No lie, he’s played by the rules on the PGA Tour for 40 years
Sitting in your golf cart all day, then rolling over to a buried lie to make a decision that might swing a PGA Tour event is a little like being an airline pilot.
“Hours of boredom,” Mark Russell said. “Moments of terror.”
Russell should know, even though he was half-joking Saturday when he summed up his job that way, his soft North Carolina drawl a stark contrast to the angry winds buffeting Riviera Country Club.
For more than 40 years, Russell has been rulebook royalty on the tour — along with counterpart Slugger White — making the call on where the tees and pins should be for events, the length of the rough, whether a player can get relief and move the ball, and everything in between.
Sam Burns held a two-shot lead through 13 holes of the third round on a day when play was suspended for nearly four hours because of windy conditions.
Russell, 69, who is easing into retirement by working as a rules consultant this year, was in on the decision Saturday to suspend the third round of the Genesis Invitational because of the tree-swaying gusts that were causing balls to roll on the greens without being struck.
“I can’t remember it happening here because of the wind,” Russell said, sitting in the Riviera clubhouse, his mop of salt-and-pepper hair tousled. “Couldn’t keep balls on the greens, plus the bigger thing is it turns into a very dangerous situation for the players out there, the volunteers, with those eucalyptus trees blowing.”
White isn’t on this trip, although he’s retiring too. The two men, who could be burly brothers, divvied up the events for something of a farewell tour. They simultaneously held the title of vice president of rules and competitions.
Have gavel, will travel.
“I kind of wanted to go back to the places that I had been going for a long time, just to kind of say goodbye,” Russell said. “I’ve met so many people over the years, it’s unbelievable.”
Like White, he’s a beloved fixture on the tour, someone who can make the difficult rulings — some that might even result in disqualification — yet retain the respect of players.
“Mark’s a kind Southern gentleman who’s always exuded integrity and fairness in every decision rendered,” CBS play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz said. “Nothing but friends out here for Mark.”
That’s not to say everyone has come away smiling. In 1987 at Torrey Pines, Craig Stadler got on his knees to punch out a shot from under a tree. In order to keep his pants clean, he knelt on a towel, and TV cameras captured the scene. That should have been a two-stroke penalty, because Stadler was “building a stance.” But the golfer failed to assess himself the penalty, signed his incorrect scorecard, and was disqualified by Russell.
“That was a long afternoon,” Russell said. “It’s a situation where, you don’t like it, but you have to play golf by the rules. That’s the key. I learned a long time ago, as long as you stick right to the letter of the law with the rules, you can’t go wrong. Once you step off that platform, you’re in quicksand.”
Russell was raised in Concord, N.C., and graduated from Elon University in 1974 with a degree in history. After college he became a teaching pro, then golf director at Disney World. When the tour offered him a job as a rules official, he didn’t hesitate to take it.
Over three decades, the versatile Michael Yamaki has kept Riviera Country Club’s golfing paradise on course.
“If you didn’t have the talent to play on the tour, I’m doing the next best thing,” he said. “Go right down into the heart of the battle and make decisions. It’s been a fantastic run for me. You’re always in a nice place with nice people, and that’s what golf’s all about. I’ve met so many friends over the years, it’s incredible, really.”
His career has spanned generations. When Russell started, the big stars on tour were such players as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. He first met Tiger Woods when the youngster was just old enough to drive. Now, he’s gotten to know the newest wave of stars.
“I feel like I’m friends with a ton of these guys,” he said. “We always laugh, talk when we see each other when the competition isn’t going on. The great thing about golf is it’s a game of honor. That’s the key.
“There’s times when it’s a heated situation. But after that it’s, ‘Hey, man, it’s the heat of the battle. Totally understand, that’s the way it is.’ You respecting the players, and having the players have respect for you, is extremely important.”
Russell will be a civilian soon, with a lifetime of memories from the tour but not an official title. He isn’t sure what he’ll do next, only that it will involve golf. There’s plenty those weekend players can learn.
“Most people don’t play the ball as it lies,” he said when asked about the most common rules errors committed by amateurs. “They move it around in the fairway. I call that playing driving-range ball; get you a good lie. That isn’t the game. The whole principle of the game is based on: What kind of lie do I have, and what kind of shot can I play out of that lie? If you get a good lie every time, it’s like hitting balls out on the range.”
Then again, practice makes perfect. And even a guy who has spent more than half his life making rulings — many of them arcane — has to keep his nose in the rulebook.
“We talk about the rules all the time — anytime, 24/7,” he said. “I always tell my wife and people, ‘I know this is very interesting to y’all…’”
And, naturally, they seek relief.
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