Unsolved mysteries. Is the course marshal a friend or foe?


When I retired from the work force a couple of years ago I thought about becoming a golf marshal. It wasn’t as much the attraction of free rounds as it was my disdain for many marshals I’ve encountered through the years.  I think I could do a better job, but for now I’ll wimp out and just write about it.  First though I’d like to offer some thoughts on the marshal’s friend, the starter.

I was playing golf in Virginia last year when it struck me that the U.S. is famous for its great customer service including their course starters. I played Golden Horseshoe and Kingsmill in Williamsburg, and their starters were outstanding.  I felt like I was on a tour of the pyramids.

Prior to teeing off we were given the history of the course, shots from past famous players and events held there, aiming points for blind spots, areas to avoid, and strategies for key holes. Everything we needed to know from drinking water availability to best items on the menu.

I compared the preamble to that from a few premier courses I have played in the GTA. One starter barked his request for my receipt and then curtly informed our group we were to play from the white tees. When I asked why he said, “I watched one in your group swinging and I can tell he can’t golf so you guys aren’t good enough to play blues.” (I not so politely informed him that when I pay a buck fifty I’ll play where I want to.  Thank goodness my tee ball cleared the water). At another high priced course the starter told us we couldn’t take practice swings on the tee deck, followed by “where’s your receipt?” I thought golf courses were trying to attract more players, my bad.

Unfortunately there are also marshals with poor manners. It seems there are two types; those who love what they do and exude kindness, and those that failed to get a job as a cop and want to make up for lost time.

Before I levy the boom on the bad guys we should understand what the role of a marshal actually is.  Course managers would agree they serve three prime functions: Ensuring pace of play, the safety of the golfer, and to provide overall customer service.

Wouldn’t it be a joy if marshals served customers the way a Porsche dealership serves theirs?  For example you’ve forgotten your club or range finder at a previous green, you don’t have a cart, and a marshal magically appears within minutes in time to retrieve it for you. Or those very hot days when you are in dire need of a drink, your friendly marshal passes by, assesses your predicament and voila, the cart girl arrives within minutes.  On occasion when I don’t know the course I’d like to ask a marshal what strategy I should employ for the next shot. The only issue with the above examples is we never see a marshal except when…(stay tuned)

Safety issues are rare but what if a player is hit by a ball, stung by a bee, faints, is having a heart attack, or simply needs a band aid?  What if you’re like me, a walker who doesn’t carry a cell phone, or as previously mentioned badly in need of water. A good marshal should make his way round the course every half- hour ensuring things are in order. If only he weren’t so busy ProV hunting. We never see a marshal except when…(stay tuned).

Here’s the big one; ensuring pace of play. This is the issue that most likely defines his role more than any other. Golf’s most frustrating moments arrive when we get stuck behind a painfully slow group. This is when we cry out most for our course policeman to arrive.  Where are you Wyatt Earp? You are urgently needed to make an arrest!  If he does dare to show his badge, most likely he will be the tender kind gentleman type, too nice to ask the guilty parties to pick up their ball, play ready golf, or leave.

Unfortunately, we will not see a marshal except…(here it is..) when there are no golfers within a hundred miles, we’re playing well and suddenly Marshal Earp appears out of the trees and announces that we are slow and better speed up or else! Whoa, say what? Nobody else on the golf course? I’ve done a scientific survey and this happens to every golfer I’ve ever broken bread with. Furthermore following the warning he will pick a cozy spot down the fairway wearing his mirrored sunglasses playing the captain in Cool Hand Luke carefully watching and ready to pounce, read us our rights, and have us blacklisted permanently. This regular ‘Murphy’s Law’ occurrence drives me to drink and write these silly articles!

I’d like to see the following included in training manuals for marshals and starters:

  • You are the course representative, greet our customers with a smile, make them comfortable and if they’ve never played our course before familiarize them with our amenities, practice areas, golf shop and dining room.
  • On the first tee let each player know of green conditions, blind spots or hazards, other tips for scoring well that day.
  • Educate players about the importance of fixing ball marks, divots, and raking sand traps. Using the term “respect this beautiful green space” is a good way to sell those requests.
  • If you witness golfers who don’t fix ball marks or replace their divots be proactive and let them know in a nice way.
  • Circle the course regularly so golfers know you will pass by roughly every thirty minutes to assist them if needed.
  • Limit your ball hunting time to after hours
  • When a group is holding up play politely ask them to speed up by playing ready golf and picking up the ball after three over par.
  • Have a clipboard with the day’s tee sheet so you can properly monitor each group’s pace of play. Our goal is four hours fifteen to thirty minutes.
  • You are the course representative; speak positively about our course and our facilities, staff, food etc.  You should be happy and proud to work here.

These proposals may seem like fantasy but all it takes is for all of us to speak directly to the course owner or manager if you don’t feel fulfilled with the service. There are many competitors out there hungry for our dollars; we should all expect to be treated like first class golfers.

As an aside I’ve never encountered a female starter or marshal. Is there a golf course law that stipulates they only hire crotchety old men? I guess that leaves me out!

David Goodman
David is an overgrown kid still who still believes he can play a decent game of squash and hockey when he’s not on the course or range working on his game. Long gone from the medical industry, David loves studying the social/psychological implications golf has on the lives of its participants.

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