GREENSBORO, N.C. – Nearly 60 years after Mark Russell attended his first golf tournament here, he’s calling it quits on a 40-year career as a PGA Tour rules official and tournament director not far from where he grew up.
“The first time I came to a golf tournament, my father brought me and a buddy of mine here in 1963. Doug Sanders won the tournament,” recalled Russell, who was raised an hour south in Kannapolis.
He followed PGA Tour pros Dave Marr and Al Besselink and so began a longtime love affair with the game. Russell worked in golf course maintenance at Alamance Country Club, mowing greens with Bobby Long, the man credited with saving Greensboro’s golf tournament, while attending Elon College. Afterward graduation, he went to Orlando for a couple of weeks and he’s been there for more than 45 years.
He spent one summer working at Mickey’s theme park, transferred to the golf course division and became Walt Disney World’s director of golf, including the role of chairman of the Walt Disney World Golf Classic.
“I met all the guys who were doing the golf tour,” Russell said. “Clyde Mangum called me up, God rest his soul, and said, ‘Would you be interested in going to work for the PGA Tour in the rules committee? That was 1980. They didn’t have to ask me twice.”
Russell, 69 and vice president of competitions, ends his run as the longest-active tenured employee at the PGA Tour, having led the competitions department since 1999 with Slugger White. Russell returned to 16 or 17 tournaments this season to say farewell, selecting the events, such as Los Angeles, Bay Hill and Hartford, that he administered for four decades.
“When you stop and think about 40 years, I mean, I spent 40 weeks in these places, you know, that’s 40 weeks of your life in Hartford, Connecticut,” he said.
PGA Tour rules official Mark Russell answers questions from CBS Sports analyst David Feherty at the 2013 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Photo by Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
“Big Russ,” as he was affectionately called, was visible, yet wanted to stay invisible. He was conspicuous, and easily recognizable with his syrupy Southern drawl, but tried to be inconspicuous. Sitting in his roofless cart in the shade along the fifth fairway at Sedgefield Golf Club during the third round, Russell was approached by a fan, Gerald Lewis, 60, who is unaware that this is Russell’s swan song. All Lewis knows is that as a son of a Baptist preacher who was taught to do things the right way, he appreciates Russell’s role in the game.
“Every time I see you, I know the integrity of golf is going to be upheld,” Lewis said. “You don’t kiss up to names.”
Russell is touched by these words and agrees to take a picture in his cart with Lewis by his side.
“Hey, we play golf by the rules,” Russell replied.
One week after White, his fellow longtime rules and competitions colleague, hung up his Panama hat, it’s Russell’s turn and here is a condensed version of his exit interview with Golfweek:
Q: How often do people bring up Craig Stadler’s disqualification for placing a towel underneath his knee so he didn’t soil his pants?
Mark Russell: All the time. No matter what the situation is, you can’t put something down and play golf off of it. You can’t build a stance. I’m amazed that Craig didn’t call for a ruling. I saw him last week, talked to him a little bit. He was out there at Truckee, California, watching (son) Kevin play (at the Barracuda Championship). But you can’t do that. So, he had tied for second but he signed for a wrong score on Saturday and got disqualified.
Q: What’s the craziest ruling you’ve been involved in?
MR: It’s hard to classify crazy. At the 2011 Players, we got word that K.J. Choi’s caddie is getting something out of his golf bag and throwing it up to see which way the wind blows. You can’t have an outside device. By the 16th hole, it was panic city. I got to go into scoring (before a playoff with David Toms) and ask him what he did. If he has used something illegally to test the wind, it’s going to be a disqualification.
It turned out his caddie, Andy Prodger, was using a handkerchief. That was OK. I said, “Let’s go play off, sign your scorecard. Let’s get this done.” That was stressful because if we had to disqualify K.J., can you imagine the reaction in the media center? It would’ve rocked the golf world.
Q: How about another unusual one?
MR: During the Bob Hope Desert Classic one year, Gary Hallberg hit a shot on the roof of the clubhouse and it stayed there. The only place he was allowed a drop from the obstruction was in a very rocky area. So, he took his sand wedge with him on top of the roof, chipped down to about 10 feet and made his par. No kidding, he made his par.
But you know, most of the rulings are pretty much you’re either in or you’re out. You did something or you didn’t. Jack Tuthill taught me years ago, you have to ask the incriminating question. Well, did you do anything to cause it to move?
Q: What are your memories from the 1963 GGO and the first time you attended a tournament here in Greensboro?
MR: My dad took my friend and I out and I watched a guy I’d never heard of named Al Besselink. I later learned he married not one, but two Miss Americas. He was dressed immaculately, pushed-back blond hair, I’m telling ya, he blew me away. He acted like he was having a good time and he could play. I got to know him later on when I was running the golf at Disney and I watched him and he was an incredible wedge player. On the range, he hit this 90-yard, little punch wedge and say, it’s like chopping cane, buddy, there’s nothing to it.
