rules of golf

I went from a Rules of Golf dunce to distinction in 10 weeks – and you can too

D-Day at St Andrews arrived and a Rules of Golf exam for Steve Carroll. So how did he get on and how could it benefit you and your club?

‘Can I have a referee please?’ I’ve been pretending not to hear this question for about 10 minutes but everyone else has had a turn and it’s only me that remains.

Chris Wallace has been a picture of smiles for three days, the R&A’s rules official part of the team putting on a Level 2 Rules of Golf seminar in St Andrews.

But something happened to his face as those words left his lips and it has unnerved me. He looks like a player.

The query is a straightforward one, involving back on the line relief from a yellow penalty area.

I know the rule – inside out if I’m honest – but in the heat of the moment I find myself fractionally doubting the weeks of learning that have taken me to this point.

I fumble the answer, try to look half convincing, and Chris’s smile returns. He’s happy and – now – so am I.

He wasn’t trying to make me feel uncomfortable for the sake of it, nor was he trying to catch me out. The lesson here was an important one.

You can spend all the time you want learning the Rules of Golf in a book, but it’s one thing being able to repeat them parrot fashion and quite another to use them.

I’ve taken the final step on my road to becoming a referee.

So why was I there, on a practice ground in the shadow of the Old Course Hotel, trying to give rudimentary rulings?

I’m the person that gets stuck into the Rules of Golf whenever there’s an incident on tour, or a query comes into the NCG office.

I’m also the rules secretary at my club, but I was masquerading – hiding behind the pages of the Official Guide to the Rules of Golf when delivering decisions.

In a bid to improve my knowledge, I embarked on a quest, with the help of the R&A and Scottish Golf, that climaxed with me taking the Level 2 exam in the very fitting surroundings of the Home of Golf.

Over a two and a half month period, I read the Rule Book from cover to cover too many times to count, dived head first into numbers and sub-sections, and re-took the free online R&A Rules Academy.

Then, after a three-day seminar in Scotland, it all came down to a pen, a question and answer sheet, and two hours alone with my memory and that book.

If you’ve got any interest in learning more about the way we play the game, and why the rules are as they are, I’d definitely recommend taking a Level 2 seminar.

If you’re involved on a club committee, or have anything to do with making decisions in competitions, it really is a must.

It lays out the main playing rules – playing the ball as it lies, ball moved, bunkers, putting greens, lifting and returning balls to play, balls lost and unplayable – but it’s not about heads in textbooks.

We discussed, we debated and asked questions and, quickly, the missing pieces that had eluded me during revision finally started to sink into the brain.

One of the most informative sessions had nothing really to do with the rules at all, but covered running a competition and all the vagaries that can arise.

The seminar is about much more than just the exam but, of course, it is the latter that dominated my attention throughout this process.

It’s in four sections. The first comprises 25 true or false questions based on the Rule Book – for example, “An outside influence includes the player’s opponent”.

The second is multiple choice and you have to pick the right answer: “In match play, there is a bunker between a player’s ball and the hole. Before playing, the player smooths footprints in the bunker on his line of play. What is the penalty? A. No Penalty; B. He gets one penalty stroke; C. He loses the hole.”

There are 10 of these. You answer the first two sections from memory alone but, for the final two, you can use reference materials.

This is because it’s not simply testing your knowledge, it’s looking to see if you know your way around the Rule Book.

The third section is multiple choice again but, this time, it’s not just about finding the penalty but assigning the specific Rule number, sub-section and letter.

And the final section sees you follow Grant and Shona around a mythical four holes in a stroke play competition. You have to correctly identify the Rules situation, find the right Rule, sub-section and letter, while also assessing the number of penalty strokes.

rules of golf

I haven’t felt pressure like that since my university finals. But what did I get? My mark was 90% and a certificate for Pass with Distinction.

I was thrilled but the outcome of the process has been about more than simply a number and a nice piece of card.

It has fired my interest in the Rules and my desire to take this new found knowledge and use it.

Later this summer, depending on how the coronavirus pandemic affects competitions, I hope to take my first fledgling steps into refereeing by observing and participating at some county events.

I’d eventually like to move on to the R&A’s Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar – and the Level 3 exam – with an ambition to be part of the national Championships team in the future.

Ultimately, though, what my efforts also prove is that anyone can do this.

I went from practically flunking a beginner’s quiz on the R&A’s website – 11/18 will always remain a low point – to passing a serious rules exam with flying colours in just 10 weeks.

The new Rules of Golf is the real star. Its revised format, and uncomplicated language, certainly made the task of understanding easier than it might have been in the past.

The sky is now the limit, and I look forward to continuing on the journey of Rules discovery and enhancing my enjoyment of the game for many years to come.

Have you been inspired to delve further into the Rules of Golf? How is your own knowledge of the laws of our game? Let me know in the comments, or tweet me.

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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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