Tommy Dudley, a golf rules volunteer, whose credo has been to consciously stay out of the spotlight, did not have a choice but take center stage at last month’s United States Golf Association Annual Meeting in San Antonio
Tommy Dudley, a golf rules volunteer, whose credo has been to consciously stay out of the spotlight, did not have a choice but take center stage at last month’s United States Golf Association Annual Meeting in San Antonio.
Mike Davis, the USGA’s chief executive officer, and Dudley’s friend of more than three decades, made sure Dudley would be on the dais at the gathering when Davis phoned him in September and let his friend know he had been selected as the USGA’s prestigious Joe Dey Award recipient. Presented annually since 1996, the award recognizes an individual's meritorious service to the game as a volunteer.
“When (Davis) called me initially, I thought he was kidding with me — then I realized he wasn’t and I was overwhelmed by what he was telling me,” recounts Dudley, a native of Columbus, Ga., who now resides in Jacksonville, Fla. “I remembered the chairperson of the Joe Dey Award committee is the one who usually calls the recipient, but I think because Mike and I have known each other and are such good friends that he wanted to call. It was great.”
It’s likely the USGA couldn’t have found a more worthy candidate. Perhaps most impressive from his litany of volunteer service: Dudley has officiated more than 100 USGA championships, including 26 U.S. Opens. He has also worked more than 300 Florida State Golf Association events and served as the organization’s president from 2008-09.
On a less measurable but equally important level, Dudley notes that the people he’s met have helped spur his interest in the game, while the rules, at least partially, have been a factor in forming the fabric of his soul. Counted among those individuals are Dey, whom Dudley shared a memorable lunch with in March 1978 during the Tournament Players Championship, which was being held at Sawgrass Country Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., near Jacksonville.
Dey, the USGA’s executive director from 1934 to 1969, knew everything about the rules and how he wanted to live — he carried the Rules of Golf in one pocket, the Holy Bible in another. Dudley recalls the meeting like encountering golf royalty. Most everyone who met Dey, with his deep-set eyes, piney, slicked-back hair and gentlemanly appearance, remembers their encounter.
Count Dudley among the herd. Dey dove in about golf and the rules’ during their sit-down.
“Do you play golf?” Dey inquired.
“Yes, sir,” Dudley answered.
Dey quickly interjected and responded like only he could — coolly, but with an inquirer’s purpose.
“Do you play by the Rules?” Dey responded.
At the time, Dudley knew he had more to learn, but his curiosity with the Rules, just as with his introduction to and conversation with Dey, is a prime lesson in listening and learning.
Less than 10 years later, Dudley was at The Olympic Club in San Francisco during the 1987 U.S. Open where he joined some high-ranking USGA officials for dinner on multiple occasions. Discussions around the table about the rules were lively, the banter memorable, the participants’ enthusiasm unquestionable. No matter which side of the debate an official was on, Dudley was struck by their passion for all things rules and golf related, stoking his interest to become a national championship rules’ official. He worked his first U.S. Open in 1991 at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn.
Several years later, Dudley was at the U.S. Open at Medinah Country Club near Chicago where he received a tutorial on correct course marking protocol from P.J. Boatwright, then the USGA’s longtime executive director and director of rules and competitions. The instructional element of the conversation is still seared in Dudley’s bank of stories.
“I was asking him how far you should a mark a lateral hazard red if it crosses the fairway and goes out of sight, down to the right of the fairway,” Dudley remembers.
Boatwright provided the answer — with a little panache and flair mixed in.
“As far as you think a player can hit the ball, plus 50 yards, and don’t use any Georgia arrows,” Boatwright responded, referencing to keep painting the red line, sans a directional arrow — the lazy way of marking. “I said, ‘Why is it a Georgia arrow?’ ”
“Because you’re from Georgia, that’s why,” Boatwright replied without a hint of hesitation.
Dudley has a nearly encyclopedic comprehension of the Rules of Golfand the War and Peace-sized Decisions on The Rules of Golf. He’s scored 94 or above on the mind-numbing, three-and-a-half hour Rules of Golf test since 1994 and owns four perfect scores. He recently passed the test on the new 2019 Rules of Golfwith a 99; only those who score a 90 or above can serve as a Rules official at the U.S. Open. He has also attended 30 PGA-USGA Rules of Golf workshops.
