When Arizona State head coach Matt Thurmond was a teenager, he qualified for the U.S. Junior Amateur but didn’t have the means to really afford the expensive trip. He still remembers members of his home course passing a hat around the club’s bar, scrapping together just enough money to help fund Thurmond’s dream.
So, when the USGA and R&A on Tuesday finalized their modernized Rules of Amateur Status, which essentially eliminate all advertising, expense-related and sponsorship restrictions for amateur golfers, Thurmond was all for it.
“I just have an appreciation for people who help make it possible because I was one of those kids who didn’t have a lot of money,” Thurmond said, “and in this case, maybe companies or entities that can help kids that want to, I think it’s great, and I hope it gets to people who need it.”
The governing bodies’ decision to simplify their amateur rules followed the NCAA’s move last June to adopt a temporary policy that removes most of its restrictions related to name, image and likeness, and transfer the lawmaking to the individual states, dozens of which have already – or are soon to – enact legislation allowing student-athletes to benefit financially off themselves. The USGA, which first released its proposed amateur-rule updates in February, had already waived NIL-related rules for college golfers in July.
Now, come Jan. 1, 2022, all amateurs will be able to secure endorsements and receive other monetary assistance, a move that the college coaches and players at this week’s East Lake Cup agree is a step forward for their game, which is expensive to play, especially at the elite level, and has for years featured complicated amateur rules that were often applied inconsistently – or even ignored.
“That’s one of the big challenges for the game of golf as a whole is that it’s expensive just for anybody to even start the game,” Thurmond said. “The cost of a tee time, cost of a set of clubs, cost of instruction, everything costs a lot, and that’s why this sport gets labeled as a rich person’s sport because it kind of is. It’s really hard for someone who doesn’t have the means to go play all the tournaments. That’s why try to keep an eye out for kids who are really good but maybe don’t have the means because sometimes they’re hidden.”
Added Oklahoma head coach Ryan Hybl: "From a coaching perspective, we've always had to do this (does Heisman pose) to agents and sponsors and everything, and there was always some gray area for people to be hiding in, and now, it's, well, if you can go get things done, go get things done. I think it allows coaches to breathe a little easier and not have to worry so much about what this guy is doing and what this guy is doing. This is going to allow the players to have some ownership, some entrepreneurial thoughts, and it's going to teach these guys about money and contracts, and you've gotta go perform."
And Oklahoma State head coach Alan Bratton: “I think what the USGA and R&A have done across the board with the rules of golf have made things make a lot more sense. … The simpler they are, the more consistent they are, then you have rules that you can enforce.”
Three of Bratton’s players – Brian Stark, Bo Jin and Aman Gupta – were some of the first college golfers to ink NIL deals. The trio were sponsored by Stillwater-based Wilson Cadillac at the U.S. Amateur, and they wore the dealership-logoed hats during competition.
“Summer tournaments can be very expensive,” Stark said. “It helped a lot.”
While current rules allow NCAA programs to cover their players’ expenses for national tournaments and bigger pro events, such as majors, that money still often comes from donors, and not every school can afford that type of support. The new rules allow players to receive help by any means necessary.
Now, though, it’s not like college golfers are breaking the bank like big football and basketball stars. In fact, there haven’t been many deals, though the sport’s bigger stars, such as Stanford’s Rachel Heck, Ole Miss’ Julia Johnson and Georgia’s Trent Phillips, are among those who have benefitted, even if only slightly, so far. Heck recently signed with Excel Sports for representation.
“With more events being televised, it could get bigger for sure,” Stark said. “I couldn’t tell you in the grand scheme of things how big or how much money people will make, but I’m sure some guys will be able to profit pretty handsomely.”
But as Stark added, “We’re constantly learning about it.” That’s because even with the simpler amateur rules for golfers, there is still much confusion without a federal blanket NIL policy by the NCAA. Not all states enforce the same NIL rules – most notably, some states allow coaches to help facilitate deals and other do not – and schools that are located in states without active legislation, they are free by the NCAA to make their own rules.
“There is still a lot of unknown,” Bratton said. “The NCAA still needs to define some things like what is pay for play and stuff like that. … But this [change in amateur rules] should help us simplify some things with the NCAA, too, because hopefully they’ll look at the governing bodies for our sport and try to mirror those same rules to make it simpler across the board.”
Hybl is prohibited by his state's rules from being involved in his players' deals, though he's unaware of any anyway. He added, though, that there will come a time when an equipment manufacturer, which have yet to make big NIL moves, or another company shells out the big bucks for a twice-in-a-decade superstar.
"I need some years of learning under my belt," Hybl said. "The dominoes are going to start falling at some point, though."
Ole Miss has quickly discovered that it’s not easy to defend a national championship.
