The curious life of a PGA Tour rules official
As a trio of recognizable rules officials head to retirement, we talked to them about what they've seen—and heard—in their lengthy careers.
ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 10: Matthew Fitzpatrick of England speaks to Rules Official Mark Russell before putting on the 15th hole during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard at Bay Hill Club and Lodge on March 10, 2019 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR)
Editor's Note: You can listen to this story as a podcast.
Suppose for a minute you’re a PGA Tour pro in contention on Sunday. Things are going smoothly until one loose shot causes your golf ball to wind up on a cart path. You know you get relief, but where you’re going to drop now possibly brings a grandstand into play. And wait, shouldn’t that be considered ground under repair?
Suddenly, you’re thinking about a lot more than winning a golf tournament. You’re worried about incurring a penalty. An embarrassing, possibly reputation damaging penalty. And at the very least, a very, very costly penalty.
With stakes that high, a player would like to be able to count on someone they can trust. Think of it as one of those phone-a-friend lifelines that can deliver the correct answer. And if you’ve played on the PGA Tour at all over the past four decades, it’s usually one of two people who will pick up the call.
Mark Russell and Slugger White haven’t always provided players with the news they want to hear, but as PGA Tour rules officials for a combined 80 years they’ve been the final answer to countless rulings over their lengthy careers.
Watch enough golf and you likely know them as the guys on the walkie talkies who come in when a rules dispute arises. Or as the guys who give players the ground rules at the start of a playoff. They’re also the guys who have to make the tough calls when it’s been raining for 12 straight hours and you’re wondering when they’ll start playing golf again.
In some ways, they are the equivalent of a referee in basketball or an umpire in baseball, but in other ways, their job is completely different. After all, a ref or an umpire doesn’t have to set up the court or the field since those dimensions are fixed. And while those guys chase around athletes with a whistle in their mouths, rules officials like Slugger White spend most of the time sitting on golf carts waiting to be summoned.
“I’ve had so many players, I’ll see them the first part of the week and I’ll say, ‘Have a great week!’ and they’ll say, ‘I hope I don’t see you!’" White says. "That would be great."
So what’s it like to be a rules official at the game’s highest level? How does it feel to hold a tour pro’s fate in the palm of your hand?
We examined the role of the rules official on golf’s biggest stage by talking with Russell and White, who have served as co-vice presidents of competition for the PGA Tour. We also spoke with one of their European Tour counterparts, John Paramor, to get a sense of what goes into this fun—but stressful—job and to hear some of their most memorable tour tales.
Coincidentally, all three, along with the European Tour’s Andy McFee, have decided to end their careers at around the same time, taking some 160 years of experience with them. Those men are all stepping aside, but their roles have by no means lost their importance. As long as there’s golf, there will be questions about the game’s rules. Plenty of questions.
Slugger White has been a familiar face at PGA Tour events the past four decades.
If the PGA Tour’s old slogan is “These guys are good,” Mark Russell and Slugger Whites could be, “These guys are everywhere.” Slugger, with his trademark panama hat, is particularly noticeable on the golf course. But most of the time they’re relatively out of sight. Here’s how Paramor, who retired as the European Tour’s chief referee in 2020, puts it.
“It’s a bit like you’re an emergency doctor. You’re just sitting there with a radio, you have no idea what’s going to be called next. And when that radio does go off, there’s a little bit of anxiety. You think, ‘Oh my god, is this going to be the one I don’t know? Is this going to be the one that finishes my career?” said Paramour, who thought about playing professionally before caddying for a year on the European Tour and then becoming a rules official. “It can be a terrifying thing. Somebody said it’s hours and hours of boredom interspersed with complete panic.”
Also like a doctor, a good rules official needs a good bedside manner. The decisions being handed down throughout a tournament, even one made early in the week, can often be worth thousands, if not millions, of dollars.
All three acknowledge having some testy run-ins with players throughout their careers. It would be impossible not to even if those situations are rare. Respect of the players has to be earned for sure, but they say for the overwhelming majority of time, tour pros are a pleasure to deal with.
