On Kathryn Belanger’s high school golf team, the only way to get your hand on a golf club at Friday practice was to pass a 10-question Rules of Golf quiz. Failure to get the requisite number of questions right meant players had to stick around instead of getting to practice.
The exercise helped plant a rules seed in Belanger’s brain. Did she like those Friday afternoons? Belanger affirms.
“I didn’t like not knowing the answers,” she said. “So when I wouldn’t know something, I remember getting nervous about it, not that it really mattered in the grand picture.
“But I definitely always enjoyed the rules.”
Belanger, 31, is now the USGA’s Director, Rules of Golf Championships. She has been with the governing body since 2014, when she arrived as a rules associate whose primary job was to answer questions about the rules that the USGA received by email or phone.
“I knew maybe enough about the rules to be a little bit dangerous as a player, but then you walk in the door and you’re working with all of these incredible rules minds and you realize how little you know very quickly,” she said. “So it was a really awesome way to get immersed and to learn the Rules of Golf from the very best experts that there are in the world.”
Belanger arrived at the USGA right out of college, but there wasn’t any set plan that led her there. A native of the Chicago suburbs, Belanger played college golf for Loras College, a Division III school in Dubuque, Iowa, and majored in sport management and business. She knew she wanted to work in sports, with golf high on the list, but it wasn’t until an internship with the Illinois Junior Golf Association that the light bulb turned on.
“That was like my first experience into golf administration, because I really didn’t know that that side of the world existed and that you could work for a golf association, a PGA section or even the USGA, for that matter,” she said. “That was like the eye-opener of, ‘Oh, wow, I could do something like this for a career.’ ”
Matt Wennmaker, the executive director of the IJGA, said the association’s 16-person intern classes are typically male-dominated. The responsibilities range from officiating on the course to enforcing pace of play to scoring to handing out awards. The internship is generally the first real golf management experience an individual has.
Wennmaker has seen dozens of interns come and go in 14 years with the IJGA, but Belanger stands out. He never had to worry about her and she often did the things other interns didn’t want to do.
“Sixteen interns each year,” he said, “so 150 interns I’ve trained or managed, and she’s one of the best. Makes sense why she works for the USGA.”
In her early days with the USGA, Belanger can remember listening to colleagues rattle off rules numbers and decisions while answering caller questions and wondering how she’d ever get to that point. She took the USGA’s online rules quizzes and typed out definitions repetitively to memorize them. Remembering the numbers associated with the respective rules was helpful in knowing where to find an answer.
Initially, Belanger’s answers by email would be proofed by a colleague. She could also pick up the phone and listen in as others answered questions by phone.
“That was really helpful,” she said, “because I would try to think my way through it, if I could, to think, ‘What would I say? Where would I go? What’s the answer?’ ”
Belanger transitioned from a rules associate into a role where she oversaw the rules inquiry program and trained incoming associates. In her current role, she focuses on rules operations at USGA championships, which includes standardization, creating best practices and helping to train some of the individuals who officiate at those championships.
Craig Winter, USGA Senior Director, Rules of Golf and Amateur Status, has been on staff for Belanger’s entire tenure with the USGA. Belanger’s journey has been a fun one to watch, Winter said, because she almost immediately displayed an instinct that is rare, even within the rules department. Her talent lies in connecting the dots, which is important considering that not every rules question will have an answer written in black and white.
“Golf is such a unique sport in that every single day we get questions we have never heard before and you can’t look it up,” Winter said. “That’s what Kathryn would show all the time — she’s like, ‘I’m not really sure, I couldn’t find this one but this is what I think’, and you’re like, ‘Wow, you’ve only been doing this for three months and this is way past that.’
“So she’s shown for a long time that there’s something that she has that we’ve never been able to really teach. When someone understands the why and the intentions behind how the rules are put together, they can take that to the next step and synthesize the answers, and she’s able to do that.”
Belanger’s sharp instinct is what makes her such an asset in the field. In her current role, Belanger works with other organizations like Augusta National and the LPGA to create best practices at their championships. To Winter, Belanger’s impact in the game is perfectly summed up by a snapshot taken at the 2021 Augusta National Women’s Amateur.
As Emilia Migliaccio and Tsubasa Kajitani were coming up the 18th hole in a playoff that year, Winter spotted Belanger walking beside Jim Hyler, who serves as the chairman of the competitions committee and the rules committee for both the Masters Tournament and the ANWA. Winter sent the image to Belanger to point out that in her area of expertise, she has been chosen as a go-to person.
“Jim is an expert, too,” Winter said, “but he wants Kathryn by his side because sometimes things get weird, and when they do, you want someone like Kathryn there beside you to say, ‘This is actually what the rules would say, even though the rules don’t say that.’ You have to go off the script sometimes because every answer is not there.”
Rules officials at the highest level, like Belanger, are seemingly everywhere, even though you may not always see them. Belanger, however, may be most recognizable to golf fans for the work she has done giving rules clarifications on USGA championship broadcasts.
Belanger first appeared in that role at the inaugural U.S. Senior Women’s Open in 2018, experiencing the usual first-time nerves as she sat with the Rules of Golf book open in front of her, anxious to get out the first sentence. She can’t remember saying a thing on that broadcast.
Belanger has come to enjoy that part of the job and the opportunity it affords her to see behind the scenes of a broadcast.
“I definitely have gotten more comfortable with it,” Belanger said. “It’s interesting because you’ll sit there for — especially at the Women’s Open — it could be seven hours and you’re just waiting for them to throw it to you. And you’ve got to be ready to go in that moment.”
Belanger said she’d love to see more women get involved in the rules. Anybody can learn them, she said, and the resources are there — in the form of study materials as well as mentors.
Winter goes back to his own path to the USGA’s Rules department and something he once heard a former USGA staffer say to a room full of interns: “If any of you want to make a mark in golf, if you want to be someone who is of value, just learn the rules.”
It certainly has been true in Belanger’s case.
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