Slugger White | PGA Tour Rules Official | 70 | Florida

Slugger White on never being late for work in 38 years, knowing when to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and the pain of discovering a 15th club.

When I’m called in to help with a ruling, I try to keep it impersonal. There’s no face on a golf ball, right? But you can’t help but feel some humanity. At Las Vegas in 2005, Kevin Stadler started the third round near the top of the leaderboard. It was near the end of the season, and he was in danger of losing his card. He desperately needed a good finish. On the first hole, I was sitting behind the green when Kevin approached me and showed me one of his sand wedges, which clearly was bent. It was non-conforming. Kevin had no idea where it had happened – could have been while he was warming up – but he started the round with it like that, and there just was nothing to do but issue a DQ. Kevin was in tears, and next thing you know, I was in tears with him, knowing his platform to earn a living was seriously in jeopardy. For maybe the first time in my career, I said, “I’m sorry.”

Slugger White

The most impressive player on tour, rules-wise, is Justin Thomas. Charles Howell is excellent, but Justin is incredible, especially for one so young. He’s a rules fanatic, constantly approaching me with questions and hypotheticals. At the CJ Cup in South Korea in 2017, Justin was in a playoff with Marc Leishman. As we’re walking down the fairway, Justin calls me over and starts bombarding me with rules questions. He wasn’t in a rules situation, he just wanted to chat up the rules in that “What if you whiff a wrong ball?” kind of way. I couldn’t believe it. He’s playing for almost $1.7 million first prize and his fifth victory of the year, and he wants to talk shop. He won the playoff.

By the way, the penalty for [an air swing at] a wrong ball is two strokes. You don’t count the swing you missed the ball with, you just add two. What happens if you [air swing] again on your second try? No further penalty. I see a tender mercy there.

Since the new rules took effect on January 1, only a couple of penalties have been incurred on the PGA Tour because of them. It seems like more than that though, doesn’t it? The most high-profile ruling was Rickie Fowler dropping incorrectly from shoulder height at the WGC–Mexico Championship. It cost Rickie a stroke and set off a new wave of criticism from players and the media. It’s very revealing of human nature and how uncomfortable people are with change. Even when change is for the better – and the new rules definitely simplify the rules and make the game faster – there’s always fear that the sky is falling. I predict that by the end of the year, pros and amateurs will be dropping from knee-height automatically. Like many other rules changes that have occurred over the years, we’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.

Backstoppingone player deliberately leaving his ball on the green in a position to assist another player – is more a manufactured issue than a real one. Going back to my playing days, it never was a serious point of concern. I think so much golf is seen on TV now that when an instance arises, the whole world sees it. It’s made players more sensitive and eager to avoid the appearance of evil. I see and hear more, “Better let me run up and mark that” than ever.

I played on the PGA Tour. From 1976 through ’79, I made exactly $32,279 out here. It actually was enough to break even, and it helped that I was able to supplement it by playing the mini-tours. Those events, I actually could win. A $2,500 cheque for a win at a tournament played somewhere between Phoenix and Tucson felt huge. In Waterloo, Iowa, I won a car, which I immediately sold back to the dealer for $6,000. It was a scrambling kind of life, but I enjoyed it. There were moments when I felt on the verge of really making it.

Slugger White

In the newspaper results, I went by my given name, Carlton White. But I’ve gone by Slugger my whole life. I was a large baby, and my dad nicknamed me after an Army buddy of his who, like my dad, was a boxer. My dad was a good fighter, a Golden Gloves champion who had 21 pro fights. He fought Sugar Ray Robinson in Sugar Ray’s real early days as a pro, which makes it hard to find in the record books, but he did it. Dad lost the fight by decision and told me he thought he’d done pretty well – until the next morning, when both eyes were so swollen he couldn’t see for three days.

At the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in 1979, I partnered with Dick Martin of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” fame. The other celebrity in our foursome was George C. Scott, who already was a legend because of his role in “Patton”. It was eerie when he raised his voice after a bad shot; it was just like hearing Patton dress down a soldier. He got a kick out of me calling him “George C”. Many years later, I ran into him in the parking lot at Spyglass Hill. I hadn’t seen him since Pebble Beach, and I said, “George C. I’m not sure if you remember me, but…” He interrupted me and said, with no hesitation, “Carlton, where have you been?” Maybe it explains why actors are so incredible at memorising their lines, but I was knocked out by that. Who wouldn’t want to make an impression on George C. Scott?

