Playing golf as a junior girl in the India of the (very) early nineties meant playing with the boys. It also meant little or no access to any information about women's golf in the rest of the world. Consequently, when we'd practice putting, the mantra that would go through our collective little heads was "this five footer is to win The Open Championship." Not the US Open, The Masters or the PGA - always simply, The Open.
Needless to say, I never did get an opportunity to make that winning putt, but, as I grew up, the dream itself evolved. I stopped playing competitively and started refereeing. Now the Holy Grail was to be invited to referee at The Open. Again, not the US Open, The Masters or the PGA - simply, The Open. (Also Read: Rory McIlroy's British Open Winning Ball Sold for Rs 3 Lakh at Auction)
I arrived at Hoylake on the Monday before the tournament and as I picked up my credentials, it took every bit of self-control I possessed to not awaken the ghosts of the stately Thornton Hall Hotel by shrieking giddily "I'm here! I'm here!"
An hour later, en route to the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, the enormity of where I was suddenly hit. I was thrilled to bits while at the same time felt like a complete interloper. Walking through the entrance gates at the club did nothing to ease the feelings. If anything, they were amplified. This was hallowed ground. (Read: My most satisfying win ever, says Rory McIlroy)
I made my way over to collect my uniform. We had been informed that Ralph Lauren provided uniforms for all referees and while I'd heard stories about how special they were, nothing really prepared me for the sheer pleasure of donning the crisp white button down shirt with the Claret Jug discretely embroidered on one cuff.
I think my nervousness may still have been pretty evident at dinner because Chris Hilton (Chairman of the Rules Committee) took pity on me and invited me to join him on his course walk the next day. This proved to be absolutely invaluable and helped calm me down a little.
As we plodded and plotted our way down the fairways of the RLGC, I went through a myriad of emotions that were to be my best friends through the week. Absolute delight, incredulity, confidence and terror - all playing in a constant loop like elevator music. (Also read: Split with Wozniacki helps McIlroy focus on golf)
To put the scale of The Open in perspective, the biggest events I'd worked on previously were the Avantha Masters, a European Tour event in India followed closely by the Dubai Ladies Masters on the LET. There were, at most, a dozen rules officials working both. At the 143rd Open there were eighty-three. The number of spectators through the week exceeded two hundred thousand. The grandstand erected on the 18th green was so large that my brain could not visualize a TIO drop without the dropping zones provided.
Each group had one walking referee, one bunker raker (they are usually head greenskeepers from courses around the country), one leaderboard carrier and one scorer. Marquee groups had a rules official walking as an observer and travelling marshals, who, as I discovered, are all from the military. More than three thousand men and women volunteered at the event. Many, like Ben the leaderboard carrier in my group, came from families that have a long history of working The Open. His father was a scoring supervisor and his mother was a scorer with another group. They had been doing this as a family for many years. What a great family tradition!
On Day One, I (thankfully) went as an observer with Robby Ware from the US PGA as the referee. My job was to walk ahead of the players, spot the ball and inform the referee of any potential rulings that may come up. It's also a great opportunity to watch and learn. (McIlroy Not Ready to Launch 'Rory Era' Just Yet)
On Day Two, I was flying solo. My group consisted of Matt Jones, Chris Wood and Bernd Wiesberger. I walked over to the first tee and introduced myself to the starter, the legendary Ivor Robson. As I waited for the players to arrive, I looked up at the crowded grandstand surrounding the tee and I'm not embarrassed to say that I had goose bumps. I introduced myself to the players, held my breath as I fervently hoped that they would find the middle of the fairway and we were off. The nerves began to calm down after a couple of holes as I remembered that I do know how to do this. It is my profession and after 25 years of association with the game, it is now in my blood. I had a couple of gentle rulings (5-3 and 12-2 for those who want to know) and before I knew it, I was shaking hands with the players at the 18th. I had just had my first experience of being an Open referee.
My role as observer on Days Three and Four gave me an unimaginable equation with the event. My learning curve soared. The opportunity to study just how the best in the world (players and officials) perform under pressure was fantastic. To stand by the 18th green watching Rory McIlroy kiss the Claret Jug was a moment no amount of money in the world can buy. But if I were asked what my most treasured experience of the week had been, I'd say without doubt that it was meeting the most wonderful people from all over the world. Some, I had had the privilege of working with in the past, but most were strangers who very quickly became friends. The fact that I'm lucky enough to be a part of this tiny community of warm, affectionate, witty, eccentric, intelligent men and women united in their love for this noble game, was never lost on me.
Members of the Rules Committee that I interacted with went out of their way to make me feel welcome. I was a rookie - simultaneously anxious and dazzled. They all said the same thing to me - soak it up, enjoy it, your first time comes only once. I took that advice to heart and I will remain forever indebted to the Indian Golf Union and the R&A for giving me an opportunity that was simply awesome.