'Being part of a Major Championship, is indescribable'

​​​​​It was when asked to become handicap secretary in the club that Anne O’Sullivan’s introduction to what would become a whirlwind career in the rules of golf began.

  • 22 July 2019

​Caption: Anne O'Sullivan (centre) with some fellow referees at the 146th Open at Royal Birkdale | R&A

While Shane Lowry lifted the Claret Jug on the 18th green at Royal Portrush, there were sighs of relief behind the scenes as officials and volunteers reflected on a successful return of The Open to Northern Ireland after 68 years. 

One volunteer in particular, who in the last month alone, has officiated at the Palmer Cup in Arkansas and numerous Qualifying Events for The Open was among the relieved. Anne O’Sullivan also represented The R&A at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in Lahinch and the Aberdeen Standard Investment Scottish Open at The Renaissance Club but this week however, was the big one – The 148th Open at Royal Portrush where she was one of seventy-five Rules Officials, sixteen of whom were women.

Qualified as a Rules Official for ten years, O’Sullivan began her golfing career like many others, after her own family moved into adulthood.

‘I dabbled very loosely in it until I was in my forties, my children were grown up then and because my dad and brothers all played, my aunts played. I always liked the idea of it. I joined a small club down in Wexford, Tara Glen, I absolutely loved it and it all started from there.’

It was when asked to become handicap secretary in the club that O’Sullivan’s introduction to what would become a whirlwind career in golf began.

‘Some of the players were coming in asking questions about different rulings on the course and were looking to me for the penalty. I didn’t know, so I thought – sure the rule book is tiny, I’ll learn it all and then I’ll know, little did I realise!’

Being a Rules Official in golf can be difficult. Twelve hour days on the course in elements which are less than perfect is sometimes the easiest part. The time put into mastering golf’s in-depth rules is the bigger commitment. 

‘I remember my first rules information session at St. Margaret’s. By chance I met Ger Henry, who was from the same club as me, we began studying together for our exams after that. The difficulties of being a Rules Official were definitely highlighted to us that day but whatever it was, we were hooked.’

While Henry has now become a key Rules Official on the European Golf Association’s Championship Committee, O’Sullivan holds the honour of being one of the first women to become part of The R&A Open Championships Committee following the merger with the Ladies Golf Union.

‘I suppose that was a tremendous achievement, myself and Rona Walker were the first women to be part of that group so that in itself was historic. To be chosen when it was open to all of the women in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales to apply. I consider that a great achievement.’

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Caption: Anne O'Sullivan during her early days as a Rules Official with the ILGU | Pat Cashman

That merger kick-started a culture change within the sport, most recently highlighted by the 40% increase in the prize fund for the upcoming AIG Women’s British Open at Woburn. As a volunteering official within The R&A now, the difference is also noticeable.

‘The R&A has done great work. You’re treated exactly the same as a man or a woman, we are supported greatly in terms of equality and the increasing number of females represented at committee and tournament level shows that.’

‘The merge of The LGU and The R&A is really helping the development of women’s golf around the world. There was the launch of the Women in Golf Charter and a lot of time and money is being invested into women and girls’ golf. It’s a very exciting time to be involved.’

O’Sullivan has weathered even more difficult changes as the modernisation to the Rules of Golf were introduced earlier this year. A hot topic of conversation across the professional and amateur game, the transition period seems to have settled and positively, more club players are aware of the rules they should abide by.

‘I think at the start it was a bit panicky for everybody because some of them [rules] were so different but in practice they work really well. The good thing is that they have removed a lot of the smaller penalties that really made no difference, for example a double-hit or if the ball hits your person. In general, these things would have never affected your shot anyway but in the past you got penalised. Those changes are a great step.’

The question of slow play in golf continues to cause controversy and while the new Rules won’t be a one for all fix, they seem to have contributed somewhat to brisker play with the Rules encouraging ready golf at all levels.

‘The dropping procedure from the knee caused some difficulty at first but now it’s all settled and there’s not a word. In practice, when you drop it, the ball stops dead and it saves the time of re-dropping and placing. I think obviously when anything new comes out there will be things to improve on but overall they have settled beautifully.’

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Caption: O'Sullivan presenting at a R&A Rules Seminar

O'Sullivan officiated at Royal Birkdale for the Women's British Open in 2014 for the first time, and has not missed that event since. The Open at Royal Portrush will be her fourth time at the men's Major having been part of the Rules Team at Royal Troon, Royal Birkdale and last year at Carnoustie. 

'It's so fantastic to be a part of Major Championships, the experience is just indescribable.'

With past Major Champions such as McIlroy, Johnson, Koepka and Woods potentially requesting a ruling, O'Sullivan does not let the calibre of player get in the way of the job at hand.

'I think the only way to deal with it is to not see the person, and give the ruling as if it was any golfer without focusing on who it is. I've had some funny experiences with well-known players in the past but it is probably better that I don't highlight some of them!' she laughed.

O'Sullivan has travelled worldwide in recent years, South Korea and Singapore included, but has also managed to Chair the ILGU East Leinster Executive and hold the position of Chairman of Rules on the ILGU Board in the interim. 

'It's been a hectic few years and a great experience and I would think my own golf has definitely suffered,' she admitted. 'I don't have much time for golf during the summer as when I am home I see my family – my three grandsons, my husband! I have plenty of time in the winter to play my golf which I really enjoy and I have begun playing nine-hole qualifying competitions too which have been a great addition to the game.'

The aforementioned grandsons, of which she has three, are unsurprisingly 'brainwashed' already by their golf-loving Granny. At the age of three, Jonah thinks he is Tiger Woods while, together with his brothers, blankets are laid on the floor of the living room to create bunkers from which to practice their sand saves with their plastic golf clubs. 

'Working with The R&A has opened up a world of excitement and you meet so many people, it really is fantastic but I have a huge allegiance to the ILGU because only for them I wouldn't be where I am.'

'I loved my time at the ILGU, I just think the volunteers are fantastic. We had the most fun. We worked hard but I loved going to the events because I always knew that in spite of that there was going to be a bit of craic and we were all working for the same purpose.'

When the dust has settled on The Open's return to the island of Ireland, O'Sullivan will move on to the next event and her schedule for the remainder of the year. The AIG Women's British Open, two European Tour events in the Czech Republic and Germany followed by the Senior Women's Home Internationals at County Sligo stand in the way between her and an enjoyable few months of golf at Castle Golf Club where she is now a member.

'It has been hard work over the years but I love it so it doesn't seem like that. There's a lot of dedication that goes on behind the scenes from everyone involved. With golf there are a lot of long hours and commitment but I still consider myself very lucky to be where I am today.' ​

By Carla Reynolds