'I Found It Exceedingly Embarrassing To Be Told That I Had Breached a Rule' - How Rule-Breaking Led To Becoming A Golf Referee

Becoming an official golf referee involves a lot of learning and some tough tests. We meet two women that have reached the heady heights of tournament refereeing

Rules Official Anne O'Sullivan
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Becoming a Rules referee involves a lot of learning and some tough tests to examine your knowledge - a bit like doing a university degree! It’s a hard job but the integrity of our great game depends on it. 

The Rules can also be overwhelming and off-putting to newcomers. I’ve introduced several female friends to golf over the years and the last thing I do is hand them a Rules book to read! I want them to get into the swing and enjoy the game before citing X, Y & Z and how to do it. 

Problems also arise when the Rules of Golf are changed. With regular updates and additions, the most recent just last year in 2023, even those of us who have been playing the game for many, many years and think that we know it all, certainly need a refresher from time-to-time. 

We are lucky to have some extremely knowledgeable members of my home club Parkstone Golf Club in Dorset, including our current Lady Captain Sheila Waltham, who is an England Golf Rules referee.

When I asked her what made her embark upon the lengthy training and learning required for this voluntary role, she gave a very honest answer: 

“I joined a new proprietary golf club in the mid- nineties as a complete beginner. Like most novice golfers, I didn’t use the Rule book, I looked to more experienced golfers to guide me on the Rules during play. 

“I quickly realised that not all Rules information received was accurate, despite assurances to the contrary. I found it exceedingly embarrassing to be told that I had breached a Rule, so I started to look up the answers in the R&A Rule book. 

“My knowledge of the Rules wasn’t good enough, so I decided to take the level 1 R&A Rules training and it grew from there into a role that I really enjoy doing.”

Rules Official Sheila Waltham with Alice Hewson

Sheila Waltham with Alice Hewson

(Image credit: Sheila Waltham)

So exactly what is involved in becoming a rules official? The R&A’s website has a handy quick guide video you can watch. They have a detailed Rules Education programme that is run in conjunction with the national golf federations, such as England Golf, with a three-tiered approach to learning the rules. The aim is to graduate delegates through the stages to develop their Rules knowledge. 

At Level 1 you attend a one-day Rules Seminar, which focuses on the Player’s Edition of the Rules of Golf. The great thing is you can also do this online at home. The next step is to attend a Rules Seminar in person. 

Level 2 is a two-and-a-half day seminar conducted by a national body, such as England Golf, who go into a lot more detail and look at the more important playing Rules in detail, with a test at the end.

The final stage is a Level 3 seminar for Tournament Administrators and Referees (TARS). You’ll only be eligible for this stage if you pass exams for all levels, including Level 3 with an 80% pass mark or better. You have to be invited to attend. 

This 3-day seminar is conducted by the R&A and held annually, usually in February in St. Andrews. This is the part of the process that Sheila says is the toughest: “I have to admit it was a lot of learning and very intensive. Also, sitting the exams was quite stressful.”

There are numerous national and international tournaments that rely on a Rules referee to be on hand both in the amateur and professional games and without these usually unpaid volunteers, the game simply wouldn’t be the same.

Anne O’Sullivan is one such Rules referee. A self-confessed “Rules nerd” she has travelled the world helping at tournaments for the last 20 years. Like Waltham, her Rules journey began as self-exploration after being inundated with queries from golfers at her home club in Lenster, Ireland, where she was handicap secretary, despite being new to the game. 

After attending a local introductory Rules for women morning she was instantly hooked. “I remember sitting in this room with about 35 other women listening to the presentation from this amazing woman who was basically trying to put us all off becoming a Rules referee! She told us all the bad things about it. 

Anne O'Sullivan rules official with Claret Jug

Anne O'Sullivan with the The Open's Claret Jug

(Image credit: Getty Images)

“At the time I thought how extraordinary, you’d think she’d be trying to encourage us, but in fact she was very clever. An awful lot of women come up to me now and say, “I’d love to be a Rules official” because they have this romantic view of what it is going to be like, whereas our speaker left us in no doubt about the trials and tribulations and the hard work that would be involved.  She explained the process and I just got hooked on it and basically started studying like mad. I never dreamt how hard it was going to be.”

Soon after qualifying O’Sullivan became involved in the Irish Ladies Golf Union, starting as regional executive and moving onto the post of Chairman, and when golf’s governing bodies merged, she had the opportunity to become part of an exclusive collective of individuals who formed the R&A Rules Committee - one of only two women who were invited onto that panel. 

