July 7, 2007

My Shot: Tom Meeks

He's the best rules official in golf. Here's Tom Meeks' scorecard on life, signed and attested.

Tom Meeks, photographed April 2, 2004, in Far Hills, N.J.

Tom Meeks, photographed April 2, 2004, in Far Hills, N.J.

Tom Meeks Age 63 Annandale, New Jersey

At the players' dinner the night prior to the 1995 U.S. Amateur at Newport Country Club, I told the players to remember which golf course they were playing — we used two courses — and which tee they were going off of. The next day, wouldn't you know, a player from Montana shows up at the wrong course. An all-points-bulletin was put out, and when the player was notified, he caught a ride on the back of somebody's motorcycle and weaved through terrible traffic to get to the right course. Now, the year before, this fellow had missed qualifying by one stroke. It nearly broke his heart, but in '95 he made it. And when he finally got to the tee he was so late there was no choice but to disqualify him. He looked at me a long time and said, "Mr. Meeks, do you mind if I lie down here and cry for a minute?" And this grown man actually went to the corner of the tee, curled up and sobbed. It was all I could do to not go over and cry with him.

When a ruling goes contrary to what the player is hoping for, I always begin my announcement with, "I'm sorry, but ... " I mean it. In my heart I really am truly very sorry.

Charlie Yates at Augusta National tells of Bob Jones' dad being pressed into service as a rules official in one of the early years of the Masters. It had rained hard the night before the final round, and at the 12th hole a player requested relief from casual water. The Colonel asked him where he stood in the tournament. "Eighteen over," the player says. The Colonel says, "Hell, do anything you want," and walks away.

I started out as a casual, recreational golfer. I took up the game on a short nine-hole course in Lawrenceville, Ill., and like a lot of players I got used to moving the ball all over the place trying to find a good lie. When I was 25, I joined the men's club at a nine-hole public course in Noblesville, Ind. On the first hole of my first men's association event, I began raking my ball around. A guy in our group I'll never forget — his name was Bill McVey — came over and asked, "What are you doing?" I said, "Hell, I'm just trying to find a decent lie." He pointed his finger and said, "We don't touch it here." That was all he said. Bill McVey did a lot for me that day.

If a course is soft so balls will pick up mud, the PGA Tour will often adopt a local rule allowing lift, clean and place. That will never happen at a U.S. Open. We'd rather not play. You can't identify a champion by permitting wholesale relief all the way around the course. The late rules official Buddy Young said it best: Playing golf with the ball "up" is like playing tennis with the net down.

I was in charge of determining the hole locations at the Olympic Club for the 1998 U.S. Open. The 18th green at Olympic is small, but I was determined to use four distinct hole locations — front-right, front-left, back-right and back-left. It's traditional to do that, but the back-left location was very dicey. The slope there is severe, especially when the greens are running fast. The late P.J. Boatwright used the back-left hole location in 1987 and barely got away with it. Eleven years later it was even more slippery. When we cut the back-left hole on Friday morning I was very nervous, but I figured the grass would grow as the day went along and slow the green enough to make the hole location feasible. Well, it didn't grow fast enough. When the first group came through, I knew I was in trouble. Later that day Payne Stewart three-putted from eight feet and wound up losing by one. Tom Lehman four-putted. It was a disaster. A U.S. Open course is supposed to be difficult, and sometimes hole locations are on the threshold of being too difficult. But I crossed the line. It was a terrible mistake on my part and made the whole USGA look bad. There aren't a lot of highs and lows in my job, but this was a huge low. I still think about it.

Payne's three-putt wasn't the only thing that upset him. At Olympic he also had trouble with sand-filled divots, and on the 12th hole on Sunday I gave him a bad time for slow play. He was upset, and the following spring we met in Orlando to discuss things — sand-filled divots, hole locations, slow-play warnings, everything. Payne suggested to me that sand-filled divots be declared ground under repair. I told him such a local rule wasn't going to happen, and suggested — good-naturedly — that he might practice from sand-filled divots once in a while. Payne looked at the horizon for a while; you could see his mind spinning as he considered it. Finally he looked at me and said, "You're crazy."

