Rules of the game now second nature for R&A’s Anne O’Sullivan
Late starter to the game of golf has found her niche as a leading rules official
Rules referee Anne O’Sullivan with Robert Rock at the Irish Open at Lahinch Golf Club. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/R&A/R&A via Getty Images
You won’t find Anne O’Sullivan nervously standing over a putt with a Major title on the line. But, more than likely, she’ll be there . . . in her role as one of the leading golf rules officials.
It’s a journey which started in, of all places, the nine-hole course at Tara Glen in Co Wexford where the Dublin schoolteacher was inveigled into taking up duties of handicap secretary, and which set her off on a path to refereeing at many of the top championships, amateur and professional, women and men’s.
Rules, as every golfer knows, can be a minefield. O’Sullivan is one of those with an encyclopedic knowledge, which – having been a rules guru in the ILGU – has led to her currently holding the position of deputy chair of the R&A’s Championship Committee.
So far this year, O’Sullivan’s assignments have taken her to The 148th Open at Royal Portrush and the Women’s British Open at Woburn. She’s met with former US President Bill Clinton at the Palmer Cup, when it was staged at The Alotian Club in Arkansas.
On the European Tour, she’s officiated at the DDF Irish Open, the Czech Masters and the Porsche European Open in Germany and represented the R&A at the Scottish Open.
Her most recent assignment was officiating at the Women’s Senior Home Internationals at Rosses Point and, in December, in her role as co-chair of the Palmer Cup, O’Sullivan will attend the Golf Coaches of America seminar in Las Vegas.
Unsurprisingly, the standout championship was close to home.
“Hands down, The Open at Royal Portrush. Just incredible,” said O’Sullivan of that week in July when Shane Lowry took on allcomers and lifted aloft the Claret Jug as the Champion Golfer of the Year.
For O’Sullivan, and a measure of the respect she has garnered as a rules official, the groups were marquee names. Day One: Jon Rahm-Patrick Cantlay-Matt Kuchar. Day Two: Tommy Fleetwood-Justin Thomas-Thorbjorn Olesen. Day Three: Tommy Fleetwood-Lee Westwood. Day Four: Matt Kuchar-Alex Noren.
“At the start, standing on the first tee, my heart was pounding. But once I started, that is it. You go into a zone, because most of the rules stuff I know backwards.”
While the majority of rules decision-making can be straightforward, there are others which require a firm stance. On the first day, for instance, O’Sullivan was called on by Cantlay after the American’s ball finished in a waste, sandy area.
“I said, ‘sorry, no relief’ and he didn’t like that. I get that. It means so much to them. And I’m saying ‘sorry, you can’t have relief’ and all the crowd are going, ‘go on, give it to him, go on’. In a situation like that, you’d call over the rover (roving referees who are full time on tour). It’s fantastic to have them in the background. The players know all these guys.”
In that instant, the rover happened to be former PGA Tour player Slugger White. His assessment completely backed up O’Sullivan’s stand.
In another round, there was a question mark over whether Lee Westwood’s ball was embedded.
“It was in a ditch, under trees. I said, ‘I don’t think that’s embedded’. When I turned around, I don’t know where they came from, there were hundreds of cameras who’d come out of nowhere. I got a second opinion, better to do that than make a mistake, and Andrew Snoddy [European Tour referee] was beside me within 30 seconds.”
Again, O’Sullivan’s ruling was correct. “Lee was very nice about it, he knew himself I think. He’d asked me if it was embedded, where would his relief be? And it was [in a] horrible place.”
As it transpired he ended up taking an unplayable.
Royal Portrush was O’Sullivan’s fourth British Open (having also been part of the rules team at Royal Troon, Royal Birkdale and Carnoustie) and she has refereed at six Women’s British Open.
So, how did it all start?
“I grew up in a old-fashioned family where the boys played every sport but I never played. I watched my father play and watched golf on television but all my aunts played, so it was there in the background. It got the stage where my own boys were in their teens and it was time to do something. I started late in life.”
Although she is now a member of Castle Golf Club, O’Sullivan’s introduction to playing came at Tara Glen where she went on the committee and was given the job as handicap secretary.
“I’d women coming to me, ‘my ball moved, what’s the penalty?’ Or ‘I did this’ . . . . so I contacted the ILGU wondering if there was any rules course I could do. As it happened, there was one scheduled for St Margaret’s that weekend. I went along and I was hooked.”
Beyond that, even. O’Sullivan confesses that she became obsessed.
“There was probably a little vacuum. I was working, teaching, but this was different. I started studying like mad. The top two in the district exams got to the nationals and the top two there got to St Andrews. I wanted to get to St Andrews. It’s funny how one little decision can change everything .
“I went from district executive to chair and when there was a vacancy on the board I went for that. I’m not like a lot of other women who grew up playing, I was feeling my way, but maybe that was not a bad thing. I didn’t have baggage, could see with fresh eyes.”
When there were openings along the way, O’Sullivan moved along. When the LGU and the R&A merged, they were looking for women to go onto committees.
“I put my name forward and got onto the championship committee.” That was three years ago, and she’s recently been made deputy chair.
“I count myself lucky. At every step, there was an opening. If they asked me, I said ‘yes’.”
That can-do attitude has stood her in good stead but she is mindful of that fact that there are a lot of golfers playing who aren’t au fait with the rules.
“Basically, the big problem, because no-one has to learn before going out, is they learn from people they play with. I’d advise, ‘don’t play with the same people all the time’. There’s the example of three women who always played together in a society and when their ball went into a bunker, they’d get in and make a little sand castle and put the ball on. When it was pointed out, ‘you can’t do that’, their response was, ‘Oh, we always do that’,”
As such, rules education nights at clubs have helped considerably.
“You try not to overload . . . . I think the new rules have made a huge difference. Golfers are out to enjoy themselves and we should all be singing off the same hymn sheet with the same penalties. It’s about making people more aware of them, like the sheet the R&A printed with the 20 most important rules. I advise players to keep that . . . . and, if you’re not sure, don’t sign your card and check with someone before you do!”