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Being a referee - some personal observations

David Greenhill

Founder of the International Management Group, lawyer and one of the first sports agents in the US, Mark McCormack forged a career in business and was highly regarded for it. Along the way, he took the time to write a number of great business books including What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School, which spent 21 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list.

Away from specific teachings on law, finance and economics, the book served as an essential practical guide for anyone wanting to discover ideas about not only being successful in business but also working towards personal and family achievements.

As referees, we learn the nuances of both the Rules of Golf Book and Decisions Book. We study the rules and decisions and relate them to the game we love to play as well as the varying levels of golf we observe, from knock-out matches at our club to players competing for a living at professional stroke competitions.

There’s no question that having a sound knowledge of the rules and decisions together with an ability to find what we’re looking for in a hurry is essential to be a good referee. Level 1 and

Level 2 courses (formerly Club and State Level) provide an excellent overview of the technicalities of the material and we generally proceed into the real referee world of putting our rules knowledge to the test.

While these courses also provide considerable information about how to be a referee, there’s no better learning process than personal experience. While I’m in no way Mark McCormack, I’m happy to share some general observations which I’ve made over the past 25 or so years which are hopefully of interest to those of us who like to referee.

Renowned former USGA Director of the Rules and Competitions Tom Meeks put it well when he once said that refereeing was like being the pilot of a plane. ‘It’s 95 % routine and 5% terror!” and highlighted the human and behavioural factors that are essential to gain the maximum enjoyment out of refereeing events, regardless of the competition.

There are differences between being a roving referee in a cart overseeing an entire field of players or a part of the course (e.g. back nine) and a walking referee with a group of players or match. The below tips are more applicable to the walking referee, but the principles ring true for all forms of officiating.

Referees are Valued and Important

Since Rules Education formally commenced in Victoria in 1989 at Club Level and in 1993 at State Level, volunteer referees have played an appreciated and valuable role in the conduct of a range of National, State, District and Club events.

Essentially the role played is to provide players with rules assistance when required, monitor the pace of play which is in everybody’s interest in an increasingly time-poor society and to ensure that the respective competitions are conducted safely and in accordance with the event conditions.

Golf Competitions are about Players and their Scores

However, the best referees are the ones that stay out of the way. In general, I like to be as unobtrusive as possible and be called on as required. If I’m a walking referee, it’s certainly good practice to introduce yourself to the players at the first tee. If I’m a roving referee on a cart, I quickly and politely introduce myself when engaging with a player(s) in any given rules or competition management situation.

The image to be portrayed is of a friendly individual who is there to help the players with matters regarding the rules. It’s not about appearing like an umpire who is there to exert influence on the players through imposing the rules.  At amateur events especially, we’re there to add to the players’ enjoyment and the professional conduct of the event.

Where to stand and where not to go

  • Be in a position to see the players play each tee shot but stand to the side of the tee wherever possible. There’s no express need to be on the tee with the players.

    Don’t worry if the players walk back to a teeing ground and there’s either no room for you or time to get back. In that case, I’m generally trying to get in a position where I can see each player’s ball land, especially if it goes into the rough, trees or a hazard.
  • Be in a position to see each player play each stroke.  However for strokes from fairway and rough you should not be within 10 metres of the player. There’s no need to get too close. In most cases, such as where the ball may move at address, it will be only the player who knows when something has occurred.
  • Don’t go onto the putting green unless requested to by a player. Stand at the side of the green in a position to assist if required.
  • When the player plays a bunker shot, you should be in a position to see the stroke, but: -

            - not be within the player’s vision/presence

            - be as far away as possible

            - not be positioned in the bunker

In major events such as the Oates Vic Open, walk behind the players with scorers, carryboard persons and course maintenance staff as applicable.

Giving Rulings

A senior European Tour Referee once said to me that you should give a ruling in the same friendly manner that you would talk to one of your regular golf companions. It’s a great tip which I’ve never forgotten.

It’s very easy to be overwhelmed by both the rules situation that you’re faced with (especially if it’s complicated) and/or the player that you’re dealing with, especially if they’re either well known or are simply upset, aggressive or agitated.

Trying to relate the situation back to how you would act and behave if the scenario was with someone you knew well and had occurred as part of your own regular golf will undoubtedly help. Even star players are just people and talking to them in that way will help you relax and resolve the situation at hand.

Players don’t necessarily need the Rule or Decision Number, just direction as to what they can and can’t do and what if any is the penalty. If they ask to see the rule or Decision (rarely happened over my working life), then by all means show them.

Referee Demeanour

Irrespective of your rules knowledge, how you present yourself in manner, voice tone and demeanour will absolutely influence the respect players have for you in that round and beyond. We can’t change who we are (and that’s fine) but we simply need to be sensitive as to how we relate to players in rules situations.

As a further personal rule, I try to be as friendly and courteous at all times regardless of how a player behaves towards me. If they are particularly nasty, rude or aggressive, there are other ways in which they can be taken to task. For example, the Golf Australia Code of Conduct applies to all players, caddies and spectators in most National and State events.

I never initiate conversations with players unless they do so (even if the player is known to me). Regardless of the level of event, the player is out there doing their best to score and enjoy the game. They don’t need me making unnecessary conversation.

If the player does want to chat, I certainly will but intuitively judge when to stop. Certainly once they’ve reached the location of their next stroke, I’m out of the picture. In any conversation, I never comment negatively on their game, score, condition of the course or anything else related to their performance. I’ll certainly compliment good shots but never comment on a poor shot.

Anyone who’s ever played golf knows how hard the game is and how easy it is for a bad shot to occur. For example, in giving a ruling I’m always careful regarding the language/words that I’d use. I would never say things like, ‘how did you hit it here?’ or ‘gosh, that must have been a bad shot’.

I have my own real example from a few years ago I was playing in the Sir Dallas Brooks Trophy, a traditional mixed foursomes event at Metropolitan GC consisting of an 18-hole qualifying round followed by knock-out matches for qualifying pairs. Qualifying with my mother, we were accompanied for our first match by a terrific State Referee who I knew well.

Predictably for those that know me, I was struggling with my short game for much of the match, hitting poor pitch after poor chip and generally being of little meaningful help to my mum who was playing well and keeping us in the contest. My rubbish golf culminated with a duffed pitch into a greenside bunker on Metropolitan’s 14th hole after my mum had played a great shot to finish just short of the par-five in two.

Witnessing another butchered short shot, the Referee exclaimed “What an awful shot. How did you do that!’ It was a totally understandable comment, but perhaps just as well he hadn’t uttered it to a player with a different temperament to me.

He immediately apologised for the comment that had simply slipped out (my golf has a habit of inspiring shock, awe and horror) and hoped I wasn’t offended. We had a laugh, especially as I was doing a pretty good job of offending myself given how I was playing. Nevertheless, for this well experienced and excellent referee, it was a good example of how easy it was for the wrong words to come out.

It’s great practice to start any ruling situation with the R&A recommendation of ‘How can I help?’ It sets the correct tone straight away and lets the player know that you want to help them.

In conclusion, the final tips would be to stay relaxed, enjoy the experience in the knowledge that what you’re doing is valued and important. It’s also pretty hard for the most uptight player not to appreciate a friendly and respectful Referee.

By David Greenhill (Golf Victoria – Chief Operating Officer)


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