Balicki: Luther steps down as NCAA rules official

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When this season’s NCAA Men’s Division I Championship takes place May 29-June 3, it should be a special week for all involved - players and coaches, for sure, and officials and fans, as well.

The reason? It will take place at one of the country’s most storied venues.

Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif., will host the 2012 event, and when it comes to staging championships at the highest level, this venue ranks up there with the best of them.

The 1948 U.S. Open won by Ben Hogan took place at Riviera, as did the 1983 PGA, won by Hal Sutton, and the 1995 PGA, won by Steve Elkington in a playoff over Colin Montgomerie and Ernie Els. In 1998, Hale Irwin captured the U.S. Senior Open over this layout.

Riviera first hosted a PGA Tour event in 1929 and every year since 1973 has been home to the PGA Tour’s stop in L.A.

But, when the NCAA Championship takes place, it will be missing something - or more precisely, someone.

After 10 years as the head rules official at this season-ending championship, Clyde Luther is stepping down. Instead of cruising along the fairways and making rules decisions onsite, Luther, 82, will be following the action from his home in Virginia.

“Physically, I feel fine,” said Luther, one of the most respected rules officials at any level of competition. “But it takes a lot of time, not just the week of the event, but the weeks and months leading up to it in preparation.

“My wife has had some medical problems, and I need to stay close to home,” he said. “I just didn’t feel it would be right to go across the country and be away for that long of a time.

“After a long and careful decision-making process, I have decided that it is time to move on and leave my position as chairman of the NCAA Division I Rules Committee. We all have to move on at some time, and now is the time for me.”

Donnie Wagner, assistant director of championships for the NCAA, said no replacement has been named. He said he has a list of candidates and plans to talk with each over the next few months before making a decision.

“Clyde has been an integral part of our championship for so many years and has been the key to putting together the structure we now have in place,” Wagner said. “We all are going to miss him, for sure. Not only has he been the cornerstone of our rules committee, he is truly a great ambassador for college and amateur golf.”

I know I will certainly miss Luther’s smiling face at Riviera next year, not to mention the always enjoyable discussions he and I have when we get together dealing with rules, players and the general state of the game.

But like he said, it’s time for him to move on. As he does, he no doubt will carry plenty of memories of this championship with him.

“The past 10 or so years have been remarkably enjoyable,” Luther said. “I’ve met and got to know so many young players. It’s just been so much fun working with the coaches and young people. It’s been so special for me and something I will always remember.”

OK, but let’s not get too sad and break out the crying towels.

No, Luther won’t be at the NCAA Championship. Then again, neither will he be slowing down very much in 2012. You can bet he’ll still be out and about overseeing the rules at plenty of tournaments. Only now, most will be those close to home.

He said he plans to do about a half-dozen American Junior Golf Association events and a host of Virginia State Golf Association tournaments. He’ll continue to officiate at a few invitational college competitions and possibly the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship and an NCAA regional.

“You know, I still love what I’m doing and as long as I’m physically able, which I feel I am, I want to continue to do so. I don’t think there’s another volunteer in the state of Virginia who has been as active as I have for a long as I have,” said Luther, who worked his first tournament within the state in 1975 and has been regularly active within the VSGA since 1977.

In addition to his work at the college level and within the Middle Atlantic region, Luther has officiated at more than 110 USGA championships, the Masters, the PGA Championship and Presidents Cups.

Simply put, when it comes to the rules of golf and ensuring that tournaments and players abide by those rules, Luther is one of the best.

“He is absolutely remarkable,” said Jamie Conkling, executive director of the VSGA, which presents the Clyde L. Luther Trophy each year to the winner of its Junior Boys Match Play Championship. “It’s phenomenal what he’ll do for the game of golf.”

Jay Hardwick, who has been a golf pro in Virginia for more than 35 years and men’s golf coach at Virginia Tech for the past 25-plus years, probably summed up best the feeling and respect Luther has among college coaches and anyone who has worked and dealt with him along the way.

“First and foremost, what Clyde brings to an event is credibility,” Hardwick once said. “He’s unbiased and always shows respect for the game and respect for the players. He always wants to try to protect the player. He’s all business, but he’s always a gentleman. He not only gives you the ruling, but he explains it to you. As a rules official, there’s none better.”

No doubt his presence will be missed at Riviera and at future NCAA Championships, as well. Still it’s nice to know that whoever comes in as his replacement will have a sound and solid structure in place - a structure that was built with devotion, dedication and tender loving care from one Clyde L. Luther.

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