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5 August 2018

Women and Girls' Golf Week: Claire Dowling, a referee at the Ricoh Women's British Open, was a top player and is now at the forefront in the word of golf rules. Here's her story

Claire Dowling was one of the best golfers of her generation, who won five Irish championships, a British title and was selected for four Curtis Cup teams. Now she’s at the forefront again, this time in the world of rules and refereeing. She’s Deputy Chair of The R&A Rules Committee and has been closely involved with the creation of the new rules which come into force next year. She’s also just refereed at The Open and is on duty again this week at the Ricoh Women’s British Open. Here's her story. 

How did you get started?

My father ran the John Jacobs Golf Centre at Leopardstown, Dublin.  It was really a case of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’. He was a very keen golfer, still playing off 12 at the age of 80.  My mother worked with him and so, as an only child, I found myself spending every weekend at the golf centre doing odd jobs.  Every now and again, out of complete boredom, I would pick up a club and a basket of balls and take myself off to hit them.  I was anything but sporty and would far rather have had my head stuck in a book.

I developed a sudden rush of enthusiasm for golf when this lovely looking chap started to practice at the golf centre, he was gorgeous.  He was a keen golfer and practiced a lot so every time he appeared I would ‘casually’ go out to practice too! Sadly he was about ten years older than me, a lot when one is a young teenager, and he had a very glamorous girl-friend, but I hit a lot of golf balls that winter. We became and remained good friends until his untimely death aged 62.  

What do you love about golf?

Tough question.  It’s great fun at any level, and for those who are very competitive it is a great test of mental strength as well as skill.  It is one of the few sports where players of any age and ability can play together and still have a reasonable game, because of the handicap system.  I have been incredibly lucky to have played when I did, I travelled the world and made lots of friends, and in fact I still do, though through my rules involvement, rather than playing.

How did your interest in the rules develop? Was it a natural progression from your playing days?

Not really. When living in the Midlands I became involved in handicapping at my club and within the county due to the fact that I had worked at Wentworth as Competition and Handicap Administrator. In 2009 I was invited on to the EWGA (English Women’s Golf Association) Handicap Committee and when the committee needed another rules qualified person, I was sent to the R&A’s Referees and Rules School at St Andrews.  A brilliant few days but a very daunting exam!  My very first event as a rules official was the English Women’s Championship at Broadstone in 2010.

What’s the appeal of the rules and refereeing? 

Like any volunteering in sport, you meet interesting people and make friends, you stay involved in the game, you see great golf, and occasionally you can help someone.  Both Peter, my husband, and myself love doing junior events where you feel you really can help the youngsters, as opposed to senior events where the only thing we seem to do is try and deal with pace of play.  It is also a mental challenge.

Best refereeing moment? 

It wasn’t really a refereeing moment as such, but I did find it highly amusing when Simon Khan asked me if I carried a mirror while I was refereeing his game at the Open in 2011.  He was having a problem with his contact lens.

Worst refereeing moment? 

Making a mistake and getting it wrong!  Happens to all of us because the rules are not simple. However we can still get the simple ones wrong!  The first ruling I ever gave was relief for a ball on a sprinkler head beside a green.  I made the player drop at the nearest point of relief and didn’t give her the extra club length because I got mixed up between Rule 24-2 (interference) and the local rule for intervention within two club lengths of a putting green. Fortunately it didn’t have any adverse effect as she was dropping just off the green and was able to putt.  The extra club length would have made little or no difference to her line or lie.

Over-riding memory of refereeing at The Open? 

Being so petrified on the first tee at Royal St George’s in 2011 I was incapable of speech.  Once over that it is the most amazing experience walking down the fairways with the very best players in the world.  Hearing the roars from the stands while walking up the 18th is quite extraordinary.

Who did you referee at Carnoustie?

I had an amazing week at the Open and refereed Ernie Els on Thursday, Sandy Lyle and Martin Kaymer on Friday, Rory McIlroy on Saturday and Adam Scott on Sunday.  It was a nice connection having Ernie as I had refereed his nephew, Jovan Rebula, in the final of the Amateur Championship three weeks previously (Jovan became the first South African to win the title).  Such a nice lad and a swing to die for. Sandy’s round was especially memorable because it was his last in the Open.

What do you enjoy about refereeing at The Ricoh?

Well, similarly to the Open it is marvellous to see the best players in the world close up.  Women golfers now are true athletes; they are fit and strong and hit the ball superbly. I am hoping though for a better pace of play than last year.  I think it is high time the women realised what a detrimental effect their slow play has on the image of the game, and that it makes very boring viewing for the paying public. Why do they take so long on the greens!!

