Grant Moir, Director of Rules at The R&A, discussed the importance of practising giving rulings for seasoned and aspiring referees and his experience of attending The Players Championship.
In late February, I was contemplating a busy period of refereeing, starting with The Players Championship in March, the Masters Tournament in April, and then on to the PGA Championship in San Francisco in May.
My role at The R&A gives me the opportunity to referee at several Amateur and Professional events each year, however I can go quite long periods without refereeing and this means a lack of on-course “sharpness”. When I present to aspiring referees on the basics of refereeing as part of The R&A’s Rules Education programme, I emphasise the benefits of simulating rulings away from golf tournaments. This can be done by giving rulings to willing golfing friends or practising with fellow referees. Although it might not entirely replicate the pressure of giving rulings during tournaments, it really does get you back into the swing of things in a ‘safe’ environment before heading out to do it for real with the world’s best players.
And to prove that we “practice” what we preach, four of the team from The R&A’s Rules department went out to the majestic Kingsbarns Golf Links on a chilly but gorgeously bright morning at the beginning of March to do our refereeing “reps”. We did this by having one referee in the ‘hot seat’ while the others took it in turns to act as the player and ask for a ruling that they had created off the cuff. One of the benefits of doing this with fellow referees is that after each ruling the “referee” receives honest feedback from the other three on various aspects of the ruling including: manner, approach, tempo and technical accuracy. After one person had given three rulings, we then rotated to put a new person into the refereeing ‘hot seat’.
We completed several rotations and by the end of the morning each of us had given and observed many more rulings than we would ever be likely to be involved in during an entire 72-hole tournament.
A few days after the practice session, I travelled to Florida for The Players Championship and it all started well with a couple of good days of preparation on course at Sawgrass. I have refereed the tournament a number of times and know the course fairly well, but there is always something that gets you thinking ahead of the first day.
When reviewing the course, we noticed that there were quite a lot of animal ‘diggings’ in areas covered by pine straw. It was important to ensure that all the referees would have the same approach in terms of distinguishing between animal “diggings” that had actually gone through the straw and broken the ground, and those where the animal’s efforts were all above ground in the straw only, as free relief would only be allowed where the “diggings” had broken through the ground.
Day one in Florida
On the first day, it was clear that things were moving fast with COVID-19 and while we were on the course we were told that there would be a noon announcement from the PGA Tour relating to the event. This announcement was to advise that the tournament would continue but that there would be no fans allowed to attend for the final three days.
I had a quiet day on the course with only two rulings. The first was with Nick Watney, which involved relief from a sprinkler head on the fairway. His ball was behind it and there was a chance that he might hit the sprinkler head on his follow through. In all honesty, there was a good chance that he would miss the sprinkler head, but having assessed the shot he would be playing and the angle of the downswing, we both felt there was a possibility, and therefore I had no hesitation to give free relief.
Van Rooyen ruling
The second ruling was with Eric Van Rooyen, who managed to hit his ball into the hospitality suite to the left of the 16th green. It was a good example of how a ruling can go beyond the initial situation. We established the reference point and measured out the relief area where the ball was to be dropped, and after two drops that both rolled closer to the hole than his reference point, the player then had to place the ball where it hit the ground after the second drop. On the second attempt at placing the ball on the spot, the ball did come to rest, but it was sitting precariously. Eric asked what would happen if the ball now rolled forward and I advised that as the ball was now in play, it would be in play wherever it rolled to. But I also advised him that if he caused it to move then it would be a one-stroke penalty and in that situation the ball would be replaced. This was my subtle attempt to tell him to be careful around the ball and to ensure that he knew there could be a penalty if he wasn’t.
That evening I was having dinner with Shona McRae and David Meacher from The R&A, and Diane Barabe from Golf Canada. We were all intrigued to see what it was going to be like refereeing at such a prestigious championship with no crowds. But while we were in the middle of this discussion, we received notification from the PGA Tour that the championship had been cancelled.
Of course, subsequent events mean that we will all have a long period without refereeing. So, doubtless when we do get back to competition golf, there will be another simulation session before we head out for the real thing once again.