We travelled by car mostly, in pairs. I had a big green station wagon that had no radio and got terrible gas mileage, but gas was only 25 cents a gallon. Gary McCord and I travelled together for a while, but that ended when he insisted he couldn’t sleep without the TV on at night, which I could not adapt to. It was during the “Smokey and the Bandit” craze, and everybody had CB radios. My handle was White Rabbit. Ed Dougherty was the Lead Sled, and Doug Tewell was the Wagon Master. Only guys like Jack and Arnold could afford to fly privately, and looking back, our travels seem primitive. But it was exciting, the adventure of our lives.

I was a ben hogan staff player and thought I might be lucky enough to one day meet him, but time passed without it happening. One day during the Colonial tournament, I went out to Shady Oaks on a day Mr Hogan happened to be out practising. I watched from a distance, knowing he didn’t like to be bothered. A short time later, I was having lunch in the grillroom, watching a college football game. Hogan appeared out of nowhere and introduced himself, then nodded towards the TV set. He said, “You got anything riding on this game?” I’d heard he loved betting on college football. I answered, “Not really,” assuming a nice conversation was about to take place. Mr Hogan looked at the TV again, said, “Me neither” and just walked away. I’ve always wished I’d told him I had a thousand dollars riding, so maybe he’d have stuck around.

The PGA Tour in the 1970s was a different world. For one thing, there were many more black players. There were at least 10 African-American players at any given time, guys like Charlie and Curtis Sifford, Charlie Owens, James Black, George Johnson, Nate Starks and Calvin Peete. It wasn’t easy for them. Even after the Caucasian-only clause was lifted in the early 1960s, there were clubs where black players were decidedly not welcome, especially on the mini-tours. The disappearance of the caddie yard really hurt the development of minority players. Monday qualifying today is harder, too, and Q school has gone away. Now that I think about it, it’s harder to get out there for everybody, regardless of race. But in a world that is much more accepting of everyone, not everyone has the resources to make it.

Calvin Peete, who passed away a few years ago, was the best of that bunch. He was my partner in four Walt Disney Team Championships, one of which we darned near won, so I saw a lot of his game. He was amazing. Off the tee, he was what we call “sneaky adequate”, meaning it didn’t look like it was going anywhere but ran out to where he was about average length. He had a lot of long irons into greens, and most of those shots seemed to barely clear greenside bunkers and fronting hazards, so close to disaster you’d think he mis-hit them. In fact, he hit them exactly on the button almost every time, his distance control so good he’d get within a yard of, say, a 186-yard carry. Calvin won 11 tournaments in a five-year period on tour and 12 altogether, incredible for a guy who didn’t pick up a club until he was in his 20s.

In 1977, at the tail end of the season, I was on the cusp of losing my card. I desperately needed a good cheque. At the Texas Open, the third-to-last tournament of the season, it looked like it was going to happen. On Sunday, I was right there, and then I double-bogeyed the 17th hole, which put me in a state of shock. On the 18th tee, Hale Irwin, who was leading, came over to me, grabbed me by the neck and said, “Come on, let’s finish this off.” I parred the 18th and solidified my playing privileges for 1978. When it was over, my friend Andy North congratulated me and then said, with this big grin on his face, “You just assured yourself another year of misery.”

Slugger White

Monday qualifier, Kings Island in Ohio, 1976. I’m in a playoff for the first-alternate spot. Somehow I get that spot, which means I’m as good as in. Back at my hotel, I notice an extra wedge in my bag. It wasn’t mine. It was Woody Blackburn’s. We had shared a caddie, who carried double, in the round before the playoff, and the guy had put Woody’s wedge in my bag. First, I return the wedge to Woody, who is staying down the hall. Only then did it occur to me, I probably had 15 clubs during the playoff. I drove back to the course, found Wade Cagle, the chief rules official, and tell him what happened. After some investigating – Wade called P.J. Boatwright at the USGA, and he’s about as authoritative as it gets – there was only one decision to make: DQ, because I started the playoff with 15 clubs. Man, that was dispiriting. But it goes to show, even so-called experts can get sideways with the rules.

