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NORTON, Massachusetts – Wellesley native Carolyn O’Donnell says spending a day as a Rules Official is like playing two 18-hole rounds, plus a little more. The difference is, her view of success is properly managing a challenging or complex scenario that may arise for a player or group. After all, in golf, if Rules Officials succeed, it’s to the benefit of the player.
“You have to be right, but you have to have common sense about what’s going on and find ways to be helpful to players,” said O’Donnell, a member of The Country Club and Hyannisport Club, who has spent the past 25 years as a Volunteer Rules Official for Mass Golf and United States Golf Association (USGA) events. She also played in the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur in 1998 and 2000.
So strong is her knowledge of the Rules of Golf that she has scored 92 on the PGA/USGA Rules Exam, giving her “Expert” designation (scores over 90), which allows for more prestigious officiating opportunities. To O’Donnell, that expertise is most fun when it’s put to use.
“When I come home, my husband always asks, ‘Did you have any fun?'” O’Donnell said. “And fun means a complex or complicated rules situation. Sometimes you just help people take relief from a penalty area, but when you get a complex one, that’s what makes it really fun.”
But the COVID-19 pandemic brought on a completely different challenge for O’Donnell.
As an Officials Representative to the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA), the governing body for all interscholastic sports in Massachusetts, O’Donnell was asked to join a special task force in May 2020. She was among the individuals who had the responsibility of making sure the MIAA had safe-play guidelines that fell within Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) and Center of Disease Control (CDC) guidelines.
The task force has met weekly since May and has communicated those guidelines to the athletic directors, coaches, and others involved in the MIAA. Those discussions played a major role in the return of interscholastic sports since Fall 2020, including golf.
“For me, it’s been a real eye-opener,” O’Donnell said. “[The MIAA] was always concerned with getting these kids back in action that way we can get them moving around and doing things.”
Even before the pandemic brought new challenges, O’Donnell has been praised by her fellow MIAA members for encouraging the Golf Committee to establish rules and regulations that are in alignment with the most recent Rules of Golf (2019) and standardizing Hard Cards and implementing formats currently used in postseason tournaments. When the new Rules came out, she tracked down hundreds of coaches and athletic directors to make sure they had materials to explain the new rules to players, and has examined thousands of rounds to study the impact of the Rules on players.
To honor her devotion to the sport, the MIAA awarded O’Donnell its 2020 Distinguished Service Award.
“Carolyn is dedicated to having consistency and fairness for all of the student-athletes that compete in our Fall and Spring [Golf] Championships,” said David Keir, an MIAA Golf Tournament Director. “Our Committee would not be as well versed on the Rules of Golf without Carolyn’s expertise.”
O’Donnell, who also received the Andrew J. Blau Mass Golf Volunteer of the Year Award in 2016, has also recruited trained Rules Officials to volunteer for MIAA tournament events. The eventual goal is to have at least one trained official at every sectional tournament. In Fall 2019, there were 14 sectional tournaments in a two-day span, plus 3 state championships the week after. (No statewide MIAA tournaments have been held during the 2020-21 academic year).
One of those officials is Henry St. Cyr, a veteran Rules Official and Mass Golf Board Member. “She is a true professional and a pleasure to work with,” St. Cyr said of O’Donnell. “I have had the opportunity to be with her at many events and have always been impressed with her knowledge of the Rules and how eager she is to serve at many events throughout the season in any location. Additionally, I think she has a great sense of humor that I enjoy at the events we participate in.”
If educating seems to come naturally to O’Donnell, it’s because she was a middle school teacher for 10 years, first in Milton and then in Weston.
However, O’Donnell didn’t get catch the golf bug until later in life. A mother of two, O’Donnell initially joined Hyannisport Club on Cape Cod and The Country Club (Brookline) for tennis. But her youngest son once wanted to try golf, so she would tag along to supervise and maybe putt or chip once in a while. But eventually, O’Donnell started to work on her short game and go to the range, and then took some lessons.
Four years later, not only was she a regular golfer, she was winning club championships and performing well in events run by what was then known as the Women’s Golf Association of Massachusetts (WGAM).
Her first foray into volunteering happened during the 1995 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship, held at The Country Club, for which she oversaw the work of about 500 volunteers. O’Donnell caught the eye of Kendra Graham of the USGA Rules and Competitions and took the initiative of signing up O’Donnell to attend Rules School in Boston.
She got her first live experience volunteering a year later when former WGAM president Pippy Rooney O’Connor asked her to volunteer for the MIAA Girls’ State Championship, which took place at Woodland Golf Club.
O’Donnell continued playing competitively and occasionally volunteering, but she fully committed to being a Rules Official when she joined Mass Golf, which was then the Massachusetts Golf Association (MGA), in 2009. Since 2010, she has officiated over 200 Mass Golf events, including championships and qualifiers. She’s also officiated USGA events as far away as Bandon Dunes in Oregon, as well as the 2016 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball played at the prestigious Winged Foot Golf Club.
“They welcomed me and made me feel like I was really contributing something to them, both my colleagues and the players,” O’Donnell said of Mass Golf and the USGA. “I love talking rules with them. Who else can you talk to about them?”
At 78, O’Donnell said she’s still passionate about Rules Officiating and is hoping to take part in two upcoming historic USGA events. The first is the 2022 U.S. Open being held at The Country Club, and the other is the 2022 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur in Alaska, the first USGA Championship ever held in the state.
But even more important to O’Donnell is that her six grandchildren all play golf. And those grandkids all know that O’Donnell is one of the best there is at managing just about any scenario on the golf course.
“She is a wealth of knowledge in this area and is more than willing to share her expertise in helping with the clarity and understanding of the Rules of Golf, particularly as it pertains to the MIAA and their student-athletes. Carolyn’s goal and focus has always been to serve our membership, the coaches, and student-athletes, hoping to provide them with a solid foundation and true appreciation for the game of golf. She is to be commended for her dedication and selflessness to our organization.” — Ann Trytko, MIAA Assistant Director
“She constantly seeks to advance and protect the integrity of the Commonwealth‘s golf program. A consistent contributor to our Golf Committee, she frequently authors and disseminates research between meetings which establishes more efficiency when we deliberate. Carolyn serves as an ambassador and model for athletes, coaches and our tournament directors. She is most deserving of MIAA’s recognition and I am honored to endorse that process. — Dr. Michael F. Fitzpatrick Superintendent-Director, Blackstone Valley Technical High School
“She is a “by-the-book” rules official, but cutting through the black and white of the Rules of Golf is the heart of an educator. It is easy to tell that Ms. O’Donnell is a former teacher—she cares so much for the student-athletes, their well-being, their learning and understanding, and their opportunities to play golf.” — Benjamin J. Kelly, Milton High School Vice Principal, Golf Coach, MIAA Golf Committee Member
“Carolyn is well-liked and highly respected by all that know her. She works tirelessly for our Committee and the game of Golf in General. She is no doubt a perfect candidate for the MIAA Distinguished Service Award — David Keir, MIAA West Division 3 Fall Golf Tournament Director, MIAA Spring N/C/W Golf Tournament Director
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