CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA | Mark Russell eased his golf cart off the path into a shady spot to the left of the eighth hole at Quail Hollow Club last Saturday. He sat and watched the people walk by. The sun was out, the air was warm, and the wind was swaying the tops of the big oak trees as the Wells Fargo Championship played out around him.
For 40-plus years, Russell has been a PGA Tour rules official and he’s in the final months of his job. Like his colleague Slugger White, who joined the tour as a rules official in 1982 and will make the Memorial Tournament next month his finale, the 69-year-old Russell will leave the duties of making rules decisions and dealing with weather issues to others. In their own ways – White with his Panama hat and Russell with his slow southern drawl – they have been integral to the tour’s expansion and success through the years. They get enough TV time that they are familiar to fans even if they don’t always know who is who.
“You’re the man, dude. You are the man,” a pointing fan says upon recognizing Russell with his longish graying hair and sunglasses.
Russell smiles and says thank you.
“I get 10 ‘Sluggers’ a day. ‘Slugger, what’s going on, man?’” Russell says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time I just say hey, how are you doing?”
Russell knows plenty of celebrities on the tour and away from golf. He doesn’t consider himself one of them even if he’s a familiar face to golf fans.
“I tell people if you see me on TV, nothing good is happening,” he says. It’s usually explaining a weather delay or why a player was given a particular ruling.
Russell grew up just a few miles outside Charlotte in Kannapolis where he was in the same eighth grade class at J.W. Cannon Junior High with a kid named Dale Earnhardt. They weren’t close but they knew each other.
“The day he turned 16, he quit. He wanted to race cars,” Russell says. “I heard him say several times he wished he had applied himself more in school.”
Russell wound up at Elon University in Burlington, North Carolina. But it was the invitation from a friend enrolled at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, that changed his life.
It was early January when Russell’s friend invited him to the Orlando area for a few days. He never left.
“It was 80 degrees and all the kids had on flip flops and T-shirts and shorts and I’m thinking, I’m missing the damn boat here,” Russell said. “So, I went down there to stay a couple of weeks and I’ve been there 45, 46 years.”
He lives at Bay Hill. But Russell has spent at least half of every year on the road since getting a call from PGA Tour rules official Clyde Mangum in 1980. Russell was the director of golf at Walt Disney World and had gotten to know the tour officials through the annual tournament held there.
Now he is the longest tenured PGA Tour employee.
“I wasn’t a good enough player to play the tour. But the next best thing is going right into the heat of the battle and making decisions. That’s a great way for me to have been a part of it,” Russell says, looking through the trees as Rory McIlroy walks off the eighth green to fans cheering his birdie.
“I feel so honored and blessed to spend a career in golf like this. I’ve never one time thought about it as work. I’ve never not enjoyed coming to work.”
The PGA Tour has grown, and the rule book has changed. The latest round of rules changes forced Russell and others to learn not just new rules but new terminology. Hazards became penalty areas. He still does a double take when he sees a player tapping down something in his putting line.
The work Russell does is a collaborative effort. The radio he always has with him crackles with chatter from time to time. Officials regularly communicate when a decision must be made. What matters, he says, is getting it right.
“I have people come up and say I guess you know all the rules,” he says. “My standard answer is, no, I don’t but I can assure you I can answer whatever question you’re going to ask me.”
It comes with the territory.
When players don’t like a ruling, Russell has a simple approach. Listen to them.
It won’t change the decision, usually, but it will make them feel better.
“I learned a long time ago, let them get it all out of their system. I’m a good listener. Be a listener. Don’t argue. Once they do that, then you can talk to them,” he says.
Whether it’s a tour event or one of the major championships Russell works, players appreciate who he is and how he does his job.
“I love Mark. He’s been great for the tour and I think it’s a well-deserved hurrah, last hurrah,” says Bryson DeChambeau, who has had his share of rules questions. “I think he’ll be greatly missed out here, no doubt. He’s meant a lot to the tour and he will continue to mean a lot to the tour.”
On the steering wheel of his golf cart, Russell has a timesheet that determines the pace of play. Rounds on Thursdays and Fridays take longer than weekends because there are more players playing in threesomes. No matter how you do it, it takes a while for a full field of 156 players to complete play.
There is a perception the PGA Tour isn’t concerned about pace of play. Russell says otherwise. It’s what they talk about the most during tournament days.
Long, difficult golf courses set up in tournament trim don’t help the pace-of-play issue. They know who the slow players are and let them know when they are out of position. But, he says, it’s a serious game with serious money on the line.
Russell’s last official event will be the Wyndham Championship in August, tying a bow on an extraordinary career.
“I love these people that come up and say our group on Saturday morning plays in three hours and 15 minutes,” Russell says, shaking his head. “I’ll go, when was the last time you played for $10 million? Everybody mortgage their house and throw it in and see how fast you play.”
When Russell was a fifth-grader, his father took him to the Greater Greensboro Open (now the Wyndham Championship). As they were walking by the Sedgefield Inn, Arnold Palmer walked out to get something from his car. Russell got Palmer’s autograph and decades later came to know Palmer well.
Russell’s last official event will be the Wyndham Championship in August, tying a bow on an extraordinary career. He’s not leaving golf. He and comedy writer Chris Case are working on a golf-themed television show they hope will come to life.
He plans to enjoy football season then do some traveling. He’ll miss being in the middle of the action but it’s time to go.
“It’s been a fantastic life for me,” Russell says before driving away in his cart to follow the action one more day.
Top: Mark Russell is retiring after 40-plus years as a PGA Tour rules official. Photo: Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
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