Luke DeCock

In a sport where players police themselves, golf rules officials have curious role

PGA Tour Champions rules official Brian Claar, left, discusses with golfer Neal Lancaster his options for relief after his tee shot on the 11th hole Friday landed near a cart path. Claar is one of seven roving rules officials at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary for the SAS Championship this weekend.
PGA Tour Champions rules official Brian Claar, left, discusses with golfer Neal Lancaster his options for relief after his tee shot on the 11th hole Friday landed near a cart path. Claar is one of seven roving rules officials at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary for the SAS Championship this weekend.

The sky stretched out forever above as Brian Claar enjoyed the glorious morning in a golf cart parked in a shadowy copse between two fairways. Moments of repose like this are a fringe benefit of being a roving rules official on the PGA Tour Champions, when the first groups are just making their way out on to the golf course and a tournament is just rousing itself to life, before the first angry player demands a ruling he won’t get.

It didn’t last long. Claar heard his name barked out, not over the radio in his left hand where the call would usually originate but from behind Prestonwood Country Club’s 11th green, 50 yards away. It was a short but nimble drive: Under the rope barrier guarding the hole, across the fairway, back under the rope and up the cart path to where Neal Lancaster, Smithfield’s favorite son, was in trouble Friday morning.

Lancaster had pulled his tee shot left on the par-3, left of the green and the path, and his ball sat on a narrow patch of grass between the cart path and the line of red spray paint marking a water hazard. Lancaster wanted to know if he could get a drop from the cart path interfering with his stance. He probably knew the answer, but it’s Claar’s job to give him the correct one.

“Your nearest point (of relief) is going to be on the path, and then if you don’t want to play that we’ll have to get you off the path,” Claar told Lancaster. “So we’ll have to go through two drops if you want to.”

“Sure,” Lancaster said. “I’m gonna leave it right here, buddy.”

“You got it,” Claar said.

As Claar walked back to his cart, Lancaster nipped the ball off the turf and left it 4 feet from the hole, any controversy averted. It doesn’t always go that smoothly. There are times when Claar has denied a furious player relief, in front of galleries and television cameras, decisions that can (in a players’ mind) cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Still, this was a typical moment in a typical morning for Claar, the senior tour’s vice president of rules, summoned to go over a golfer’s options or ensure the proper administration of a penalty or drop. In a sport where it’s a point of both pride and tradition that players are expected to honorably police themselves, a rules official like Claar plays a curious role.

He is not quite referee, not quite arbiter, not quite adviser, but yet all of the three to some degree.

Claar, 60, spent 17 years on and off (but mostly on) the PGA Tour before embarking on this new career, the tour rookie of the year in 1986 and fifth-place finisher in the 1989 U.S. Open at Oak Hill. Now he does this for a living, getting out on the course before sunrise to double-check the setup and set the next day’s hole locations, staying out until the last group finishes before preparations for the next round can begin in the gathering darkness.

“I didn’t realize (as a player) the hours those guys put in,” Claar said. “I would have thanked them more. It’s dark to dark. Every decision we make is usually for them. No matter how hard we try, there’s going to be a bad hole location. Whether the wind changed or the green speed changed or we just missed it. It’s going to happen. ... I’ve been on both sides of it. I know how frustrating it can be.”

But most rules officials are amateurs, from volunteers at local tournaments for the Carolinas Golf Association to USGA executives rising through the ranks. It’s an odd job, and a thankless one: Very rarely is a rules official summoned by a happy golfer after a good shot.

“Usually if you’re talking to them, something bad has happened,” said Rusty Harder, the director of rules and championships for the Carolinas Golf Association.

Golf and the honor system

This isn’t basketball or football or any other sport, where the officials proactively police the game. The integrity of the game is predicated on players following the rules without official oversight.

So in golf, a rules official is as much appellate judge as a prosecutor, a resource and counsel for the player as he determines the appropriate, legal course of action. In some cases, that may merely be to observe that the player has followed the rules correctly. In others, the player may need an objective ruling as to what, for example, constitutes a movable obstruction.

“The way I tried to do it and the way the (U.S. Golf Association) really does things is try to be proactive, try to prevent a player from having a problem,” said former USGA president Jim Hyler, who became a rules expert during his ascension to that position. “If you see a player going down the wrong direction with something, you jump in quickly to prevent an issue. You’re not there to catch somebody. It’s not a gotcha.”

In smaller, local tournaments, there may be only one official on site. At PGA Tour events, there are several roving rules officials who are summoned when needed. (And until a recent rules change, thousands of television viewers who self-appointed themselves in the role and would flood PGA switchboards when they spotted a violation.)

