in Pennsylvania. There are few places on earth a golfer would rather be.

Rules week officially begins the day preceding the first round, when the entire committee gathers to review the local rules, set up the course and review special conditions that might be encountered. There are six basic job descriptions we fill: starting, accepting scorecards at the end of the rounds, timing slow play, walking (one person per group), observing (walking ahead of a group to watch for unusual situations or occurrences) and roving as a rules backup for the walkers.

By far the best job is walking with a group. You have the best seat in the house inside the ropes, and occasionally have a chance to help a player out of trouble. Most players know the basic rules applications, but add in the nervousness of an Open and the quirky things that happen under such immense pressure, and sometimes a ball ends up where you would least expect. A player, of course, wants to take no chances and wants to get back to playing as quickly as possible. That’s where the walking officials come in. We’re right there when a player wants a correct interpretation of the rules to get him back into play without waiting.

A few times in each championship something will happen that is completely unexpected, and that’s when the rover will be called in to either give the player a second opinion or find an answer that may not even be covered by the rules. It would seem silly to think that with 250 years of play and 45 million golfers in the world, anything could happen for the first time. You may be surprised to find it happens several times each year, most often at one of the majors, and there is no greater pressure cooker than the US Open, especially on the last day.

Take this year at Pebble Beach for instance. There weren’t any crazy happenings, but we did have a seagull steal a golf ball. Luckily it was in plain sight so the player simply had to replace a ball from where it was lifted. Lee Westwood’s unplayable drop in a bunker touched a blade of grass on the way down. Since the grass (by definition under the rules) was not in the bunker, and a ball must first strike the course where required (ie: the bunker), the official correctly advised him to re-drop. Without the official right there, Westwood would have played the first ball and incurred a two stroke penalty.

In my group on the last day, Angel Cabrera drove into the crosswalk on the second fairway. As it was marked as ground under repair, he was permitted to drop behind the crosswalk at his nearest point of relief. Spectators and marshals loudly objected because they remembered Ernie Els not taking relief in a similar situation the previous day. What they didn’t know, and as I explained to the marshal, was that Ernie’s nearest point of relief was in the rough, not the fairway. There is no distinction in the rules between rough and fairway. They are both "through the green." Ernie chose not to drop into the Open rough, choosing instead to play the ball off the tight turf inside the crosswalk. A great choice, as Open rough is like playing from six inch steel wool.

Sergio Garcia’s breaking of a tee marker on the fourth tee wasn’t a breach of the rules since he didn’t intend to move it, but rumor has it he’s getting a bill for $147.

I was asked by one player coming off the 18th tee, "Who set up this course? Does he ever play golf?" He knew full well it was the USGA’s Mike Davis and, expecting the worst, I just smiled. The player then said, unexpectedly, "I can tell. Great job, but too much for me!"  He also scored about even for the last round. Had he been just a few strokes lower in previous rounds, he might have changed history.

The course was certainly on the edge, both from the standpoint of challenge and conditioning. Few players enjoy such an experience. How can you when the slightest mistake is magnified 10 times and even the best shots can take unfortunate bounces? The putting was extremely difficult, as was noted by both announcers and some players who criticized the poa annua greens as "bumpy." Were they? A little, especially when you were putting downhill and made a tentative stroke. But I also witnessed Cabrera, Stenson and Curtis, among others, make almost all of their putts under 10 feet with few problems. Furyk, on the other hand, played marvelously on the first day, but was unable to make any putts as several five-foot birdies broke away from the hole at the last minute. Putting, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Tom Watson may have summed it up best when he described a round in the Open as survival of the fittest.

Speaking of few other places one would rather be, one would be Oakmont, though July in Pittsburgh with humidity is like Phoenix at 122 degrees. Oakmont is hosting the Women’s Open and Arizona is well represented. Barbara Douglas will oversee the event as chairman of the USGA Women’s Committee. She’ll be supported by rules committee members Lorraine Thies, Christi Dickinson, Robin Farran and myself, as well as AWGA television rules marshals Barbara Byrnes and Judi Lorenzen. While "rules work" at Oakmont will be easy – big course, rough, few problems – Judi and Barbara will have their hands full marshaling the television cameras around the lead groups with an anticipated huge gallery and narrow road crossings. If you’re watching, pay attention to the 2nd, 8th and 17th holes, all having played large roles in the previous men’s Open. Both the par four 2nd and 17th will be drivable, and the par three 8th will play at about 250 yards…again, drivable!  

And, finally, The (British) Open will be played at the Old Course in July. That’s always great theater, and with Tiger’s travails leave it to the European press to create more good reading.