Living by the Rules

Ever-dedicated rules officials Karla Harding and Leo Barabe earn Jim Topliff Award

By Gary Baines – 12/6/2023

Even for people who have devoted big chunks of time to understanding the Rules of Golf and being adept at applying them in tournament situations, apparently it’s an acquired taste.

For example, even Leo Barabe and Karla Harding — the 2023 recipients of the CGA’s Jim Topliff Rules Official of the Year Award — had to learn to appreciate the rules.

“When I was a kid and first started playing with my dad — I was probably 13 — I remember the first time we went out on the golf course,” Barabe recalled recently. “I somehow got the ball off the tee (on the first hole). My next shot, I swung as hard as I could and I whiffed it. My dad said, ‘You’ve got to count that.’ I said, ‘I do?’ He said, ‘Yes. And if you want to play with me you’ve got to play by the rules. So I was probably one of the few 13-year-old kids who got a rule book and read it.”

Leo Barabe works many tournaments, including the Inspirato Colorado Open. (Photo: Colorado Open Championships)

As for Harding, while she had played golf casually for most of her life, “It wasn’t until I joined the Executive Women’s Golf Association (an organization now known as the LPGA Amateur Golf Association) in 2002 that I actually started playing by the rules. Charlotte Jorgensen was a rules official in Fort Collins and she gave me an old (rules) decisions book because I was interested in it. I started reading it and it was great. All these mini stories — crazy things that happen on the golf course. I think that’s kind of what sparked my interest a little more into the rules. So I wasn’t afraid to take the big rules school.”

Whatever led to their intense interest in the Rules of Golf, Harding and Barabe are now immersed in the subject, to the point that each spent in excess of 40 days this year serving as rules officials for various tournaments or conducting workshops/seminars for others interested in acquiring additional knowledge about the rules. And both serve on the CGA’s Rules of Golf Committee. And now, both will have their names added to the list of Topliff Award recipients. 

The honor — named for Jim Topliff, a longtime tournament director for the CGA who passed away in 2007 — has been given out annually since 1995 to a volunteer rules official who typically works an extensive schedule and makes a particularly positive impression while conducting his or her duties.

“We all feel better being able to look at the (Topliff Award) plaque at the CGA office and see Leo and Karla’s name on it; they are very deserving,” noted Greg With, the chairman of the CGA’s Rules Golf Committee, and the 2011 Topliff Award recipient.

Leo Barabe was born and raised in the Phoenix area, but moved to Aspen 50 years ago “to be a ski bum like everyone else.” The 76-year-old no longer skis — “my feet and ski boots just don’t mix,” he said — but he’s a mainstay officiating golf tournaments on the Western Slope, as well as a few on the Front Range.

“I try to officiate virtually everything that happens on the Western Slope,” Barabe said. “There aren’t very many of us on the Western Slope.”

In 2023, that translated into a very busy year volunteering on the golf course. 

Between CGA championships, the Inspirato Colorado Open and numerous high school events, Barabe has worked 42 days on the course this year. (“If you want to call it work; to me it’s not really work,” he said.) 

Barabe also led small rules seminars at various clubs over the course of seven days.

In yet another role — that of a walking scorer — Barabe did four days at the U.S. Girls’ Junior that Eisenhower Golf Club at the Air Force Academy hosted. “That was a lot of fun. I enjoy doing that kind of stuff,” he said.

Even before he became a rules official for the CGA two decades ago, Barabe was interested enough in the rules that he attended a four-day PGA/USGA Rules of Golf Workshop in 1999, with no thoughts of it leading to what’s turned into a longtime avocation. “For some reason I have always been interested in the rules,” he said. “I don’t know why. It’s the way my brain works, I guess.”

At the test that concludes the workshop, Barabe scored a 74, which he thought was “just terrible” considering he had done considerable preparation and studying. But later finding out that the median score for the class was a 69 eased the pain a little.

Suffice it to say one of his next exams produced a considerably better result. 

Twenty years ago, in early 2003, USGA Golf Journal published a very difficult 18-question rules test “with really weird stuff that happens on a golf course,” Barabe said. Over the course of a month, he honed his answers and … finished with a perfect score. Out of 2,036 USGA members who participated, just 24 answered all 18 questions correctly, with Barabe being one of the elite two dozen.

