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Lucy Li remains an amateur after USGA gives her one-time warning for participation in Apple Watch ad

February 14, 2019

Ross Kinnaird/R&A

Lucy Li, the No. 8 ranked amateur golfer in the world and the youngest female ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open, will get to keep her amateur status despite the USGA issuing her a warning for her participation last month in an advertisement campaign for the Apple Watch.

USGA officials determined that the 16-year-old from Redwood Shores, Calif., breached Rule 6-2 of the Rules of Amateur Status, which prohibits amateur golfers from using their names or likeness for personal benefit in promotions or advertisements for products. However, after investigating the circumstances surrounding her involvement in the Apple ad, the Amateur Status Committee announced on Thursday that it determined a one-time warning was appropriate rather than any harsher punishment.

The ruling will allow Li, who competed as an 11-year-old at the U.S. Women’s Open in 2014, one of 14 USGA championships she has played in, to participate in the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship next month as well as compete in any other competitions as an amateur.

“I have apologized to the USGA and accept my responsibility in participating in the Apple Watch ad,“ Li said via Twitter. “It was never my intention to cause the USGA and myself to be in this position. The USGA is like family to me, and I appreciate the thorough review of all the facts and the consideration I've been given. I'm looking forward to continue playing as an amateur and to do all I can to promote this great game.“

Thomas Pagel, USGA senior managing director, governance, said that the staff with the governing body spoke with Li and her family numerous times over the last six weeks, both over the phone and in person in California. USGA staffers also contacted representatives of Apple. During those conversations, they determined Li and her family were not compensated for her participation in the video, had not signed a contract for future compensation and were unaware that her involvement could be a breach of the Rules of Amateur Status.

“We’re very comfortable that she’s taken the appropriate steps to make sure she does not gain a benefit,“ Pagel told Golf World. “We’ve very comfortable with our knowledge that this is an honest mistake.”

The original ad, a 15-second spot that showed Li practicing golf and hanging out with friends while wearing the Apple Watch, first appeared on social media on Jan. 2. Pagel said that USGA officials learned of it on Jan. 3 and were immediately in conversation with Li and her family. On Jan. 11, the USGA formally notified Li that she had breached the Rules of Amateur Status.

The USGA’s Rules of Amateur Status prohibit amateurs from using their golf skill or reputation “to obtain payment, compensation, personal benefit or any financial gain, directly or indirectly, for (i) promoting, advertising or selling anything, or (ii) allowing his name or likeness to be used by a third party for the promotion, advertisement or sale of anything.” Under Rule 6-2, it specifically states that “even if no payment or compensation is received, an amateur golfer is deemed to receive a personal benefit by promoting, advertising or selling anything, or allowing his name or likeness to be used by a third party for the promotion, advertisement or sale of anything.”

Li’s actions in the days immediately after the video was released, however, likely prevented her from losing her amateur status. According to the USGA, Li reached out to Apple and asked for the ad to be pulled down, which it was shortly after.

In doing their due diligence, Pagel said the USGA determined a casting agent reached out to Li late last year about an acting assignment to promote the Apple Watch (as a 4-year-old, Li modeled for advertisements for Home Depot). Li was not given any indication that she would appear as a golfer, according to the USGA. While on the shoot, Li was filmed engaged in a variety of recreational activities, including golf. The casting agent informed Li there was also no guarantee she would appear in the advertisement.

Li did not see the video until it ran on Jan. 2. Her active participation in remedying the situation influenced the USGA thinking of only issuing a warning, according to Pagel. In a release from the USGA, the Amateur Status Committee, consistent of five voting members and chaired by USGA executive Committee member Bob Kain, also took into account the face she is only 16 and that this is her first breach of the rules.

“This was something she honestly didn’t know was going to create an issue or be a breach,” Pagel said. “We know that amateur status is important to her and we know that she wants to continue to play and promote the amateur game.”

Pagel says that although Li is among the most high-profile players to face a situation in which her appearance in an advertisement might endanger her amateur status, the decision to give her only a warning falls in line with decades of past USGA precedents on similar cases. In 2012, Andy Zhang, a prominent amateur golfer who competed that summer as a 16-year-old in the U.S. Open, filmed a video for a family friend promoting a golf club, unaware of the potential violation of the Rules of Amateur Status. He quickly had the ad taken down and also only received a warning.

“I would say that if you look at the spirit of the rule, and that’s to keep this component of financial incentive or gain away from the amateur game, her ability to remedy all this [was important],” Pagel said. “The advertisement is no longer running or will run in the future. She was not compensated for it. The spirit and principle of the rule I think is very much been upheld here.”

Li has set a variety of age-related records during her amateur career. In 2013, at 10 years, 8 months and 16 days, she became the youngest match-play qualifier in the history of the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links, a USGA championship that has since been retired. Later that year, Li became the youngest to ever qualify for the U.S. Women’s Amateur.

The following April, Li competed in the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club, where she won the Girls’ Age 10-11 division. She followed up that triumph by qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst, breaking Lexi Thompson’s previous record for the youngest player to earn a spot into the national championship.