Growing up, rules were a big thing in my house. My dad was extremely strict. I always addressed him as Sir. When I was a sophomore in high school, I was permitted to go out one weekend night per month. As a junior, that progressed to one weekend night per week. As a senior, I could go out both weekend nights. When I came home after my first semester of college at Ohio University, he said, “I know I was tough on you. I did it for a reason. There’s only one rule now, and it’s that you always respect your mother.” After years of butting heads, we got to be extremely close, best friends.

My dad was a fanatic about being on time. In his book, if you were 10 minutes early, you were late. He just hammered that into me. If curfew was midnight, God help me if I came in at 12:01. I guess his fanaticism worked, because I never missed a tee-time in all my years of competitive golf. In my 38 years as a rules official, I haven’t once been late for work. It gets a little extreme. I show up for doctor’s appointments half an hour early, and if you’ve wondered who actually shows up at the airport two hours before a flight, well, I’m that guy.

Greg Norman is a good friend of mine. A while back he asked me if I’d like to caddie for him in the Australian Open. I explained to Greg that it was a long haul, but he said, “Don’t worry.” Next thing I know, I’m in his private plane, along with Greg’s manager, Bart Collins, and we’re en route from Florida to Denver. Greg joined us there, and we refuelled the plane. Greg served us a delicious meal and said, “It’s best to sleep on the way. I’m going to tuck you in.” His plane has beds, and as he personally tucked the blankets in around me, he produced some kind of sleeping pills and said, “How many of these do you need?” I’d never taken sleeping pills, so Greg suggested I take two. Next thing I know, I open the window shade, and we’re in Hawaii. I yawned, used the bathroom and went back to bed. I woke up in Australia, completely refreshed. It was like being in a time machine. I have 3.5 million lifetime miles on Delta, and I’m accustomed to travelling well, but when you travel with Greg, it’s a completely different experience.

I’m sure sport psychologists have value. Otherwise, players wouldn’t hire them. But I think they’ve taught players to put blinders on, to a fault. By and large, players are less extroverted on the course, less colourful. A little Chi Chi Rodriguez and his sword dance go a long way, but players today seem to make a conscious effort not to leave their bubble. Back in the day, even a reserved guy like Dan Forsman had a knack of removing his hat in a stylish way and acknowledging the gallery.

Needless to say, my game these days is pretty ragged. Back home in Ormond Beach, we play a lot of COD, a great team game. The letters stand for Cart, Opposite, Driver. The first five holes, it’s cart against cart. The next five, the driver of one cart partners with the passenger in the other cart. The next five, the two drivers team up. The last three holes – the deciders for who gets the cash – it’s back to cart against cart. Try it. It beats the heck out of a boring old nassau.

In our friendly games, the Rules of Golf take a beating. We do what we want. Sometimes we roll it over in the fairways. My hands these days tremble like a dog passing razor blades, so when I use my long putter, my buddies say, “Please just anchor it.” We’re playing golf, but it’s not tournament golf, and nobody’s posting for handicaps, so who cares? We’re just gambling and drinking beer. The point is to have fun out there.

“In our friendly games, the Rules of Golf take a beating… The point is to have fun out there.” – Slugger White

A sure sign you’re becoming an old-man golfer is when you gamble but don’t bother to collect or pay off. If we sense the damage is under $10, nobody wants to be bothered to add it up or see if somebody has change for a $20. A better measure of age might be the woofing and good-natured put-downs. They’ll only end when they put us in the ground.

Next to the players and caddies, rules officials probably have the best seats in the house. But we’re not fans at that point, because we’re observing the play so closely. It’s kind of too bad. When Jordan Spieth won the 2017 British Open at Royal Birkdale, I was in the trailers watching when he drove it 100 yards right of the fairway on the 13th hole. As I was watching John Paramor, the official on the scene, sort out all the chaos, it occurred to me that John couldn’t enjoy one of the most exciting moments of the past 20 years the way I was. He had a job to do.

Knowing the rules isn’t like riding a bike. It takes constant maintenance and study. With the new Rules of Golf being introduced this year, we officials are really being challenged. Rules we’ve always known and referred to reflexively are changing pretty drastically. The USGA has conducted seminars for us tour officials, but I have a hunch there’s a lot of intense private studying going on at night.