“After having done (the test) two or three other times, I was pretty surprised because they were really tricky questions,” he said. “I probably flipped a coin on one or two answers and got lucky. 

“When I went to my next rules workshop, I was surprised. I was in the back getting a cup of coffee and all these CGA guys are coming up to me congratulating me for doing that on that test. Who would even be aware of that? But it caught their attention.”

Wrote With in an email: Noted rules officials “Mike Boster, Joe Salvo, Mike Rice and other encyclopedic rules geeks didn’t (get all the answers right) and when they saw that a Leo Barabe from Aspen, CO did, they said, ‘Who is this guy? We need to recruit him,’ or words to that effect. The rest is history.”

That year, Barabe worked his first CGA championship, officiating with two of his mentors — Jon Burnett and Ken McGechie — at the CGA Father-Son Championship (now called the Parent-Child) at Aspen Golf Club. “They took me under their wings, and I’ve been working ever since,” Barabe said.

Barabe worked well over 40 days in rules-related roles in 2023. (Photo: Colorado Open Championships)

Now, 20 years later, he’s joining some of the top rules officials in the state in having earned the Topliff Award.

“I knew they appreciated what I did, and I didn’t really need an award to tell me that,” he said. “I knew they appreciate what I do with or without an award. But it was nice.”

With a score of 90 or above on the Rules of Golf test necessary to receive expert status, Barabe has scored as high as 96 and posted a 95 within the last year. He estimates he’s taken the test 14 or 15 times over the last two-plus decades.

Asked what about the rules particularly appeals to him, Barabe said, “I like the challenge. It’s not easy to keep up with the rules. It’s a niche thing. I guess it’s the way my mind works, but I like that they try as hard as they can to leave no gray areas. I’m kind of a detail-oriented guy.”

Barabe, who lives close to the municipal Aspen Golf Club and has been a member there for close to 30 years, retired about eight years ago after working for 23 years as a manager at Aspen Mulling Spices, a company that sells a dry mixture that’s added to hot apple cider to make a holiday drink. 

These days, he normally plays about 30 rounds of golf a year. As noted above, he started playing as a 13-year-old, but he stopped when he first came to Aspen, and didn’t take up the game again until he was close to 50 years old.

And now, it’s seldom that Barabe goes long without being around a golf course — at least during the warm part of the year. And that’s just the way he likes it.

In addition to being a rules official at tournaments, Harding periodically conducts rules seminars/workshops.

Karla Harding likewise is a familiar site at golf tournaments — in her case both in Colorado and around the country.

In fact, while the 66-year-old resident of Windsor enjoys playing golf — though she only got in about eight rounds this year — in many cases she prefers serving as a rules official to teeing it up herself.

“Quite honestly, if I had a choice — if someone says you can come work on this tournament or we’ll go play a round of golf, I’ll generally work a tournament,” Harding said. “I enjoy being around the golfers, the people, seeing them have fun. And I enjoy helping them when they’re not sure what they’re supposed to do. I just really enjoy the camaraderie with rules officials. I just enjoy that whole scene.”

And that shows by how much time Harding dedicates to the craft. The Colorado native estimates she worked 40-45 days on rules-related work in 2023. Besides much of that being devoted to rules-official duties, she conducts three or four rules seminars/workshops annually.

And, every once in a while, the retired civil engineer with the Colorado Department of Transportation gets to combine volunteer work with travel-related leisure. Specifically, Harding owns a recreational vehicle, and sometimes she takes extended trips that incorporate working two or three stops as a rules official for a national championship.

As Harding has served on USGA championship committees over the last decade or so, she typically does rules work for two USGA championships each year. Between those and other events, this year Harding worked at six out-of-state tournaments.

“I like to travel. There’s been years where I’ll take my RV” to the USGA championships she’s working, she said. “I’ll go to one, then sightsee for a few weeks to get to the next one. I’ll oftentimes take a couple of months and do a loop. I did one in Boston. My sister flew out and we toured New England when the leaves were changing. Depending on when we’re going, if it fits, I’ll take my RV and turn it into a trip.”

In fact, on that same RV trip to Boston, Harding served as a rules official at Legends of the LPGA Tour events in French Lick, Ind., and Plymouth, Mass. That work came about when Robin Jervey, the executive director of the CWGA for more than 22 years (1992-2014), asked her as part of Jervey’s current management role with the Legends circuit. 

