For more than four decades, the European Tour’s chief referee has happily helped sort out some of professional golf’s most gnarly rules situations.
Watch just about any European Tour event, World Golf Championship or Major on television and there’s a good chance you’ll spot John Paramor. He’s a big lad and hard to miss. Plus, whenever a player gets into trouble, is unsure how to proceed and calls for a ruling, “JP” tends to appear as if by magic. It’s a familiar scene, given the collective level of ignorance routinely displayed by a depressing number of professional golfers when it comes to the game’s admittedly complicated and often esoteric regulations.
“I would like players to take more responsibility,” admits Paramor, the European Tour’s chief referee. “But I understand why they don’t. It only takes one high-profile disqualification to provoke a spate of extra rulings being called for. Still, I want guys to be confident enough to proceed with the simple stuff. If they hit into a water hazard, they shouldn’t need a referee, or if the ball is on a sprinkler head or a cart path. That should all be straightforward. If we can get to that stage, I’d be happy. I don’t mind being called out, but I do wonder why I’m out there sometimes.”
Paramor has been a part of the European Tour since 1975, when he spent a year working as a caddie for fellow Englishman Peter Butler (who made the first hole-in-one in a Ryder Cup match at Muirfield in 1973). But that unbroken run is just about to pause. On December 12, Paramor is due to undergo an operation on a troublesome back problem that will likely lay him up for more than three months. His last event in 2017 will be the Australian PGA Championship. If all goes well, however, he should be back to take up his regular spot at Augusta National for the 2018 Masters.
All of which will give the former Surrey amateur champion ample time to contemplate some of the high and lows of his long career. There have been a few of both over the years.
“My favourite ruling has to be the one involving Seve Ballesteros on the final hole of the 1994 Volvo Masters at Valderrama,” Paramor says with a smile. “He was tied for the lead with Bernhard Langer, who was in the clubhouse. Seve pushed his tee shot, and the ball finished in a hole right against the trunk of a tree. Immediately behind the tree was a sandy area that had clearly been dug by something, an animal probably.
“He felt the hole had been made by an animal,” Paramor continues. “One, that was questionable. And two, I couldn’t find any evidence to suggest what he was claiming. He had to prove his case. Anyway, there was a small hole within the big hole. When I went to stick my finger in the small hole to see what was down there, Seve put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Be careful, it might bite.’ That was inspired of course. I almost started to chuckle.”
But Paramor didn’t budge, and Ballesteros had to chip out after considering an 80-metre slice with a 3-wood over water.
“On another occasion,” Paramor recalls, “Seve was telling me he could play a shot in such a way that his stance would be affected by an obstruction. So I told him to demonstrate what he proposed to do, all the time thinking there was no way he could persuade me. But he did. And I gave him a free drop. He had one foot in a ditch, the other above the ditch. Then he turned the club round and swung left-handed. After a couple of practice swings, I was convinced. He could have hit it like that. But there is no way any other player would even have thought of it. Seve was different, though; I knew he was capable of such a shot. He was a genius. So he got his drop.”
Paramor’s respect for Ballesteros is obvious. “There will never again be anyone like Seve. He had shots I’ve never seen anyone else hit; he was breathtaking. We at the European Tour have so much to thank him for. I owe him my job, really. The tour grew because of him. He dragged everything along with him back in the late 1970s and 1980s. Even at the end of his career he would hit one or two shots a round that would give you goosebumps. I try to explain to people how good he was, but I’m not sure I can ever do him justice.”
None of his battles with Seve provided the most controversial moment of Paramor’s tenure, though. That surely came at the 2013 Masters when a 14-year-old Chinese amateur, Guan Tianlang, was penalised a shot for slow play after being warned three times that he would have to play quicker. When the youngster took more than 45 seconds to hit his approach to the 17th green, Paramor was forced to act.
“That was a tough one,” Paramor says. “I tried very hard to tell the lad what was going to happen if he did not speed up. But he backed me into a corner. I gave him so many chances. But in the end I had no choice. I know people wonder aloud why I don’t give penalties to the pros. But I do. If a player ever had a second bad time, I would. But the pros know the system. They know that, after one bad time, they can’t delay their play. They all play quickly after that.
Looking forward, Paramor has played his part in the revisions that will hopefully simplify the often-esoteric Rules of Golf and, not incidentally, transform the pace of play over the next few years. Which is not to say he got his own way on everything.
“One I have always felt would be good to look at is switching the provisional ball rule – although some of the powers-that-be don’t quite agree with me on this,” he says. “I’d like to see any ‘second ball’ hit by a player be deemed a provisional unless he or she states otherwise. Which is exactly the opposite of the current situation. A ball is only a provisional when you say it is.”
Then there are the so-called “green books” you see people using when putting. Paramor has opinions there, too. “I recently asked Phil Mickelson what he thought about them. He feels they are a good thing. They are good for pace of play. They clear up a lot of the questions a player might have. Which is a valid point.
“But I have to say I think they are a de-skilling of the game. Part of this game is making your own judgement about how your ball is going to roll across a green. It’s not for you to find that out on a piece of paper.”
Inevitably, there are situations and possible problems that are incredibly difficult to solve equitably. One in particular energises Paramor.
“Out-of-bounds is such a tricky rule,” he says. “I see the validity of the argument that a player who misses the ball is playing 2 off the tee, yet the guy who hits his drive 300-yards and is one-inch out of bounds is playing 3. But the real prize is to not have the player hit again. We need an answer to that time-consuming exercise. In particular, we need to stop people having to walk backwards.”
While usually a traditionalist, Paramor sees a potential solution in the letting players estimate where a ball is lost or landed out-of-bounds and play on without going back to where the previous shot was struck, with an appropriate penalty.
“That would have to be two shots – quite harsh – given that you are not having to walk back,” Paramor says. “There would have to be some agreement between player and partner. And, of course, you could still play a provisional ball from the tee if you were still there. But that involves taking a chance. If you found the original, you wouldn’t be able to go backwards.”
In the meantime, progress has already been made, at least in Paramor’s educated mind.
“One thing we were very keen on fixing is what you might call penalties for accidents. Things that happen but from which the player doesn’t derive any benefit. Particularly on the putting green, where the players get close to the ball and might nudge the ball accidentally. If you put it back, has any harm been done? No.”
Still, for all that Paramor has been pondering the ramifications of the rule book for four decades or more, things continue to surprise him. At the recent Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland, an infraction unwittingly perpetrated by former Ryder Cup player David Howell gave him pause for thought.
“Unfortunately, the tee markers on one hole had been placed end-on-end, the amateur tee right next to the pro tee,” he explains. “On most holes they are some yards apart. But this was an accident waiting to happen and David inadvertently teed-up on the amateur side of the markers. It was pointed out to him right after he hit. He called for a ruling and the referee told him to play again from the right markers, which were six inches back and add two shots to his score. He was fine with that, but he asked me about it the next day. He was wondering whether two shots was the appropriate penalty. I hadn’t thought about it until that moment. But it does seem harsh. One shot is a steep enough learning curve; two shots is a bit draconian.”
And so it goes on. And on. And on. The Rules of Golf. The book with no ending.