The role was the springboard to the eventual honour of being appointed Deputy Chair of that committee. “I have to pinch myself sometimes because I consider myself just so lucky to have had the most wonderful experiences. I was just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.” 

O’Sullivan has been a Rules referee at seven Open Championships, nine Women’s British Opens and numerous other major events. “It’s just phenomenal really. I’ve met so many great players over the years. To be within the ropes, walking with the top players in the world is the most amazing thing. It’s a real privilege.”

Rules Official Anne O'Sullivan

Anne O'Sullivan advises Lee Westwood on a ruling

(Image credit: Anne O'Sullivan)

As for the downsides of the job? O’Sullivan says it’s simply that you rarely get thanked. “Refereeing at a tournament can often mean long days. You are up early as early as 5.30am helping to set up the course, out on the course on your own all day and finish late,” explains O’Sullivan, who is now part of the R&A Rules Committee. 

She says that it’s the complexity of the Rules that makes them so difficult to learn: “There’s no point lying about the difficulty of the process,” she laughs. “Truthfully, if I had studied as hard as this when I was in college, God knows where I’d be today.”

The official guide to the Rules of Golf, the one that tournament Rules officials work from today, has 525 pages to study, understand and learn. “The thing about the Rules book is that every word is important,” adds O’Sullivan, “It’s ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘can’, ‘the ball’, ‘a ball’ - every single word matters.

As a player at club level I think you just need to concentrate on understanding the basics. You don’t need to be worrying about the extraordinary things that can happen out on the golf course, just get your basics right. Know how to drop from a penalty area, what to do if you lose a ball off the tee, those kinds of things.”

O’Sullivan points to the fantastic R&A Rules app that is one of the great modern resources available to all golfers to help us learn the Rules. You can learn more about the stages involved in becoming a Rules referee here.

Quick Guide To The 3 Levels Of Rules Qualifications

  • Level 1: Available online with an option to attend a seminar. This is something that would be very useful to any golfer and particularly if required to referee competitions at your own club.
  • Level 2: A county referee. You attend a 2-day course run by counties or regions with an exam.
  • Level 3: National referee. This is a 3-day course run by the R&A with an exam.
Carly Frost
Golf Monthly Contributor

Carly Frost is one of the golf industry’s best-known female writers, having worked for golf magazines for over 20 years. As a consistent three-handicapper who plays competitive club golf at Parkstone and the Isle of Purbeck courses in Dorset every week, Carly is well-versed in what lady golfers love. Her passion for golf and skill at writing combine to give her an unbeatable insight into the ladies game.  

Carly’s role at Golf Monthly is to help deliver thorough and accurate ladies equipment reviews, buying advice and comparisons to help you find exactly what you are looking for. So whether it’s the latest driver, set of irons, golf ball, pair of shoes or even an outfit, Carly will help you decide what to buy.
Over the years Carly has been fortunate to play some of the greatest courses in the world. Her view ‘from the ladies tee’ is invaluable. She ranks Sea Island, Georgia, USA, where she met her husband, world-renowned golf coach Dan Frost, among her favourite golf resorts. Their aptly-named eight-year-old son Hogan is already hitting the ball as far as Mum and will undoubtedly be a name to watch out for in the future.
Carly is a keen competitor and her list of golfing achievements are vast. She is a former winner of the South West of England Ladies Intermediate Championship, a three-time winner of the European Media Masters and she once beat an entire start-sheet of men to the title of Times Corporate World Golf Champion. She has played for both the Dorset and Surrey County Ladies first teams and is known for her excellent track record at matchplay.

Carly holds the ladies course record (68) at her home club Parkstone and her lowest competition round (seven-under-par 65) was carded in the pro-am of the Irish Ladies Open at Killeen Castle, playing alongside Solheim Cup superstar Anna Nordqvist. Although her current handicap index has crept up to 3.7 since Covid she has her sights firmly set on achieving that elusive scratch handicap and hopefully playing for her country when she’s 50.

Carly’s current What's In The Bag? 

Driver: Callaway Epic Max, 10.5° 

Fairway wood: TaylorMade SIM2, 15° 

Hybrids: Titleist TS2, 19°, 21°, 24° 

Irons: Mizuno JPX900, 5-PW 

Wedges: Cleveland RTX, 52°, 56° and 58° 

Putter: Scotty Cameron Futura X5

Ball: 2021 Callaway Ladies SuperSoft