Rules School: John Garrity attends USGA's intensive course on Rules of Golf

Rules School: John Garrity attends USGA’s intensive course on Rules of Golf


Rule 35-4: False Pretenses. A writer has enrolled in a four-day Rules of Golf Workshop under 'false pretenses' when he takes his seat for the opening session without paying the $250 registration fee and subsequently produces notes, diagrams or other ephemera with no intention of taking the advanced Rules of Golf examination.

Don’t give me that look. First of all, that’s a made-up rule. Second, my 83 straight-arrow classmates will tell you that I stood up on Day One and identified myself as a golf scribe on assignment. Third, when asked if I was taking the 100-question exam, I always answered with a horrified “No!”

Why lie? The USGA offers two-day workshops for golfers who are merely interested in the rules. The four-day conclaves, held across the country during the first three months of the year, are for those whose rules appetites are prurient. “They come for different reasons,” USGA Executive Director David Fay told me in January. “PGA pros can earn credits toward master pro certification. USGA officials try to attain a certain score to officiate at our championships. And some people just come for the social aspect.” That third reason struck me as specious, but I briefly considered packing a cravat.

Never, however, did I pretend to know more about the rules than your average 12-handicapper, or even your average Tour pro. In fact, I was following Fay’s advice when I signed up for a February workshop at Golf House, the USGA’s bucolic headquarters in Far Hills, N.J. I didn’t know I was in over my head until I entered the basement lecture hall and saw the aforementioned 83 classmates, many of them old enough to be carrying AARP cards, seated in five terraced ranks above a lectern and three video screens. Trying not to attract attention, I squeezed into an empty chair in row four.

At 8 a.m., a brunette in a skirt and USGA blazer stepped behind the lectern and introduced herself as Teresa Belmont, assistant director of women’s competitions. She then began to recite the rules (not the Rules) as they were projected on the center screen. “Turn off all cell phones…Do not ask a question when you already know the answer…Don’t try to stump the instructors…Avoid ‘what if’ questions….” All was calm until she said, “You have a quota. Three questions per day.”

Heads popped up. Belmont, quick to detect the vibe, explained that the presenters had to cover golf’s 34 rules in three days, and if abusers of question time were allowed to indulge their infantile appetites for argument (I’m paraphrasing here) the rest of us would be unprepared for Wednesday’s exam. Behind me, a male voice murmured, “Rule 6-7,” drawing a ripple of laughter. (Rule 6-7: Undue Delay; Slow Play.)

At 8:35, a smiling Larry Startzel took the stage. “Welcome to Golf House,” he began. “Welcome to Mecca.” A dapper gentleman with close-cropped gray hair and a ruddy complexion, Startzel looked like one of those retired generals on CNN — only more confident. A PGA Master Professional with a playing background, he has officiated at the Ryder Cup and all the majors.

“I’m a word guy,” Startzel said. He triggered a hand-held remote, and a slide appeared on the three screens: SECTION II: DEFINITIONS. “Many books put the glossary in the back, but the authors of this book think the definitions are so important that they put them in front. You aren’t going to be able to understand the 34 rules unless you understand the terms.”

I’m a word guy, too, but the next hour — which was devoted to the painstaking analysis of everyday terms such as “hole” and “move” — exposed me as a lexical naif. The language had to be precise, Startzel argued, to keep us off the shoals of ambiguity. That’s why he hated to see lines painted on the ground to define out of bounds or a lateral water hazard. “Lines don’t have precise edges,” he said. “Lines wear out.”

The man had a point.

After a 10-minute break, Startzel passed the remote to John Morrissett, the USGA’s 38-year-old rules director. “John is the leading mind in the nation when it comes to the rules,” Startzel said by way of introduction. “He’s brilliant, to say the least.” The PGA man’s encomium caused Morrissett to duck his head modestly. In a checked sport coat and a red tie, Morrissett stepped forward and back again while lecturing, his left hand buried in his pants pocket while his right wielded the remote.

“What is equity?” he asked, launching into a critique of Rule 1-4: Points Not Covered by Rules. “Equity means that like situations should be treated alike. It’s a bare-boned definition of fairness.” The term originated in 15th-century English law, when chancellors found it useful for deciding cases about stolen goats and sheep.

“But what about stolen llamas?” Morrissett raised his eyebrows. “For instance, I hear that Larry” — pointing to Startzel in the back — “is now in the alpaca-breeding business.” Getting only a few chuckles for his efforts, Morrissett added, “No, really. He is.”

Startzel barked his response: “Actually, I hire animals to do the breeding.” The room erupted in laughter, and that’s when it hit me: My classmates were starstruck. Like guitarists at the foot of Segovia, they regarded Startzel and Morrissett as titans of rulesdom. “They are the best,” I heard a club pro say at the next break. “I hang on every word.”

Understand, this wasn’t a Springsteen concert. This was three days of PowerPoint presentation — the Rules of Golf read practically verbatim, starting with Rule 1: The Game and ending with Rule 34: Disputes and Decisions, with forays into the 556-page Decisions on The Rules of Golf. “What’s your secret?” I asked Startzel during a lunch break. “How do you sleep with all those rules sloshing around in your head?”