“You know, that’s the great thing about golf," said Russell, a former director of at Walt Disney World before taking a job with the PGA Tour in 1980. "It attracts the finest people. It’s a ladies and gentlemen’s game and it’s different than any other game. Less is better. That sets it apart right there. Four beats a five, and a three beats a four. All other games, how many points can I score? How many runs can I score? What can I do? But golf is such a game of honor because it would be so easy to fudge things and cheat if you wanted to.”
And that respect goes both ways. Most golf fans think of rules officials as ancillary characters, but when you’ve been around as long as these guys, you become part of the main cast.
“When I was 20 and I got on the European Tour, part of the mystique of getting on the European Tour was like, 'John Paramor is going to be one of the referees. I’m going to have a ruling off him at some point.'” And they actually are a massive part of the tour," Tommy Fleetwood said. “I think everybody has a pretty good relationship with them. And I think those guys who have put so much time into the game, they’re going to be missed.”
No matter how much time you put into the game, though, the rules of golf are tricky. Even for the people whose jobs revolve around them. Slugger White also spent four years on the PGA Tour as a player—back then he went by Carlton—and he says he's still learning.
"You think you know them until you get into them and then you find out you really didn’t know them," White said. "You kind of know the basics, but then you get into the decision book, and back then we had a decision book with 1,200 decisions. And you think, ‘1,200 decisions? And I have to know all these things?!’ So you think of situations and go through the book and kind of learn what you can when you can as fast as you can.”
You can prepare all you want, though. Golf will still present situations you’ve never seen before. Jon Paramor says he saw something for the first time while working his final European Tour event in August.
“We probably get two or three a year that we’ve never come across before," Paramor said. "Nor has anyone else. But that’s the beauty of the game.”
It’s also one of its quirks. At the 2020 WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, Bryson DeChambeau made an unusual claim when he said his golf ball was resting near a hill of fire ants. PGA Tour rules official Ken Tackett showed up for a conversation that lasted more than three minutes, but ended with him not granting DeChambeau relief.
Paramor fondly recalls a similar situation involving Seve Ballesteros on the final hole of the 1994 Volvo Masters. Ballesteros was tied with Bernhard Langer, but in trouble after a wayward drive. With his ball up against a tree, Ballesteros claimed he should be granted relief from the sandy area he felt had been dug by an animal. Paramor disagreed and held firm against the golf legend.
“Well, during this sort of 20-minute ruling that I had with him, the hole itself had a smaller hole and I started probing it with my finger just to see if I could get any evidence from it," Paramor says. "And he put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Be careful, it might bite.' Classic. Absolutely classic. Thankfully, it didn’t. But I was kind of giggling underneath it and trying not to burst out laughing.”
Rickie Fowler takes a penalty drop as Rules Official Slugger White watches on.
As a general rule for an official, the less interaction there has to be with players on the course, the smoother the golf tournament. But as much as these guys would like to sit still watching golf while working on their tans, that’s becoming more difficult to do.
Russell, White, and Paramor all agree they’ve become busier throughout tournament rounds in recent years. For two reasons, really. The younger generation of players seems to know less about the rules, even while playing for much more.
“These guys are playing for a lot of money," White says, "and the last thing they want to do is make a mistake that could be avoided for just a call that would take maybe a minute and a half out of their day to avoid that mistake.”
It’s helped that the process has picked up in recent years. If a PGA Tour pro has a question, he tells the walking scorer, who radios the rules committee, which then sends in the closest rules official.There’s also a rules official always assigned to watching coverage of the event to monitor other issues that can surface.
To help players get a better grasp on the rules, Paramor says the European Tour started giving out tests to its players beginning in 2019. Those who fail twice get a 30-minute private tutorial with an official. The PGA Tour hasn’t implemented anything quite as official yet—but there was at least one effort to better educate the players. One failed attempt, that is.
“The players screamed they wanted a rules seminar so we put a rules seminar together and I think two players showed up," Russell said. "They’re all for that, until it happens. And then they’re not that interested. ‘Well, I was going to that rules seminar, but hell, I’m going to dinner tonight.’”
Russell says the recent rules changes have "dumbed things down" for the players. Still, there’s a lot that tour pros get wrong—especially because there’s a lot more they have to deal with compared to weekend hackers.
