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And the Meeks Shall Inherit the Rules

By Jack Berry

If all rules officials were like Tom Meeks, golfers wouldn't turn glassy-eyed at the mention of the "Rules of Golf."Glassy-eyed? Meeks is the United States Golf Association's Director of Rules and Competition, the top man in the United States on the rules that govern the game.

As I walked up from the parking lot I met a friend who has been in golf all of his life, an important figure in the game. He rolled his eyes when I said I was going to listen to Meeks.

"The Rules," he said. "That'll put 'em to sleep."

Then, at the lunch break, one of the workshop participants told Meeks she really enjoyed the session and that she was "really fired up about this rules stuff." Meeks smiled.

Then she said, "But if you have trouble going to sleep at night, just read the rule book," Meeks grimaced.

"The Rules of Golf are meant to be fun," Meeks said.

The way he explains them, with zest and examples, they are. But to most, they're drier than bunker sand and that goes for every level of player, from hacker to players on the professional tours.

"I asked Fuzzy Zoeller one time why he didn't know more about the rules and he said, 'That's why we pay those guys.' The tours have paid rules officials and if a player is in doubt, he calls for a rules official," Meeks said.

Some players are fairly knowledgeable about rules, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson in particular. But they make mistakes too.

"The weather was very tough the first round of the 1986 Open at Shinnecock Hills," Meeks said, "and Jack drove into the tall rough on the 10th hole.

"About 80 people were there looking for the ball. Jack was playing with Lanny Wadkins and Hale Irwin. Jack finally said, 'I guess it's lost' and headed back to the tee. Just then, someone said they'd found the ball. Jack was going to play it but Lanny said no, that he'd already declared it lost so Jack went back to the tee.

"I was in the scorer's tent at the 18th and after Jack finished I talked to him about it. I asked if he knew how much time he had to look for the five. And he said five minutes, which is correct. Then I asked him if he knew when the five minutes started. "I said I hated to tell him, but if he saw 80 people looking for the ball, he and his son Jackie, who was caddying for him, should have taken their time reaching the search area because the clock doesn't start until his side, meaning him and his caddie, began searching.

And there's no such phrase in the rule book about "declaring" a ball lost. It's a five minute search and then hit again.

Meeks said a player is entitled to the full five minutes, too.

"He could look for three minutes, then take a minute to walk back to the tee and he could stand there for another full minute, waiting to see if it was found."

Meeks said Watson cost himself during the Bay Hill Classic earlier this year when he couldn't find his ball in casual water even though everyone knew it was there. He played it as a lost ball and went back to the tee and was hitting three from the tee. Instead, he could have dropped back of the casual water without penalty.

If Watson and Nicklaus aren't sure of the rules, how about other Tour players?

"We have a 100 multiple choice question examination and we allow 3-1/2 hours," Meeks said. "The first 50 questions are closed book. The second are open book. Even if we let them open the book for all 100 questions, I'd be surprised if anyone scored 90 or higher."

Meeks admitted that knowing the rules and applying them under pressure, say in the last round of a major championship and under the eye of television, is another matter.

"Be cool, be calm," Meeks said. "I referee basketball and it's a wham-bam play and you have to make the call immediately. But in golf, you've got all the time in the world so take it."

And, unspoken, make the right decision.

Meeks doesn't expect any questions out of the ordinary for the Open at Oakland Hills. There's water only on the fifth, seventh and 16th holes, but there will be grand stands to deal with.

"It's a fairly easy course to mark and once the grandstands are set up, we'll determine the ball drop areas. We don't want another situation like Ernie Els had on the 17th at Oakmont two years ago. We caught a lot of flack for that and we deserved it."

The ball drop area gave Els a much easier shot than he deserved, considering where he'd hit the ball

"A drop area should give the player no worse a shot than he would've had if no obstruction had been there," Meeks said.

Meeks was very pleased with his spring tour of Oakland Hills and complemented Superintendent Steve Glossinger on the condition of the course. Like everyone in Michigan, Glossinger was looking for warm weather to start growing the rough to five inches for the championship.

Meeks liked the chipping areas at the back of the second, 11th and 14th greens and said that chipping areas planned for the sixth and seventh greens were eliminated because they just didn't play right.

Meeks also liked changes that architect Arthur Hills made on the first, fourth, and nine and 14th greens to provide additional hole locations.

Oakland Hills members sometimes feel the course doesn't get the respect accorded Oakmont, Baltusrol and Winged Foot even though this is its sixth Open but Meeks said "How often does the USGA come back here? That's the answer. Ben Hogan certainly named it 'The Monster.' "

Will it live up to the name?

"I think it's going to be a good test," Meeks said.

The Open will be a test, too, for lontime Oakland Hills member Jeanne Myers who epitomizes the word "volunteer."

Mrs. Myers will be one of the USGA rules officials for the championship. She had worked rules for the Michigan PGA, worked the U.S. Women's Open, the U.S. Senior Open and, the week after the Open at Oakland Hills, she will work rules for the Curtis Cup Matches between the United States and Great Britain and Ireland at Killarney, Ireland.

Jack Berry is the secretary-treasurer of the Golf Writers Association of America.

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