Claar is one of the maximum of seven at Prestonwood this week, what’s considered a “clean” course -- not many temporary obstructions or tricky spots -- but can be a tough one to get around. The tour goes to one cramped course in Florida full of flower beds and tight conditions; when the wind gets up, it can be a long week.

“When the wind blows,” Claar said, “balls end up in funny places.”

Most of his time is spent worrying about the weather -- “Once there’s a stoppage, every ruling you make is going to be wrong,” Claar joked -- and tracking the pace of pay; slowpokes go on double secret probation before they get a verbal warning and then finally get put “on the clock.” A rules official can look at a sheet of tee times and spot the slow-play issues before anyone tees off.

The role is a little different at match-play events like the U.S. Amateur, where there’s one with every group, officially the “referee.” That person plays a more active role, determining the order of play and announcing the score of the match after each hole is complete.

Harder spent the first two days of August’s U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst as a roving official on the No. 4 course during stroke play, then was asked to officiate one of the 32 matches in the round of 64. His was an easy one, a friendly match between two Baylor teammates.

But it was also a milestone for Harder, his call to the big stage after serving as a referee at the U.S. Junior Amateur, Senior Amateur and the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. He grew up working at golf courses, but he didn’t take his first USGA rules test until he took a job out of college with the Alabama Golf Association, where it was a job requirement.

“You can take a test and do well on a test, but then when you’re out there on the golf course talking to players, it’s a totally different animal there,” Harder said. “The first thing was really learning the rules so at least you knew what you were talking about. Then you had to learn how to talk to the players.”

Passing the rules test

At one point, knowing the rule book was the path to success in the USGA, where everyone from the president down to the newest committee member was once expected to be able to capably adjudicate a rules question as well as anyone on the USGA’s professional staff. The president and executive director still often fill that role for the final pairing in the U.S. Open, walking with the leaders.

In 2010 and 2011, at Pebble Beach and Congressional, that was then-Raleigh resident Hyler, who rose through the USGA ranks after helping put together the 1999 Open at Pinehurst. His rules knowledge to that point was minimal; by 2008 he could boast a 95 on the 100-question USGA rules test, easily clearing the minimum required to work the U.S. Open, Women’s Open or Amateur.

“When I went on the executive committee I could barely spell rules,” Hyler said. “I worked at it pretty hard over -- it probably took me five years to get enough knowledge to pass the test. I’m now really rusty.”

But there were rewards: In addition to the normal duties of the USGA president, Hyler refereed Walker Cup matches in 2009 (at Merion) and 2011 (at Royal Aberdeen).

“It’s tense while you’re doing it and you’ve really got to pay attention to what you’re doing, but it really was a great experience,” Hyler said.

Hyler now chairs Augusta National’s rules committee for the Masters. Hyler took over that job -- which includes setting up the course for each day of the tournament and overseeing the rules officials -- from another former USGA president and rules expert, current Augusta chairman Fred Ridley.

At USGA events, the championship director chooses hole locations and sets the tees for each day of the tournament, although the PGA Tour crew crosses over to work as roving officials for non-tour majors like the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open because of their knowledge of both the rules and the professional players. On the PGA Tour and Champions tours themselves, course set-up duty rotates among the group.

During his rounds before play Friday morning, Claar was asked to offer a second opinion for a newer official marking locations for Saturday’s holes with yellow paint. On the 15th green, Claar and Jason Larson set the can of spray paint to mark the spot and they rolled balls at it from various directions before Claar approved the location, on a slope but a reasonable one.

That’s the top end of the spectrum. At the other, Paul Simson and Mike Roshelli slogged it out in the final pairing of the Durham Senior Amateur on a rainy Tuesday in May 2017, with a gallery of one following them around Croasdaile Country Club in a golf cart. The occupant was a retired Chapel Hill engineer named Bob Liu, whose business card described him as a “golf rules official and part-time golfer” and who just this summer retired from golf officiating after three decades.

Many years ago, he was involved in one sticky decision during an NCAA tournament at Duke: a ball was buried in a bunker, and it was legally unearthed to identify it, but after being replaced, could the golfer repair the footprints from the search? Liu said yes, but wasn’t entirely sure. After the tournament, he asked the USGA for clarification. After two years of deliberation, Liu’s (correct) decision was added to the Decisions on the Rules of Golf, an appendix to the rulebook itself, a compendium of clarifications.

Liu was on call at Croasdaile in case there were any controversies, in that group or any others. It was a very minor tournament in very soggy conditions contested among golfers who all know each other well. The odds that Liu would be called upon were minimal. But he was available.

“It’s a small thing, but having been a golf competitor, you know you’re under a lot of stress for golf performance,” Liu said. “But knowing there’s good people there makes for a good tournament.”

The spirit of the game may trust players to officiate themselves. The reality of it knows they may need a little help.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.