One of the new rules is, you now drop the ball at knee height. As you know, before that, you dropped at shoulder height and arm’s length. Prior to 1984, you dropped over your shoulder. One of my enduring memories of those days is of David Graham, who was a master at spinning the ball as he dropped it. He’d click his fingers as he let go of the ball, causing it to spin furiously – and dance exactly to the spot he intended – after it hit the ground. It was perfectly legal and an amazing thing to watch.

Most broken rule, by far: establishing nearest relief from a cartpath. I don’t know the percentage of amateurs who get it wrong, but it’s probably more than half. I was playing at Lake Nona one day when my host asked me if he was entitled to relief from a path where his ball sat. I said, “Of course you’re entitled.” He picked up the ball and prepared to drop at the closest point he could play from, which in this case wasn’t on the correct side of the path. “Whoa,” I said. “That’s the wrong side. I’ll let you start over if you promise to let me explain the rule to you.” He frowned and said, “I don’t think I’m inviting you back again.” I said, “Good, because I don’t think I want to come back.” He was kidding – I think – but the point is, you don’t necessarily drop towards the side where the ball is sitting, because you have to take your stance first, with no interference from the path, and then establish your control point by grounding the club.

“Most broken rule, by far: establishing nearest relief from a cartpath.” – Slugger White

My wife, shelley, is Ken Green’s sister. Ken was a Ryder Cupper who won five times on tour, including wins in back-to-back weeks, something only an exceptional player can do. In the mid-1980s, Shelley was Ken’s full-time caddie, the first woman to do that on the PGA Tour that I know of. The accident Ken was involved in almost 10 years ago, in which he lost his older brother, girlfriend and his dog, was horrible beyond belief. Ken lost his right leg above the knee, and after he was released from the hospital, spent six weeks with Shelley and me. His recovery has been almost as difficult as the accident itself. He was – and is –in excruciating pain almost all the time. His courage just to endure it is unbelievable. Ken received the Ben Hogan Award along with Tom Watson in 2010, and I was there for the presentation. There was this humorous moment when Tom, who got the award for having a hip replaced, said that in comparison to Ken, he felt like President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 after being in office less than a year. I sometimes wish there were an even higher award for Ken. Being around him is a sure cure for feeling sorry for yourself.

The USGA has for a long time conducted rules seminars, which conclude with a test at the end. I hate to admit it, but my first test, I didn’t score 100. I’m not going to tell you which question I missed. It’s just too embarrassing, even though it happened almost 40 years ago. But it had to do with matchplay, which of course we pros rarely played.

The great players pay a tremendous amount of attention to detail, often more than they let on. I recall seeing Jack Nicklaus in the locker room at Medinah the week of the 1975 US Open, poring through dozens of new balls individually. Jack carried a metal ring, common in the day, exactly the dimensions of a golf ball. Jack would spend 30 minutes pushing the balls through the ring, one by one, to ensure they were perfectly round. Any resistance, and out they’d go. He’d reject half of them.

The first solo ruling of my career happened to be with one Jack Nicklaus in 1982. It was at Torrey Pines, and I was told there was a situation at the 12th hole. I rumble down there in my noisy gas-powered cart, and there was Jack, his ball resting on a French drain, the status of which had been classified differently over the years. Jack knew me as a player, not as a rules official, and when I told him it was an abnormal ground condition, he stared at me with those steely-blue eyes and said, “Are you sure?” I held his gaze and said, “I’m absolutely positive.” He looked at me a few seconds longer, shrugged and said, “Great. Where do I drop?”

I’m officiating at English Turn back when the tour event in New Orleans was played there. From 150 yards away, I see a player – a multiple Major winner, Hall of Famer and guy reputed to be an expert on the rules – pluck his ball from a regular, yellow-staked water hazard and drop two club-lengths out to the side. I let out my loudest whistle and ran up there. “I’m afraid you can’t do that,” I said. “You’ve got to correct that. Two club-lengths is only for a lateral water hazard, red stakes.” It was pretty shocking. I could only imagine how many times he might have dropped incorrectly, or advised his pro-am partners to do the same. It demonstrated how even knowledgeable people can get the little things wrong.

A player one time needed a ruling, and I provided it, explaining the rule and procedure. He said, “Can you show how me where in the rule book it says that?” He very clearly didn’t believe me, which in a way I found amusing, because it was a simple ruling. I took out the rule book and showed him the applicable rule. Satisfied, he nodded and said, “Well, I guess we learned something today.” I replied, “No, you learned something today.”