At the 1999 U.S. Open a couple of months later, Payne came to me early in the week and complained that the 16th hole, a par 5 we turned into a long par 4, was unreasonable. "That green was not designed to accept a shot with a long iron," he said. I said, "I'll make a deal with you: We'll move the tee back a little and play it as a par 5, if you promise me you won't go for the green in two. Why would you even try, if the green isn't designed to hold a long-iron shot?" Payne said, "You are impossible," and walked away.

Payne won that Open at Pinehurst, of course. I was standing just outside the scoring tent, and when Payne signed his card, he embraced me — hard. Then, still holding me by the shoulders, he said, "Tom, you set up one hell of a golf course." I started crying. You know, Joe Dey always said that a policeman's lot is not a happy one, that officials don't get praised much because of the nature of their positions. But that comment will go down as one of my USGA career highlights.

After Payne died, Fred Funk told me the PGA Tour had a players meeting soon after Payne and I had met in Orlando. Tim Finchem asked if the players had any issues to discuss before moving on to the main agenda. Greg Norman stood up and said, "I think we should be permitted relief when a ball lands in a sand-filled divot." Before Finchem could answer, Payne jumped out of his chair on the other side of the room. "I disagree!" he said. "I think we should practice those shots." I thought, God bless Payne Stewart.

The USGA Rules Department never closes. Last year we took more than 21,000 phone calls, e-mails and letters with questions about the rules. If an important question is submitted over the weekend, the security guard will phone one of us at home and we'll gladly drop what we're doing and provide a ruling. One Saturday I was painting the trim on my house. My daughter Margie comes out and tells me there's a man on the phone with a rules question. I told her to tell the man I'm high on a ladder, and I'll phone him back when I come down. A few minutes later, Margie comes back to tell me she's taken the guy's name, number and a message: "When you return my call, don't phone collect." I'm a people person, but that did not sit well with me.

"A penalty of disqualification may in exceptional individual cases be waived, modified or imposed if the Committee considers such action warranted." I'm quoting Rule 33-7, which I've used only once in my career. Larry Ziegler has always disliked the USGA intensely and wasn't shy about expressing his feelings. On Saturday at the 1998 U.S. Senior Open, he hockeyed his ball around the 18th hole, saying, "The USGA likes to see big numbers so much, I think I'll give them one." I called Trey Holland, chairman of the championship committee, and said, "If we let Larry Ziegler play tomorrow, he's gonna do something worse. We should impose a DQ penalty." Trey said, "I agree. Go tell him." And I did disqualify Ziegler, and I still feel that it was the right thing to do.

Rules enthusiasts, new ones especially, like to pose "what if" questions. A fellow in Toledo asked, "Upon completing play of a hole, a jokester took the flagstick and planted it not in the hole but in a soft spot on the other side of the green. A player in the group behind hit his ball one foot from the flagstick. Is he entitled to place his ball one foot from the actual hole?" After considering the question carefully, I replied, "The Rules Department is very busy. When this situation actually happens, let me know and I'll be happy to respond."

There is an ongoing complaint that the Rules of Golf are complicated. Have you seen the rules for baseball? Or football? They make our rules look like kindergarten stuff — and their playing fields are a lot smaller than ours.

Of course, we do have the Decisions on the Rules of Golf, which is roughly 500 pages long. It's interesting reading, something you can read a little bit at a time. It's the all-time best book to keep in the bathroom.

You don't know pressure until you've officiated a high school basketball game in Indiana. I worked games where I had to run for my life when the game was over. I've given rulings in golf that upset people, but I didn't need a police escort when the tournament was over.

After you've given the ruling, leave the scene immediately. I mean right now, especially if the ruling has not gone the way the player had hoped. If you stick around, you invite a debate, and this is no time to conduct a debate class. Just leave.

The big USGA championships are played in the dead of summer, and the heat in some places has been unbelievable. The hottest day ever was at the 1975 U.S. Amateur at the Country Club of Virginia. It had to be near 100, and the humidity was so high it was hard to breathe. Fred Ridley beat Keith Fergus in the final, and it was a survival test more than anything. The 1977 U.S. Open at Southern Hills in Tulsa was awful; I spent the week inside the scoring tent with the flaps down. On the final day I drank maybe two gallons of water and didn't go to the bathroom once. That's hot.

You ask how I play in casual games with friends. Well, I play strictly by the rules. My friends can do whatever they want.