By Peter Yoon
You see the hulking blond Thor-like figure riding around in a golf cart, walkie-talkie in hand, and your first thought is that some linebacker has taken a detour through the golf course on his way to football.
Turns out Mark Dusbabek was a golf guy who took a detour through football.
Dusbabek is a PGA Tour Rules Official, landing on golf’s grandest stage 15 years after injuries forced him to retire from his career as a Minnesota Vikings linebacker.
The Minnesota native spent most of his early life in the rough-and-tumble trenches trying to knock the daylights out of ball carriers, but now finds himself immersed in the gentleman’s game, patrolling the fairways of 28 to 30 PGA Tour events a year.
“You never know where you’ll end up or what you’ll end up doing,” said Dusbabek, who played three seasons with the Vikings from 1989-91 and started 11 games in 1990. “I never thought I’d end up working on the PGA Tour. It’s funny how these things happen.”
Dusbabek, 46, ended up rubbing elbows with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and the rest of golf’s elite partly because after several surgeries on his knee and shoulder, his body would no longer allow him to chase the likes of Barry Sanders and Randall Cunningham. Just how he ended up on the PGA Tour is a long and winding tale, though.
“As a retired player, you always struggle trying to find your identity and find what you are going to do with the rest of your life,” he said. “Most players are in their late 20s or early 30s when they retire. You have a lot of time and some disposable income, but no plan.”
Finding a plan became Dusbabek’s priority. He entered the finance field and worked as a trader and broker. He also married television journalist Asha Blake. When Blake landed a job at a Los Angeles television station, the couple moved to Southern California, but Dusbabek had trouble landing a finance job.
That’s when the soul searching began. He recalled growing up near a golf course in Minnesota and spending summers as a caddie there. While playing for the Vikings, he ran a couple of charity golf events and played in numerous others.
Then the longtime recreational golfer started thinking about how he spent much of his free time.
“I realized that whenever I went on vacations, whenever I was going out with friends, whenever I was traveling I was always checking out the golf courses,” he said. “I had always been around golf but I didn’t realize there was actually a career you could have in golf besides a Tour player. I didn’t know much about the industry, so I started looking at how to get in.”
He contacted friends who contacted friends, and ended up getting in touch with the Southern California Golf Association. He volunteered in the course rating department, which was then headed by Kevin Heaney, now the SCGA Executive Director.
Heaney offered a bit of advice that would change Dusbabek’s life.
“He told me to learn the Rules,” Dusbabek said. “He said that, above anything else, gives you credibility in the industry.”
Heaney said that the moment he met Dusbabek, he knew the former linebacker had a future.
“He had the tireless work ethic that came from being a pro athlete,” Heaney said. “He took on every challenge with passion. It wasn’t hard to recognize that he was going to make it in whatever field he chose, so I made it my mission to get him working for us as fast as possible.”
Dusbabek took Heaney’s advice to heart. He studied the rules book as well as the 600-page Decisions on The Rules of Golf. He attended rules seminars and workshops. The hard work paid off when he moved to New York and became the director of junior golf for the Metropolitan Golf Association.
A return to Los Angeles led him back to the SCGA, where he became Assistant Director of Rules and Competitions and then eventually replaced Heaney as Director of Course Rating before the opportunity arose on the PGA Tour in 2005.
“Once I figured out what I wanted, I immersed myself in it 100 percent,” Dusbabek said. “I go out and speak to corporations, schools and teams, and I tell them that you have to find something you truly love. Then it doesn’t feel like work. You enjoy life more and you’re much happier.”
Now that Dusbabek has reached the limelight of the PGA Tour, he often finds himself drawing on his days as a player. He played four seasons collegiately at Minnesota — two under Coach Lou Holtz — which meant trips to places like Big Ten rivals Michigan and Ohio State, where crowds often surpass 100,000.
His 1989 Vikings team lost to Joe Montana and the eventual Super Bowl Champion San Francisco 49ers in the Divisional playoffs.
“I think I have a pretty good understanding of the heat of the battle because of my experience in football,” Dusbabek said.
That doesn’t mean he is immune to pressure. During this year’s U.S. Open, for instance, he had to make a ruling for Phil Mickelson — eventually determining that Mickelson could not get a free drop.
“Anybody can sit there in their chair and make that ruling, but it’s different when it’s Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson and you have 5,000 people barking at you on the rope line, Dottie Pepper there with a microphone and a camera in your face,” Dusbabek said.
Still, he said, he’d much rather be an official in golf than in any other sport.
“Golf officials are treated differently that basketball, baseball and football officials,” he said. “Those guys are ridiculed, and mocked and treated poorly by the media, the fans and the players. There’s a different respect for a golf official, I believe. I think that we’re held at a different level and we’re treated differently.”
It’s also a different type of officiating. Football officials are making instantaneous judgments; golf officials have time to assess situations and ask questions. Plus, golfers are almost always honest.
“You take that player’s word for it because the repercussions for cheating in this game are that you will never be able to play again without that label,” Dusbabek said. “So, you trust on that.”
That doesn’t mean players are always happy with the rulings, and it’s those times that Dusbabek said football officials have it a little easier.
“They can call a penalty to get the player or coach moving along,” he said. “We don’t have that option. Players can get aggressive. With the heat of battle comes intensity and pressure — I get that. I was like that as a player, too. But at some point, you just have to tell them that enough is enough and to get on with the round.”
And what’s a skinny little golfer going to think when faced with the barking 6-foot-4, 230-pound former linebacker?
“He’s probably not the first guy whose face you’d want to get in,” Heaney said.