John rules ok: Golf’s top laws man looks back on a career spent keeping the game’s top pros on the right track

If you watched this weekend’s Presidents Cup matches at Royal Melbourne on television, there’s a good chance you spotted John Paramor.

Whenever a player gets into trouble, is unsure how to proceed and calls for a ruling, JP appears as if by magic. It’s a familiar scene, given the level of ignorance routinely displayed by a depressing number of professional golfers when it comes to the game’s admittedly complicated and often esoteric regulations.

“I would like players to take more responsibility,” admits Paramor, the European Tour’s chief referee. “But I understand why they don’t. It only takes one high-profile disqualification to provoke a spate of extra rulings being called for. I have started to produce a short instructional video to help. We do have the ability – if a player asks for what we deem to be a silly ruling – to require that player to watch my video. We haven’t done it yet, though.

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“I want the membership to be confident enough to proceed with the simple stuff. If they hit into a water hazard, they shouldn’t need a referee. Or if the ball is on a sprinkler head or a cart path, that should all be straightforward. If we can get to that stage I’d be happy. I don’t mind being called out but I do wonder why I’m out there sometimes.”

Indeed, Paramor has been “out there” since 1975, when he caddied for former Ryder Cup player Peter Butler. He joined the European Tour at the age of “21 years and one day”. A decent player himself – good enough to win the Middlesex Open and Surrey Amateur Championships – his first official task was to interview Pete Cowen after the now-famous swing coach had won the Zambian Open. Soon, however, he was attending tournaments and giving rulings – a task not without some obvious and inherent stresses. Mistakes are unthinkable.

“Even though I do my best to look calm, when I’m put in a pressure situation it’s a bit like the duck on the water,” he smiles. “There’s a lot going on under the surface. I’m always aware that the next ruling could be my last. But, hopefully, I’m professional enough to think things through very carefully before I commit to an answer.”

Some of Paramor’s most memorable encounters involved the late, great Seve Ballesteros. The charismatic Spaniard knew the rules backwards and so would seek every advantage given half a chance.

“The ruling everyone remembers is the tree on the 18th hole at Valderrama,” continues Paramor.

“He had hit his ball under the tree, into an area that may or may not have been caused by a burrowing animal. He felt the hole had been made by an animal. One, that was questionable. And two, I couldn’t find any evidence to suggest what he was claiming. He had to prove his case. Anyway, there was a small hole within the big hole. When I went to stick my finger in the small hole to see what was down there, Seve put his hand on my shoulder and said: ‘Be careful, it might bite.’

“That was inspired, of course. I almost started to chuckle. He only said that so I would hear it. And that was Seve all over. He was only trying to get what he felt he was due. And he was trying to sway me. But he didn’t, of course. He could be intimidating but I had to put that to the back of my mind.”

On that occasion, Seve was left disappointed. But on another, his peerless ability to hit shots no one else could even imagine was enough to get him what he wanted.

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“Seve was telling me he could play a shot in such a way that his stance would be affected by an obstruction,” recalls Paramor. “So I told him to demonstrate what he proposed to do – all the time thinking there was no way he could persuade me. But he did. And I gave him a free drop.

“He had one foot in a ditch, the other above the ditch. Then he turned the club round and swung left-handed. After a couple of practice swings, I was convinced. He could have hit it like that. But there is no way any other player would even have thought of it. Seve was different, though, I knew he was capable of such a shot. He was a genius. So he got his drop.”

Anyone who has even glanced at the “Decisions” book, which documents the hundreds of amazing things that have happened on golf courses, will appreciate how potentially difficult Paramor’s job can be. It’s no surprise that even he is constantly surprised at the ever-more unlikely scenarios that have presented themselves.

“This happened only recently,” he says. “A player was putting. To get to the hole, though, his ball had to go off the green, then back on to the putting surface. But, before he hit, he repaired a ball mark on the fringe. At first I thought that was a breach of Rule 13-2. But it wasn’t. He is allowed to repair a ball mark on the line of his putt. The problem was, however, that he could only do so when the mark is on the green. So, in the end, he was actually penalised for touching the line of his putt.

“I know that sounds harsh. There was no intent to gain advantage. But, as soon as you have a rule framed – and you can only do so one way – you can’t start putting your own interpretation on it. If you begin to ask ‘was that fair?’ the whole rulebook goes out of the window.”

Even Paramor isn’t perfect, though. And, typical of the man, he still loses sleep over the “Khan affair”.

“The biggest mistake I ever made involved former PGA champion Simon Khan,” he sighs. “It was on the final day in Switzerland back in 2004 or 2005. There had been a change to a rule, one I had misinterpreted or at least misunderstood, and I incorrectly disqualified him because I reckoned he had picked up a ball when he should not have done.

“I was gutted when I realised what I had done. I wrote to him saying how sorry I was and how I clearly hadn’t picked up every nuance of the rule change. It was such a bad moment for me. And Simon handled it beautifully. But I still get upset when I think of it.”

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As for the vexed issue of cheating, Paramor is philosophical.

“While I have seen someone cheat when I was playing, I have never seen it first hand on tour,” he claims. “But it’s true we have had a few unfortunate situations. I know a lot of players get upset about guys marking balls on greens then replacing them in places they deem not quite right. Invariably, though, they do nothing until the end of the round, which only makes them accuser, judge, jury and executioner in one. It would be better if they drew attention to whatever they see as soon as they see it.”

Good advice. But, of course, Paramor has had plenty of practise in that particular department.