Pebble Beach, Calif. - As in all major sports championships, officials at this year's U.S. Open are an all-star cast. They come from around the country - and even the world - to assist in conducting the championship. In fact, 12 international officials are working at Pebble Beach Golf Links this week.
Some are professional rules officials who work for various professional tours or state and regional golf associations. But the core of the rules crew at this, or any USGA championship, come from a volunteer pool scattered throughout the country, many of whom administer and officiate local and regional qualifiers and the USGA's national amateur championships.
For a few, like Mindy Zamzow, a member of the U.S. Women's Mid-Amateur Committee, this is their first U.S. Open. Zamzow attended her first four-day PGA/USGA Rules School in 1995, only missing three annual workshops in the 15 years since. She has volunteered at hundreds of events, including the U.S. Women's Open and Senior Open, but she understands the U.S. Open is different.
Excited, but a bit nervous, she's quietly hoping her players don't throw anything too crazy her way, at least not early in the Championship.
Then there are the veterans, like Lew Blakey, a retired engineer and past member of the USGA Executive Committee. Since joining the Rules of Golf Committee in 1988, Blakey has worked more national championships than he can possibly count. And one would be hard-pressed to find a more knowledgeable expert on the Rules of Golf than Blakey.
Watching him on the golf course is a study of confidence; constantly concentrating, always in the right spot. A low-handicap player himself, Blakey understands the players, knowing when to be sympathetic and when to be firm. In making a ruling he is the one asking the questions, knowing he must gather all the facts before he can render a correct decision.
From a rules perspective, preparation for the U.S. Open began well before the championship proper. USGA staff and officials make numerous on-site visits to contemplate course setup, always with a keen eye toward the rules. A Notice to Players that lays out the conditions under which the Championship is played goes to each competitor. They also develop a set of Local Rules that take into account the unique characteristics of the course. In coordination with Pebble's grounds and professional staff, they develop a plan for defining the course, clearly marking its bounds and defining and marking all water hazards, ground under repair and temporary immovable obstructions. The rules staff then scouts the entire course, creating a hole-by-hole inventory of potential rules situations.
Like the players, the walking Rules officials assigned to the U.S. Open began their preparation on Tuesday and Wednesday. They walk the course to familiarize themselves with various situations that might arise. A formal Rules Committee meeting took place on Wednesday night to thoroughly review the Notice to Players, Local Rules, Pace of Play Policy and other unique situations. Assignments were also handed out. Though everyone will say they are just honored to be here, secretly they are all hoping for a plum assignment, perhaps Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson.
For a walking Rules Official, the competition days create a routine. Most arrive a couple of hours before their assignment to eat and chat with fellow officials to see if any Rules incidents have arisen on the course. Thirty minutes prior to the starting time, officials head to the Rules trailer to pick up a radio, then to the tee where the starter hands them a timing sheet for their group. Introductions are made while the players exchange scorecards and share with each other the make and markings of their golf ball. All competitors are reminded one last time that they should count their clubs. No golfer wants to start a round with a two-stroke penalty due to more than 14 clubs in the bag.
On the course, a Rules official has several duties. Their primary role, of course, is to determine the facts of any situation that might arise and to apply the Rules. However, given the elite level of play at the U.S. Open, it's not unusual for an Official to walk an entire round without a single ruling. Another key responsibility of the official is to manage the Pace of Play Policy. Slow play can be an issue in competition, especially at a major championship. A single slow player has the potential to back up the entire golf course.
If things get too slow, the official can begin timing competitors and slow-play penalties can be issued for excessive breaches.
Other on-course duties include coaching the walking scorer and standard bearer on appropriate positioning on the course, coordinating any necessary medical care for competitors or spectators and assisting hole marshals with crowd and noise control.
Though expected to manage many tasks, making rulings is the official's primary function. A skilled official is always in a position to see what their players are doing without the player being aware of their presence. Most rulings are straight forward relief situations; i.e. a ball lying on a sprinkler head, a temporary immovable obstruction blocking a golfer's line of play or determining where a ball last crossed a water hazard.
Despite enduring dozens of these rulings throughout their playing careers, most players will often ask for guidance from an official. Players are well aware that with live TV coverage, any mistake they make will likely result in a viewers phone call or e-mail. A ruling insures the player cannot incur a penalty for proceeding incorrectly.
Every once in a while, an official is faced with what is affectionately known as a "train wreck." Golf is not played on a uniform field with clearly defined dimensions. Players encounter strange things and golf balls end up in odd places. Even the most seasoned official will come upon a situation for which the proper ruling is not obvious. When this happens, the official calls in a "rover." Rovers are the senior officials at a championship. They are assigned a section of the course to "rove" in a golf cart, ready to assist the walking official in their area.
At the conclusion of the round, the walking official accompanies the players, along with the walking scorer, to the scoring area. In stroke-play competitions, the scorecard is a sacred document. It is the player's responsibility to make sure each hole has the correct number. Despite a well-defined ritual for their return, history is replete with disqualification penalties for incomplete or erroneous score cards. The official's final act is to assist the players, if necessary, in resolving any outstanding rules issues before the scorecard is signed and returned.
USGA national championships are unique in the tradition of providing walking officials to all players in the fields. The hundreds of USGA volunteer officials across the country truly form the backbone of amateur golf. An invitation to work a U.S. Open is the crowning achievement for a select few of these men and women who dedicate their time and passion to a game they love.
Doug Fry is a member of the USGA Communications Committee.