As a rules official on site, Dudley also takes an admirable ‘I’m-here-if-you-need-me’ approach when serving as a walking official, knowing the competitors should be at the forefront — and holding to that stance, no matter the player or event.
There have been plenty of other times when he could’ve been swept up in the tidal wave of excitement such as being a rules official for the Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott grouping at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. At the time, Woods, Mickelson and Scott were ranked one, two and three in the world, respectively, and galleries were school bus deep.
But part of what sets Dudley apart is that he knows his role and is comfortable in it. Spoken or otherwise, players and administrators understand Dudley offers a comforting presence when he is working on-site championships.
“The biggest compliment I ever got as a rules official was at Shinnecock (Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y.) in 1995. I was on hole No. 15 and Tom Lehman said, ‘Hey, I need my rules official.’ I said, ‘I’m right here,’ He said, ‘Where have you been? I haven’t seen you since the first tee.’ So I was conspicuously inconspicuous,” Dudley recalls. “That’s what I try to do. I’m not out there to socialize. I’m there to do a job. You’re with a group, you’re there when needed, you’re supposed to make a ruling or prevent a rules’ violation and monitor the pace of play.”
Still, certain moments have left an indelible mark on Dudley’s career and he takes pride in never having to penalize a competitor for a pace of play violation.
Today, the Dey Award has represented something of a mountaintop experience.
“To be associated with Joe Dey’s name because of what he represented in the game of golf and worked so hard to dedicate is his life to—it is a game of honesty and integrity—that is Joe Dey himself,” says Dudley, who was the longtime owner of Industrial Water Services Inc., which treated non-hazardous wastewater. He sold the company in 2009. “It is a great honor that I never expected to receive — and didn’t do it to receive an honor. I did it because I love giving — the feeling you get from giving your time to something you feel is a worthy cause and that was exactly what I felt about it.”
Dudley’s seemingly boundless energy hasn’t gone unnoticed. Early in his on-site rules career with the USGA, Dudley was asked by future USGA president Buzz Taylor to co-referee the final 18 holes in the 1994 U.S. Amateur Championship at TPC Sawgrass between Tiger Woods and Trip Kuehne, won by Woods. The distinction of being requested remains one of Dudley’s favorite memories. And he’ll never forget receiving the assignment to walk with his good friend, Bob Duval, who was paired with Jack Nicklaus during the 1997 U.S. Senior Open at Olympia Fields.
Through all of his on-course experiences and encounters with players, lessons from Dey, who died in March 1991, remain. (Boatwright, who succeeded Dey as USGA executive director, passed away in May 1991.)
“Let me tell you,” Dye once instructed Dudley, “if you read someone the rule, they believe you. If you tell ’em, it’s your opinion.”
Dudley has officiated at nearly every championship the USGA conducts, but the U.S. Amateur remains special to him, having been a rulesperson on the ground at the event 24 times.
“In the (U.S. Open), it seems as though if a player isn’t playing well, it’s either my fault or the USGA’s fault,” Dudley says. “In the U.S. Amateur, if they’re not playing well, they’re just enjoying being there. It’s a treat for them to be at the U.S. Amateur, because for a lot of them, it’ll be the only USGA event they’ll ever play in.”
Dudley regards his extensive volunteerism as his give-back to the game and a sense of gratitude for his service pervades among USGA higher-ups, too.
“Tom’s selfless commitment to golf and the timeless values of sportsmanship are the embodiment of what the Joe Dey Award stands for,” Davis says. “He has been a longstanding friend of golfers everywhere, and we are proud to recognize his countless hours of service and the many ways in which he has given back to the golf community through his passion for the game.”
Widely-respected and liked by colleagues, Dudley has been active at his home club, Timaquana Country Club in Jacksonville, where he has been a member for 45 years. Dudley was president of the club from 1999-2000 and was instrumental in bringing the 2002 U.S. Senior Amateur Championship to the First Coast club. He served as a general chairman of the event. More recently, Dudley was instrumental in facilitating the arrival of the 2019 U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball Championship to Timaquana, which will be conducted next month.
All the way, Dudley has sought to honor the sport he loves. Perhaps the game is tipping its hat back to him. Dey undoubtedly is.
Andrew Blair is a writer from Glen Allen, Va.