What does your role involve on the Rules Committee?

The R&A Rules Committee is a large one due to the fact that there are representatives from various parts of the world: Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Asia Pacific, Canada, Europe, Japan. Also representatives from CONGU, the LET and the PGA European Tour.

Our role has been primarily to review the various drafts of the new rules and to consider any issues that occur.  A small group in collaboration with the USGA is responsible for drafting the rules which has been a huge job.  It is a really interesting time to be on the Rules Committee.  Every member of the Committee serves four years.  The Chairman comes in as Chairman, and one member of the Committee is invited to be his Deputy and to support him.  The Chairman, Deputy Chair, and a third member of the committee sit on a joint Rules Committee with the USGA.  I was very surprised to be invited to be Deputy, and I had my first trip to the States in March, to Atlanta, as part of the JRC.

What’s been your involvement in the creation of the new rules of golf?

I was invited, along with another member of the committee, Roger Bathurst, to be part of a small working group dealing with the Decisions Book.  First we mapped the current Decisions to the new rules, and in the process identified those Decisions that would no longer be needed because (a) they had been incorporated into the rules themselves, (b)  the rules had changed  or (c) the outcome would be different under the new rules.  Following that the same group reviewed the drafts of the new publication which will not be called a Decisions Book but will be a new publication including the Rules, Interpretations on the Rules, draft Local Rules and Committee Procedures.  It will be a one-stop shop for all committees, rules officials and competition administrators.

What’s the best change in your opinion?

I couldn’t pick any one rule change as being the best.  However the entire process of making the rule book easier to read, in more modern language, and the rules generally simpler is great.  Many outcomes will be fairer and more logical under the new rules. Also there is much greater consistency in terms of relief procedures.   For example a player will be able to lift or move a loose impediment such as a leaf or twig anywhere on the golf course as long as they don’t move the ball.  Many players have fallen foul of the current rule where they cannot touch or move a loose impediment in a bunker or water hazard. It can be a really harsh penalty particularly if it hasn’t improved the situation in the least for the shot they are about to play.

I remember many years ago a player in the Irish Ladies’ Championship played a shot from a dry water hazard.  As she walked in a small stone lodged in the sole of her shoe, so she casually picked it out and threw it away.  She finished the round, signed her card and handed it in.  Later someone commented on her action with the stone and it was decided that she had incurred a two stroke penalty for deliberately touching and moving it.  She hadn’t realised this at the time and had therefore signed for a wrong score and was disqualified from the championship.  Now that was really tough!  Currently she wouldn’t be disqualified, that has already changed, but she would have the penalty added to her score. Next year there will be no penalty in such circumstances.

Relief procedures will be more consistent and easier for players to understand.   At present when a player is entitled to relief without penalty there are some situations when the ball must be dropped as close as possible to where it lay, eg embedded ball, or others where it is dropped within one club length of the nearest point of relief. Although this is ‘free relief’ if the player gets it wrong he will have played from a wrong place for which there is a two stroke penalty. Under the new Rules the player will always drop within a ‘relief area’ within one or two club lengths, depending on whether it is free relief or penalty relief.

In terms of language too, the players’ edition will be written in the first person, so much more user friendly.  A phrase such as, ‘through the green’, which people really struggled to understand, and which was impossible to translate in some languages has been put into simple language and will now be ‘general area’  The rules are translated into something like 35 different languages, so the words used need to be simple and straightforward.

Golf seems to open doors! What would you say to encourage other women to play and get involved in volunteering?

Primarily it is fun. Golf offers something for everyone.  Whether you want to get to the top of the sport and play professionally, or whether you just want to go for a stroll and a bit of exercise and a chat with your best mate over 9 holes.  Great thing about golf is that you can walk and talk. The chat only gets interrupted briefly while you hit the ball!  Golf clubs are friendly places where you can make lots of new friends.  It’s a fun way to get and stay fit and healthy whatever your age.

Volunteering is great fun too.  Golf relies on volunteers to look after juniors and beginners, to run competitions and social events at clubs, to run county competitions and look after county squads and teams, to act as rules officials, marshals, captains and so much more. 

My father said to me when I was young that golf would take me all over the world and I thought he was mad.  He was absolutely right, and I imagine he is up there having a good laugh at where I am now. 

This year alone I have been to Atlanta for a JRC meeting, then to Bangkok and Melbourne doing, ‘Teach The Teachers’ rules seminars with the R&A. I am going to Korea in October to referee  a women’s professional event, and I have been up to Scotland several times, not to mention all over England.  It is fun!

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