For instance, one situation that pops up often is around temporary immovable objects or TIOs. These are usually related to tournament-based structures such as grandstands or scoreboards.
Often, players will call on a rules official just to confirm they’re taking proper relief. Just don’t expect Justin Thomas to be one of those guys. It helps that Thomas grew up as the son of a PGA professional, but whatever the reason, Slugger has been impressed by both JT’s rules knowledge—and curiosity.
“Justin is the only one that really kind of, I mean, he talks about it during a playoff!" White said. "That’s when Jimmy Johnson (Thomas' caddie) says, ‘I have to put up with this all the time.’ It’s kind of funny. I even have to say, ‘Justin, you need to go ahead and think about what you’re doing here.’ And I have to walk away from him.”
Much as the recent rules changes have been well received, they’ve still been an adjustment—for both players and veteran officials like Russell.
“But it still short-circuits me to see people move loose impediments in bunkers and penalty areas and tap down things on their line," Russell said. "When you’ve been doing something for so long and you’re so dialed into that, next thing you know people are doing that and you’re like, ‘Woah, woah, woah. That’s right you can do that.’ But I think a lot of the rules changes were very good.”
Of course, one of the big differences between tour players and average golfers is they have officials nearby to help clear up any confusion about a rule. It’s a security blanket only to an extent, though, because the phone-a-friend doesn't always guarantee the correct answer. And Russell, White, and Paramor are all quick to admit the players aren’t the only ones who make mistakes.
When that does happen, the rules official must seek out the player to prevent it from happening again. That can lead to some uncomfortable exchanges, although Paramor couldn’t help but laugh about making a mistake in his final event.
“I can tell you that my last ever ruling was wrong," Paramor says with a chuckle. "I spent the entire week saying, ‘you’ve just got one week left, just don’t mess up,’ and I mess up on the last day. I can’t believe it. Anyway, I saw the player and he laughed about it. He could see the funny side. You know, my last day and I absolutely get it wrong.”
Ian Poulter gets a ride from European Tour chief referee John Paramor during a practice round.
They say you never forget your first kiss, but Slugger White will never forget his first ruling. It doesn’t hurt that it happened to involve arguably the greatest golfer in history. Coincidentally, Jack Nicklaus had run into Slugger earlier in the week and had heard he had switched from being a player to a rules official. Now just a couple days later, they met face to face to determine whether Nicklaus was entitled to free relief from a spotty lie.
“So I get in the cart and these carts are old, you can hear me coming from four miles away," White recalls. "Jack is standing there and I said, ‘Can I help you, Jack?’ And he said, ‘yes, what is this?’ And it was a French drain, which we treat like ground under repair. And I always say he looked at me with those steely blue eyes and he said, ‘Are you sure?’ And I said, ‘I’m positive.’ He said, ‘OK, where do you drop it?” So he was comfortable and I was comfortable so I drove away and I thought that was an easy one, let’s worry about the hard ones later.”
Not surprisingly, Slugger has faced plenty of hard ones since. One that stands out for him involved Kevin Stadler in 2005. Stadler was among the leaders in Las Vegas to start the third round when he approached Slugger about a damaged club he discovered in his bag on the first hole.
"It was the most gut-wrenching one I ever had, yes it was," White said. "I knew what the end result was, and I let it play out, and. . . Kevin didn’t do anything. The rule has since changed to just a penalty situation and not a disqualification, but it made me ill.”
In a strange twist, one of Russell’s most memorable moments involved Kevin’s dad, 1982 Masters champ Craig Stadler, at Torrey Pines in 1987. Most golf fans have probably seen the clip of the Walrus kneeling on a towel to hit a shot from under a tree in the third round. Russell, who wasn’t notified of the possible infraction until after a TV viewer called in during the final round, had no choice but to rule Stadler had illegally built a stance. And since he had signed an incorrect scorecard the prior day, he had to be DQ’d.
“We really went to all lengths to see if we could get him out of that, but the way the rules are written there’s no way," Russell said. "He violated the rule. It still to this day amazes me that somebody didn’t say, ‘Woah, man, you need to call somebody before you do that!’ But Craig did it anyway, he didn’t want his pants to get dirty. Thus he was disqualified. I think he finished second or third in the tournament. But, yeah, that was a long afternoon too.”
