|Play by the rules|
|Wednesday, 01 July 2009|
Colin Strachan on the ups and downs of being a rules official at the Open
My first article mentioned the tensions of my first time at a European Tour event. However, those nerves are minimal compared with being the new kid on the block at the ‘Open’ – not the ‘British Open’ – there is no such thing. The Open Championship is run by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and is frequently voted the best organised of all sporting events in Europe – a huge event logistically, involving 5,000 staff, mainly volunteers. There are three levels of entry depending on past performance in the Open or the World Ranking points system.
The Opens of 1996 and 1997
The first time is frightening – a bit like the old FRCS Clinicals – you don’t know till just before the event who you have been drawn, but most of the pros are extremely polite and very kind. You are fed horror stories, both true and apocryphal, of rules officials’ mistakes, particularly when televised live!
For each area of the course there is a backup ‘Rules Rover’ buggy, but if a second opinion isn’t sought on a difficult ground condition or TIO (immoveable grandstands/TV tower) in the way, the official’s ruling is final even if it’s wrong.
"Tiger pushed his tee shot at the postage stamp eighth into the second right bunker and I had to stand close enough to see if his club might touch the sand and incur a penalty"
In the mid 1990s, we had to wear a red rosette at all times, which gave the tabloid press the chance to describe us as ‘prize bulls’. At times it seems that everyone is a rules expert and frequently hypothetical enquiries are shot across your bows from outside the ropes about a minute rules decision as you try to keep pace with your players.
My first round in 1996 had an interesting ruling with Brian Watts, USA, runner up in 1998 to O’Meara at Royal Birkdale. On the eighth hole where the green sits on top of a steep bank, Watts was practising his chipping stroke several feet from the ball, when he stopped and called me over, ‘Ref, I think my ball just moved.’ No one else had noticed that the ball on a shiny slope had rolled an inch down the slope. This was a very honest call, but the players know there are so many cameras in the sky that little passes unnoticed and he knew that under Rule 18-2 there would be a one shot penalty and the ball would have to be replaced.
Eye on the Tiger
Many people want to know what it’s like to be the walking official with Tiger Woods. Troon 1997 was his first Open as a professional and I was the forward referee/observer for his final round. With an amazing third round of 64, he had attracted a following gallery of 30,000, in addition to the thousands already packed in the grandstands.
Security issues ran high; all the world’s sporting press and some 150 cameramen were there, and even Tiger’s bodyguards (were they really Pinkerton men?) looked edgy. My instructions were to forewarn of potential rulings before the players arrived and keep the massive telephoto lenses out of his line of sight, and on a couple of drives he missed them by inches as they fought for best angle.
After six holes, Tiger was two under par only a couple of shots back and the atmosphere was electric. Then it happened, he pushed his tee shot at the postage stamp eighth into the second right bunker and I had to stand close enough to see if his club might touch the sand and incur a penalty. As he played, I was sworn at by a cameraman unable to fight his way to the picture of Tiger’s first two attempts failing to extricate the ball onto the green. He took six – the silence was deafening! The crowd evaporated as the great man wilted numerically but showing little emotion.
In 1996, South Herts Golf Club was one of 13 Regional Qualifying venues for the 1996 Open Championship at Lytham St Annes. From this single round, 8 to 12 players emerge from a field of around 120 at each RQ (1,500 ever hopeful players tee-up) to go forward to one of the four Final Qualifying events held the week prior to the Open.
Their abilities are as varied as their swings. Scores ranging from the mid 60s to high 80s are recorded. The high point comes at the end of the day with a play-off en masse and 10 to 20 players may tee-off in a sudden death finale.
At South Herts, we had one poor soul who was first to play in the gathering dusk. He had admitted to a drink at the bar to calm his nerves while he waited seven hours for his big moment. Unfortunately, his emotions or the alcohol got the better of him and, whether by air pressure or actual fleeting contact with his driver, the ball fell from the tee peg and trickled off the front of the tee. Unphased, he put his next shot on the green and avoided the first cull by holing a good putt. Growing in confidence, he smashed his next tee shot high in the air, but miles to the left and out of bounds, where it struck a cow trough in a field and rebounded back into play. He put his second shot on the green and again holed the putt and, amidst great cheers from his friends, qualified for the next stage.
Local final qualifying
At this level the local pro can be paired with one of the US or European Tour players who isn’t quite high enough on the various world rankings to make the Open proper and must compete in a cut-throat 36 hole. Here, only the top 4 to 6 qualify out of 120 at each venue, and need seven under to go through.
In 1997, Retief Goosen had to qualify at Irvine Bogside, and even Constantino Rocca, the 1995 Open runner up in a play-off with John Daly, had to play the 2004 LFQ at Glasgow Gailes and failed to get through. When asked by the local Chairman of Greens how he had fared, Rocca said, ‘Terrible – boggy, boggy, boggy’. Upset and proud of his all-year dry fairways, the Chairman was reassured by the caddy who said, ‘It’s OK, he means bogey, bogey, bogey!’
The finishing moments of the LFQ on Gullane No1 in 2001 are seen in the picture above.The crowd around the flagpole had gathered there to watch an impromptu display by a zany Mark Roe as he whacked golf balls from the face of a frying pan sand iron over the top of the 100ft pole and caught them on the clubface. One of my duties was to calm an irate Club Secretary and liaise with the police to get the traffic flow back to normal.