In Golf Wilson Rules

May 2, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Mark Wilson started hitting the links when he was four, played all through his school years and worked summers at golf courses. But he never envisioned actually pursuing a career in golf.

He’s now in his 24th season as head professional at Watermark Country Club and was recently appointed chairman of the national PGA of America Rules Committee — one of only eight to have held that position.

His term began in January and runs through 2008.

Wilson graduated from Michigan State University with a B.A. in history and was seriously thinking about going on to law school.

“That was the way I tested in terms of my aptitude, and high school counselors and college professors kind of steered me in that direction,” he recalled.

“Until the end of my junior year in college, I really didn’t have any idea I was going to end up doing this for a living.”

He turned professional the same year he graduated from MSU and joined Watermark as an assistant pro. He got his early training in the golf business the old-fashioned way — earning his membership in the PGA through an apprenticeship program. At the time, Ferris State University hadn’t yet established its professional golf management program, he recalled.

Wilson was assistant pro at Watermark from 1978-80, then spent one year as an assistant pro at Blythefield Country Club. When the head professional job opened up at Watermark in 1981, Wilson came back and was appointed to the position.

“I got interested in the rules about the same time I became pro here, so in the early 1980s I started working at events at the local and state levels and sort of worked my way up, so to speak.”

As Wilson sees it, there’s a connection between the study of PGA rules and the study of law.

“I haven’t ever lost that intellectual interest, and, really, if you read or study the rules of golf they have a lot in common with the law. I’ve always had an interest in words, and I think that was my attraction to the rules.”

Like a lawyer giving counsel and interpreting the rules of law for a client, Wilson gives counsel and interprets the rules of golf for rules officials.

His job at Watermark is very much like that of a small business owner. He owns the Pro Shop, the driving range and club storage concessions, hires and pays his staff of 29, and handles all the related administrative duties. As head golf professional, he gets a retainer from the country club.

“It’s sort of an old traditional arrangement that’s become less and less the norm, but it’s an arrangement that has always worked well for me, and I think it has worked well for the club, too. In a way, I guess I’m more of an independent contractor than an employee.

“People think a golf pro plays golf and teaches golf every day. I do teach a fair amount, but there are a lot of administrative details — planning and organizing events for the membership and all of the business details related to running all the aspects of my business. I really enjoy the mix of work.”

Although a lot of golf pros move around from club to club, in Grand Rapids a lot of pros stay with a club for a long time, he said.

“I think that says something about the community. It’s a nice place to live, so if you’re here you might not be too anxious to leave here.”

As chair of the PGA Rules Committee, Wilson officiates and conducts championships for the PGA of America.

Wilson was appointed to the national PGA Rules Committee in 1990 and has since worked as an official at every PGA Championship.

He has officiated at 10 Masters Tournaments, four Ryder Cup matches, six PGA Club Professional Championships, three Volvo PGA Championships, the 1995 Players Championship, the 2002 Senior PGA Championship and the 2002 British Open.

He has been a Section Rules chairman since 1989. The PGA of America is divided into 41 different sections, many of which correspond to state boundaries, Wilson explained. As a Section Rules chairman, he has been responsible for organizing the staff that officiate different Michigan PGA events and conveying to them any information regarding rule changes.

Wilson has been a keynote speaker at 17 PGA/USGA National Rules Workshops and numerous PGA education seminars and also served six years as rules editor for PGA Magazine.

He has been honored six times with the Michigan PGA Section Horton Smith Award for his work “to improve and provide contributions to” PGA of America member education.

As a six-time recipient of the Horton Smith Award, he holds the record of wins in Michigan.

As chairman of the national PGA of America Rules Committee, he is required him to travel some, which he tries to pack in to the off-season.

From mid-January to late April he covered the Masters Tournament, which took him to Florida, California, Kentucky, Colorado, New York City and Scotland.

“Anyone in golf you want to name, I’ve met them and watched them play,” he said.

Chairmanship of the Rules Committee is not a paid position, Wilson pointed out.

“I’m serving the PGA of America in a volunteer capacity. They pay my expenses, but a lot of people confuse it with a ‘job.’ I don’t get paid to do it. When I speak to different civic groups, that’s the story I like to tell because maybe people will think about becoming involved in their associations and providing a service for their associations.”

The philosophy of golf is unlike that of other sports. Golf is a lot more self-policing in that players are responsible for knowing the rules and responsible for the accuracy of their scores, Wilson observed.

“In golf, we obviously get a lot more assistance from players in terms of when they breach a rule, so our role is different from that of a referee,” he explained.

“There is a standard set of rules that golfers play by anywhere on the face of the earth. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a professional, an amateur, in high school, college or play in the PGA tour, the rules of golf are all the same.”

From May through October Wilson will be traveling about one week a month to chair a series of tournaments: the Senior PGA Championship, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship.    

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