Pros and Cons of Amateurism, Part II

Digging around in the rulebook gives us another glimpse of how our beloved game’s governing body is just a wee bit behind the times.

Thrash TalkIn the last Thrash Talk I told you how I won a thousand bucks and a vacation in a mini-golf style putting contest and turned myself into the USGA. While I knew the rule of amateur status and expected they would choose to enforce it on me, somehow I held out hope that, given the absurdity of classifying someone like me as a professional golfer, the USGA would find some way to dismiss the matter. When I was officially exiled from the amateur ranks, I set out to learn a bit more about the issue. Read on to see what I learned, and what I think it means for you and me.

My initial reaction to the USGA’s decision in my case was bewilderment. Not at decision per se; as I said, I knew the rule and it was clear I had violated it. But I couldn’t for the life me understand why they would set the threshold so low that it could catch a golfer of my markedly limited skill. So, I decided to read the rule again and see what they had to say about the purpose of the rule, and amateur status in general.

According to the USGA, “[t]he purpose and spirit of the Rules is to maintain the distinction between amateur golf and professional golf and to keep the amateur game as free as possible from the abuses that may follow from uncontrolled sponsorship and financial incentive. It is considered necessary to safeguard amateur golf, which is largely self-regulating with regard to the Rules of play and handicapping, so that it can be fully enjoyed by all amateur golfers.”

To me, the simplest translation of this is “we don’t want TaylorMade bankrolling the U.S. Amateur Champion.” Fair enough. Stated more generally, a professional golfer is someone who plays the game for a living, while the amateur has another primary means of support and plays for the pure joy of the game and competition, and it makes sense to keep the groups separate for some types of championships.

What we are really talking about is the purity of high level amateur competition, and again it seems silly to me that the bar would be set so low as to be able to ensnare a 12 handicap golfer. It seems to me that issue might be more sensibly approached from the standpoint of defining what actions and characteristics affirm professional status, rather than enumerate a laundry list of things “contrary” to amateur status.

In other words, I’m saying that the USGA rule is a false dichotomy. It is possible to do something “contrary” to amateur status, yet not really meet the definition of a professional golfer.

The longer you think about an issue like this, the more confusing it becomes.

For instance, what about a college golfer? Many NCAA Division I schools with nationally ranked golf teams have players who more or less devote themselves entirely to the game. Just like top level college basketball and football players, their primary purpose in life is preparation for professional sports. These athletes may receive support in kind from the school in the form of expenses, furnishing discounted equipment, clothing, etc. To me, these sorts of things fall in a grey area between amateur and professional. And considering the skill level of an NCAA Division I golfer, aren’t they more of a threat to the purity of amateur competitions than me?

Even non-collegiate golfers in the upper stratosphere of amateur rankings – guys such as Trip Kuehne – one wonders how much of their life is really focused on golf, given the tremendous committment required to compete at the national level.

To me, this apparent contradiction, wherein several species of almost-full-time golfers are deemed legit for amateur competitions, while a 12-handicap chop is sanctioned, suggests there is some additional motivation or basis for the rule beyond that of the practical protection of high level amateur competition.

I think the reason is deeper, more philosophical. I believe there is more to the subject of amateurism than protecting the purity of the high level amateur competition; I think it’s a class issue.

Given the revered, celebrity status enjoyed by many high level professional athletes in modern society, it is a somewhat foreign concept to us that, at one time, a professional golfer was regarded as a second class citizen, a vulgar tradesman. But this is precisely how it was in the days when the USGA was in its infancy. When competitors were introduced on the first tee in Open Championships around the turn of the 20th century, prominent amateur players were announced with the title “Mister,” as in “Mister Jones,” and “Mister Evans,” and “Mister Travers.” Professionals were not even extended the courtesy of this basic title, being announced simply as “Walter Hagen,” or “Jim Barnes.” Prominent amateurs were welcomed into the club house and locker room of the host golf course, while professionals were often given substandard accomodations in caddie barns or outright refused any courtesy.

