Pro or Amateur? Seeing the line has always been tricky
CASHING IN World No. 1 amateur Rose Zhang of Stanford is paid by Callaway and Adidas. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images
Word on the street is that the current price for a top college recruit is $50,000. The source could be a major clothing or equipment brand but more likely is a collective of boosters with pride in its alma mater and connections to various businesses. Depending which coach you ask, the situation has created a Wild West in which school prestige and practice facilities matter less. For the amateur inking an NIL (name, image, likeness) endorsement deal, the expenses of a summer’s travel to tournaments could be covered, with plenty left over for books, beer and walking around.
Ironically, I recently heard the same figure—$50,000 —in a story about Bobby Jones told to me by Sid Matthew, the preeminent historian on the game’s greatest amateur. It’s precisely how much was in an envelope at a dinner in 1927 when the city of Atlanta ceremoniously thanked this “man who has carried Atlanta’s banner to the very corners of the earth and returned with banner unfurled in victory.” The intent was to enable the young golfing lawyer and his wife to buy their first home, and Jones’ acceptance remarks were gracious if not emotional.
Three weeks later he gave it back. Although the USGA was cool with it (this was an era where watches, rings and cars mixed among gilded trophies, after all), the stricter Royal and Ancient hinted Jones would be disinvited from the British Amateur. To continue his dream of the Grand Slam—which he would famously achieve in 1930— Jones felt no choice.
Lately all we talk about is golfers and their financial choices. Given the inevitably awkward Champions Dinner with or without LIV players at this year ’s Masters, a few college kids wearing commercial logos on the grounds of Augusta National pales in edginess. Still, with money turbulently gushing into golf, reexamining what the term “amateur” means is more pressing than usual.
No word’s definition has changed more in the past 160 years. Its first usage was to keep “pro” caddies out of competitions for noblemen and dock workers out of crew races. Whatever the sport, if you needed the possibility of pay to justify taking a day off work, you found your own game in class-obsessed Britain. A college scholarship used to be a flagrant violation of amateur code, until it wasn’t. You’d be bored if we listed all the changes across time but consider that the USGA and R&A arrived at a joint set of rules for how to play the game in 1952 but couldn’t agree on a set for amateur status until 2012. This NIL wrinkle was new in 2022, but the 2020 loosening around equipment, travel expenses and prizes was as significant.
Few appreciate the difficulty of perpetually modernizing this word better than Craig Winter, senior director of rules and amateur status at the USGA. He has even led discussions about abolishing it, investigating if golf should adopt an “open” model like tennis, where age groups are the main separator.
“Tradition and history are strong elements in golf, and we feel our amateur championships are worth preserving,” Winters says. More relevant to 25 million weekend golfers, “Removing limits around cash prizes could overwhelm our system of handicapping, equipment and rules, which all work together.” Read: Take away amateur status rules, and we risk low-net club tournaments, the lifeblood of our participatory game, becoming overrun by swindlers great and small. Because of golf’s unique culture, separating those who play for the love of the game versus those who play for something else is essential. But in a fast-changing society where even children get paid as influencers on social media, it’s not easy.
If there’s one basic idea to understand in this new world, it’s that it’s OK to seek financial support. The governing bodies don’t want money to be an obstacle or tripwire for young golfers trying to advance to the next level.
If you have a problem with that, good luck going back to 1860.