Yesterday, on Thursday 20th July, 156 of the finest players in the world teed off in the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. Come Sunday they are all hoping to be hogging the limelight that goes with becoming the Champion Golfer of the Year and they will rejoice if theirs is the name that is on everyone’s lips.
There will, however, be another body of folk – more than 60 of them, who most definitely do NOT wish to be centre stage in any way at all. They prefer to go about their business unnoticed and unsung and the less they have to do, the more content they are. Yet without them the well-oiled machine that is the world’s greatest golf championship would not run so smoothly. Please step forward, however reluctantly, the oft-criticised and much-maligned (especially recently) rules officials.
These men and women come from all corners of the globe and all walks of life but all, it is safe to say, will have a golfing background and a love of their sport. Some are, indeed, professional rules officials from the world’s tours, invited by the R&A who run The Open but many of them are amateurs who have subjected themselves to the torture of the R&A’s rules exam. I speak from experience on that score.
Ireland’s Claire Dowling is refereeing in her third Open. A formidable player in her own right with five Irish titles, one British and four Curtis Cups under her belt, Claire admits to falling into refereeing “by accident”. She didn’t set out to become a referee but responded to the call from the English Women’s Golf Association in 2010 to get more people trained up. The following year she made her Open debut at Royal St George’s where she – and Darren Clarke – came through unscathed!
I had a coffee with her at the beginning of the week before the call to arms and numerous rules meetings, briefings, course walks and uniform measurings. She was upbeat but acknowledged that the nerves were always constant and she completely understood the antipathy of some players who do not like dealing with amateur referees. The way of coping with this pressure is to take a moment to think, keep calm and unflustered and, if in any doubt, ask for back up. Easy to say but not so easy to do if you are with a high profile player and there is a TV camera and microphone in your face. In my role as commentator I have seen players be very intimidating – Seve was a past master – and it is certainly no place for the faint-hearted. The cool head of her playing days will stand her in good stead.
“Refereeing”, as one professional told me succinctly a few years ago, “is hours of waiting for moments of terror.” Claire, however, is prepared – all the way down to her toes!
So, as you settle down to view the world’s greatest golf championship, spare a thought for the referees. That really could be you. Refereeing is within the reach and compass of anyone who plays the game and has the mental gymnastics and discipline to get their heads around the 34 rules in the Rule book as well as roughly 3000 decisions. The thrill of being involved behind the scenes, the pride in a job well done and the camaraderie and company of like-minded people are reward enough.
Good luck, everyone.