There was no mistaking the clear demarcation of upper and lower class, and it mirrored society at the time, or at least the societal mores of the previous century. I see the amateur/professional distinction as analagous to the 18th and 19th century concepts of “Gentlemen” and “tradesmen.” A gentleman was someone of class and distinction, who didn’t have to work to support himself. A trademsan was a commoner, and the fact that he needed to work for a living set him apart as a member of an inferior class.

The USGA originated in a time when class distinctions such as these were foremost in the minds of the organization’s founders, and surely must have had a profound influence on the rulebook. This may be stretching things, but I think the USGA’s ongoing zealous enforcement of the Rules of Amateur Status is a reflection of their history as an elitist entity.

The USGA has long been criticized for being “blue blooded” and exclusionary; when you scratch below the surface, things like the Rules of Amateur Status show just how true this is, and how they’ve perhaps failed to keep up with the times. Some people worry about things like equipment regulations and how high they grow the rough for the open. I’m inclined to believe there are more important matters to get worked up about. That is, if you really want to have an organization that lives up to its role as a guardian of the game.

7 thoughts on “Pros and Cons of Amateurism, Part II”

  1. Good article, but I have to diagree with the overall theme. For the USGA to take into consideration the many possible definitions of a “amateur” golfer would breed ambiguity. You said it yourself, the USGA has a clear rule about what is cause for losing ones amateur status. For them to reevalute and change the rules to encompass all number of different scenarios would blur lines, create grey areas, and leave the rulebook open to many interpretations and litigation.

    Its fine as it is, if you take a certain amount (over $750) of monetary gain from the action of hitting a golf ball then you have broken the rules of amateur status, regardless of your ability or handicap. This rule is black and white as all good rules should be.

  2. Do you mean the many “possible definitions of an amateur golfer,” or a professionalgolfer?

    If I understand you correctly, Danny, you seem to be saying what the USGA says, which is make a bright line, very easy to understand, and set rather low, to make interpretation simple and assure that nobody slips through the cracks.

    Hey, maybe you’re right, but I still think there’s something screwy when a 12 handicapper is called a professional. A set of nice clubs may easily cost over $1000, and it seems silly to have a rule that prevents giving a prize like this.

    I asked the USGA point blank whether they preferred that “silly” transgressions like mine not ever be reported, and they clearly responded that no, they should be reported.

    Thanks for reading.

  3. I had never considered the impact of social values on rule making. An excellent insight. The comments by male pros about women in PGA tournaments is another example of different value systems. A better way to define the amateur rule would be to define a higher limit and to exclude specific things. The choices of what is excluded would allow college golfers and lucky winners (hole in one contest) etc but still cover people who win big in competiton or multiple times.

  4. Further blurring the line: any amateur golfer may receive equipment (up to a certain limit), and its common practice for top amateurs to essentially have a club deal with major manufacturers. No extra cash, but free clubs, balls, golf wear. And, as mentioned, college golf teams usually have exclusive deals with club companies to provide equipment. In these cases, the reward is directly for skill, which means the reward is seemingly in direct violation of the “purity” of amateur status.
    But, as mentioned relative to the elitism of golf, purity is often merely a matter of who makes the definition. And the draconian enforcement of hole in one prizes (a rule which, admittedly, has been rightfully loosened in the next iteration of the Rules of Golf) makes a big enough splash to provide the veneer of absolute fidelity to amateurism, while the reality is far less clear or equitable.

  5. The problem I have is when professional golfer regain amateur status. They spend years trying to make it professionally, but gain amateur status in a year.

    If they’ve given years to make it as a pro, they should take years to “make” it as an amateur.

  6. What about a promotional contest, where the contestants have to putt a ball on an ice rink into a hole?

    Winner received an prize/item worth over the $750 limit.

    Does the winner loose there amateur status too?

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