Harding also works events for the CGA and the LPGA Amateur Golf Association, and normally is a top rules official at the Inspirato Colorado Women’s Open. In the past, she’s also done considerable work for the Ladies National Golf Association. And then there’s the occasional NCAA event.

Bottom line: It’s little wonder why Harding is a fitting choice for a Topliff Award.

“It’s nice to be recognized for as much time as you put into something that you enjoy doing,” she said. “It really wouldn’t matter if I got it or not but it does make me feel good that other people have seen the dedication I’ve put into this. It’s nice.”

Harding, who plays out of Collindale Golf Course in Fort Collins, began working as rules official in 2008, the year she retired from CDOT. She attended a rules school that spring because she was being “recruited” to work events for the Executive Women’s Golf Association (now called the LPGA Amateur Golf Association). That in turn led to Jervey and Jan Fincher, a prominent rules official in Colorado, to ask her to also work CWGA events, which Harding has done.

“Karla was on the CWGA’s Rules of Golf Committee,” With noted. “When the CWGA and CGA integrated, the two rules committees were combined. Karla’s experience and knowledge were critical in the continued success of the combined committee.”

Over the years, Harding has attended rules school on a regular basis, and in recent years she’s scored in the expert category on the Rules of Golf test — 90 or above. And, like Barabe, she’s hit as high as 96 on the rules test.

So what is attractive about the Rules of Golf to the point that Harding devotes so many days each year to officiating?

“As an engineer, you’re a problem-solver, and the Rules of Golf is nothing but solving puzzles,” she said. “No ruling is the same. Yes, some are pretty routine. But people can get themselves into situations that you have no inkling they could get themselves into. So it’s always trying to solve that puzzle.”

Actually, what prompted Harding to go down the rules route was something she experienced as a marshal at the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open that Cherry Hills Country Club hosted.

“Working at the Department of Transportation, it’s all about logistics,” she said. “And I was just totally blown away by the logistics that had to go into putting on that major event. The logistics of the volunteers, of the media, of the players, of the food service, of the vendors, the parking. I thought, ‘This is the coolest thing. I would like to do this, maybe as my second career when I retire.’ 

“I had some contacts that hooked me up with the company that organized that. They pretty much dashed my hopes. They said ‘there’s only three of us on site; it’s all done with volunteers. There isn’t a lot of opportunities for jobs in this’ — at least with them. But that’s when my opportunities started as far as working with the LPGA Amateurs. They’re the ones that said you need to go to rules school. So I went to rules school and the rest is history.”

Nowadays, typically the most prominent events in which Harding serves as a rules official are USGA championships. While she’s done as many as four USGA events in a year, a couple annually is now her norm. One of those events is usually the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur, but this year she worked the U.S. Senior Women’s Open.

“That was just a thrill — to be around all the women golfers I grew up with — Annika (Sorenstam), Juli Inkster, Trish Johnson — all those I watched on TV for so many years. To be able to be around them, having lunch with them, that was fun.”

Harding stayed closed to home for another 2023 USGA championship as she worked the U.S. Girls’ Junior at the Air Force Academy. There, she handled one of the quarterfinal matches, along with working the days leading up to that.

“That was the first time I worked the U.S. Girls’ Junior; I really enjoyed that,” she said. “The amateur tournaments are more fun to work as a rules official generally because at the Opens, you end up sitting on a (single) hole for the day. You may or may not have any rulings. At the amateurs, when they start match play, you are actually assigned to a match and you walk with the players. That’s a lot more fun. You end up getting invested in their match.”

Certainly different, but likewise enjoyable for Harding is conducting rules seminars/workshops for groups. 

“I enjoy being like a teacher,” she said. “The times when you see someone go, ‘Oh, I get it now.’ Those times are like, ‘Yeah.’ You’re imparting your own wisdom, trying to put the rules in layman’s terms that they can understand and get the most out of. I enjoy the feeling of gratitude from everyone when you do it. They appreciate you coming out.”

About the Writer: Gary Baines has covered golf in Colorado continuously since 1983. He was a sports writer at the Daily Camera newspaper in Boulder, then the sports editor there, and has written regularly for since 2009. He was inducted into the Colorado Golf Hall of Fame in 2022. He owns and operates