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Rules of Golf

Lost balls and broken dreams: My eventful debut as a tournament rules official

Steve Carroll made his refereeing debut at the North of England Amateur Championship at Alwoodley. And it was action packed to say the least
 

The stop clock is just about to deliver its judgment when there is a sudden shout. We’ve been scouring the heather for nigh on six minutes – firstly for a tee shot that’s already been consigned to history and now for a provisional that looked like it was going the same way.

The player lets out a slight sigh at the discovery of a ball in the undergrowth but disaster has not yet been averted. It’s been carnage in here all morning, the tournament dreams of too many ending in a bristly grave.

As he leans down to consider the object nestled at the bottom of this most brutal of golfing hazards, it hits him.

It’s not his provisional at all but, far from where he was once searching, his original ball.

He looks at me but he already knows. It’s a long walk back to the tee – especially when you’re about to hit your fifth.

Here’s the other side. Deep down in the rough, a short hop from the 10th green, another player locates a pearly white globe.

I hit the buzzer and look down at the display: 2.59.82. Now that’s what you call in the nick of time.

There’s something odd about the way the ball’s sitting. He marks it and then lifts it away from the surface.

It was stuck in its pitch mark. Not only has he found it but he can now have relief for an embedded ball in the general area.

“Thank you,” he beams. “Here to help,” I reply, repeating the mantra the experienced team of referees have spent three days drumming into my senses.

Alwoodley is the venue for the North of England Amateur Championship. It’s notable for many things, not least being Dr Alister MacKenzie’s first design, but also because it’s my debut as a referee.

I’ve spent months poring through the Rules of Golf and taking exams, and now it’s for real – the decisions I make have a material effect on someone’s championship hopes.

Rules of Golf

There are nerves, and the purist who’s spent months delivering weekly sermons about the inalienable nature of the rules is now solving live queries.

Readers answer back, of course, but the confines of my living room are far removed from the vagaries of Twitter.

When you’re refusing the entreaties of people standing right in front of you, they – quite naturally – would like to know why.

“Your main function is to help players get round the course within the rules of the game,” Northern Counties secretary Bob Stoffel tells me after I sent him a half-panicked email five days before the tournament.

The reality of volunteering was beginning to hit home and I’d already played out a number of disaster scenarios where a rum ruling had cost some young bright thing his chance of glory.

Nothing, of course, is as scary as your imagination and Bob and his team of referees are wonderful as I work my confidence up from timid newbie to racing round the course in a buggy like some regulatory superhero.

What helps immeasurably is that, for all its magnificence, Alwoodley is a fairly straightforward layout in terms of potential rules quandaries.

There are few penalty areas of which to speak, and so it’s mostly about long searches and lost balls.

I give a player relief from an animal hole that was so deep it was amazing he found his ball in the first place and refuse it for another who tries to convince me that a rather peaty section of Alwoodley’s natural heathland constituted an abnormal course condition.

It is abnormal only in the sense of the ball’s position from its intended target. They are decisions given out in good faith and taken as such too.

And then there’s pace of play.

“I want you to practice something,” I’m told as I’m sent in the direction of a set of stragglers who need a little cajoling.

They’ve lost a hole and a half on the group in front and while the clock’s not being produced yet, the message I have to deliver is polite but firm: “You need to get yourselves back into position.”

I feel a certain trepidation about what’s about to unfold. There’s nothing too subjective about most of the rules – you are in breach or you are not, you can get relief or you can’t.

Rules of Golf

Everyone seems to have a different reason, though, about why they’ve fallen off the pace. They’ve lost some balls or they’ve taken an eight.

I front it up, the players show willing, and I leave them on their way. If they remain more tortoise than hare, they’ll soon have another date with a buggy.

My final ruling is the most heartbreaking, if you’ll allow emotion to seep in for just a moment. It’s the last group, the 16th hole, and even though what feels like a crowd is scouring the rough on the left the ball just can’t be found.

“That’s three minutes,” I say, and one of the hunting party shoots me a look I will only describe as ‘interesting’.

The player trudges back to the tee, any faint hopes he still had of reeling in the leader now firmly extinguished.

And though a part of me sorrows at the, albeit correct, role I’ve played in putting the final nail into his hopes, another revels at being in the thick of a major tournament.

I hope it will lead to further opportunities, a successful first step on a road that could lead to who knows where? I look forward to once more donning the stopwatch and, with the Rules of Golf in hand, getting out there again next year.

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Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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