He straightened his tie. “I think people who are good at this stuff are left-brained people. Square peg? Square hole. Shine your shoes. Hang up your clothes by color.” Right-brained people, on the other hand, pound square pegs into round holes, walk around barefoot and reach 600-yard par-5s in two. “To be really good at golf,” he said, “you have to be the artist/musician type.”

In my workshop, the types included rules royalty (Cathy Boatwright, daughter of the late P. J. Boatwright, longtime USGA rules and competitions director) and a certified golf addict (Jim Malone, 2007 Golf Nut of the Year). Malone claimed to have played 310 rounds in 2008, adding, “I didn’t play on 92 days. I blame that on my wife.” It was his fourth workshop.

Then there was Clay Nicolsen of Naperville, Ill. “I’m fed up with people who get angry if you don’t agree to ignore the rules,” said Nicolsen, who officiates at the Illinois Open and college tournaments. “I am absolutely not the Rules Nazi — if you want to kick it out from under the tree, fine — but in every other sport you’re expected to follow the rules. If you’re running between first and second base, you can’t run into right field!”

I nodded, but the right side of my brain was thinking, Why not? The rules tended to be so dour, so inflexible, so Presbyterian, as to overwhelm the spirit of play. I was reminded of a 1990 interview with a young Paul Azinger, who told me that golf should be more like professional wrestling. “Wouldn’t it be great,” he said, “if a guy was standing over a birdie putt and you could just run up and deck him, absolutely flatten him? Man, I’d pay to see that.”

I briefly considered asking Morrissett if Zinger might be on to something. Then I recalled one of Teresa Belmont’s opening directives: Do not ask a question when you already know the answer.

On Day Three I slipped out of the auditorium while Morrissett was dissecting Rule 23: Loose Impediments and worked my way up stairs and down corridors until I found the corner office of the USGA’s executive director. A bow-tied David Fay pushed away from his laptop and waved me in.

“I used to teach them,” Fay said of the rules workshops. “Back in the dark ages, when we had no slides or video. You basically stood up in front of a bunch of people and asked them to imagine a situation.” He tapped his knee. “The first one I did was in San Antonio in ’81 or ’82 with [former USGA President] Will Nicholson. The one I remember most was that of [former USGA Executive Director] Henry Easterly.” Fay gave both names a reverential reading.

“I’m learning a lot,” I said, “but it’s like law school. I expect John Houseman to start grilling me on provisional-ball precedents.”

Fay nodded. “It’s not like riding a bicycle. You can’t just pick it up. And even if you learn the rules, that doesn’t guarantee how you’ll perform out in the field, under pressure. There’s nothing academic about a major championship. It’s live theater.”

He gave me a look of appraisal. “Are you taking the exam?”

“I’d love to” — I shifted in my chair — “but I swore off tests about five hours into the Graduate Record Exam. Is yours as tough as they say?”

He beamed. “It’s punishing,” he said. He was reminded of the workshop student who complained because he scored 71 on the 100-question exam. “He said he was the finest mind to graduate from West Point since MacArthur. Therefore the failing was not his; the problem was how the exam was presented.” Fay laughed. “The truth is, we’ve had experienced USGA officials post results that would make good golf scores.”

I was still thinking about those low scores when I got back to the classroom. Many of my classmates were seasoned rules officials, and some had attended more than a dozen workshops; but their success in the field depended as much on their social skills as their ability to recite Decisions from memory.

I raised the talent issue with Morrissett at the next break. “Golfers who come to our workshops can get caught up in debating and arguing the rules, rather than learning them,” he said. “Typically, they have a lot to unlearn.” Pressed for an example, he cited the common belief that a player cannot have a flagstick attended for a ball off the putting surface. “That’s wrong,” he said, “but millions of golfers believe that’s the case.”

Well, I thought, that’s just dumb.

DECISION 35/9: Player Returns Test Booklet with Blank Answer Sheet.

Q. On Day 4 a Rules Workshop participant cites “journalism exemption” when returning a test booklet and a blank answer sheet. Is this permissible?

A. No. Except in the special circumstance covered by Rule 35-4b: No Pulse, such action generally constitutes a breach. Accordingly, the participant is deemed to have attended under “false pretenses” until the breach is corrected.

Clearly, a new test booklet must be prepared for retesting….


As a result of his tee shot, the player’s ball lies in a bunker, resting against a rake. The ball is near, but has no interference from, a burrowing animal hole. The player’s caddie marks the position of the ball and lifts the rake which causes the ball to move. The ball rolls into the animal hole. The caddie retrieves the ball and the player drops it in the bunker within one elub-length of the nearest point of relief, not nearer the hole. The player takes four more strokes with that ball to complete the hole. What is his score?

a. 5 b. 6 c. 7 d. 8

“7” is the correct answer. The player should have replaced the ball on the spot where it lay before the caddie moved the rake. Because he didn’t replace the ball (he dropped it somewhere else) the player incurs the general penalty under Rule 18 (two strokes). Five strokes + two penalty strokes = 7. Piece of cake, right?


To officiate at a U.S. Open, a U.S. Senior Open or a U.S. Women’s Open, test takers must score 92 or better on the 100-question exam — and they must do it every four years to show that they’ve stayed current with the rules changes. The handful of mavens who manage to ace the exam each year are most likely the same people who scored a perfect 1600 on the SAT. “It’s usually an engineer or a doctor who has an extremely critical eye,” says rules guru Larry Startzel, who has scored 100 “umpteen times.”