Paul Casey takes a drop in front of caddie John McLaren and PGA Tour rules official Mark Russell during the final round of the 2019 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am golf tournament at Pebble Beach Golf Links. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Q: I hear you’re playing lots of golf already and you’ve figured out how to place orders on Amazon and eBay?
MR: I’ve always played a lot of golf. I’m a guy that goes out there at five o’clock in the afternoon during summertime and plays until dark. I’ve done that my whole life.
I have a putter that is called the Dandy that a guy named Allan Strand invented for a straight back and through, pendulum stroke and it’s got an onset shaft and I’ve always putted with my hands like that anyway. I ran into him one day, must have been 25 years ago, and he explained the science behind it. I think Grant Waite was using it, Vijay won the Masters with one and Dr. Gil Morgan won 17 Champions Tour events with a Dandy putter. Allan passed away probably eight or nine years ago, but if I see one on eBay, I’ll buy it. There were three for sale last week and I bought all three. I catch a lot of crap for using this putter, but I can assure you it’s a superior product.
Q: As you made your goodbye tour, how have the various tournaments honored you?
MR: It’s really been incredible. At the Colonial, they gave me and Slugger a replica of the Ben Hogan trophy and the players gave me a pair of custom boots. In Hartford, they gave a watercolor painting of Jordan Spieth holing out to win in the playoff. This week the Jaycees gave me a plaque with some beautiful words.
Tiger did some nice things for me. I had to make a ruling down there in The Bahamas (at the Hero World Challenge) where he hit the ball twice. He’s under a bush and he did hit it twice, but he didn’t know that. And it was a deal where they had changed the rule so if you couldn’t see it with your naked eye then you were exonerated. He sent me a picture of that taking place and the statement that I gave to the press about it. And then he wrote on there, “Thanks, Mark. Fabulous ruling, Tiger Woods.” He did that the night before he was in that accident. He really didn’t have to do that. They’ve done all kinds of nice things. People couldn’t have been nicer to me.
Q: Do you have any future plans?
MR: I’m working on a golf sitcom with a comedy writer, Chris Case, in Los Angeles. I’ve always thought that it would be funny to have a sitcom around a public golf course. Think about it, you’ve been around a golf course enough, some of the craziest (stuff) you’ll ever see happens there. Unlimited amount of characters. So, we’re working on that. I’d love to contribute to the game and have a funny sitcom, you know, turn people on to the game, make people laugh.
Q: Give me a sense of your style of humor. What would be your favorite sitcom?
MR: Well, it’d be kind of a toss up between Seinfeld and The Big Bang Theory.
Q: Do you think there will be a shot clock on the PGA Tour in your lifetime?
MR: No chance. The big thing is, like this week, we play 156 players. Why do you want to play fast? You’ve got eight more groups each wave than you’ve got holes to start on. Where are you going to go?
Q: Don’t you want to give out one last slow play penalty (during the final round of the Wyndham Championship) for old time’s sake?
MR: (Chuckles) Not really. Again, we’ve got 156 players, we should never do that in 2021. This Tour should be 120 players maximum. You know, when they came up with (fields of 156), there was no place to play. Now we’ve got the Korn Ferry Tour. We’ve got PGA Tour Champions, tours in Canada and Latin America, too. You know, if you’re good enough, you’re going to be right back here. But I mean, 156 guys, there’s groups waiting 10, 12 minutes at the turn to play. That all goes away if you did that, like at Bay Hill, 120 players and we give them 12-minute intervals and they can’t catch each other. I mean, the slow players have no place to hide.
Most of the slow players play so much better if they go ahead and play. You know, I said, we oughta make them play like that on the range. You can only hit one ball a minute, and then they’d realize. But for the most part, like I say on Thursday and Friday, we breed slow play. There’s no place to go.
Q: How do you summarize your career?
MR: I mean, back when I started we played for $100,000 and nobody was complaining. That’s 18th place now. A huge golf tournament purse was $400,000, first place prize of $72,000. I used to buy one of those big Rand McNally maps every year, you know? Now you just punch an address in your phone. That was science fiction 25 years ago.
But it’s been fantastic to spend my career in golf and with the PGA Tour being such a charitable thing, these golf tournaments have helped out so many people, you know, $3 billion for local charities they’ve raised over the years. Labron Harris came up with the line that the leading money winner on the Tour is charity. It’s a great slogan and it’s true.
I’ve had a good run. I’ve been so blessed and fortunate to see what I’ve seen in golf being in here with these players like that. If I wasn’t good enough to play, the next best thing is to go down into the heat of the battle and be part of serious decisions, you know? In my job, you’ve got to go over and say, ‘What can I do to help you?’ We just want to get it right. We don’t ever want be wrong.
Ruling on the rules no more: Slugger White retires in Memphis after 40-year career
End of an era: Mark Russell, Slugger White to retire from PGA Tour in 2021