The USGA and R&A are finally modernizing their rules of amateur status.
Now, the question is: Will these proposed changes positively impact the amateur-golf experience, or has Pandora’s box just been opened?
In talking with amateur players and their parents, college coaches, agents and equipment reps, and the USGA, what golf’s governing bodies are proposing is a net positive for amateurs. That’s not to say that there aren’t some concerns and there shouldn’t be further discussion before the proposed rules are penned in next year. But considering the wide scope of viewpoints, the benefits seem to far outweigh the drawbacks.
Full disclosure: I was skeptical upon first examining the rule changes. The thought of U.S. Amateur competitors stepping on the first tee looking like NASCAR drivers, or the image of an 8-year-old showing up at a U.S. Kids event with Paw Patrol logos stitched on his or her golf bag and clothing seemed outlandish – and rightfully so; that would be silly.
But is that reality? Are truckloads of sponsorship money suddenly going to appear for amateur golfers? Likely not.
While the top one percent of amateur golfers could cash in big – we’re talking the Matt Wolffs of the world, players that earned lucrative paydays on Day 1 of turning professional and could warrant similar deals as high-profile amateurs competing on TV and in pro events via sponsor exemptions – the majority of players, especially at the junior level, are probably not going to see much change financially. There are already equipment deals available to top young golfers that consist of free clubs, balls and clothing – and the best players receive more free swag than a small retail store. But these same companies are unlikely to fork up much more than that.
Where you could see a difference in terms of sponsorship is where it’s actually needed. Golf is expensive, and many families can’t afford to fly their kids around the world to compete against the best juniors and amateurs. This isn’t just your average amateur, several players currently in the top 100 of the World Amateur Golf Ranking have played limited junior and summer amateur schedules in part because of financial reasons. Now, these players can get more help.
But can’t these players already receive financial assistance? Yes, but it’s complicated, so let’s examine the difference between the current rules and proposed rules when it comes to compensation and expenses.
Here’s what we have right now: By making every amateur, regardless of who they are, prescribe to a long set of rules, the governing bodies hope to achieve a level playing field, yet what actually happens is more amateurs are disadvantaged. For example: When it comes to the summer amateur golf, many top international players are fully funded to compete in these events by their respective federations, which is permitted. Some countries provide five-figure stipends per player. However, many amateurs in the U.S. don’t have quite the same luxury as the rules are limiting, and those who don’t come from money often struggle to afford a full, competitive schedule – and if they can get help, there can’t be promotion associated with it (if a player is deemed to have “golf skill,” which is subjective) and the complicated approval process can be a barrier in and of itself.
Now, here’s what they’re proposing: By stripping away the many restrictions, the USGA and R&A have opted for a laissez-faire approach with minimal interference. This lets the open market that is amateur golf operate freely. Using the previous example, international players will still receive their stipends and elite players with no financial obstacles could certainly benefit more, but the needy and the have-nots will now be able to get help through whatever means necessary – whether that is securing a local sponsorship or through entrepreneurial methods (re: kids with large social-media followings who will now be able to monetize themselves) – without having to worry about breaking a rule and losing their amateur status. It won’t always work out, but at least the opportunity is there.
“The float-all-boats analogy is what we really see happening here, opening it up and not having these rules to navigate,” said Craig Winter, the USGA’s senior director, Rules of Golf and Amateur Status.
The main worry, however, is how this negatively affects young golfers. The amateur golf scene, especially at the introductory and junior levels, is already ugly: overbearing parents, unfair pressure on kids to succeed, performance-based stipends from international federations. Could the thought of dollar signs in addition to college scholarships, invites to elite events and equipment hookups make things worse? Maybe. But again, it already is hard to protect these kids from ego inflation and other player-development issues.
Initially, I thought of applying a minimum age requirement in order to receive sponsorship or other money. Maybe a player can’t make money off his/her name, image and likeness until he/she turns 17? That could solve some of the aforementioned concerns, but how could you justify such rule to a 15-year-old wanting to get sponsored by a local car dealership for $1,000 to partially fund a summer playing schedule? And policing it would involve those same gray areas that the governing bodies currently deal with.
With all that said, here are two aspects of the new proposals that I would change: For starters, the rule that still prohibits amateurs from charging for golf instruction should go away. I get that we don’t want these players becoming PGA professionals as amateurs, but a college kid giving $50-per-hour lessons to make some extra money does no harm to anyone. Secondly, this whole head fake of entering tournaments as a professional yet being able to decline prize money and go back to amateur golf has all the makings of a massive headache.
Remember Lee McCoy’s fourth-place finish as an amateur at the Valspar Championship? Under the proposed rules, the Georgia senior would’ve been able to compete at Innisbrook as a pro and then after a great week accept the prize money and non-member FedExCup points and forgo the remainder of his amateur career. But how fair is this to his college teammates and coaches? And what if McCoy wasn’t a senior in college but rather a senior in high school? Do we really want this risk-free option that could potentially help but also severely hurt players’ careers? I don’t believe so.
Those are my only qualms, and it’s obvious that the decision-makers agree that the pros outweigh the cons. Now, the NCAA still needs to make its own decision in regard to student-athlete compensation, but I expect the NCAA’s rule changes to mirror the USGA and R&A’s proposals.
Finally, I’ll close with a great point related to promotion, advertisement and expenses that helped lessen my skepticism.
“It’s a whole lot better when it’s all out in the light,” Winter said. “When you’ve got an extremely talented individual, people are going to be reaching out, talking, trying to figure out a way to get through. We do believe that this is a better way forward.”