Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Keeping the rules in good order

The 555-page book was published just last year, but Mike Yanhko's copy looks about a decade old.

He's added his own tabs for quick, easy reference. He's underlined some portions for emphasis. And if there's any trouble out here at the Scott Robertson Memorial junior golf tournament, this is where he'll look.

"Rules," Yanhko says, "are your best friend."

Well, sometimes they are. Unless you break them -- intentionally or otherwise -- and wind up losing strokes. It's bound to happen to somebody every year at a tournament this important.

On Saturday at Roanoke Country Club, a girl lost six strokes for repeatedly playing her ball from the wrong place. Last year, at the Robertson qualifier, a girl lost a shot at a playoff because she didn't know a relief rule. In the 2006 event, three players were disqualified for rules violations.

Yanhko hates when that happens. A veteran rules official who lives in Radford, he prefers educating over penalizing. He didn't get into this to disqualify players or break teenagers' hearts. He does it because he has a passion for the game -- and the laws that govern it.

"Golf is the last stand for honesty and integrity in athletics," said Yanhko, who coached high school baseball and football for more than 30 years in New Jersey. "It really is. You call things on yourself. Could you imagine an NFL lineman saying, 'Excuse me, Mr. Referee. I was holding on that last play. Could you throw the flag and penalize my team?'"

Yanhko, 63, has volunteered to help officiate the Robertson the past three years. He gets paid nothing to be here other than expenses, yet he is among the first to arrive and last to leave each day. It's a labor of love, but he serves a vital role at the most prestigious annual golf tournament in the area.

During the event, he roams the courses, radio in his ear. If a player has a rules question, Yanhko is called over to make a ruling. The most common queries involve obstruction, and he'll tell players whether they are entitled to relief.

Yanhko's 555-page tome isn't the USGA rule book. The 34 regulations of the game can be summarized in a 44-page booklet that fits in your pocket.

No, this is "Decisions on the Rules of Golf," essentially case law of the sport, guidelines on how to handle any situation on the course. And for someone such as Yanhko, it's a precious teaching tool.

Whether he's assessing a penalty or not, he'll show the player the interpretation of the rule in the book so that he or she can act accordingly the next time.

"The beauty is when you catch a kid the second time," Yanhko said. "You get called over and he says, 'Hey, I know what I'm doing. Just watch and make sure I do it right.' And they've learned."

The Robertson has between four and five rules officials working each day. They see their most action on hole No. 7 of the Redbud course, where a flower garden next to the green gets constantly bombarded, and questions arise on how to get relief.

"That's a full-time job over there," said Richard Smith, another veteran official.

By mid-afternoon Saturday, Yanhko had made four rulings. He said most players are receptive to his decisions.

"I've worked with kids for a long time now," said Yanhko, who taught high school physical education. "Ninety-nine percent of kids are fantastic. They really are. They try to do things right.

"A lot of them, if they violate a rule, it's only through ignorance. They just don't know the rule, and they pretty much accept it and learn from it."

Knowledge of the rules can be just as important to winning as a hot putter. Jan. 31 marked the 10-year anniversary of Tiger Woods' famous "loose impediment" ruling at the Phoenix Open, where he got relief from a giant boulder shoved aside by members of the gallery.

Another golfer might not have bothered to ask.

"Probably on the Tour, there aren't many people who know the rules better than Tiger," Yanhko said.

And out here, not many know them better than Yanhko. He's always been a stickler for the rules, even playing board games as a kid. When he coached baseball, opposing coaches always brought a rule book to the game because they knew he'd have one.

It worked, too. His on-field success earned him a spot in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association's Coaches Hall of Fame in 2003.

On the golf course, Yanhko is tough but fair. In the Region III tournament at Roanoke Country Club in 2006, he famously penalized Lord Botetourt's Turner Phelps for being late for his tee time -- by about 20 seconds.

"The rule is the rule is the rule," Yanhko said. "That's the beauty of this game -- it applies to everyone."

Yanhko, who's also worked events on the Champions and Nationwide tours, normally does between 70 and 80 tournaments a year. This year, he'll work about 40. He had some health issues in October, so he's trying to cut back a bit until he returns to full strength.

But the passion is as strong as ever. Three days after a medical procedure pertaining to his illness, he got in the car and headed to North Carolina.

There was an important rules seminar he didn't want to miss.

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