CHENNAI: They are rarely seen, unlike a cricket umpire or a football referee, but golf referees are an integral part of the sport. It is probably the only sport where amateurs play by the same set of rules as the pros, even during recreational rounds.
Barring club level tournaments – which follow international norms with a side bar on local rules – all amateur, junior and professional tournaments have rules officials, on duty.
Suguna Saravanan, now an international referee, recalls reading aloud from the tiny rules book, during long drives with her family. Her daughter had enrolled for golf as a six year-old. “It is very difficult for children of that age to remember rules, but as a golfer, they have to on the course. So, I started training her in this manner. Being a recreational golfer myself, I soon got deeper into rules and decided to qualify as a referee,” she adds.
Merely clearing the test is not enough – aspirants have to score a high percentage. With golf courses coming up in many places, globally, tournament administration is emerging as another key point of reference and qualifying as an international referee is gaining ground.
Aspirants have to clear both theory and practical sessions in order to qualify. There are three levels in India and at the end of Level 3, two of the toppers get sent to St. Andrews for another round of tests and get to become certified international referees.
It was in 2011 that India signed an agreement with the Royal and Ancient (R&A) to establish rules training programme, a three-tier programme in English, becoming the first country to do so on this side of the Pacific.
Although there were quite a few players of standing, not many saw the need to get involved in rules instruction, beyond following it.
Until Ishwar Achanta decided in 2002 to go beyond the borders and turn international. “I had reasonable contact with the Indian Golf Union (IGU), but spent my own money and went abroad. I believed I had certain skills, but the entire experience was humiliating. I decided that no one else should undergo what I went through and focused on starting the rules instruction in our country, and with IGU‘s support, I was able to establish national level training and qualification programmes,” he says.
In 2011, the first rules school was run in Chandigarh and Chris Hilton, R&A’s Chairman of the Rules Committee, and Grant Moir attended it. “Hilton went on to become the Captain of the R&A and remains a dear friend and fellow member of the R&A. I remember Aditi Ashok, all of 11 years, turning up for it, in biting cold weather,” says Achanta. Jeev Milkha Singh was at the venue, practising, when he heard about the school. He walked in to wish them luck. Earlier, Achanta had imposed a two-stroke penalty on Jeev in the Avanta Masters, a moment caught on camera famously. Recalling that episode in his address, Jeev enthusiastically agreed to allow that photograph to be used in the poster for the school.
The training programme focuses on both theoretical and practical aspects of refereeing. “When a player calls the referee in for a decision, he is usually in a very hostile mood. How the official handles it is as important as giving the correct decision. I try to simulate situations during the evaluation programme,” says Achanta.
‘Oh you Indians’
There are 34 Indian referees qualified to officiate in international events. Achanta recalls an encounter in the Australian Open Golf Tournament, where someone asked him, “Why do we need an Indian referee?” and he cheerfully replied, “Because we are the best. We love sports and we love rules.”
(The writer is the Lady Captain at Cosmo TNGF)