Other than maybe Byron Nelson or Gene Sarazen after their 90th birthdays, can you think of a professional golfer with a double-digit handicap index? Well, I know one.
Me. Sort of, anyway.
It may well prove to be the high water mark of my life in golf. It was a cool, rainy Sunday in February, 2005. The location was the Dallas Convention Center. Perhaps the good karma was foreshadowed by how easily I obtained the Kitchen Pass from my wonderful wife to leave the house, the unfinished homework projects, and the bulk of my “honey-do” list to attend the Dallas Golf Expo. I figured it would be a way to kill a few hours, maybe check out some new equipment, and otherwise obtain a much-needed winter golf fix. It turned out to be much more than that.
I suppose a few of you already know where this is going… I violated the USGA Rules of Amateur Status in a cheesy little contest that was at best a poor facsimile of “real” golf. The experience taught me much about the USGA and left me with even more questions, but before we get to those, please forgive me while I relive my 15 minutes of fame. If failing memory causes me to err on a detail here or there, I hope any witnesses who might be reading will forgive me. But trust me, this is pretty much exactly what happened.
Becoming a Pro
The scene of the crime at the Expo that day was a putting contest to determine “The Best Putter in Dallas.” I honestly had no idea what, if any, prize was offered, and entered purely for the fun of putting and killing some time. The contest course consisted of nine “astroturf” holes, ranging in distance from about 10 feet up to maybe 30, all created by a company which made and installed backyard putting greens. I shot 15 for the nine holes, turned in my card, and was informed by an attractive young lady that I had qualified for “the finals.” I nodded politely, handed her back the golf ball and the cheap putter I had borrowed from the nearby barrell for my round (see how much it was like mini golf?), and went on my way, waiting for the announcement of the start of the finals.
Said announcement came over the PA system about an hour later, and when I returned to the tournament venue, I noticed about 25 guys there, each with his own putter, golf ball, and hopeful facial expression. They seemed far more interested in (and nervous about) the upcoming tournament than I; I assumed my chances were pretty slim (let’s just say I don’t have a long résumé of high athletic achievements), and I still hadn’t bothered to find out anything about the prizes. So, feeling no pressure, I entered the finals swinging free and easy. The finals consisted of a couple more rounds on the course, each one paring the field down further, culminating in a championship round of four contestants.
I pulled my same putter out of the barrell and asked for the same ball back, and was assigned a “caddie,” to keep my score and I guess maybe tend the stubby flagsticks. Well, whatever her intended purpose was, my pleasant, middle-aged female caddie somehow managed to become my golfing fairy Godmother, because I immediately caught fire and started making everything I looked at. I had scores of 12 and 13 in the next two rounds, easily advancing to the championship match.
By this time I was starting to get excited, and, perhaps trying to avoid further acceleration of the mounting pressure, I deliberately avoided any available information concerning the prize. I allowed myself to imagine it might be a new driver – a prospect that thrilled me – but I still felt my chances were slim. No middle handicapper expects to cross the finish line without stubbing his toe somewhere.
When the championship round began, the intensity of the event escalated. About 100 or so spectators milled around behind the gallery ropes (glad I didn’t have to sign any autographs), and each of the final four contestants were introduced by an emcee over the PA system. We drew lots to see who would go off first in the championship, and I won the draw.
The room was very quiet, and I was as nervous as I’ve ever been with a golf club in my hand. I rolled the first putt – a 20-footer – right in the center for an ace. Now fully convinced I was channeling Bobby Locke, I followed this with three more aces. Four holes, four strokes, all in plain view of my competition, who began vomiting all over themselves in my wake. My caddie could hardly contain her glee.
Arriving on the seventh tee with the miniscule score of seven, and having seen the two guys behind me three putt a hole or two, I began to realize I was way ahead and had a great chance to win. Predictably, I changed my approach, became conservative, and started to gag a little. I two-putted seven – one of the shorter holes – and three-putted eight. Nine was the longest hole, and I barely made the second putt for a total score of 14.
