Before an LPGA Hall of Famer played with the men at Colonial, Madam Secretary donned a green jacket or ladies dined with the gentlemen in the R&A Clubhouse or lunched between nines at Muirfield, there was Kendra Graham quietly breaking barriers for women in golf.
Unless you’re a Rules of Golf wonk or a keen observer of the inner workings of the USGA and its committees, Graham probably isn’t a familiar name. But she’s been a key figure in the game’s rules management and officiating for much of three decades.
In 1994, Graham’s proficiency in golf’s rules earned her an invitation as one of the first female rules officials to serve at the Masters Tournament. A year later, she helped open the same door at the Open Championship as the first American woman to officiate. Despite a 13-year hiatus to be a full-time mom in her son’s life, Graham has officiated more than 50 men’s and women’s majors plus significant amateur events and an assortment of Walker, Curtis, Solheim and Presidents Cups. Currently, she’s in her sixth year on the USGA’s Executive Committee and the chair of the Rules of Golf Committee.
“It’s just been an incredible journey,” Graham said. “I’ve been so lucky to make the game that I have loved for a very long time be a big part of my life both as a career and now as a volunteer.”
Graham’s journey started in New Jersey as the only girl playing with boys on the West Essex High School golf team. “I was used to always playing golf with boys, so it never was too intimidating to me to be the only woman in the room,” she said.
Good enough to compete in a U.S. Girls’ Junior and U.S. Women’s Amateur, she played collegiately at Wake Forest and graduated in 1985. After school, she started working in merchandising retail at several golf clubs.
In 1986, Graham – whose mom had been a longtime USGA volunteer – took a temporary gig working behind the scenes during the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, and it changed her career trajectory.
“I just hadn’t ever thought about what went on behind the curtains of championships and tournaments,” she said. “I thought it was so cool, sort of seeing the inner workings backstage at the U.S. Open. And my mother said, ‘Well, if you’re gonna do anything with the game in that capacity, you’ve got to learn the rules of golf.’”
“I think my timing was good. I came along at the right time in college sports, because a little time had passed after Title IX (in 1972). I also came along at a time at the USGA when there weren’t many young people, and there weren’t very many women working for the organization.” – Kendra Graham
While Graham was working at Lost Tree Club in North Palm Beach, Florida, her boss let her attend a three-and-a-half-day Rules of Golf workshop at nearby PGA National. Eventual USGA Executive Director David Fay and longtime PGA Tour rules official Ben Nelson were among the instructors.
“I sort of got hooked,” Graham said. “It was like doing a puzzle to me. And I probably did better on the exam than I deserved that first year, because I knew as much as any player knew before I went, which is, you know, not very much. I wasn’t long out of college, and I knew how to take an exam – it used to be three-and-a-half hours, and for a lot of people their head is going to explode.
“Right from the start, I just thought it was fun to just figure out all these questions and figure out what the answers were. And I guess I had a knack for it.”
Turns out Graham is a bit of a rules savant, often scoring the Rules of Golf equivalent of a 1,600 on the SAT. It got noticed. Soon after the workshop she got a call from USGA Executive Director Frank Hannigan about returning to the USGA full time in June 1987.
“He said they needed a development officer, and I was, like, ‘Oh, I don’t know about fundraising,’” she said. “He sort of said, ‘You won’t be there long,’ and I thought, it’s a foot in the door.”
Her rules test prowess was already well known, and six months later Hannigan and Tom Meeks, then the USGA’s director of rules and competitions, invited her to “join us in toys and games” – what Hannigan liked to call rules and competitions.
“Gosh, that would be a dream come true,” she told Hannigan.
“I think five days later I was going on my first course setup visit,” she said. “It moved quickly. And I was very lucky. I think my timing was good. I came along at the right time in college sports, because a little time had passed after Title IX (in 1972). I also came along at a time at the USGA when there weren’t many young people, and there weren’t very many women working for the organization.”
When Graham started, the USGA had a Women’s Committee, and many of the women on it officiated rules at the state and regional level or ran sectional qualifying. But with Meeks, Graham was put to work at all of the USGA events.
“Back then it was the women did the women’s championships and the men did the men’s championships,” she said. “So, a woman – me – doing men’s championships, that’s what was new.
“I was given a lot of opportunities early on. I think the game was ready to allow women to do what I did.”
Women had represented the USGA on the Executive Committee at the Masters before – Judy Bell and Carol Semple Thompson – but none had been sent as an “invited guest” to serve as a rules official before Graham in 1994.
“Sometimes players are going to disagree with your ruling, or they might question your ruling. But I don’t ever feel like I was questioned because I was a woman.” – Kendra Graham
“I was asked because of my rules knowledge, and then the same thing happened with the R&A,” said Graham, who excelled on an intense exam in “referee school” to work the 1995 Open at St. Andrews with venerated Ladies Golf Union official Elizabeth Earnshaw of England. Earnshaw went on to officiate at Augusta as well in 1997.
“It’s almost like the floodgates opened,” Graham said. “After that it just became more acceptable, and hopefully it became open for more women to do what I was doing. The LPGA Tour had women rules officials along with men rules officials. But it wasn’t long before we started, you know, mixing the rules officials at our championships. Men were being invited to the women’s events and vice versa.”
Graham said she has always felt respected and accepted and never intimidated by the players she gives rulings to on the course. Her experience as a competitive collegiate player and her sweeping knowledge of the rulebook underpin her authority and ability to clearly communicate a ruling to players.
“That’s the one thing about officiating in golf: It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. When I’m giving a ruling to a man or a woman, you just need to have the knowledge, you need to have the expertise,” she said.
“Honestly, I don’t feel like anyone ever tried to do anything that they wouldn’t do with any other rules official. As you know, sometimes players are going to disagree with your ruling, or they might question your ruling. But I don’t ever feel like I was questioned because I was a woman. I think I was questioned just like any other rules official might have been questioned, especially if the player didn’t like the answer.”
Through the years, Graham has given rulings to notables including Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods at the Masters. She handled rulings for Rory McIlroy and Will Zalatoris at the 2022 U.S. Open at Brookline. She was the walking rules official with the Tom Kim-Justin Thomas singles match at the 2022 Presidents Cup.
“I have had a front-row seat in this game from a very special spot for many, many years,” she said. “How lucky I’ve been to be in close contact with these amazing athletes in their place of work, and the fact that you’re there when they need you and hopefully do nothing to ever bother them when they’re doing their best work.”
Graham’s years of experience and expertise are culminating in what is arguably the biggest role of her career as co-chair of the Joint Rules of Golf Committee. For the last four years, she’s been part of an exclusive team working on significant revisions to the latest official Rules of Golf that came out January 2023.
“That’s been a very rewarding experience,” she said. “Luckily there hasn’t been any pushback, and everybody seems to like the direction we’ve gone as far as continuing to simplify the rules and making them easier to understand and easier to read with more intuitive answers and penalties that fit the crime.”
As the women’s movement-era marketing slogan once proclaimed, Graham has indeed come a long way. The rules of golf don’t discriminate against anyone, and Graham’s success has gone a long way as well to ensuring the game’s diversity follows suit.
© 2023 Global Golf Post LLC
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