Binoculars, please. All right...thin fellow, white cap. Yup,
it's our defending champion, Steve Jones. And...oh, dear, he's
hooked his drive on 17 into the trees and deep rough and
acronyms. He's got a TIO (temporary immovable obstruction)
between his ball and the hole, and the air is thick with dots,
dashes, slashes and digits--as in Rule 24-2, Immovable
Obstruction. Jones has not one but two USGA rules officials
watching him with sympathetic but unblinking eyes. From here it
looks as if there's intervention but no interference, which
means Jones is entitled to....
But first, our Rules Quiz.
You're a USGA roving official, dressed in regulation khaki
slacks and powder-blue, short-sleeved shirt. You have a
stopwatch hanging from a cord around your neck. It's the first
round of the U.S. Open at Congressional, and from your golf cart
you observe 1995 PGA champion Steve Elkington rehearsing his
swing while standing in a sand bunker at the 4th green. Without
hitting his ball, which is on the grassy bank above the sand,
Elkington steps out of the bunker, picks up a rake and carefully
erases his footprints--an apparent violation of Rule 13-3, which
prohibits building a stance. You instantly radio the walking
official in Elkington's group (the fellow inside the ropes with
the earpiece and unhurried demeanor). You then call the scorer's
shack so they'll quiz Elkington at the end of his round.
Question: Will Elkington be peeved? (Answer below.)
Getting back to Jones, the situation is this: His ball is in
long grass, 210 yards from the green, and his direct line to the
hole is impeded by the near corner of a packed grandstand--in
rules jargon, a TIO. Jones is four over par for the tournament
and seems a safe bet to make the cut.
Jones should turn to the officials and ask, "What are my options
here?" Instead, he seems to be relying on his own understanding
of 24-2. He pulls an iron from his bag...he's taking his
stance...he's aiming at a small window of opportunity below some
The two officials are giving each other quizzical looks. Too
late. Jones chops down on the ball, and it whistles low for
maybe 50 yards before getting tangled in more long grass. Now
he's in real trouble.
A couple of hours later the two rules officials--former USGA
president Grant Spaeth and Florida businessman Tom
Dudley--replay this episode in the clubhouse. They draw diagrams
on cocktail napkins. They tap the green tablecloth with their
fingers to emphasize salient points.
"Jones did a funny thing there," says Spaeth. "His plan was to
go under the trees." But the golfer was apparently unaware that
24-2 provides relief from TIOs in the intended line of play,
even if that line is not the safest or smartest play. Given
Jones's intention, the grandstand was in his way, and he could
have asked for relief.
"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
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
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
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,
3 1/2-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!"
"I was stunned," says Galyean. "It was like being at an
To keep stress levels manageable, officials constantly review
the 145-page Rules of Golf and the more compelling, 600-page
Decisions on the Rules of Golf. Really tricky stuff, like the
virtual TIO that tripped up Holland, goes to the 18-member rules
committee for interpretation and revision. On the Wednesday
afternoon before this year's Open, Holland summoned his
officials to an outdoor TIO seminar conducted by Rules of Golf
manager Jeff Hall and women's competitions director Kendra
Graham. Using real golf clubs, real balls and real tents, the
officials practiced those situations that produce real headaches.
The preparation pays off: Congressional produces nothing that
stumps the experts. Sunday's final round is almost placid,
ruleswise. Maggert gets relief from a grandstand on the 16th but
gains no real advantage and makes bogey. Tom Lehman, a stroke
off the lead in the 17th fairway, hooks his approach into the
water and has to take a drop as his fortunes droop. The most
intriguing rules skirmish involves Clarence Rose, who pitches
across the 6th green into a small pond. Facing three
choices--stroke and distance, playing from the bank of the pond
opposite where the ball went in or playing from a designated
drop area calling for a short water carry--Rose chooses the drop
area. He then plops another ball in the drink and goes on to
make a 10. "I thought the stroke and distance option gave him a
safer shot," says Dudley, the walking official, "but it's not
our role to give out advice."
If the rules officials regret the lack of fireworks, they keep
it to themselves. On Friday one of the rovers, John Paramor, the
director of operations and chief referee on the European tour,
looks contemplative as he smokes a cigarette in a cart by the
8th fairway. "Colin Montgomerie's group was just barely out of
position when they went through here," he says. "But there was a
backup on 9, so I stopped timing them. We're not going to race
anyone into a traffic jam."
Not that Paramor would hesitate to light a fire under
Montgomerie or any other star. Three years ago, in the Volvo
Masters, Paramor was the official on the scene when Seve
Ballesteros came to the 72nd hole tied for the lead. He drove
under a tree and found his ball in front of a large hole, which
he thought entitled him to relief under Rule 25-1a,
"Interference by...a hole, cast or runway made by a burrowing
"I looked at it a considerable amount of time," Paramor recalls,
"but I had to rule that it didn't look like the hole was made by
an animal." Unhappy with the decision, Ballesteros played his
ball as it lay, made bogey and coughed up a hundred thousand
dollars to Bernhard Langer, the leader in the clubhouse.
"I think he's forgiven me now," says Paramor, mixing a smile
with a grimace.
Oh, yes. Our Rules Quiz!
When we last saw Steve Elkington, he was in a bunker at the 4th,
raking his footprints before hitting his shot. He turns in his
scorecard after Thursday's round to a welcoming committee of
Meeks and USGA vice president Buzz Taylor. Was Elkington peeved?
"He was a little perturbed that we would question his
integrity," Meeks says, "but he handled it well."
As for the incident itself, Elkington explains that he raked the
sand because his footprints were in the line of play of Mark
Brooks, whose ball was in the bunker. Doesn't decision 13-2/8.5
entitle Brooks to his original lie and line of play and more or
less compel Elkington to remove his footprints?
Well, yeah. No violation. No penalty.
"Elkington's pretty sharp on the rules," Meeks concedes.
The rules can be pretty sharp themselves--barbed, even. Ask Jones.