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  • Alistair Tait

The age of the semi pro golfer

Updated: Mar 4, 2021

There must have been much clinking of glasses in celebration by members of the R&A’s amateur status committee in the big room in the clubhouse of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews, and in the equivalent space in the USGA stronghold of Far Hills, New Jersey after the governing bodies agreed to reduce the rules governing amateur status.

Breaches of amateur status is a headache the governing bodies will have less often from now on, less hassle for committee members who can spend more time on important matters like judging the quality of the club claret. Actually, there’s probably a separate wine committee.

The rules governing amateur status once took up a significant portion of the rule book – they occupy five pages in my last edition of the R&A Golfer’s Handbook. The proposals the governing bodies have suggested for implementation in May can practically be written in a single, 280-character tweet!

The committee boys better worry: the way they’re whittling away the amateur status rules they may soon be out of a job – there will be no difference between amateurs and pros.

The main announcements from last week’s release suggest just three areas for golfers to lose their amateur status:

  • Accepting a prize in excess of the prize limit

  • Accepting payment for giving instruction

  • Accepting employment as a golf club professional or membership of an association of professional golfers

The suggested new rules mean amateurs can now accept sponsorships. Visions of a future Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy turning up at The Masters with multiple logos on shirts come to mind. In the past, amateurs sometimes had to tape over the brand of golf bag lest they offend the memory of Booby Jones, the most celebrated amateur of all time.

From May, amateurs will be able to sign contracts before they turn pro. Jones must be turning in his grave.

Why have we reached a stage where the difference between amateurism and professionalism is as thin as the leading edge of an old 1-iron? One reason is the amateur status rules have been a nightmare to enforce. In fact, they’ve been quietly breached so many times over the years it’s a wonder this alteration didn’t happen sooner.

Breaches were never really talked about. So the 17-year-old future star driving around in a brand-new BMW car even though his parents didn’t have high paying jobs, and said player didn’t even hold down a part-time job, didn’t merit the raising of an eyebrow.

These proposals actually make sense since there are extremely few “true” amateurs playing high level competitive golf now. Those days are long gone. Indeed, here’s a question: how many of today’s stars have actually ever had a part-time job? Ian Poulter worked the stall at a Saturday market to help fund his golf, but it's hard to imagine Rory or Dustin Johnson or Jon Rahm and many others delivering pizzas so they could buy another sleeve of golf balls.

What we have in the amateur game nowadays is professional amateurs funded by national unions and US colleges to play full time golf. Don’t think the majority of competitors in the Amateur Championship are part time golfers trying to maintain a plus handicap while running a business. There might be a few of those playing against many in national programmes receiving funding for domestic and international travel, free coaching, the best equipment possible, who don’t require part time jobs to pay their way. College golfers in America receive thousands of dollars worth of free tuition, accommodation, etc., based solely on their ability to hit a golf ball.

We've been in the age of the semi-professional for years.

This situation has created an uneven playing field in the amateur game. The player who IS delivering pizzas to buy that sleeve of balls, that £500 driver elite programme members get handed to them gratis, doesn’t have much of a chance against the semi-professionals who devote all their spare time preparing for the European or PGA Tours.

That uneven playing field has always existed to some extent. There was a time when being amateur was considered more honourable than turning professional, but only for the rich. Don’t think many former amateur stars came from housing estates. They came from families who could afford to fund their golfing dreams.

Moe Norman wasn’t part of that elite set. He grew up on Gruhn Street in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada in the shadow of two rubber factories. He used to find buyers for the prizes amateurs received – TVs, radios, toasters, suitcases, etc. – before he won tournaments so he could fund his golf. He was banned by the Royal Canadian Golf Association for breaching the rules of amateur status as a result.

Modern day Moe Normans can now go out and get sponsorship from local companies or fellow golf club members, rather than slyly accepting readies from rich benefactors to help them along.

Welcome to the age of the semi-pro golfer. Now, should I open this bottle of merlot or lay it down for a few years?

#JustSaying: “It was common knowledge Moe had been selling his prizes for years – he all but hung a shingle in parking lots.” Tim O’Connor, The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story

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