A golfer paid to play and endorse golf clubs, have his or her travel expenses covered and who can make a living teaching the game to other golfers currently is defined as a professional. But in the not-too-distant future, that golfer might still be considered an amateur.
In a joint announcement on Monday, the USGA and R&A outlined plans to review the Rules of Amateur Status over the next two years with the purpose of updating the code to make it less confusing, more intuitive and more applicable to the realities of the modern game.
Depending on how the discussions with the game’s other stakeholders play out, there is the potential for significant changes to be implemented that would radically alter the parameters of being an amateur golfer. Some ideas that will be reviewed include:
• Allowing golfers to sign endorsement contracts and accept compensation for the use of their name, image and likeness while remaining amateurs.
• Eliminating all restrictions on amateurs accepting money to pay for expenses.
• Lifting prohibitions against working for pay at golf courses or golf shops.
• Giving amateurs the ability to accept compensation for golf instruction.
“It is our goal to ensure the fundamental concept of what it means to be an amateur golfer is clear and retained to promote fair competition and enjoyment for everyone, while still addressing many issues that seek to protect both players and the game,” said Thomas Pagel, USGA Senior Managing Director of Governance. “This is a forward-thinking approach, and engaging golfers is a key component of doing what’s best for golf.”
Informal talks between the Amateur Status Committee at the USGA and the R&A began in 2018, with the conversation becoming more in-depth at the meeting of the Joint Amateur Status Committee in St. Andrews last April. The plan moving forward is for the committee to continue these discussions, along with reaching out to relevant groups in the game for feedback. These include amateur golfers, golf event organizers, national golf associations, professional golf associations and other industry partners. The intent then would be to finalize a new code in late 2021 for implementation in 2022.
According to Craig Winter, USGA senior director, Rules of Golf/Amateur Status, the joint committee has begun its work by trying to create a definition of amateurism that is centered around a golfer’s playing status. Does a golfer compete for and accept prizes (cash or non-cash) in golf tournaments? That would become the point of differentiation for golfers. All those who do play for prizes would be considered professionals, and those who don’t would remain amateurs, even if they made money in other ways based on their golf skill.
“It’s a much simpler code and really gets into the core of what does that individual play for,” Winter told Golf Digest. “That would be the ultimate arbiter of whether they’re an amateur or not an amateur.”
Remaining questions regarding amateur golfers could then viewed independently, allowing for a thorough discussion on each topic.
Winter cautions against traditionalists worrying about drastic changes at this point in the process. “What will end up being the final code is still very much unknown,” he said.
There is a good likelihood, however, that a more liberal approach to amateurism will be adopted.
The amateur-status initiative is an extension of the governing bodies’ recent reviews of the Rules of Golf, updated in 2019, and handicaps, with a new World Handicap System to be implemented in 2020.
Arguably, the conversation surrounding whether to let amateurs sign endorsement contracts will be the most lively. It’s important to note that the topic won’t be debated strictly on an all or nothing basis. Says Winter: “One of the things we discussed at length [already] is do we actually put some caps on [endorsement dollars], where you can have some of these sponsorship opportunities but ultimately it’s limited to expenses.”
Compensation for name, image and likeness is the toughest issue facing the Amateur Status committees of late. Earlier this year, the USGA had to review the case of Lucy Li, a former U.S. Curtis Cupper who participated in a social-media ad for the Apple Watch that appeared to violate current Amateur Status rules. Li ultimately received a one-time warning; she recently turned pro. But dealing with issues like these on a one-off basis “gets really complicated really quick,” says Winter.
The USGA/R&A debate on the matter will come separately but simultaneously to the one the NCAA is having regarding whether to let student-athletes be paid for their name, image and likeness rights as well. Recently, NCAA officials announced they would open up discussion on the matter. If the NCAA went ahead and adopted a policy allowing it but nothing changed with the USGA/R&A rules, golfers could potentially have to navigate two sets of rules that would make them NCAA eligible but be in violation of golf’s amateur-status code.
Where USGA officials see the most opportunity for potential changes to the amateur rules to have a meaningful impact is if restrictions on accepting money for expenses were to go away. Particularly in the case for junior golfers whose families don’t necessarily have the financial resources to compete beyond a very local basis.
“We just feel like would be a game-changer,” Winter says. “Yeah there would be logos in junior golf, but it would give so many more kids access. And it would in some ways democratize what is a pretty expensive sport by giving young players the ability to not only compete in golf but just experience golf in a more robust way, to really level the playing field.”
The one thing the two governing bodies are trying to stay away from is the idea of a code that allows golfers to “do this, but not that.” That would run counter to the point of trying to modernize the Rules of Amateur Status at all: to create a simpler path for amateur golfers to navigate.