The second and third competitors finished well behind, but the fourth guy still had a chance, coming to number nine needing an ace to tie me and force a playoff. His putt grazed the hole but missed.
Shocked as I was to be the winner (the last time I’d been involved in a sporting event with that many spectators, I’d taken a shot at the wrong goal in a pee-wee basketball game) I was even more surprised at what I’d won: $1000 cash and a golf vacation package to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, a vacation my wife and I took later that summer. I remember running nervously across the parking lot to my car; after all, it was a thousand cash, counted out and handed to me by an emcee in front of a hundred or so people, broadcast over the PA system… and the gun show was next door. I drove home feeling like I would get pulled over at any moment for the obvious larceny I’d just committed.
Meandering north on I-35, evidently still delirious from my improbable victory, I began to think about notifying the USGA. Although I had known that accepting money and prizes were cause for losing one’s amateur status in the eyes of the USGA, I figured that my winnings would fall below the threshold for such sanctions. The Rules of Amateur Status are not entirely irrational, leaving room for just this sort of thing – winning of small prizes in friendly contests, charity events, hole-in-one prizes, etc. However, a quick visit to the USGA website showed I was wrong. By accepting cash and prizes with a retail value in excess of $750, won by virtue of my performance in an event involving “golf skill,” I had violated the rules of amateur status. Busted.
No Longer an Amateur
Sensing the irony (and potential for an even better story to tell) I immediately wrote to the USGA asking them for a ruling. I argued that since I was clearly not a highly proficient golfer (citing my index), and that the contest in question was really more like mini golf than anything else, they might find it reasonable to give me a pass.
I was notified that I had indeed violated rules of amateur status, and in a March 5 letter, USGA Archbishop Anthony J. Zirpoli, Jr. (actually Mr. Zirpoli’s title was Senior Director Regional Affairs/Amateur Status, but I find the Vatican analogy amusingly appropriate) sent me two applications for reinstatement, accompanied by a the USGA’s papal encyclical on the Rules of Amateur Status. After completing and submitting the application (along with $100 of my winnings, by the way) I was dismissed from the confessional with a yearlong exile from the amateur ranks as penance. Perhaps in a nod to the outright absurdity of the situation, the USGA pointed out that the Executive Committee saw fit to reduce the duration of my punishment from the otherwise typical two years. But guilty I was, and I was gonna do time.
My 12-month rein as the Dallas putting king ended, during which I failed to win any more putting contests and accepted no more money or prizes connected to my microscopic modicum of golf skill. I was successfully reinstated to the amateur ranks effective February 27, 2006, although not before a friend insisted I play a match with him as a scratch player. He managed to separate a bit more of that cash prize from me in the process, but otherwise I was none worse for the experience.
Now, is it just me, or is the USGA’s ruling in this matter about as rational as giving a toddler a ticket for riding his tricycle on the wrong side of the sidewalk? This strikes me as more Barney Fife than Wyatt Earp. I have broken 80 on relatively easy golf courses twice in my life, once by virtue of perhaps overly generous concessions of eminently missable putts. I’ve been told I have a nice looking golf swing, an observation generally qualified by a statement along the lines of “so I can’t understand why you hit it so crappy.” I’ve never had a hole-in-one, and I’ve holed full shots from the fairway twice in about 18 years of play (a 150-yard 7 iron for an eagle on a par four, and an 80-yard sand wedge for bogey – see how good I am?). But because won a prize when I got hot rolling in perfectly straight, level putts on carpet (complete with straight, grain-like lines in the fabric to help line you up, mind you), I’m a threat to the amateur game? Oy.
Would Bob Jones and Francis Ouimet have been worried about me?
Because that’s what we’re really talking about, protecting the purity of the amateur game. Or is it? Next week’s column will explore the issue of amateurism and the USGA’s mission in a bit more detail, as I did in the months following my run-in with the USGA.
For now, please chime in and let me know what you think!