From the rinks to the links, Garrett Rank traded his skates for golf spikes in June 2018.
A full-time NHL referee and cancer survivor, Rank qualified for last year’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. Now in his third full season as an NHL referee, the 30-year-old Rank would make Happy Gilmore proud. After working 70 regular-season games in 2017-18, he was assigned to the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in April. Then, with fellow NHL referee Daniel O’Rourke on the bag, Rank shot back-to-back 71s at Ansley Golf Club outside Atlanta on June 4. His two-under-par finish allowed Rank to share medalist honors with Michael Hebert. Ten days later Rank was teeing it up at Shinnecock.
“Was next to the best players in the world on the ice,” tweeted Rank after qualifying for the U.S. Open. “Next week I get to play with the best golfers in the world. It’s a pretty cool life I’m living right now.”
The U.S. Open wasn’t Rank’s first big golf experience. He’s played in 15 USGA events and is a three-time Canadian Mid-Amateur champion. An Ontario native, Rank represented Canada in the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. He also nearly qualified for the Masters after finishing runner-up at the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship final in 2012.
At Shinnecock, Rank finished 18-over after shooting 83 on Thursday and 75 on Friday, which included back-to-back birdies. He failed to make the cut and, along with Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Bubba Watson, did not play on the weekend. “I was really nervous reffing my first game,” said Rank after his opening round 83 on one of America’s toughest courses. “I made a wrong call in the first five minutes of the game, but things turned out all right in my NHL career. Hopefully, it can turn out all right in my golf career.”
Jason Day, a native of Columbus and an avid Blue Jackets fan who was making his eighth U.S. Open appearance, was eager to meet Rank. With his older brother Kyle as his caddie, Rank held his own. He averaged 1.72 putts per hole, slightly better than the field average of 1.73, and matched the field in fairways and greens hit.
Born and raised in Elmira, Ontario – home of the world’s largest maple syrup festival – Rank grew up playing golf in summer and hockey in winter. Although he considered himself an above-average hockey player [at one point reaching the Junior B level], he knew he couldn’t make a living playing it. Rank began officiating at 15, working tyke games “just to make 20 bucks here and there.” He earned a golf scholarship to the nearby University of Waterloo and made the varsity hockey team as a walk on.
Rank was officiating a hockey game in January 2011 when he felt a pain in his groin. The 22-year-old saw a doctor immediately and had surgery for testicular cancer the following week. Although his condition did not require radiation or chemotherapy, Rank’s world was turned upside down. He quit hockey and spent the next eight weeks “dead on my back.” Within a few months, he was back to playing golf and was named Waterloo’s 2012 Athlete of the Year.
Rank worked for five years as a referee in the Ontario Hockey League, then two in the American Hockey League — hockey’s equivalent of the Web.com Tour. One year after his father Rich [also a minor league hockey ref] died of a heart attack, Garrett made his NHL debut in Buffalo in January 2015. He worked three more games that season, which grew to 31 in 2015-16. That offseason, he was promoted to full-time status becoming, at 27, the youngest official in the National Hockey League.
Rank, who carries a plus-five handicap, made the cut and finished T77 at the 2016 Canadian Open, a PGA Tour event. One week after missing the cut at Shinnecock, he returned to Ontario and claimed the 2018 Mid-Amateur title. The following month, Rank earned a spot in the Windsor Championship on a sponsor’s exemption.
During hockey season Rank, who earned an Economics degree from Waterloo, has little time for golf. He played only four rounds during the 2017-18 NHL season, but made them count. While in Arizona working a Coyotes game, he got in 18 holes at Whisper Rock GC in Scottsdale and played Medalist GC in Hobe Sound while reffing a Florida Panthers game.
From fairways to forechecks, Garrett Rank calls his life a “dream come true.” A grinder on the golf course, he considers mental toughness the strength of his game. “Cancer for me was kind of a blessing in disguise,” said the grateful Canadian. “It gave me a better approach to hockey and golf. Maybe a bad call isn’t that bad anymore. Maybe a bad shot isn’t that bad anymore.”
“I got a question the other day about whether I would want to finish in the top 10 in the U.S. Open or work Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals,” Rank said last summer, “and I answered with the top 10 at the U.S. Open. I’d save the Stanley Cup Finals for 15 years down the road when my golf game isn’t as strong.”