The reigning NCAA women’s champions have struggled adjusting to life with targets on their backs. The Rebels opened the fall with a ninth-place finish at the prestigious Annika Intercollegiate despite boasting the individual medalist in senior Julia Johnson. They followed with a disappointing fifth at the Blessings Collegiate and debuted at No. 30 in the first Golfstat rankings of the season.
“Just getting used to being sought after by other teams,” Ole Miss head coach Kory Henkes said, “I think that’s a good place to be in, and it’s one that we maybe haven’t been in in the past, and until you’ve been there, you don’t know how it feels. … They needed to know that it’s OK to feel a little bit of that pressure.”
But that hasn’t been the only ailment plaguing this squad, which only lost senior Kennedy Swann from a season ago while adding talented freshman Natacha Husted from Denmark.
There have been injuries – Ellen Hume has continued to battle a left shoulder injury and bicep tendonitis in that same arm; the East Lake Cup was just her second start of the fall – and illnesses. There has also been a lack of focus and discipline.
So, after the Blessings event, Henkes sat her team down.
“We had a little come to Jesus,” Henkes said. “It was about just getting back to doing the little things right and not brushing over those types of things – that’s what this program was built on seven years ago was discipline and discipline with the little things. Maybe it’s our fault, too; you let the rope get a little bit loose once they’re doing the right things, so we’ve kind of reined it back in a little bit. … I think it was successful.”
Her players were all on board – except for sophomore Smilla Sonderby, who decided that college golf wasn’t for her anymore. She quit the team earlier this month and returned home to Denmark to prepare for next year’s Q-Schools.
“I am very thankful for all the people I have met at Ole Miss,” Sonderby wrote in a lengthy social-media post. “All the people working with the team are amazing hardworking people and it has been an honor to learn from them and work with them. I came to college with the purpose of developing as a golfer and as a person. I’ve moved many aspects of my game in better directions especially my mental game, but Smilla as a person is starting to move in a direction where I can’t recognize myself.”
Sonderby had failed to crack the top 20 in two starts this fall and ranked fifth of seven players on the team with a 75.83 scoring average.
“You always hate to see a player go,” Henkes said. “We had a good conversation. I think she’s doing what’s best for her and what makes her happy, and that’s OK. Sometimes college golf isn’t for everybody. I think she enjoys doing things her way … she said you guys are better off without me and I’m probably better off.”
Henkes noted that she’s started to see the Rebels turn a corner. They tied for third at the loaded, six-team Stephens Cup and were second out of four teams at East Lake, where Andrea Lignell, who had been averaging 76.0 this season, tied for second with a 1-under 71. Their ranking has improved, too, to No. 21.
However, there is still room for growth if Ole Miss wants to not just successfully defend its NCAA title but get back to Grayhawk at all.
“We just have to stay disciplined,” Henkes said. “They’ll be fine.”
As Stanford continues to put together a historic season, the Cardinal will face their toughest challenge yet.
They will be missing four players for the Pac-12 Preview on Nov. 1-3 in Hawaii, including star freshman Rose Zhang, who like Stanford has won three times in three fall tournaments. Zhang, reigning Annika Award winner Rachel Heck, Carolina Sturdza and Rebecca Becht will all being competing in the Spirit International on Nov. 4-6 at Whispering Pines in Trinity, Texas.
“This team is obviously really fun to watch, really fun to coach,” Stanford head coach Anne Walker said after Stanford’s last win, at their home event earlier this month. “I asked someone today if it’s bad that my best coaching is just watching them play. But they’re really special.”
And the Cardinal are more than capable of winning shorthanded. They captured their fall opener without Heck and All-American Angelina Ye. Ye is likely to be joined by another All-American, Aline Krauter, and two players who contributed a bunch last season, Brooke Seay and Sadie Englemann, in the lineup for Hawaii.
PGA Tour U update
Three players improved their positions in the Velocity Global Ranking following top-3 finishes at the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate. Texas A&M's Sam Bennett tied for third and increased his lead at No. 1, Wake Forest's Alex Fitzpatrick was runner-up and jumped to fourth, and Pepperdine's Joe Highsmith climbed three spots to 10th after winning his second career college title.
Here's the current top 15:
1. Sam Bennett, Texas A&M
2. Pierceson Coody, Texas
3. Logan McAllister, Oklahoma
4. Alex Fitzpatrick, Wake Forest
5. Eugenio Chacarra, Oklahoma State
6. RJ Manke, Washington
7. Cole Hammer, Texas
8. Sandy Scott, Texas Tech
9. Ryan Hall, South Carolina
10. Joe Highsmith, Pepperdine
11. Noah Goodwin, SMU
12. Jackson Suber, Ole Miss
13. Jacob Bridgeman, Clemson
14. Trent Phillips, Georgia
15. Joey Vrzich, Pepperdine
For full ranking, click here.