Back in the mid-'70s, on a muggy August morning, golfer Bob Hooper, AS '56, was playing for the championship in a club tournament at the Newark Country Club. He was even after three holes when he discovered someone had mistakenly stuck an extra putter in his golf bag.
"I knew it was a penalty," says Hooper, still shaking his head at the memory, "but someone who was following us around claimed I should be penalized loss of hole for each of the first three holes.
"Well, I found out the next day that it was only a two-hole penalty, which meant that I actually should have won the tournament, not lost it. After that, I became a serious student of the rules of golf."
Over the past 16 years, Hooper has been a rules official for the U.S. Golf Association (USGA), serving up definitive rulings and arbitrating disputes at some of the most prestigious golf events in America. Hooper donates his time and expertise each year at the U.S. Open, the Senior Open, the U.S. Amateur and several other USGA events-a total of nearly 60 since 1981.
"They don't always hit them straight," jokes Hooper, a Hockessin, Del., resident. "The ball can wind up in some very funny places, especially at the big events when they put up all the grandstands and refreshment areas. There have been some incredible places where they hit the ball.
"Golf is not like other sports. For one thing, all the courses are so different, not like football or tennis. But, more importantly, golf is self-policing. The players don't want to violate the rules. Hey, how often does a wide receiver admit he had one foot out of bounds after he gets drilled?"
Drilling is something Hooper knows quite well. He has practiced dentistry for 32 years in Newark, Del. He came to the University of Delaware in the fall of 1953 where he studied pre-dentistry and played football for Dave Nelson, when Tubby Raymond was the backfield coach. He went on to the University of Pennsylvania and graduated with a degree in dentistry in 1960. After a three-year stint in the Army, he married and resettled in Newark, opening his practice in 1965.
"Fortunately, I've been able to take off from my practice when I want," says Hooper. "It's given me the opportunity to follow my passion and travel all around the country officiating at these great events."
To qualify as a rules official, an applicant is required to attend a three-day USGA seminar and achieve a minimum score of 85 on a formidable exam, which needs to be retaken every four years.
"One official is assigned to each group that goes out," explains Jeff Hall, manager of rules at the USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J. "They are to assist players with any disputes, but, equally important, they deal with personalities and emotions.
"It's one thing to take an exam and say a player incurs a two-stroke penalty. It's quite another to look Jack Nicklaus, or 'old steely blue eyes' as they call him, in the eye and say, 'I'm sorry, but we need a penalty here.' Our officials walk the course with the players, which we believe helps them become more familiar. It helps defuse some situations. Say a player hits a terrible shot and his radiator's running a little warm. The official assists the player, then moves away. They're not there hawking every shot."
From traveling with Hooper and listening to him discuss golf rules, Hooper's wife, Carolyn, caught the bug and qualified as an official for the Women's Mid-Amateur Committee. She has been asked to work on the rules committee for the U.S. Women's Open. The Hoopers are joined by a couple in Illinois as the only husband-and-wife officials in America.
Hooper hasn't missed a round of golf on the prestigious events he's officiated since 1981. "That's a record that's hard to top," says Hall. "Bob's a special kind of guy. There's no expenses here. They pay to do this with their own money.
"Bob's very good at what he does, and he does it all with levity and a sense of humor. He truly just wants to make golf a better game."