From the Golf Journal Archives - As a Rule, I’d Rather Be a Player...

Mar 04, 2011

If you think it’s easy to stand around out there and officiate, listen to this tale of a neophyte who went through a genuine trial by terror.

By James R. Carpenter

(Note: This article originally appeared in the November/Decemberl 1981 issue of Golf Journal.)

CLEARLY, IT IS one thing to be a golf professional; it is another to be a Rules official. In retrospect, I think I would rather face a five-foot downhill putt with thousands of dollars hanging in the balance than to be confronted by a taut Tour player awaiting a dicey decision from me. I know – I made my debut as a Rules official in a PGA Championship.

It was on the sixth hole that I first learned the meaning of the word fear. Jack Nicklaus was walking straight toward me. We had been advised that if Mr. Nicklaus was in any trouble, he would test a Rules official in his attempt to get maximum relief. I was brand new – so new that I didn’t even have my official red coat.

Nicklaus’s ball had landed within two feet of an elm tree. I was certain he would claim the tree was alive with wasps, vampire bats, or at least a small tarantula. My throat was dry, my body soaked with perspiration, my abdomen began to cramp, and goose pimples rose, even under my new PGA Rules armband. If I let him take a free drop, where would it be? If I refused to allow a drop, would I be in disgrace?

Without hesitation, I unpinned my armband, stuck it in my back pocket, and became a seaman in the Nicklaus Navy. We all cheered and whistled as he approached his ball. When I finally opened my eyes, Angelo was walking down the seventh fairway; I was alone, crouched behind a trash barrel.

A Rules official carries heavy responsibilities. As your badge of authority, you are given a white hat, a walkie-talkie radio, a yellow armband, and a red jacket. My coat did not arrive in time, so I was working in a cotton, short-sleeved shirt. At first, I pinned the armband on my left arm, but the blood dripped onto my radio. One of the marshals helped me strap it tightly on my arm; it also served as a tourniquet. It was so tight that every time I flexed my arm, my eyes popped out.

On the second day of the tournament, 1 received my first and only compliment from a player. He had hooked his ball to the left of the fairway, and it landed behind a large cypress. The ball didn’t miss my head by any more than 18 inches. He thanked me for coming over to spot his ball in the tall grass. We found the ball in some curled dock (a troublesome weed), and I picked it up and asked the player to identify his ball, which he did. The ball was tossed away from the tree because he could not comply with the drop rule. The limbs were too low for him to stand erect, and he couldn’t face the hole because we did not know where it was. I suggested that he hit a 7-iron back to the fairway, which he did; it seemed that he appreciated the way in which I was doing my job.

ON THE THIRD DAY I became embroiled in a hassle over territorial rights between the fifth and sixth fairways with Jim Awtrey, who was officiating at the fifth hole. A ball landed between the two fairways and behind a TV truck, I contended that Jim should make the ruling because the player was playing the fifth hole. While we were arguing, the player stroked his ball over the camera and onto the green. When Jim left, I moved his gallery ropes 10 yards toward my fairway.

It is an honor to be on the Rules Committee, but I’m not sure I can stand another year. For instance, Gene Littler came by; his ball was in a chipmunk hole. These are small holes which look as though someone had buried doughnuts there. While he was deciding what to do, I turned my radio sideways and pretended to take pictures until he hit to the green.

On the third day, disaster almost struck when one of the players deflected a shot off a tree and it rolled under a Christmas tree to the right of the green. He asked what he could do, and I told him to play it. He could not get his club to the ball, so he took an unplayable lie, and promptly hit a scorcher into a bunker. I then noticed that someone had moved a TV truck into the trees, and that it was on a direct line between the hole and where the ball originally lay. It dawned on me that the player was entitled to line-of-sight relief, and I could possibly have cost this player a victory.

It was a moment of great decision. Should I forget it ever happened and hide, or should I correct a horrible mistake before the golfer played his shot from the bunker? I hurried over to stop him and bring him back to replay his shot, without penalty, hoping that he escaped trouble before anyone discovered how badly I had goofed.

It was not to be; Joe Dey and Jack Tuthill, PGA officials, drove up before I could reach the green. I was forced to admit what I had done, and accept the ridicule of failure. I took them over and showed them the truck and where the ball lay, and explained that I gave the player no relief.

Mr. Tuthill congratulated me on my handling of the difficult situation. It seems that since the player couldn’t play the ball where it was, he was not entitled to relief, and he had to take an unplayable lie.

Mr. Dey complimented me on my knowledge of the Rules and my expertise in administering them. He told me that more people like me were needed.

Good Rules officials are hard to find, he said.


James R. Carpenter is a vice-president of the PGA of America, head professional at the golf course of the University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg, Miss., and a sometimes tournament official.

(USGA Museum)