It doesn’t always end that way, though. In fact, all three are adamant they are not out to get the players. Here’s how Jon Paramor describes how he approaches a rules issue.
“I’ve often crossed swords with young referees coming along and saying, ‘I’m going out there to penalize someone,'" Paramor says. "And I’ve said, ‘No, you’re going out there to save someone from penalty.’ That’s what our job is.”
Which is why Slugger begins every on-course player interaction with the same five words: “How can I help you.” And contrary to how some tour pros may feel, officials work hard to make sure all players get treated the same when it comes to rulings.
“I always look at a situation where the ball doesn’t have a face on it," White said. "It’s just a ball and a situation and you just go with what’s in front of you. And I think most of these guys know when a guy like myself or Mark Russell or some of the older guys, when we walk in there, they know we’ve been around enough that the respect is still there. They might know the name and they know they’re going to get a fair shake.”
And as Russell is well aware of, sometimes rulings have nothing to do with the ball. With just a few holes to go in the 2011 Players Championship, Russell was alerted that K.J. Choi’s caddie, Andy Prodger, had been using something to test the wind. So when Choi finished his round tied for the lead with David Toms, Russell arrived on the scene. After learning Prodger had just been tossing a handkerchief in the air to test the breeze, the playoff went on and Choi wound up claiming the biggest title of his career.
“So it was a huge relief to me that it was not a rules infraction and we could continue the playoff," Russell said. "We had how many millions watching that all over the world, a huge, huge crowd there at Sawgrass and everyone was waiting on that playoff. And I’m going to go in there and disqualify this guy? That was an intense time.”
Golf fans weren’t even aware that happened, but such is the nature of the gig. Here’s PGA Tour senior VP and chief of operations Tyler Dennis, himself a former rules official, on the harsh reality of the job.
“If everything goes right, and well, and there’s no problems, you’ve done your job and nobody thanks you," Dennis said. "They just kind of go, ‘great tournament.’ It’s only when things go wrong when you’re suddenly in the limelight.”
Russell, White, and Paramor are certainly familiar with such situations, but perhaps none more so than Paramor, who came under scrutiny for handing out a rare slow play penalty during the 2014 Masters. Making the situation even more explosive was the fact it was A 14-year-old named Tianlang Guan who was docked a stroke during the second round.
Paramor took plenty of heat for the ruling, even getting an earful from one of Guan’s playing partners, two-time Masters champ Ben Crenshaw. But he stands by the decision he made that day with the help of Fred Ridley, who was then chairman of the competition committee at Augusta National. If anything, in fact, Paramor says he was lenient with Guan.
So why was a teenager slapped with a slow play penalty at the world’s biggest tournament while older players avoid the same fate? According to Paramor, it’s because they know how to work the system.
“They’re not getting the penalties because basically by the time they’ve had their first bad time, they know exactly what they have to do," Paramor said. "They just take it to the edge all the time, which I feel is very dangerous because there’s always going to be a point in time where you want a few more seconds on a shot, and if you’re going to take it to the brink all the time, then you’ve lost that chance.”
All are happy with the new penalty and fine structures that have been set up on both the PGA Tour and European Tour and believe slow play will get better. But it will remain an uncomfortable conversation with any sluggish player, no matter their age.
“Well, it’s no fun, but it’s what we do," Russell said. "I didn’t get a bad time, you did. I didn’t get out of position, you did. I’ve told guys, ‘Listen, I don’t want to hear it. All we hear about is pace of play, pace of play, and if we do something about it, you guys get angry! You guys are on the clock, alright.’”
Being on call to settle rules disputes and speed up play is only part of the job of a rules official. Setting up a golf course for a PGA Tour event falls under the rules committee as well and is a process that takes months and involves various staff members working with the venue. Along with one of the tour’s agronomists, a rules official will get to a tournament site a week in advance to begin final preparations before more rules officials arrive to finish the process.
That’s when potential tees and pin positions are mapped out, while possible problem areas such as ground-under-repair get marked. If the rules committee has done its job well, it’s anticipated a host of problems before they even arise.
