In 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.