Kennett Square's Tom Carpus is the PGA's 'rules guy'

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Tom Carpus at 2014 PGA at Valhalla, standing in front of 13th green.

Late in the second round of the 2013 Masters, co-leader Tiger Woods’ third shot on the famous par-5 15th hole bounced off the flag stick and into the water. So he opted to take a penalty drop back from what looked like the spot where he’d just played from. He then stuck his next approach close enough to salvage a one-putt bogey.

If only it had remained that clear-cut.

Later, after Woods said in a TV interview that he had actually dropped a yard or so behind his original divot to give himself a better distance, everything changed. Because that admission constituted a rules violation, some thought he should be disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. The folks who run the tournament instead assessed him a two-stroke penalty based on a 2012 rule change since they had accepted his explanation of what happened before he made it official — and before someone had contacted them to assert that something might be wrong.

The four-time Masters champion would eventually finish four strokes out of the playoff. The game of golf is not without its controversies, especially when it comes to infractions and their assorted rules interpretations. In the Woods instance, Tom Carpus, the longtime head professional at Kennett Square Golf and Country Club, had a prime vantage point. He was the rules official stationed by the 15th green. Lucky him.

“Most people don’t know I was there, which is a good thing,” Carpus said recently. “I was 60 yards away on the left side. I came out to the edge of the fairway. The drop zone is right there. Tiger started walking over to look at the angle. It wasn’t good. Not much green to work with. So he immediately turned and walked back. His caddie, Joe LaCava, never moved. I’ve looked at the video 100 times or more, and there’s nothing I can see that tells me he was dropping anywhere but where he was supposed to. He knew where I was if he needed me. I found out later the rover [official] was closer to it than I was. He watched it and didn’t say anything. That made me feel better.

“I was at a big USGA party [that] Friday night, and nobody was talking about it. Everything was cool. Saturday morning, I’m out on the second hole, so I’m there early, and that’s all anyone’s talking about. The way my brain works, I kept questioning myself. ‘Did I miss something?’ My thought was I should have seen something, so that I could have stopped him. I felt bad. It was crazy. But what are you going to do? You have to get it right. And I think they ultimately did.

“The funny part is, if you watch the [CBS] video and listen to [analyst] David Feherty, it’s hysterical. I understand he’s in a tough spot, but he’s putting information out to millions of people, and it’s not accurate. That creates a problem.”

Welcome to the world Carpus chose.

The following April, in the last round, he had to make another ruling after Woods pushed his drive right into the trees at No. 10.

“That one was get in and get out,” Carpus smiled. “Just the way we like it.”

“One of the most knowledgeable rules people”

Carpus is a rules guy. Has been for most of his professional career. He’s done many humorous educational segments for a local TV golf show for the last two decades, and his trademark exit line became “Golf rules.”

“You try and take a dull subject and bring it to life,” he said.

Carpus has worked at 21 PGA Championships, eight Masters and four Ryder Cups. In July, he’ll do his third British Open and next June his first U.S. Open.

He has just been appointed to a two-year term as chair of the 38-man PGA of America rules committee after serving six years as vice chair. So, if there is a decision that you don’t agree with at the PGA in August, direct the complaints his way.

Carpus, a native of suburban Buffalo, moved here when he was 10 and graduated from Drexel. He is leaving his position at Kennett Square to accept the gig with the PGA Tour Champions, and that will take him on the road 28 weeks a year. But he’s still going to call this area home.

“He’s one of the most knowledgeable rules people in our community,” said Gene Smith, the retiring PGA Tour Champions Tournament director and the man Carpus is replacing on the 13-person staff. “He has the respect of everyone who knows him. That’s something you earn. He just has a certain way of going about his business that works.”

Even though it’s not always easy, Carpus seems to handle the responsibility of enforcing the rules as a big part of the job. He obviously takes it very seriously but does not get overbearing about it. And it can be a tight line to walk. There are fans who think many of golf’s rules are, well, outdated. So when awkward moments happen, there are hits for Carpus to take.

Like Dustin Johnson getting penalized on the last hole at the 2010 PGA for grounding his club in a fairway bunker. That cost him a spot in the playoff. “We got absolutely creamed,” said Carpus, who was with a group a few holes ahead of the final twosome.

Or like Johnson again in the final round of the 2016 U.S. Open, when as the leader he was informed on the 12th tee that he could be penalized a stroke for causing his ball to move back on the fifth green. He eventually was, after he finished. Good thing he won by three.

Then there was Anna Nordqvist in the three-hole playoff at the U.S. Women’s Open a month later. She was given a two-stroke penalty for grounding her club (imperceptibly, which didn’t matter at the time) in the fairway bunker on the second hole. Yet she wasn’t told until midway through the third hole. She lost by three.

Also Lexi Thompson at the ANA Inspiration in early April. As she was walking to the 13th tee in the final round she received a four-stroke penalty (two plus two more for signing for a lower score) for marking her ball incorrectly during the third round. She would lose in a playoff.

Many gray areas

The governing bodies — USGA in America, Royal & Ancient for the rest of the planet — have undertaken a joint initiative to review and maybe revise some rules. It usually takes time. But the thought process seems to evolving. That hardly means the many gray areas will be resolved to universal satisfaction. In the case of Thompson, both governing bodies changed the rules shortly afterward in April to limit the use of video evidence in the game, which was effective immediately.