Bedside manner is very important. If you’ve seen Tom Selleck’s character in the TV show, “Blue Bloods”, that’s the type of demeanour I try to adopt. Stoic, clear-headed, taking the situation in stride. When I approach a scenario, my first words are, “How can I help?” It’s not “What do you need?” or “What’s the problem?” I also try very hard to keep the interaction somewhat clinical. You want to avoid any hint of favouritism.

I hate slow play as much as the next guy, but I can’t agree with the idea of hitting players with penalty strokes. Maybe it’s because I was a player once, but I envision these horrible trickle-down effects. Say there’s a player who barely squeezes into the top 125 of the final FedEx Cup points standings because he made a couple of thousand dollars more at a tournament than the player right behind him on the list. Imagine if he’d been hit with a one-stroke penalty at a key moment because he was two seconds over his time. Say the penalty cost him $5,000. Suddenly he’s so far down the FedEx Cup point list he doesn’t have a place to play the following year, which in turn might mean his kid can’t go to college, or he can’t put a down payment on that decent house. Or worse. Basically it means you’ve drastically affected the guy’s life with the click of a stopwatch. I’m all for looking at fine structures, maybe increasing them. But determining his fate with a stopwatch to me is a little harsh.

When our advance people set up and mark courses for a PGA Tour event, the preparation is so thorough that it strikes some people as crazy, maybe even paranoid. Club members love to come out and watch us put down the paint and insert stakes. Invariably someone will ask, “Why are you marking that spot? Nobody has hit a ball here in 50 years.” I explain to them that the week we don’t mark it is the week someone will hit their ball there. Ever read how the first time someone forgot to lock their house was the time it got broken into? The same principle applies here.

There will always be subjective areas of the rules, small things that one official might shade differently than another. Say a player is seeking relief from a poor lie because, by assuming a very closed stance that would promote a big hook, the outside of his foot touches the edge of a cartpath. Is such a stance reasonable? Like a Supreme Court justice, it might depend on how you define “reasonable”. Me, I’d never want to determine what type of shot he conceivably could play. If he insists he’d play a 40-yard hook – and form the closed stance to do it – if the path weren’t there, my style is to say, “If you can live with that, then I can.” On the other hand, I’ve seen some stances that just aren’t reasonable. I haven’t hesitated to say, “No relief.”

My trademark, I guess, is my Panama hat. I own maybe 15 of them and haven’t worn anything else for decades. If there’s one thing that can bring out my dad’s old boxing fire, it’s somebody messing with my hat. Any dedicated hat-wearer from the South will tell you that the hat is out-of-bounds. A while back someone came up from behind me and playfully knocked my hat askew. I wore him out so loudly the next five minutes it surprised even me.

It’s amazing how fast and far a golf joke can travel. Here’s one I’ve heard recently in California and Florida: a golfer and his girlfriend are lying in bed watching TV. The girlfriend, feeling neglected, asks him, “Am I the only one you’ve ever been with?” He says, “Of course.” She says, “Are you sure I’m the only one?” He says, “Honey, I’ve been with a lot of 7s and 8s, but you’re definitely the only 1 in the bunch.”

Everyone tells me how lucky I am to have a healthy lifestyle, what with being outside, walking and healthy foods. The truth is, during tournament weeks I practically live in a golf cart. I’m driving from scene to scene and barely get out of the damned thing. I’ve started walking on a treadmill in my hotel three days a week, just to get in some semblance of physical condition.

Before jack lemmon teamed with Peter Jacobsen at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am – where they failed to make the cut in decades of trying – Jack teamed with me. It was 1978, and we actually came within a shot of making the cut. Jack was very happy and upbeat. At the time, he assumed it would happen one day, but it never did. He might be the best example of never taking anything in golf for granted.

A lot of players will call us in for help on dropping from a cartpath, which is fairly rudimentary. But I’m glad when they do, for two reasons. One, if the player makes a mistake dropping from the path, it can mean a penalty, whereas if the official were to give incorrect advice on how to drop, it’s no penalty. If you’re the player, doesn’t it make sense to always call in an official, just in case? Two, so long as players request help dropping from the path, rules officials are going to be necessary. Who doesn’t like job security?


Slugger White spoke with Guy Yocom

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