by Jim Gough - Rules Manager, The R&A
Back in February I was fortunate enough to leave a cold and windy Scotland to referee at two 36-hole events for golfers with disabilities run by EDGA in Portugal. The first was the Vilamoura Open at the Dom Pedro Pinhal course in the Algarve and the second was the Palmela Open at Montado Golf Course, which is just south of Lisbon.
The field for both events was mixed gender and included players from the four categories of disability that are specifically mentioned in the Modified Rules for golfers with disabilities. I would strongly recommend reading some of the Player Profiles on the EDGA website if you are interested in learning more about the players.
At the end of 2021 I had been assigned to work more closely on the Modified Rules and this trip was a great opportunity to gain experience of how the Modified Rules work in practice. It would also give me a chance to get to know to some of the golfers who use them. Having never refereed at an event where the Modified Rules were in effect, I arrived in Portugal having carefully re-read that section of the Rules to make sure that I was fully prepared.
On the first tournament day I was excited for the competition to start and made sure to be by the first tee to watch opening groups start their rounds. I have to say that, while admittedly my own golf game is pretty average, seeing someone use one arm to strike a ball more sweetly than you have ever struck a ball is beyond impressive and quite humbling. It was fascinating to see how some players had adjusted their swing technique to factor in any impairments and ultimately achieve the end result of a powerful, solid strike of the ball.
At both events we had a small team of three referees, so I was fairly busy out on course. I had thought that I would be using the Modified Rules a lot while refereeing but it quickly became clear that, from a refereeing perspective, these events would not be hugely different to what I had experienced before. The main difference when being called in to give a ruling was remembering that golfers who use wheeled mobility devices have: a four club-length lateral relief area when taking relief from red penalty areas or when taking unplayable relief, and the back-on-the-line relief option outside of a bunker for one penalty stroke instead of two. The other Modified Rules seemed to take care of themselves. It was more about knowing when there is no need to intervene, for example when a player with a visual impairment is being aligned for a shot by their caddie.
As is the case with most events, the main focus was on trying to keep the players on time and in position for pace of play. The rulings that I did get called over for were ones that you would expect to get at most tournaments, like helping players with unplayable ball options or with taking relief from abnormal course conditions. However, there was one player at the second event in Montado who unfortunately managed to play from a wrong tee, which was a first for me. The second event was also my first chance to use the Modified Rules in a ruling, and it was an interesting one as I helped a player in a wheeled mobility device take back-on-the-line relief out of a bunker. The first hole at Montado has a long bunker that runs up the right hand side of the fairway for over 100 yards. The player’s ball was right at the front of the bunker, and given the position of the flag, the line back took the player around 50 yards farther away from the hole to the side of the bunker and into the trees. It was a situation where the outcome did not seem particularly fair and made me think about what could be done to improve the Rules for situations like that.
Attending these events gave me a better appreciation of how the Modified Rules integrate with the Rules of Golf. While they are maybe not perfect, in most cases the Modified Rules do not fundamentally change the way that golf is played or take away from the challenge, which is exactly what you would expect and what the players want. Often they simply add more information into the Rules to consider everyone who might play the game. For example, Modified Rule 2.1 permits a player who is an amputee to use a prosthetic device provided that its use does not give the player any unfair advantage over other players. When the Rules are different, it is only where is it completely necessary. In speaking to players, it was very clear that they just want to play by the Rules of Golf and only want to use Modified Rules that are absolutely necessary for them to be able to play and compete fairly.
During the week I noticed the clear sense of camaraderie between the players. Even though both tournaments had competitors from at least 15 different nationalities, and everyone was clearly playing to win, the players celebrated the successes of others together and were there just as quickly to offer support to anyone who needed it. These events made me appreciate even more that golf is the perfect sport for anyone to be able to play and that there is no reason for it not to be fully inclusive. It is an outdoor sport that requires athleticism, but can still provide a level playing field where technique and mental resilience are more important than speed or agility. All around the world golf can give people an identity, a purpose and a group to be a part of, and in the relatively short time that I was there, the positive impact and the importance of golf was clear to see.