So, Carpus could find himself in the middle of any number of confounding situations again, even if someone watching at home is the reason they were initiated.

“I’m an idealist,” said the former Philadelphia PGA president who was an assistant at Rolling Green in Delaware County for seven years and the head pro at Greate Bay at the South Jersey shore for six more before taking the same position at Kennett in 1998. “Historically when something happens, we are going to use every piece of evidence we can get our hands on. You don’t want to have an asterisk next to anything. In golf, rules officials are on the edges. We’re waiting for someone to call us to deal with something. So it’s different than other sports. We’re there to help. We’re trying to keep a level playing field. We’re not the bad guys. The integrity of the game should be upheld.

“Sometimes it’s the equivalent of calling pass interference in the last minute of a Super Bowl. Not fun. But that’s our role. It can be misunderstood. And it’s going to be a mess. I get that. Somebody is going to get blamed, fairly or not. … Martin Kaymer won the PGA [in 2010], yet that wasn’t the story. Nobody wants that.

“I played every sport when I was young, and I tried to play by the rules. I played a lot of hockey. I knew what high sticking was, and slashing. It’s a penalty. And with TV in the equation, of course everything is magnified. How about when they took that touchdown away from Dez Bryant [in an NFL playoff game]? Can you imagine if that happened in an Eagles game? The biggest thing I’d like to turn back is the Leon Stickle [missed] offsides call in [the] 1980 [NHL finals]. If Roberto DeVicenzo [missing a Masters playoff in 1968 for signing for wrong score] happened in today’s world, it would be through the roof.

“The hard part in some decisions,” he continued, “is you can go to 100 of the top rules people across the country and say, ‘Watch this and tell me what you think,’ and there might not be consensus. That tells me there needs to be more discussion. Some of the proposed changes are very practical. We are going to do everything we possibly can to avoid giving a player a penalty. Things happen in amateur golf all the time that we don’t necessarily read about, but it happens. In the NCAAs this year, a kid tossed his ball to his caddie, and it went in a lake. The only way he could avoid a two-stroke penalty was to go in the water and find his ball. But he couldn’t, so he got a penalty for substituting. What if that happened at a tour event or a major?”

Rules test

Carpus doesn’t consider himself a rules geek but rather a student. He was always interested in interpretations.

“You’re at a Ryder Cup and look around and say, ‘Oh my God, if they call on me I’d better know what I’m doing,’ ” he reasoned. He attended his first PGA of America workshop in the early 1990s. The first time he took the rules test he scored 81 out of a possible 100.

“I was devastated,” he said. The next year he got 94. Then 96. He hasn’t been below 98 since. But he’s never had a perfect score. “I’m ticked off at that,” he said, “One of my USGA friends calls me Gretzky [for the Great One’s No. 99]. The questions are tricky. You have to siphon through a lot of noise to get to the answer. Like on the course.”

It could be worse. His nickname could be Lindros (88).

“With Tom, it’s not all about him,” said Larry Stentzel, a past chair of the PGA of America’s rules committee. “He obviously knows the rules. But it’s about doing the right thing, setting the right example. He knows how to handle himself. He has a wonderful bedside manner. That’s really important when it’s not all peaches and cream out there.

“I’m glad we have him on our side.”

At his club’s member-guest championship one year, Carpus had to penalize someone two shots on the final hole for putting croquet style on a gimme that would have given their team the victory.

“He was trying to figure out a way to tap-in without stepping in somebody’s line and he straddles it,” Carpus said. “At that time it was illegal. I was right there, but he did it so quickly I couldn’t stop him. Now I have to intervene. The great thing about it is they were great guys. The members started sending this guy emails from the Croquet Association as a practical joke. That was more intense than anything.”

Another time in the club championship, he had to disqualify the defending champ and his playing partner because they continued to hit after play had been suspended, an option they didn’t have.

“It was awful,” Carpus said. “One took it OK. The other did not, and he was the adult. I didn’t sleep for a week.”

At a sectional event a player once threw a rules book at his feet.

“He was unhappy,” Carpus said. “Hey, I’m a competitor too. If you’d like a second opinion, I’ll call somebody over. I have no problem with that.”

The first major he worked was the 1995 PGA at Riviera. That Thursday, he was assigned to the fourth hole, a long par 3. He showed up way early, which turned out to be a good thing for the wrong reason.

“I was a nervous wreck,” Carpus said. “I have my checklist of all these things. Then I realize I didn’t bring the evacuation keys [to the player vans]. So I’m debating if I’m going to take a chance in case there’s a [weather] suspension. I’m sweating bullets. I go all the way up that big hill and get back just in time for the first group.”

The lesson?

“I never forgot the keys again,” he said.

And so it goes, knowing it’s probably just a matter of time until that dreaded next awkward moment arrives at your hole.

“Some things are so slight,” Carpus said. “You could never tell until you blow it up, slow it down in [high definition]. ‘Oh, there it is.’ Most people who play golf don’t worry about all that. But on the biggest stage … ”

It can take on a life of its own. Somebody has to put out the fires.

“People get upset,” he said. “That’s always going to be part of it. There’s no wiggle room. The evidence is the evidence. The rules are not the enemy. We play by them every week. We just adjudicate them.”

And, if nothing else, he’ll always have Tiger and the 15th at Augusta National.

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