Weather, of course, plays an important role as well. In addition to causing delay in play, a decision that falls under the purview of the rules committee, the forecast is also a factor in determining tees and pin positions.
“Our meteorologist keeps us totally dialed in," Russell said. "If we’re going to have a stiff wind and a long hole with forced carry, we’re probably going to move those tees up so that players can carry it the distance they need to. We want to set it up as difficult as it can possibly play, but fair. Golf is hard enough to play as is without adding a lot of things in there. I mean, you can put the hole in the middle of the green and some guys are going to still make bogey. It’s hard, you know?”
Some processes aren’t quite as sophisticated. Take when there’s a playoff. A rules official will simply write numbers on pieces of paper, fold them up, and place them in a hat to be drawn in the order of which player posted his 72-hole score first. According to Russell, there’s never been a mishap but he’s gotten some pushback through the years.
“I remember Ken Thompson who years ago was the CEO of Wachovia and on our board at one time, he was amazed because he was with me running the playoff at the Wachovia tournament and he said, ‘This is the way you do this? Are you kidding me?! You guys need like a coin or something like that to make it a little more official," Russell said. "But we found out over the years we just fold those things up and put them in a hat, let people draw. And Daniel Berger told me one time, ‘I saw which numbers were.’ And I said, ‘There’s no way you saw which numbers. I folded it four times, I don’t want to hear that.’”
The rules crew makes tee times for the field, makes sure each group has a walking scorer, makes sure all bunkers are properly raked, and even makes snacks for the players. OK, so not that last part, but you get the point. There’s a LOT of work that goes into putting on and running a professional golf tournament.
“Those two gentlemen, Mark Russell and Slugger White, have really been the bedrock of the PGA Tour to be honest for more than 40 years," Dennis said. "In Slugger’s case, he played on the tour before that so he’s been part of the heart and soul of what we do. Fans know them, but in a lot of ways, they’re also the unsung heroes behind the scenes, and they have done a remarkable job.”
You can tell how much these guys love their jobs, because, well, they can’t let them go. Despite being retired, all three are staying involved with their respective tours in some way. When I spoke to Slugger, he was already preparing to be on site at the American Express, his first of a handful of PGA Tour stops in 2021. And no matter how many tournaments he’s worked, there’s always some brushing up to do.
“I’m going to Palm Springs a week from Monday and I’ll spend probably the next 10 or 12 days just leafing through going rule by rule so my mind doesn’t go soft on me," White said. "You kind of go to mush if you’re not careful and I want to be sharp when I get out there.”
None will miss the constant travel, or those days when the rain won’t stop, or even the pressure of making an important, perhaps unpopular, call with the cameras rolling. Still, the gig has its perks.
“Why did I stay so long? I don’t know," Paramor said. "Probably because I’m absolutely useless at doing anything else. And actually, it’s the best job in the world. So why would you give up the best job in the world?”
They’re also continuing to stick around to ensure a smooth transition to a new guard of rules guardians. The PGA Tour is losing the retiring Dillard Pruitt and John Lillvis as well, but Russell and White know the operation has been left in good hands—because they had a hand in finding their replacements.
Gary Young will lead the PGA Tour’s Rules and Competition department with Steve Rintoul, John Mutch, Stephen Cox and Ken Tackett moving into the roles of senior tournament director under him. They may not be household names yet—but in this job, notoriety isn’t necessarily a good thing.
It’ll be nice for Russell, White and Paramor to not have to enforce things like TIOs or pace of play anymore, but don’t expect them to stop thinking about how to address such problems—even as they transition from a golf cart inside the ropes to the living room couch.
“You know, listen," Russell said. "When we’ve got 156 players in summertime, I mean, we’ve got 26 groups on 18 holes. If anyone can figure out a way on how that’s going to play fast, please call me.”
He's serious. Because retirement or not, the game goes on. And as long as these guys are paying attention, they’ll want to make it better.
Of course, now they’ll be on the clock more with more free time to play the sport they love. Although, funny enough, Slugger says he’s a lot looser with the rules in his regular game.
“Well I have to," Slugger said. "They might not invite me back to play!”