What started as a passing interest for Steve Carroll has led to him completing the R&A level 3 exam – and it's even opened an opportunity that, just months ago, was a distant dream. This is his story

The clock struck 5am and I realised I’d been staring at the hotel room ceiling for the best part of six hours. Enough was enough.

I got up and switched on the laptop. Practice questions whirred down the screen and I scrambled my memory to come up with some answers.

Good, the brain still worked.

In the previous 56 days, I calculated I’d done something like 150 hours of revision. That’s nearly a whole week doing nothing else but reading a 500-page book – the Official Guide to the Rules of Golf – hammering through thousands of practice questions and trying to conquer mock exams.

So why did I do it?

Firstly, we need to go back. A week before lockdown closed everyone’s doors in the early spring of 2020, I attended The R&A and Scottish Golf’s Level 2 Rules of Golf seminar in St Andrews.

I managed to sneak a distinction in the exam (right on the number as it turned out) but, more pertinently, I realised I had a real passion for the Rules.

What had initially started out as a learning exercise – I was writing about rules decisions on tour for NCG and really felt I should know what I was doing – had evolved into something else entirely. I wanted to put my newly found skills into use as a competition referee.

Then Covid-19 arrived and put those plans on hold. But there was another avenue still to take on the road to rules discovery.

The Level 3 Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar (TARS) is The R&A’s leading rules gathering and its aim is to give guidance and practical advice on running tournaments and refereeing.

And, yes, there is the chance to sit an exam as well.

I am indebted to The R&A for the opportunity to attend the most recent three-day event at Formby Hall.

But as I quickly discovered on arrival, the test was only a very small part of the overall seminar experience.

It turns out there is an awful lot that goes into the successful staging of any competition – whether that’s your standard club monthly medal or the world’s oldest major championship in The Open.

While the scale of those two may be miles apart, there are general principles on course marking, on set-up, pace of play, and starting and recording, that apply no matter what the event may be.

There were detailed and revealing presentations on all aspects of the officiating experience, and former European Tour referee Andy McFee also dispensed some of the vital lessons he had learned during nearly four decades following the best players in the game.

Let me give you a couple of the highlights that will stay with me…

On the basics of refereeing and, particularly, giving rulings: Always get out of the buggy when giving a ruling – we are there to help the player.

On Terms of Competition: Keep the Local Rules simple and avoid traps for players. No more writing reams of explanation from me!

On course marking: Pay attention to detail. Remember the situation Thomas Pieters faced at the WGC-Match Play, where a sprinkler head was touching the red line of a penalty area?

And on starting and recording: Avoid errors by issuing clear instructions and ensuring consistency.

It’s information that is invaluable at our clubs, where we rely on volunteers at every stage – whether that’s passing on information to competitors on the 1st tee or bringing together a uniform way of returning scorecards.

One of the most illuminating parts of the Level 3 TARS was the role play session on the final afternoon. The R&A Rules team acted out the part of a player as they posed delegates a series of scenarios ranging from immovable obstructions to a fiendish problem involving a ball resting close to a divot that had been partially replaced – a situation that has happened in a top tournament.

I was more nervous giving a ruling here than I have been when doing it for real! But to get constructive feedback, both on the decision given and the way it was presented, has already been hugely beneficial to me out in the real rules world.

Let’s move onto the exam, as I’m sure those of you that have come this far are dying to know what happened.

It was in five sections. The first contained 20 questions that made a statement – “A player’s ball is embedded in the general area” for example – and asked you to find the right rule number and subsection (it’s 16.3 for anyone wondering).

The second comprised 30 true or false questions, while the third was multiple choice. There were 10 of these.

The first three parts of the exam were completed without access to any reference materials. No Rule book. No Official Guide.

We could use those, though, in the fourth and fifth sections. The first of those gave us 10 scenarios and asked us not only to identify the correct answer from three choices but also correctly state the relevant Rule or Interpretation.

The final section, which was made up of 20 questions, tested our knowledge of the Committee Procedures contained in the Official Guide.

What did I get? Well, I need not have endured a sleepless night. I managed a mark of 96% and gained a certificate for Pass with Distinction. The result was beyond anything for which I had hoped and I’m now praying it might open some doors for me in terms of refereeing opportunities.

I’ve already had the chance to be part of the officiating team at Regional Qualifying for The Open, at Alwoodley, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have ambitions to be part of more championship teams in the future.

Who knows whether that will come to pass. What I do know is the knowledge I have gained at Level 3 TARS has given me an incredible opportunity.

So if I’m ever the one charged with giving you a ruling, you can be assured I’ve had the best possible grounding and that you’re in good hands!

See you on the course…

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